Turning Wine into Water

Old Testament Reading: Leviticus 25: 1–28 (The Jubilee Year)

Reading from the Acts of the Apostles: Acts 2: 41–47 (The early Christian Community)

Gospel Reading: John 2: 1–11 (Turning water into wine.)

After the reading from John, I know what you're thinking: Either Jim got the title backwards, or Kim screwed it up when she was typing the bulletin. But the title is right. Listen to this story:

A Nigerian tribal chief sent out his messengers to invite all of the tribe to a great feast. "All of the food will be provided," they announced, "but each family must bring one jug of palm wine."

Kofi wanted to attend the great festival very much, but he had no wine on hand. He paced the floor trying to think of a solution to his dilemma. Finally his wife suggested, "You could buy a jug of wine. It's not too expensive for such a great occasion."

"How foolish," Kofi cried, "if there is a way to go free." He went back to pacing until he came up with a plan. "Rather than wine, I will carry water in my jug. Several hundred will attend the festival. What will it hurt to add one jug of water to the great pot of wine?"

On the day of the festival the tribal drums began to beat early in the morning, reminding people of the great festival. All the families came dressed in their finest clothes, gathering by mid-morning at the home of the chief. As each man entered the ceremonial grounds, he poured his jug of wine into a large clay pot. Kofi carefully poured the contents of his jug into the pot, greeted the chief, and joined the many dancers.

When all of the guests had arrived, the chief commanded the music to cease and ordered the servants to fill everyone's cup with wine. As the chief spoke the opening words of the festival, all of the guests raised their cups and drank. Suddenly a cry of disbelief arose from the crowd, but they quickly drank again, and said nothing. What they tasted was not wine, but water! Each guest had decided that his one jug of water would not spoil the great pot of palm wine.

So you see, the problem that bothers me is the turning of what would have been wine, into water.

How common this problem is:

  • Our great oceans are running out of fish. Why? Because, despite fishing limits, each nation thinks, like Kofi, that getting as much fish as it can will hardly make a difference over-all.
  • Our great atmosphere is overflowing with heat and carbon dioxide. Why? Because individual automobile drivers each think, like Kofi, that their contribution will hardly make a difference over-all.
  • And a great crowd of humanity suffers and dies from lack of adequate food and medical care. Why? Because each one of us, like Kofi, thinks that what we could have contributed won't be missed, since there are so many others who could help.

It's easy to laugh at Kofi, but not so easy to laugh at ourselves.

What we are lacking, in these days, is the mother of Jesus-the woman who had the nerve to admit: "The wine has run out!" I don't know about you, but when I read the news, I can't help feeling that, in so many ways, the wine has run out.

I'm speaking about wine this morning-but perhaps that needs some explanation. After all, wine has had a checkered history in the Christian tradition.

Morris Dees, the founder of the Southern Poverty Law Center and the great persecutor and prosecutor of the Ku Klux Klan, tells a story about growing up in Mississippi in the 1950's. He said he had an aging school teacher who never tired of extolling the virtues of temperance-by which, of course, she meant not drinking alcohol. In fact this rather ancient woman even wore a button that said: "Lips that touch wine will never touch mine." Dees said that her button never was much of an incentive to him to avoid wine! But anyway, one day, after she had taught the daily Bible lesson, which happened to be on the story of Jesus turning water into wine (this was back when the Bible was taught in public schools), Dees asked her whether there wasn't some inconsistency between Christian temperance and Jesus' miracle. He said his teacher thought for a minute, smiled at him, and said: "You know, Morris, we'd have thought better of Jesus if he hadn't done that."

But she has a point. It is ironic that people who struggle with the demonic temptations of alcoholism really can't safely participate in Christian communion if it involves the use of wine. Over one hundred years ago that began to bother a certain Christian businessman named Dr. Charles E. Welch. He finally solved that problem. You know how? By marketing grape juice! The same fruit of the vine, but not fermented.

So what we are talking about this morning is not so much alcohol as it is the fruit of a blessed life. Where does it come from? Where has it gone? How can we regain it?

Where does it come from? In some rare cases, it falls from heaven. This was the case when the Israelites were wandering in the desert after their escape from Egypt. They sometimes had no food, and God provided-manna from heaven. But, frankly, that was an unusual case, and we can't expect the goods of life to be provided miraculously.

More often the fruit of a blessed life comes from people living and working together in community-contributing their share, and enabling others to contribute their share as well. This was what the chief of Kofi's tribe hoped for. "From each according to his ability, to each according to his need" is not a popular slogan on the political scene these days-but it is not far from what God has in mind for us.

What God has in mind for us was perhaps first articulated in the book of Leviticus-a set of regulations given to the Israelites to govern their society once they settled in the Promised Land. If you are like me, you rarely read Leviticus voluntarily. It is the record of many odd and seemingly antiquated, if not objectionable, regulations covering all aspects of life-including the infamous dictate (19:19) that you "not wear a garment made from two kinds of fabric". But Leviticus has its rare high points, including the compassionate reminder (19:34) to "treat resident aliens as though they were native-born, and love them as yourself-for you yourselves were once aliens in Egypt".

And another high point is our Old Testament reading for this morning. I apologize for the length and complexity of that. But the kernel of the idea is this: Every 50 years (1 year after 7 x 7 years), there will be a Jubilee Year. In the Jubilee Year, those who from poverty have had to sell themselves into slavery would be set free, and those lands that people may have had to sell off to cover their debts would be returned to the family. As it says on our country's Liberty Bell, in Philadelphia, cast in 1752 in good King James' English:



The Jubilee Year was instituted specifically to redress the inequities that accumulate over the years and decades from differences in people's ability and fortune, and which result in large disparities of wealth and monopolies. God knew how damaging this could be to the community of his people. What a prophetic idea! Think how it would knit together a community that really thought in this way!

Unfortunately, unfortunately it never worked out that way. There is no clear evidence the Israelites ever practiced the Jubilee Year. And if you think about it, you can imagine why not. Here we see several rich landowners in Canaan, having acquired many slaves and many more acres over the last score of years:

"Well, Moshie, the Jubilee Year's coming up pretty soon. Have you made arrangements to return your land and slaves yet?"

"Who, me? I've been thinking about it, Shlomo, but, I'm waiting to see what the others do. If they return their holdings, I will too. But there's no point in giving up my wealth if everyone else is keeping theirs."

"You know, you're right. I want to do what God requires, but not if it makes a fool of me."

"But fellows," Isaac chimed in, "that's no way to treat God's commands. We have to do what he says."

"OK," said Moshe and Shlomo together, "but you first."

"Well, hmmm," said Isaac.

And that's pretty much how it went, folks. "It's a great idea-You first!" Apparently no one went first.

The idea might have dropped from sight altogether, like the prohibition on mixed fabric, if it hadn't been for the prophet Isaiah. And then when Jesus began his ministry, according to Luke (4:16-20), he chose to read from the book of Isaiah (61:1-2):

The spirit of the Lord is upon me,

because he has anointed me,

to preach good news to the poor.

He has sent me to proclaim release to the captive,

and recovery of sight to the blind,

to set at liberty those who are oppressed,

to proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord.

What is that "acceptable year of the Lord"? Many scholars think it is precisely that Jubilee Year described so long ago in Leviticus. And how fitting that Jesus should want to resurrect it as the symbol for his own ministry. Let's meditate for a moment on that prophetic ministry (in song). That's the vision of a blessed life that the Bible lays out for us, in both the Old and the New Testament.

Where did it go? Where did the fruit of the blessed life go? How has the wine turned to water? In some rare cases it may just disappear-through no fault of ours. The story of Job is a sobering reminder of that fragility. Sometimes there just is no explanation, or none that we can appreciate.

But how much more often can we find the explanation in our own behavior? In our failure to live the kind of life as a community that would nurture that fruit. How much more often do we live with a sense of satisfaction that we do no less than others? But we're all waiting for someone else to go first:

"Love your enemy!"---"OK, as long as she loves me first."

"Do unto others as you would have them do unto you!"---"But I'd rather do unto others before they do unto me."

We're content to look out for our own as best we can. There's nothing wrong with that, so far as it goes. But now we can all see where it leads to-the disparity of wealth, the overconsumption of the earth's resources, the endless cycle of retaliation, the withered fruit on the vine, that pot of thin water at the celebration.

How do we regain it? How do we regain the fruit of the blessed life that God intended for us? The first step is to admit when we don't have it. This was Mary's crucial contribution to the story of the wedding feast. She was willing to say: "The wine has run out!" "The wine has run out!" Unless we are ready to say that, we'll stay right where we are, drinking the water and pretending it's wine. We have to be willing to speak out, as Mary did: "The wine has run out!"

Think about something that isn't right in our world-something that we pretend is OK. Now say it with me: "The wine has run out!"

Adequate food and medical care for all God's people-"The wine has run out!"

Credit cards that will get us everything we want-"The wine has run out!"

A global atmosphere that we can count on-"The wine has run out!"

Investments for a secure retirement-"The wine has run out!"

An endless supply of energy under the ground-"The wine has run out!"

The idea that anyone can make it if they just try harder-"The wine has run out!"

The Israeli authorities have recently adopted a new tactic to deal with suicide bombers-they clear out and then destroy the home of the family of the bomber. That should do it, don't you think? A Palestinian mother of such a bomber was recently interviewed by the BBC: "Doesn't this policy makes bombers think harder about what they do?" And she responded: "Each day of this, we have less to live for." What's she saying?-- "The wine has run out!" Hopes for peace in the Middle East?-- "The wine has run out!"

How will it end? Who will show restraint? "You first."

That's the cycle we're stuck in, unless, unless. Unless we can turn water into wine! How can that be done? By someone going first. But who?

Jesus has already gone first. Jesus made a fool of himself. Jesus went to the cross. Recall Paul's first letter to the Corinthians (1:18-30):

The message of the cross is foolishness for those who are on the way to ruin, but for those of us who are on the road to salvation it is the power of God. While the Jews demand miracles and the Greeks look for wisdom, we are preaching a crucified Christ: to the Jews an obstacle they cannot get over, to the gentiles foolishness, but to those who have been called, a Christ who is both the power of God and the wisdom of God.

What looks foolish to humans turns out to be the greatest wisdom. How else to make wine out of water than to follow the lead of Jesus? And that's what Mary told us: "Do whatever he tells you to do," she said to the stewards. Go first, make a fool out of yourself. For that is the doorway to full community. It might not always work, but on the other hand, nothing else has ever worked!

Paul and the early Christian church had a word for this movement of vulnerability that led to community. It was "koinonia". It's a Greek word, and can mean various things in various contexts. It occurs 18 times in the New Testament, and it is a central concept to Christian theology. In Paul's many letters to the churches he describes:

  • how God "has called you into koinonia with his son Jesus Christ our Lord" (I Cor1:9)
  • how the cup is "a koinonia in the blood of Christ" and the bread is "a koinonia in the body of Christ", so that, "although there are many of us, we are one single body" (I Cor 10:16)
  • how we "come to know Christ and the power of his resurrection through koinonia with his suffering" (Phil 3:10)
  • how our "koinonia in faith comes to expression in full knowledge of all the good we can do in Christ" (Philem 6)
  • how doing good works by holding our resources in koinonia are the kinds of sacrifice that please God" (Heb 13:16).

And the first letter of John echoes these sentiments:

  • "We are declaring to you what we have seen and heard, so that you too may be in koinonia with us, because our life is in koinonia with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ" (I John 1:3)
  • "For if we live in light, as he is in light, we live in koinonia with one another, and the blood of Jesus, his Son, cleanses us all from sin" (I John 1:7).

In the brief description from our morning reading, in the book of Acts, it was this sense of community, or koinonia, that bound together the Christians in teaching, brotherhood, breaking of bread, and prayers. The fruits of their blessed life were found through koinonia, and held in koinonia-in the communion with one another, through the Holy Spirit-that is so lacking in these days.

Is there any hope for us? Do we have to wait for Jesus to return, to turn the water back into wine for us? Perhaps the wine pots will never be completely full until Jesus returns. But in the meantime, there is much that can be done, and has been done, in the name of koinonia:

In 1942 a Baptist preacher named Clarence Jordan established a racially integrated farming community in southern Georgia and named it Koinonia Farms. They stood as a witness, sometimes a very shaky witness, to racial brotherhood and sisterhood at a time and place where no one wanted to go first. Their struggles eventually nurtured what has now become the world-wide movement known as Habitat for Humanity.

In 1998 an organization called Jubilee 2000 began forming around the world, calling on the industrialized countries of the world to forgive the crushing debt that underdeveloped countries had accumulated over decades. Debt payments had become so burdensome that what little money such countries could gather for social welfare became automatically redirected to debt payment. For a time we industrialized nations showed themselves to be sheep rather than goats (Mat 25:31-46) in our forgiving compassion toward third-world debt. Although long-term solutions were not found-grace was found in unexpected places, as parliaments, congresses and bank boardrooms did not wait for others to go first.

Over the last dozen years, in response to the US boycott of Cuba, a group called Pastors for Peace has made annual treks around the country, raising money and truckloads of medical supplies for the people of Cuba. They are not allowed to ferry these trucks directly to Cuba-that's illegal. So they have managed to take the trucks through Mexico and then ferry them from there to Cuba. Fidel Castro has often made a point of meeting the group when it arrives, and thanking them for their efforts. One year the group decided that, as a further witness to their efforts towards koinonia between the people of the US and the people of Cuba, they would also present Castro with Bibles. Since Castro is an atheist, that is not a present he was expecting. But that day he responded to the gifts-money, medical supplies, and Bibles-as follows. He looked at the Bible he had been handed, and said: "Today you have added a new page to this book that you love so much."

Brothers and sisters, that is our challenge-to each add a new page to this book that we love so much. For Jesus going to the cross and rising to the blessings of life on the other side was not the end of the story-it was the beginning. Living in vulnerability, making fools of ourselves, going to the cross-these are things we are asked to do, too. But Jesus went first, and so we know he will be there with us, no matter how it turns out.

Friends, let's stop drinking water and pretending it's wine-let's turn that water back into wine. Let's find our own ways to add new pages to this book that we love so much, so that all can drink in the fruits of a blessed life together.

"May the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the koinonia of the Holy Spirit be with you all" (II Cor 13:13). Amen.

James C. Klagge
Asbury United Methodist Church
August 18, 2002