Sermons from St Faith's   

Water and Wine

Fr Dennis Smith,

Sunday, January 20th, 2019

Three weeks into the New Year. By now we are perhaps used to writing 19 instead of 18. We’ve almost forgotten New Year resolutions gone by the board. Today would actually be a good time to start again. Today’s scriptural readings all breathe newness and encouragement. From chapter 62 of Isaiah we read “You will have new names: You have not been deserted; don’t be desolate: God delights in you.” From Psalm 35 we hear the words “God is faithful, God’s love is unfailing.” The First Letter to the Corinthians exhorts us to “leave behind lesser loyalties” and in the first of the signs recorded in John’s Gospel Jesus comes to enrich and inspire, to bless a simple country wedding, to tell us that the best is kept till last. We have moved on from Christmas. The helpless infant we saw then in his mother’s lap is now telling her firmly how things stand. His hour has not yet come.  A time will come when he gives wine a meaning it will never lose.  But now it is just wine. Whether we drink wine or abstain, we know it goes with weddings and celebrations. Water on the other hand, wasn’t always drinkable.  If you go round the Holy Land today you’ll find the pilgrims holding their plastic bottles of expensive branded water. In the heat you need it. Water from a clear stream or a reliable well could quench thirst: Jesus was to speak of water’s thirst–quenching power on another occasion, welling up to eternal life. This time it was washing water that was  available, in big hundred litre tanks. You normally bathed in it to make yourself clean before a ceremony, or maybe to launder the garment you would wear to the wedding. Jesus was often involved in controversy about purification rituals, not being opposed to hygiene but to the obsessive cleansing that goes with fearful law-keeping religion. Jesus gave his first sign: his arrival did away with that ritual purifying, those efforts to scour out our own sin. Jesus’ arrival enriched celebration. The fountain ran with wine. Good news, glorious news: Isaiah tells us the victory and the glory shine forth like the sunrise and the nations will see it …. for  the Lord will take delight in you and to him your land will be linked in wedlock.”

This is the season of Epiphany. It’s said that Archbishop Justin Welby had an epiphany that turned him from oilman to ordinand. He saw the glory of the Saviour and it changed him.

This is good news in this week of prayer for Christian unity – different kinds of Christians; different kinds of service; activists and meditators, contra versionalists and mediators; evangelists, ecumenists, cathoaics  and protestants – all different kinds of Christian make up on body. The test is: do we call Jesus “Lord”? No one can say “Jesus is Lord” except under the influence of the Holy Spirit. No one who curses Jesus belongs to his body. There are different gifts, different activities, different kinds of service, but the same God is active in every one of us. We may be tempted to say “Be like me”, but that’s pointless. God made us different. He gave us different gifts. The point is not to criticise others nor bemoan our lack of gifts, but to use the gifts we have been given. One can sing, one can speak, one can comfort or console, one can advise or counsel, one can lead prayer, on can listen. One can do church work, one can do employed work, one can do homework or housework. One can encourage or inspire, one can plan or organise, one can preach, one can play music, one can greet or extend hospitality; most can read the Bible and study. All can pray. “In each of us the Spirit is seen to be at work for some useful purpose.” And so the question is “Can the Holy Spirit of God be seen in you, in me, for some useful purpose?”

We can share the good news – if we permit God’s Spirit to be active in us to some useful purpose. And we can respect each other, for however different we each are, God works in each individual in a particular, appropriate way.

A few verses later Paul, who wrote these words about the Spirit’s gifts, is going to show us the best way of all – patient, selfless love – in his celebrated thirteenth chapter. This is the context of the poem praising love: Church life, with people in all their differences applying our gifts with respect and affection for each other in all our diversity. This is good news, too, for those of us who are older: the best is kept till last. Common sense, the way of the world , was apparently to hand round the best wine at he beginning and then when people had lost their powers to discriminate, dish out the plonk. The way the world thinks, youth is the best time and other phases of life downhill all the way. Yes, health and strength may diminish. But God is faithful. All people may take refuge in the shadow of God’s wings. Later years can be times of great blessing: we don’t have to see ourselves as finished, useless or an old crock. God can make later years a time of hope, the spirit works in everyone to some useful purpose; age can give us a gold crock! Jesus gave a sign by his presence at that wedding in Cana; it revealed his glory, and his disciples believed in him. It seems such a strange, odd, magical story, more Harry Potter than Jesus of Nazareth. But it was a sign that revealed Christ’s glory and it convinced the disciples. Reading John’s account of this first sign of Jesus, many centuries after it took place, we may well be perplexed. But Jesus showed his glory and it carried conviction.

We read elsewhere what he said about new wine. The gospel deliberately states that those big water containers were used for Jewish rites of purification: Jesus’ presence transformed their contents into vintage. The contrast between Jesus’s  new way and his nation’s old way of relating to God is a prominent theme in John’s Gospel.

At the end wine will come to mean the outpouring of his blood, the means for his disciples to be bound in the new covenant. Most things in John’s Gospel point forward to the climax when he was to be lifted up on the cross. He emphatically told his mother that his hour was not yet come. Psalm 36, verse 9, states a sublime truth in memorable words, “with you is the fountain of life; in your light we see light.” Water, wine, whatever it is that sustains life, flows from God. God is the fountain. Our life is renewed by God’s refreshing. When we perceive God’s glory, which we see in Jesus, we see true light. Simple but profound. Christians have found it true through many generations: “in your light we see light.” 


The sermons index