Wine, Division, and John 2

As a good and healthy kid, I spent a lot of time outside. Before I went outside to play, my mother would make sure I had my grubby clothes on, b/c she knew I would get dirty. We would wreck our bikes, flying off of homemade jumps. We would crawl on the ground and climb trees as we pretended to be army men. We would play baseball, always making sure we slid into the bases. When it was time to come in for dinner, you could tell we had played hard: our elbows and knees were scrapped up, our clothes and shoes were dusty or muddy, and our hands were visibly dirty. So what do you think was the first thing my mother said as we walked inside? She told us to wash up. This request seemed so unreasonable at the time. Now that I am a father, and watch my daughter eat dirt in garden, eat dirt on the trail, and eat dirt on the beach, I think I understand why my mother made us wash up before a meal: she wanted us to be healthy and she wanted us to be clean when we sat at the table.


What’s the Context?

In our text this morning JC makes water into wine. It took place at a wedding, a celebration. And, every guest at the wedding washed their hands and feet before the meal began. It was perhaps the first thing they did as they entered the party house. They probably got the water to wash themselves from one of those six stone water jars in verse 6. They washed for same reasons my mother had us wash out hands, but they had other reasons to wash as well.  

In the OT days, and the days of JC, ceremonial washing was an important aspect of living out your faith in God. Because the religion of Israel emphasizes so strongly the holiness of God, it develops the concept of purity with corresponding energy. One had to be clean to be right with God, and to be clean meant 2 things. To be clean first meant to abstain from certain things, like eating certain animals. Being clean not only meant abstaining, but also meant actively pursuing purity. And so, the OT Law works out a whole series of steps for cleanliness, and washings are of particular importance in this.

The most common act of ritual cleansing was washing the hands. This ritual of washing hands took place during prayers before and after meals.[1] Ceremonially washing yourself, especially around mealtime, was a beautiful external symbol of one’s internal belief in and commitment to God. To be clean, meant that you were right w/ God; to be unclean, meant you could not approach God. To wash meant that you desired relationship w/ God; to remain dirty and unclean meant you were not pursuing God. So to make washing a cultural custom was a beautiful picture that the Jewish people were the people of God. It was their observance to the Law and its regulations of cleanliness that separated Israel from the pagan nations at their borders. The water is a symbol of God setting His people aside for Himself.

And so, as every guest at the wedding washed their hands and feet before the meal began, they participated in this beautiful symbol of relationship w/ God. And, these 20 gallon water jars, from which they poured this cleansing water onto themselves, were sacred jars.[2] They were special functionary symbols.


What’s the Story of the Text?

After the wedding guests washed themselves from those sacred jars, they entered a party. And, the Jews knew how to do it right. A wedding feast typically lasted a week.[3] Meaning it was a weeklong celebration of this couple, a week of feasting w/ family and friends. Guests were served wine and food for that entire time. Meaning the bride’s father had to plan ahead for such a party. Often these fathers would begin setting aside an extra barrel of wine each year for their daughter’s wedding day.[4] A well planned party meant great social recognition and blessing. A poorly planned party could mean social consequences. So the Jews knew how to celebrate well, and we can only assume that this wedding party was a good one. JC, His disciples, and mother accepted the invitation, and we can assume they were enjoying themselves along w/ everyone else.

Mary, JC’s mother’s enjoyment stopped however, when she noticed the wine was running out. We don’t know exactly why they ran out, maybe the father of the bride was a poor planner, or the guests were drinking more wine than he expected, or maybe he was a poor man and did not have the means to maintain the weeklong party. Whatever the reason, Mary was concerned. She knew that running out of wine would spell disaster for the family. The bride, and her father and groom, would live with the shame of years. And so, Mary shares her concern w/ her son.

 JC says, “Woman,” which seems harsh to our modern ears, but was in fact a polite way, in the day, to address her.[5] He says, “Why are you getting Me involved in this matter? It’s not my time yet.” Meaning, once he starts performing miracles, His road to the cross will begin. She doesn’t answer Him, but tells the servants nearby to do what He says. And what He says shocked them.

He tells them to fill up the sacred washing jars and then give the party’s worried host a taste. If the worried host of the wedding knew he was drinking from the sacred jars, he would not have done it, b/c drinking from the purification jars, for a Jew, was unthinkable.[6] The servants were shocked b/c using these jars for another purpose, than washing, would defile them,[7] but they did what they were told.

As the worried host of the party drank, he realized that the day was saved. The wine had not run out like he thought. In fact it was the best wine they had all week. Overjoyed, the host of the party approached the groom, wondering why he saved the good stuff until the end. He didn’t know that JC had made the water into wine. He didn’t know that JC saved the day; he didn’t know that JC saved the newlyweds and the father of the bride from years of shame. Only the servants, Mary, and the disciples knew that JC saved the day.


What it’s not.

I’ve heard this story dozens of times, and I think all too often we miss the point. Those sacred jars in the passage are still a beautiful symbol of God’s covenant w/ us, but those jars also symbolize division: division b/t the holy and the unholy; b/t the pure and the impure, b/t the acceptable and the unacceptable. It told us who was in and who was not, but this cleansing water also separated.

 I believe we’ve made this text a text of division. We’ve made it a text about alcohol, not a text of JC setting us free. The greater Christian church continues to wrestle whether it is really okay to drink, and depending what you believe will determine which side of the fence you’re on, if you are in my camp or their’s, if you are w/ us or w/ them. I think the alcohol debate symbolizes division, division b/t believers and b/t non-believers. We often become more concerned w/ who is on our side of the divide, than anything else.

Alcohol is not the only issue that the greater church uses to separate itself from within and from those on the outside. We often use behaviors like drinking, or voting, or how our Sundays are spent to build fences b/t those who are w/ us and those who are not. Now, I am not advocating that we do not prayerfully consider our use of alcohol, of voting, or the use of our Sundays; there are faithful Christians who side differently on each of these issues. My point is that I believe we need to think about our motivations in how we make decisions. The greater church in my neighborhood is known more for how it has separated itself from society than anything else. It is known for its rules not for the good news it brings; it is known for how it divides not how it unites. The challenge I ask you today is: are in the business of building fences that separate you from others? Or are you in the business of building bridges? Are we as Bethel CRC a people who are known for dividing or inviting?


What it’s about.

I’ve heard this story dozens of times, but what does it mean? JC used those sacred ceremonial washing jars to make wine. He used that beautify symbol that allowed people to be clean, to be able to approach God. JC broke all kinds of social and religious norms by doing this. If people knew that they were drinking from those sacred jars, they would have flipped out. They would not wash themselves from those jars again, and if they did they would see themselves as unclean before God, out of relationship w/ Him, and similar to the pagans. So why? Why would JC do this?

JC defiled these sacred water jars (in the eyes of the Jews of the day) b/c they didn’t need them anymore. By defiling these stone jars, JC declares that we do not need to wash our hands and feet anymore. Kids, you still need to wash your hands when your folks tells you to, sorry about that. What I mean is that we don’t need to wash ourselves to be clean before God. We don’t need external rituals to make ourselves right w/ the Father. The truth is that we were never clean enough anyway. The truth is that we can never clean ourselves enough to stand before God on our own. By defiling those stone jars, JC silently shouts that we don’t need to wash our hands anymore, b/c only He can wash us. Only our identity w/ the pure one can make us clean; only our identity w/ JC can make us clean, not water from sacred jars, not following cultural rules, not from abstaining from certain things or doing good things. We can never be good enough, or clean enough, on our own; only our identity w/ JC can make us clean. Do you remember Ephesians 2:8, 9? “ 8 For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God— 9 not by works, so that no one can boast.” By defiling the stone jars JC silently shouts that He is all we need. He is God in the flesh; He is our savior from social disasters and the savior of our eternal souls; He is all we need… that’s what this miracle means.


What’s the difference/Good news?

I believe when we emphasize the alcohol content in the wine of this passage, we miss the point. This passage is not about alcohol; it’s about JC setting us free from the legalism of trying in vain to approach the Father on our own. The passage is not about who is clean and who is not; it’s about JC proclaiming that He is the one who cleanses us so we can be in relationship w/ God. This passage is not about building fences; it’s about JC building a bridge so we can walk over the imperfections that separate us, and sit at the feast table w/ Him.

The good news of this passage is not whether or not wine was non-alcoholic or alcoholic. The good news of this passage is that this miracle is a sign of JC’s messiahship and a foretaste of kingdom blessing.[8] JC made that divisive water into a rich, new creation that represents the richness of our new life w/ JC. Later in John’s gospel, JC says, “I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full”

The good news is that JC is all we need to be right w/ God. The good news is that JC has broken down the fences that divide us from God, and from each other. JC is all we need. The good news is that we no longer need to jump through religious hoops; JC broke the hoops in half. JC is all we need, and He is inviting us into a rich, full life of freedom w/ Him and each other.

[1] Kittel, G. Theological dictionary of the New Testament. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1964.

[2] Wiersbe, W. W. The Bible exposition commentary. Wheaton, Ill.: Victor Books, 1996.

[3] Willmington, H. L. Willmington’s Bible handbook. Wheaton, Ill.: Tyndale House Publishers, 1997.

[4] Frost, Michael. Exiles: Living Missionally in a Post-Christian Culture. Peabody, Mass.: Hendrickson, 2006, 44.

[5] Wiersbe

[6] Walvoord, J. F. The Bible knowledge commentary: An exposition of the scriptures. Wheaton, IL: Victor Books, 1983.

[7] Keener, C. S. The IVP Bible background commentary: New Testament. Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, 1993.

[8] Hughes, R. B. Tyndale concise Bible commentary. Wheaton, Ill.: Tyndale House Publishers, 2001.

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