The Wine Gave Out?
A number of years ago, when I was working on my dissertation, I spent three months in England reading and writing in one of their lovely Quaker libraries there. One day, early on, while I was in the library there, I noticed that almost all of the books about Quakers were either history books, autobiographies or biographies of dead Quakers, or other studies about previous generations of Friends. Those books focused on present-day Quakers were few. Those books that looked to the future, cast a vision for what Quakerism can be, or sought to shape the Quaker tradition in contemporary culture were fewer still.
I remember the distinct feeling that it was as though – with so much emphasis on the past – the Quaker tradition was already dead.
A church I knew of got caught up in the church growth movement popular in the 80s and 90s. In the early 90s, they become a larger congregation and began sketching out a multiphase building project that would make the small building into a much larger, showy-er church building with an enormous sanctuary, gymnasium, etc. Eventually, the plans stalled, the pastor left, and the church was stuck in an early phase of their vision. They felt like they failed and that failure hung over them for a long time. As time passed, the church shrunk and they struggled to pay their bills. For some, the dream of that larger congregation and finishing those phases persisted, for others they just wanted to move on. If only more people would come again, perhaps they could jumpstart things and get back to where they were or at least get unstuck.
What was in the past was better than what they had in the present.
In America, we are often enamored with praising the ‘good ol days.’ Often this is done as a means of rejecting the growing diversity and pluralism taking place. Often when we hear things like: “Things were better for us back then,” or “Remember when this neighborhood was safer” are barely covered racist statements. But we can do this with things like the Civil Rights Movement and other large-scale social movements. “Remember when” – “If only we had leaders like…” And insert your favorite Civil Rights Leader, Activists, etc.
“Things would be different if” and “Remember when” can both function for us as a society as a kind of harkening back to what we might feel was better, safer, calmer, times.
In the word of this Gospel this morning, each of these stories reaches back and becoming fixated on that time before the wine gave out.
In the Gospel of John 2, we read about a wedding that Mary, Jesus, and crew are all at. You know the story, everyone is having a lovely time until the wine gives out during the festivities. This would have, besides being a huge bummer for those on the dance floor, put the family’s honor in the balance. To run out of something so important to a wedding celebration was either a sign of their poverty or lack of planning. In either case, it’s an embarrassment to the newlyweds.
When Mary goes to Jesus to say they are out of wine, he says “Woman, what concern is that to you and to me? My hour has not yet come.”
A thought on annonymity in John (e.g. Jesus saying “woman”):
- Some scholars view this as a literary device the Gospel writers use, but especially John. Where… “…all characters in the story invite readers into their places and thereby into transformative, imaginary dialogues with Jesus.” -89 (Paul Anderson)
- The Gospel of Mark does some of this as well as a means of inviting readers into the story.
Going back to the text: as for now, Jesus initially eschews the problem saying “My hour has not yet come.”
Here the author of the Gospel is cluing us into the symbolic nature of this story. This isn’t just any wedding and this isn’t just any wine. What is about to happen has eschatological significance. That is, it tells us something about the future of Jesus’ life and ministry, about what is going to take place.
Jesus has the servants fill the six jars used for ritual purification with water. When the feastmaster tastes it we discover, as the text says: “the water having become wine.” The nameless feast master is astonished at this dramatic reversal of how things normally go.
The feastmaster reveals the plot twist. Typically the good wine is served first and then when no one cares anymore they bring out the cheap stuff. Here – in the midst of Jesus – the reverse is true. Even deep into the celebratory gathering something better is coming.
There are a few features I want to lift up to you that I think are instructive here:
Here I’m pulling from Wes Howard-Brook’s commentary on the Gospel of John called, “Becoming Children of God.”
First is that part of what is underlying the story is that Jesus and the servants know that the water became wine. But no one else so far as we can tell does. First, we see that Jesus reveals his sign to those who are “the insignificant ones,” those who are without power or prestige in the story. The Open-Secret that a new abundance is coming is first for those who have no real power or prestige in the story.
Second “keeping the good wine until now” is in effect revealing that Jesus is providing a counter-story, an alternative story arc for his community. Jesus’ community are not stuck with the normal trajectory of history where things move from better to worse:
“Everyone serving the good wine first, and then the inferior wine after…”
Finally, is the eschatological framing of the story. I take this story to ultimately be about renewal. Things can be and will be redeemed, made new. There is an underlying abundance that those who are a part of this counter-community can not only trust in but can witness firsthand.
John is showing us that Jesus’s work is present and future-oriented.
He is concerned with now and what is coming. Rather than running on the good fortunes of the past, rather than running on what was or could have been, having the right lineage, or past privileges, the best is always where the work of God is presently at.
Tradition and history are important, but only in as much as they are living and evolving in the present.
Keeping the good wine until now is a metaphor for trusting in the abundance of the present – when the wine gives out, there is good wine to come.
When the water runs dry, there is an overflowing fountain from which to draw.
When the fish and loaves are less than what we need, the basket overflows.
When we need bread, daily nourishment is provided.
Given that we operate in faithfulness to Jesus in the present moment and do not get stuck in the past and overwhelmed by things not being the way they wore.
Yes, the wine may have given out but “the good wine is now.”
The Good Wine Is Now
When I look back at the time in that library in England where it appeared that maybe Quakerism was already dead, I found outside those walls a movement of the Spirit that was renewing Friends, leading Friends in faithfulness to challenge their yearly meeting structures and the exclusion of some of God’s children, new meetings arising to meet contemporary needs, and young people taking leadership roles often reserved for Quakers twice their age. There is good wine among Friends being faithful to Jesus.
And the church that felt its failure in not completing phases left them behind and instead, went deeper into their own story about who they were and what it meant to be faithful in their own community no matter their size. They found good wine that overflowed and renewed them.
And as we know, those earlier movements of justice are not dead, they have evolved and take on new forms in our world today. From Truth and Reconciliation work being done, to climate activists, the Black Lives Matter movement, and the millions of people gathering and supporting the new Poor Peoples Campaign A National Call for Moral Revival: Jesus’ good wine continues to overflow in our time.
So what about for us? How have we responded when we feel like the wine gave out on us?
When energy runs low? When we lose our vision for what is to come?
With a new pastor coming, with a new transition, with all the unknowns that COVID brings and will continue to bring, and all the changes that will inevitably take place due to the uncertainties of our political landscape – it would be easy to want to keep going back to the old wine.
Our imaginations are easily taken captive by idealized versions of our history, as well as by capitalism, racism, and forces like the pandemic rather than by the vision of God that is before us.
It is easy to worry about where we’ve been. Focus in on what we used to do, or be, or what successes we had, who we lost, or what has changed that we do not like.
The question is, have our imaginations become captive to that, or do we remember that we are a part of the counter-community of Jesus that trusts in the abundance of good wine now.
The call before us this morning is to trust that Jesus is present among us now. Good wine is being poured out among us.
May we trust in that abundance that is already here and that is coming. Trusting in the knowledge that we have all we need to do what Jesus is calling us to do. No more and no less. and that it will be good, in fact, it will be the best yet.
May we be people of the good wine now, believing that what we have is enough, listening for where God is at work among us in the present moment, trusting in the leadership of Christ, and the abundant grace we need to keep moving even when we are unsure and afraid.