Mike Graves is professor of preaching at Central Seminary. In one of his classes, he takes students to the Nelson-Atkins Museum so that students can experience art as one of the great resources for preaching.
One day the class was led to a picture of the wedding at Cana. The picture was painted by the Italian artist, Sebastiano Ricci. As the students looked at the biblical scene so powerfully expressed on canvas, the Bible came alive in a new way. It was as if they were invited, too. They entered the scene themselves. They were at a wedding party. Eventually one student was heard to say, “Wow!” Another remarked, “fantastic.”
But after more time lapsed in quiet reflection, one student, standing just a little off to the side, said: “It’s just a painting. What’s the joint?”
What do you say to someone who just doesn’t get it? If someone looks and there is nothing there, what do you do? I take my wife to the ballpark. The other team has runners on first and third with one out. The batter hits a shot in the gap just out of reach of the Royals’ third baseman. Suddenly the shortstop dives for the ball and traps it in his glove. On his feet like a flash he sidearms a perfect strike to the second baseman who touches the bag, goes straight up in the air to avoid the sliding runner’s spikes and relays the throw to first beating the runner by half a step.
The crowd goes wild. It’s the play of the game. Baseball at its best. And my wife, still seated, looks up from the book she has brought to the stadium to read and says with an expressionless face: “How many more innings?” What do you say to someone who doesn’t get it?
If you had been a guest at the wedding in Cana, do you think you would have known what was going on? Would you have had the eyes and the heart to see? Or would it have been just another wedding?
Not that weddings were drab affairs. A wedding was a significant event, just as it is today, especially if you are the parents of the bride and you are paying all or most of the tab. Take my word for it: there are no inexpensive weddings. We tried. It cannot be done. But don’t feel sorry for me (or yourself) about the high cost of modern weddings. The wedding in Cana must have been far worse on somebody’s checking account. This wedding in Cana probably lasted seven days. Seven days of eating and drinking. Think of what that must have meant to a peasant farmer whose daily fare consisted of some bread, olive oil, cheese and water because that’s all he could afford.
It must have taken that poor chap years and years of sacrifice and savings to put on a wedding, because a wedding was a time when there was meat and food for a week. A wedding was a time of feasting. The dull, drab diet of bread and cheese was replaced this week with a banquet of meat — and wine.
But every wedding has a crisis. It’s got to, or it wouldn’t be a wedding. In my daughter’s wedding — scheduled in a non-air-conditioned seminary chapel in upstate New York because summer is delightful in Rochester — the temperature hit 104 degrees on our big weekend. Guests from England were fainting. Cakes and candles were melting. And the minister — me — started crying when it came time to read the vows to my daughter, the bride, bringing the whole thing to a stop for what seemed forever.
But that is nothing next to what happened in the wedding at Cana! You see, at such a wedding as this, hospitality is everything. If you invite people to a wedding, hospitality demands that everyone have enough. Enough to eat. Enough to drink. When Mary, whom I suspect is related to the mother of the bride, comes to Jesus and says: “They have no wine,” we face more than a minor inconvenience to an otherwise festive occasion. Do you know what that means to this family? Disgrace — that’s what it means. To invite guests and not have enough means that this family is forever disgraced among its neighbors in a small town.
Do you get it? The Gospel writer is inviting us to become a gum-shoeing detective. We are given a hint here, a clue there. “They have no wine.” Are we supposed to hear those words as if they include us somehow? Is this story really about me — and you?
When did you first realize it? Where were you? How old? What happened that caused you to see, to know, to confess at some deep place inside — that your own wine had run out? That your life wasn’t working and would never work as a self-made project. When did you figure it out? That all the bailing wire in your repair kit couldn’t patch or fix the “you” that was broken. When did you hit the wall with the truth about yourself: that your brains, your beauty, your money, your connections, your luck — or whatever else it was that you were counting on — was empty or impotent when you needed it the most.
Maybe you know those oft mentioned lines from the Old Testament book of Ecclesiastes:
the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, nor bread to the wise, nor riches to the intelligent, or favor to the skillful; but time and chance happen to them all. For no one can anticipate the time of disaster” (Ecclesiastes 9:11-12).
Or, as the Good News Bible puts it: “Bad luck happens to everyone. You never know when your time is coming,” You never know when your wine is going to run out. When did it happen?
The richest young man in America — richest person, period — recently said church was not part of his schedule. For Mr. Gates it’s a matter of efficiency. He said recently: “There is a lot more I could be doing on a Sunday morning.”
Well, who could argue that? If efficiency is the standard, then by all means, don’t let yourself be held back. Get out there with Gates. Beat the competition. Make the deal. Climb that ladder. The New York Times recently ran an article noting that college students today are interested in grades, graduate school and success. The pay off is more money. Evidently they are not interested in learning. And they definitely — according to the survey — are not in college to become deeper, richer, more ethical, thinking, feeling persons. Too inefficient? Get out there and make a deal. Get out there and make your own wine. Do you remember yet when it didn’t work anymore?
My son in law is an Episcopal minister and in his church — and the other churches that follow a lectionary for preaching — the wedding at Cana occurs every year near the beginning of the calendar. Every year the congregation hears the verdict: “They have no wine.”
And every year the miracle is painted again on the canvas for all to see. The large empty jars are filled with water — gallons and gallons of water. Someone dips in the ladle and takes it to the head waiter. Wine. The best wine. Let’s see: six jars, 30 gallons each. That’s 700, maybe 800 or more bottles of wine.
Robert Farrar Capon, a delightful and witty interpreter of the New Testament, spoke a truth that you and I in this place know and affirm, we who have turned our backs on the promise of efficiency and sufficiency and who have embraced another promise. Capon said: “Our whole life is finally and forever out of our hands (yes, Mr. Gates, you are wrong, you and all who stand before the miracle and don’t get it) and … if we ever live again, our life will be entirely the gift of some gracious Other.”
There is wine for the journey. Did you notice that the Gospel writer starts the story by saying, “On the third day?” John 1 doesn’t add up to three days for John 2 to begin that way. This is a third day story — a resurrection story. But it is even more than that. The story of the wedding at Cana, water changing into wine, is the whole Gospel of John in one scene. Details will follow but here it is in all its wonder and fullness.
Now do you see it? There is enough. No, there is more than enough grace and love for all of us. The abundance. See? More than we would ever need to claim. Grace flows in your life. And mine. Grace and love never run out. Many jars. Hundreds of bottles. Plenty and more than plenty. More than we can carry. More than we can fathom. More, certainly, than we ever deserve.
The miracle here is not that water was changed into wine. The real miracle is that regardless of what happens to us today or tomorrow; regardless of what losses we suffer; regardless of what hills we have to climb; regardless of what hurts we have to just endure — the grace of God greets us and is inexhaustible. The miracle is that God takes ordinary people, ordinary things, ordinary events and changes them into new wine, and gives them to us as gifts of love and grace. Gifts that strengthen, encourage and heal. I cannot tell you what will happen in your life tomorrow. But whatever it is, God’s grace and strength to face it will meet you on that day. And it is good wine, the best wine, inexhaustible, abundant.
By the way, I saw you in the picture. I did. You were painted into the scene. When Jesus said to the servant, “Now draw some out, and take it to the chief steward” I saw you in the picture drawing out the wine and taking it to someone else.
That’s what we do in church, isn’t it? For one another in this place. And for one another in whatever place God puts us. You carry the wine from person to person to person. You see people take it: “This is the best wine ever. Where did it come from? How can I have it?”
That’s the best part of the story, I’ve found. That’s the part I like most. You and I are in the picture. We dip into the jar. Out comes the wine. We take it to one another where surprise and wonder never cease. “Where did you get this kind of wine?” The best thing about us is that we are the ones who take this wine to someone else. And we get to tell.

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