I remember my amazement at the three levels of observation at Ripley’s Aquarium in Myrtle Beach. There is the top level where you can see down into the tank viewing all kinds of fish, and stingrays swimming below. There is the middle level where you can stand right beside a huge coral reef full of fish and watch them swimming by. The third perspective is from below where you can almost count the number of teeth in a Tiger Shark’s smile as it swims over your head separated by only an inch or so of glass. The experience is amazing.
Now I ask that you keep that image in your mind as you read, and we explore Jesus’ first miracle in the Gospel of John – that of turning water into wine. The surface level is significant. At its most simple level it is a story about how Jesus saves a bride, groom, and their families a great social embarrassment. The custom was to host a wedding feast for a whole week. To run out of wine would have been more than just an embarrassment. It would have been like somehow cursing the marriage – predicting it to fail or for the couple to never have children.
Years ago, as host of the Tonight Show Johnny Carson when interviewing an 8-year-old boy who had rescued two friends from a coal mine asked the boy what he had learned in Sunday School.
“Last week,” came the boy’s reply, “our lesson was about when Jesus went to a wedding and turned water into wine.”
The audience roared, but Johnny kept a straight face and asked, “What did you learn from this story?”
The boy squirmed in his chair some, then piped up, “If you’re going to have a wedding make sure you invite Jesus.”
That’s not a bad thing for us to learn as well. Our first level of understanding is that there is no concern, however big or small, - no event or circumstance that we cannot invite Jesus to stand at center stage as our Lord. This is where we draw our deepest strength and learn how to trust above all else the love of Jesus. Mary did in this story. She did not worry or fret, but gave it over entirely to Jesus – trusting in him completely. How much better we might be if we followed Mary’s example?
Now, we are ready to go to the next level and discover something very significant – the transformation of water into wine. A friend of mine decided to make wine. He got all of the right ingredients together – the right amount of sugar and grape juice at just the right temperature, and then he made one little mistake. He corked the bottles too tightly without allowing enough air to escape the fermenting process. You can guess what happened next. One by one bottles exploded as the pressure built up. You see, we forget that the process of fermentation is a dynamic chemical process of transformation where the basic elements are changed into a whole new substance.
Now in John’s day, it is clear that the wine represented the new life that Jesus comes to bring. The power and presence of the Holy Spirit working transforms lives. I often use this story in pre-marital counseling sessions. I explain that Jesus used the six stone jars filled with ~ 180 gallons of water in them. The jars were set aside for Jewish cleansing rituals that were based upon an understanding of God that if one’s plate, fork, and spoon were not ritually cleansed exactly according to Jewish custom and tradition, that God would see the people who used these instruments as unclean and dirty in his sight. In other words, the rituals were an elaborate external attempt to keep from defiling oneself and angering or upsetting God as if somehow God really cares more about how a dish is washed than the state of our hearts and minds. Then I say to the couple that this story really means that God wants to take the water of their love for each other and transform it into a rich, full-bodied wine that continues to improve in flavor and value over the years.
I tell them that a real tragedy would be if their love for one another stopped growing on their wedding day. They would have no real hope of growing together as life-long partners. Now, we all understand romantic love like this, but the same is true for our spiritual lives as well. If our love for Jesus remains static, if it stops growing and remains at the same level it was when we were 10, 16, or 25 years old, then we too will miss out on the incredible process of fermentation and growth that God intends for us to experience in our life-long journey as Christians.
Martin Luther King Jr. understood this point well when he wrote: “Love is the only force capable of transforming an enemy into a friend. We never get rid of an enemy by meeting hate with hate. By its very nature, hate destroys and tears down, by its very nature love creates and builds up. Love transforms with redemptive power.”
This is the key insight to the second level of this passage from John.
Now, we might say like in the aquarium, we are about to get in over our heads as we go one level more with only a thin layer of glass to separate us from a whole lot of fish with big teeth. John uses the language of third day as the setting for this miracle. As soon as Christians hear this, we automatically think of the resurrection of Jesus. For it was on the third day that the women went to the tomb expecting to anoint a dead body and instead found the risen and living bridegroom, Jesus, alive and well! They found the veil of death lifted, broken forever in Jesus Christ.
Now, I invite you to put all three layers of this text together and ask yourself three questions:
Where do I discover that Jesus and his love for my life belong in both the big and small events of my everyday life?
Where do I realize that my weak, watered down efforts at loving and serving God need to be internally changed and transformed?
Where do I get the fullest redemption of the significance of Christ’s death and resurrection?
The answer to all three is the same – in the blood and body of Jesus Christ. So the next time you go to an aquarium or happen to read a Bible story from John or find yourself at the altar receiving the body and blood of Christ, you may want to stop and realize that there are always many, many levels, expressions, and meanings to God’s unconditional love in Jesus Christ, our Lord. Thanks be to God. May you continue to be transformed by this love more and more each day.