A sermon preached at St Martin-in-the-Fields on Sunday 24 January 2021 by Revd Sally Hitchiner.
Readings of address: John 2.
Do you ever feel like you are scraping the barrel?
Yesterday’s papers were full of headlines of “Feeling the strain”. Commentators were not sure if this was referring to the prime minister or the British people, but I think it would be fair to say about either. Most people I speak to are feeling like they have run out of energy. Run out of memories of encounters with those who love us. Run out of money. Run out of the physical resources they need for life. Sometimes even run out of faith. If you feel you are scraping the barrel, then today’s Gospel is for you. The gift is the fact that we are now living long term in survival mode with few sophisticated distractions gives fresh insights into our Gospel story.
For people in Jesus’ day, life was very hard; under Roman occupation there were regular edicts from head office in Rome or from the local governor or even just from the centurion overseeing your village. Each time there was an announcement you had to jump to follow it or your life and the lives of your family could be taken without a second thought. People lived hand to mouth with no job security and leisure activities were almost non-existent. This was especially true for women, whose survival depended not just on the whims of health and the weather to bring the crops in and military forces over them, but even more fundamentally on having a benevolent husband. To really get into this story we need to see it away from rich, western individualism and see it through the expectations of the day… patriarchy, heteronormativity, poverty and all. Let’s immerse ourselves in their world.
The first thing you need to know is that women were expensive. Although they cooked and cleaned and did all the childrearing and even light farming, they could not earn wages in the way men could. Women were expensive, but what made it worth taking a wife, was that your family line would continue. In a world where lifespans were only a few decades, and influence was limited to your immediate village, the only hope of producing anything of significance was that your blessing would extend to your children’s children. And that your children’s children would remember you and give thanks to God for you. Marriage was one of life’s few comforts but the real focus was that the children that usually came with acquiring a wife were one of the few areas of hope of you achieving something meaningful.
And so, the prospect of a wedding was met with joy. The families and sometimes the village elders would suggest a match and agree the price. The potential groom would travel to the village of the suggested bride, meet her and her family and if they liked each other they would become betrothed. He would then return to his family’s house to prepare, to build a home, and the family would start saving up for the wedding. They would hire a master of the feast – a sort of Maitre d, a respected patriarch of the community who would ensure that everything was just so while the young groom was busy enjoying the party. When it was all ready, the young groom would return to collect his bride. She had to be looking lovely and ready to go with her bridesmaids at any point. He would take her back to the house he had prepared for them to live together. There were some small rituals but then they would have a feast for both of their villages and extended families going on for 7 days. There would be food and dancing and celebration… and wine.
The problem with this wedding was that the wine ran out. This was a big deal. Those of us immersed in Western cosmopolitan cities struggle to understand how big a problem this was. Obviously, there was the immediate issue that there were no supermarkets to pop out to pick up a few more bottles. But more than this, in an honour-based culture, to have run out of wine on the third day of a seven-day feast was disastrous for the future of the groom. Why would you go into business with a man who couldn’t even get enough wine for his own wedding? “He couldn’t organise a *drinks party* in a brewery”. Such was the shame following an event like this that their entire extended family could be shunned and if they were shunned, they would starve.
It is here that the picture begins to pan out. Now you mention it this seems quite like the experience of the entire nation of Israel. They were supposed to be hosting a party for the world to see the goodness of God but they had been so worn down by the constant oppression of richer nations that they had shrunk back into meagre survival and petit bourgeois judgementalism. THEIR wine had run out.
Those big words that sounded like a marriage where God committed to take their ancestors as his people were running thin and they were left, struggling for survival, helpless to create a more hopeful future.
Mary often represents the entire Jewish people in her role in the stories in John’s gospel and she speaks here as a woman, apparently without a husband, drawing attention to a fact that is an important point both in the immediate story, and in the bigger story John is heavily hinting at. “They have no more wine” No positive spin here. Just the flat facts.
Mary got an equally blunt response.
“Woman, what does this have in common with you and I?”
Jesus doesn’t call her “Mother” but “Woman”.
Did we hear that right? Did Jesus just snap at his mother? Was she interfering in a matter that should have been dealt with by the master of the feast?
The actual Greek says “Woman, what do I have in common with this?” or even “Woman, what do I have in common with you?”
I think John is panning back the camera even further. This is not just about Israel being taken as God’s people; this is an invitation to look at this encounter as a replay of an even earlier story. This is a woman and a man like at the beginning of time, two human beings who should have been celebrating in abundance but who now, because of the one thing, the fruit that was scarce and the following shame, find a great chasm between them. This is about the whole of humanity in competition with, at odds with itself and with God.
“Woman, what do I have in common with you?”
It is Jesus’ answer to his own question that makes sense of this.
“My hour has not yet come.”
Everywhere else in John’s gospel where Jesus talks about his hour, chapter 7, chapter 8, chapter 13, he is referring to his death. The only scarcity that matters here, Jesus is saying, is the scarcity of that hour, but that hour is surely coming. There is a cup to be drank, not of wine to warm the soul, but of shame and suffering of Mary, the Jewish nation and all humanity, your lack of comfort and lack of significance today… and Jesus will join you drinking it all, every last drop.
What does Jesus have in common with humanity at the end of ourselves?
It turns out that, at the hour of his death, he has everything in common with us. He refuses to let go of our hand, even in drinking with us the worst that humanity has experienced. It turns out being in common is EXACTLY what this is about. ‘Pleased as man, with man to dwell’, even to the bitter end of the cup.
But having drained the cup of suffering, the great, vast reservoir of God’s joy, the wine, is now freely flowing.
There were six stone water jars used for ritualised cleansing. In that culture, when you hear the number six, it felt a bit like when we hear the number 99 – it is a numerical way of saying “almost there” or “not yet come”. So where is this final vessel?
Well, it turns out, the final vessel is here. He carries not wine but blood and when that blood is poured out without measure. In that hour, this vessel, like the final day in creation, makes sense of the other six. As Jesus comes into contact with the waters of ritualised morality, his blood washes their molecules to realign. They finally find their completion, not as water to get rid of dirt and shame but as wine to celebrate and delight.
And as Jesus provides wine he is, quietly, ever so humbly, revealing himself as the true Master of the Feast. The Master of the feast here has failed, the bridegroom has not done what bridegrooms were supposed to do.
But it’s ok. Another bride groom is here. The TRUE bridegroom. He is the true provider, with better wine than anyone has ever tasted before.
There is a husband, here, in common with them. God has not given up the promise to look after Israel, even when humanity has through what we have done or through what others have done to us, ended up far from the one who has promised to care for us.
If you are scraping the barrel in your faith today, then find yourself found in Mary’s example. Prayer doesn’t have to be complicated. Even if you find yourself empty of faith, have an honest conversation with God. If you are facing utter disaster, don’t be afraid to say to God “there is no more wine.” Sometimes an honest conversation is what begins another part of the story.
If you are missing our life together here. We are short, not of wine (Anna and the vergers assure me there’s still plenty in the vestry) but short of each other, short of you, the limbs of Christ. If you, like me, find yourself short of the body of Christ, then find yourself in the example of the servants. Listen carefully for the voice of Jesus and hold out the computers and the telephones and the things in the room around you now. Hold what you have in front of you before Jesus as water jars… an incomplete perhaps, but they are what you have.
Because there is a bride groom – with all that this meant in their culture. God has not forgotten his promises to you. As we read in our reading from Revelation Christ is preparing a feast that is now but also is not yet come. There is better wine to come. Christ has and will return to bring us, and the Jewish people and the whole of humanity to the place he has prepared.
But unlike the wedding rituals, if we are not ready, if we’ve screwed up the wine order and now time has run out, that doesn’t matter. Christ’s resources, Christs time, Christ’s hour is more than enough. You can’t out need God.
No-matter your need, God is now only moving towards you. God is only in common with you.
There is One who will be with you and will provide for you and provide not just adequately but in abundance.
It just might be in unexpected places.