01/27/19 “Extraordinary Jars”


John 2:1-11

Every year around New Year’s Day, the news media are saturated with stories about New Year’s resolutions—what kind of resolutions to make, how best to keep them, how many people keep them (only about 10-20%, according to Baylor University).  A recent Marist Poll found that well over half of all adults in the U.S. won’t make any resolutions at all, but among the 44% that do, the most resolutions are pretty typical.  Depending on which polls you look at, the top choices are either improving health by eating better, exercising more, and quitting a bad habit, or improving finances by saving more, spending less, paying off debt, and getting a better-paying job.

Aside from health and finances, resolutions may focus on other personal goals: more time with friends and family, being more generous, travel, and other self-improvement projects.  But as I looked at all the different resolutions in the surveys this year, I couldn’t find the one that caught my eye back in 2016.  The online financial site GoBankingRates.com surveyed more than 5000 people and found that of those who did made resolutions for 2016, the top goal for almost half of them was to “live life to the fullest.”

The survey didn’t give any details about what the respondents meant by that.  But I would guess that most people might have meant dusting off unused talents and gifts, of not allowing fears and self-doubt to keep them from pursuing something they always wanted to try, or being bolder in allowing themselves to be themselves. I think what they may really have meant is that they wanted their ordinary lives to be transformed so that they would be full of meaning and purpose and love—lives that allow them to fully be the people God created them to be.  I wonder how many of them knew that Jesus’ ministry was a ministry of transformation–of social structures, of our understanding of God’s kingdom, and of our individual lives.

In our passage today, we join Jesus in the most ordinary of settings: a wedding in Cana.  Jesus is there with his mother and the five disciples who have joined him so far.  Everyone’s having a good time, when suddenly Mary realizes that the hosts are out of wine.  This is bad.  This is such an embarrassing situation that, in that time and place, the family of the bride could actually have sued the family of the groom for breach of contract.  Mary says to Jesus, “They have no wine.”

This is one of those places in Scripture where I would love to have some more details from the Gospel writer.  How did Mary say that?  What tone of voice did she use?  Did she simply share it as an interesting observation?  Or did she look Jesus in the eye and say “They have no wine” as in, “Our friends have a problem, and I expect you to fix it, now.” We know from Scripture that Jesus was obedient to his parents, but I wonder if Jesus rolled his eyes a little or heaved a sigh, like many adults do who don’t appreciate being ordered around by mom or dad as if they were still children.

“Woman,” he says (which is more respectful than it sounds to us—more like Ma’am).  “Woman, what is that to you and to me?”  What does she expect him to do about it?  After all, he’s just a guest.  Sure, he probably is close to the family, but still—is he supposed to slip off to the local wine merchant to pick up more supplies?  Send the disciples out on a wine run?  It sounds like an ordinary conversation between mother and son until he says this: “My hour has not yet come.”

And that changes the whole picture.  Now I see Mary looking steadily into Jesus’ eyes, remembering his miraculous conception and all the things she had been told to expect from his life—all those things she had treasured and pondered in her heart.  And maybe with a mother’s intuition, it dawns on her that the hour to begin his mission in this world has come.  As they gaze at each other, Mary allows Jesus to make that decision.  But, she tells the servants to do whatever he says.

Standing nearby, John tells us, were six empty stone water jars.  They were ordinary jars which would have been found in any Jewish family home.  They were used for the ritual hand-washing before meals.  These are larger than usual, 20 or 30 gallons each, John tells us.  But other than that, the jars lined up at the side of the room are ordinary jars.  Jesus tells the servants to fill them up with water—plain old water.  So they do.  And then, the first transformation occurs of several in this story occurs.

That ordinary water in ordinary stone jars becomes the finest quality wine.  It becomes an abundance of wine.  The servants had filled the jars to the brim—there was not a bit of space unfilled.  And it was wonderful, delicious, top quality wine—so excellent that the steward is amazed.  He assumes that this is the bridegroom’s extravagant gesture, and he compliments the groom on his generosity.  Because usually at this point in the festivities, the guests had probably already had enough wine that they weren’t going to care if their glasses were being refilled with the cheap stuff.

The steward and the bridegroom had no idea of what has just happened.  But the servants knew.  And more importantly, the disciples knew.  And this is where the second transformation happens.  the disciples became believers.  The disciples would have known that whenever God spoke through the prophets about the day when all God’s promises would be fulfilled, abundant wine was present.  “The mountains shall drip with sweet wine,” God says through Amos and Joel.  “The Lord of hosts will make for all peoples a feast of well-aged wines,” says Isaiah.  Abundant wine of the best quality would mark the day of the Lord’s coming.

By turning the water into abundant, wonderful wine, Jesus revealed his glory and power. The disciples saw the miracle for what it was—a sign of God’s abundance, of God’s creative power, a sign of joy and life, a sign that the kingdom of God had broken into the world in this man Jesus. The disciples witnessed Jesus’ miracle and believed in him.  Jesus took ordinary water and transformed it into a sign of the presence of God’s kingdom, and in the process the disciples were transformed from mere hangers-on to believers.

But there’s a third transformation in this story.  It’s the transformation of those ordinary stone jars.  At the beginning of the story, they are simply empty vessels waiting to be filled—useful objects that probably were often taken for granted.  They came in different sizes with some variations in design—a base here, a fancy handle there—but they weren’t especially decorative. They weren’t considered works of art.  When Jesus arrived for the wedding, they were simply vessels with the potential to be useful.  But as a result of what Jesus did that day, they were transformed into vessels holding something precious and holy.  They held the sign that pointed to God’s presence in the world in a new way.  In those transformed jars we can see a parallel with our own ordinary, unremarkable lives, which also have the potential to be signs of God’s kingdom.

Our lives get filled with all kinds of ordinary things.  When I got home from vacation, I looked at my calendar and my to-do list, and what was on them?  Housework, laundry, grocery-shopping.  Meetings and other church-related stuff.  Getting my hair cut.  Going to a basketball game with Marc.  Your lives probably look a lot like mine—full of ordinary tasks and appointments.

Along with the usual chores, our lives are filled up with social and emotional stuff—the things that make us happy and optimistic, and the things that make us sad, or angry, or discouraged.  Our reactions to people around us—the ones who build us up and the ones who tear us down.  There’s all the stuff that’s going on in the world—events that give us hope, ones that make us anxious, and ones that just make us want to turn off the TV and curl up under a fuzzy blanket and go to sleep.  Our lives are filled by all these mundane, ervy-day activities and feelings and relationships.

But here’s the thing: Jesus sanctifies the everyday.  Jesus could have gone straight from empty jars to fine wine.  But, first he had the jars filled with what everyone would have expected them to be filled with—plain old water.  We’re not talking about fancy, imported water with added flavorings and vitamins here—not even a slice of lemon.  We’re talking about water for washing your hands.

Our every-day lives are like those stone jars, filled up with all kinds of things that are as ordinary as water, but which have the potential to be transformed by the miracle that Jesus works in us.  Like that ordinary water, our every-day activities become the raw material Jesus uses to perform a miracle.  He takes the ordinary and transforms it into the extraordinary. Our every-day activities and relationships aren’t just extraneous details or distractions from our life with Christ.  They are the things that Christ is prepared to transform, so that through them, others can see who he is and believe.

When we start thinking about being transformed, like when we make new year’s resolutions, we usually think about getting rid of the old to make way for something better.  We think we need to clear the decks, erase the hard drive, clean out the closets, and make room for something new and improved.  Maybe the people who came to our recycling drive last week had something like that in mind.

But this is not what Jesus has in mind.  He didn’t have the servants empty out jars that were already full of water to make room for the wine.  It was the ordinary water filling ordinary jars that he made holy and used to show who he is. He’s not interested in empty jars.  He’s interested in jars that are full of the every-day and the ordinary.

Jesus can take our lives as they already are and turn them into something extraordinary.  Jesus can take us as we already are and make us holy.  That is the miracle of transformation that Jesus came to offer—to us and to the world.

When Christ works in us, he changes us.  And when he changes us, he changes our lives and what fills them up.  He doesn’t take away the annoying co-worker or the piles of laundry or the school project that’s been staring us in the face.  He doesn’t dump out that ordinary water in order to make room for something better.  Instead, he transforms it, so that others can see who he is by what he makes of us.

Our relationships change when the love of Jesus flows through them.  Our interactions with the hospital staff or our customers or our students or our families are transformed into opportunities for our faith to shine through.  Every nail we pound or weed we pull up or cookie we bake is transformed from a mundane task into a moment blessed by Jesus. Jesus works a miracle in us, and everything that we are is transformed into something holy—a sign that points to God’s kingdom.

And that’s not all.  We are witnesses to our own transformation.  Each time we recognize how Jesus has turned the ordinary water of our days into the finest wine, we believe more fully in him as God’s Son, our Savior and Redeemer.  We experience ever more fully the joy and life that faith in Jesus makes possible.  We are filled with an ever-greater assurance of his abundant love and grace.  This is good news if you’re among the 3% of Americans who have made a resolution to grow closer to God this year.  This is good news for all of us.

Those stone jars at the wedding didn’t all-of-a-sudden become marble urns with golden handles.  They were still stone jars.  But they were changed, and the world changed with them.  They were changed into vessels containing something holy.  The disciples were changed: they witnessed the water turned to wine and were transformed into believers.  The world changed, because in this miracle Jesus began his ministry of showing that the kingdom of God had broken into our earthly lives in a new way.

This miracle continues to change the world today, as Jesus transforms us.  Through the miracle Jesus works in us by God’s grace, Jesus transforms the jars of our ordinary lives filled with ordinary things, and we become extraordinary jars carrying the finest wine of Christ’s power and love to a world that yearns to taste it.  Amen.

~~ Pastor Carol Williams-Young