Reflection: Cheaper Whiskey, Better Wine January 14, 2018
In the name of Jesus Christ, whose grace is free and overflows abundantly. Amen.
There’ s an old hotel on the east side of the railroad tracks in Medicine Hat. It’s in a neighborhood called “The Flats”. It’s Medicine Hat’s lowest income area. It’s a very old neighborhood, one of the first in the town. It’s called the Flats because, well, it’s flat, primarily because it’s a flood plain of the South Saskatchewan River. The Corona Hotel has been around for a long time. It used to be one of the local railroad hotels, just down the block from the even seedier Cecil Hotel. The neighborhood is also home to Medicine Hat’s own China Town. The City Cafe where one could once get fabulous chicken fried rice and where Mah Jong was played until the wee hours of the morning after the last customer had gone home.
Forty years ago you could still rent a room at the Corona for twenty bucks, and the room even came with a sink. No bathroom; that was down the hall. The last time I drove by it looked like the whole two upper floors had been gutted. The bar still keeps pretty busy. It still has a band playing on weekends. I remember sitting in there one night with some folk. I may have been playing that weekend, I don’t remember. What I remember is the warning I received not to order CC, (that is Canadian Club, a pricey rye whiskey), because after the first couple of drinks Joe, (and at this point the teller of the story’s brow furrowed in anger), because Joe would then substitute cheaper whiskey and still charge you for CC. The point being that after a couple of drinks you wouldn’t be able to tell the difference because your tastebuds were starting to get anaesthetized. The crime being that you weren’t getting what you were paying for. ‘‘So why not just order the cheapest whiskey after a couple of drinks?’’ I wondered. Everyone stopped moving, furrowed their eyebrows and looked at me, like I was in on this conspiracy.
Now it won’t surprise you to hear that the “me” in this story isn’t, “me”, Heidi. This story was shared with me by a fellow I went to seminary with by the name of Eric Muirhead. He was a big guy, with a bushy greying brown head of hair and full beard. He would have passed for a lumberjack or oil field worker, easily. I can’t remember what Eric did for a living, but it was something that took him to places like Joe’s bar at the Corona Hotel. It was Eric who encountered the “cheat” the locals were so upset with. But apparently, as Eric said,
“this fraudulent behavior, of switching good whiskey for poorer isn’t a ruse limited to a 20th century bartender named ‘‘Joe’’ at the Corona Hotel in Medicine Hat, Alberta, Canada. This morning we hear from the Gospel of John. Jesus has been way down at Bethany, where he’s just met John the Baptist and two of John’s disciples, one of whom is Andrew. Andrew rushes to find his brother Simon. Upon meeting Jesus, Jesus renames Simon Cephas, that is ‘‘Peter’’ and together they all strike out to Galilee, collecting other disciples along the way.
On this, the third day in John’s gospel, Jesus has been invited to a wedding at Cana. Things happen fast at the beginning of John’s story! Just so you know, the “third day” in John’s Gospel is how he describes the day of Resurrection. So this is one bookend of Jesus’ life and of the signs, the miracles, that identify him as God’s son. Now Cana is about 10 miles west of the Sea of Galilee. This wedding is a big event. Jesus’ mother has been invited, as have Jesus and all of his disciples. Unfortunately the caterer – that is the master of the banquet – has underestimated the thirst of the guests, and the available stock of wine has been totally depleted. Mary, aware of the embarrassment and inconvenience this will bring the families, sidles up to Jesus.
““Pssst… They’’re out of wine.””
““Moth-ERRR”” he replies. ““Who do you think you are, bugging me like this?!”
Yep, he’s that rude. In fact, in the original Aramaic, the reply is even worse, and not at all respectful.
But Mary, like mothers across the ages, ignores her son’s reluctance and gets on with it; she turns her attention to the servants that have gathered and tells them to do whatever her son says.
Nearby are six stone jars, about the size of a barrel each. “Go get those filled up,” Jesus commands the servants. Being servants, they don’t have any choice but to obey. Hmm, I wonder if this might be a reminder that Jesus too, came to serve, and not to be served? Just about everything’s symbolic the way John tells his stories!
““Now take a cup out of the barrel to the master of the banquet.””
They do, and when he samples the replacement wine he is astonished. From his perspective the host has opened up the best wine in his wine cellar for his guests. The servants scurry about making sure that everyone’s chalices are full, and the party continues unabated, the partiers unaware of how close they came to having to finish off the celebration drinking scummy slough water or going thirsty. Thus ends the first of Jesus’ signs, the turning of water to wine at the wedding feast in Cana.
Now on the surface, we can take this as testimony to Jesus’ powers over the laws of nature. He has somehow violated the laws of fermentation and instantaneously turned plain old jar water into wine of the best available vintage. And on the surface, this would be enough for this story. John tells it in the same way as all other miracle stories are told. Setting, problem, plea for help, miraculous deed, testimony of witnesses.
But John’s gospel never calls any of the signs Jesus performs ‘‘miracles’’, in spite of what some English translations of the bible would have us believe. To John, these are ‘‘signs’’, and signs are objects or gestures with one meaning that point to another.
The meaning of this morning’s sign on the surface is that water has, in violation of natural law, been turned to wine. The intrinsic meaning as a sign as it points to Jesus is more involved. There are six stone jars used by the Jews (a phrase not used with a friendly tone in John’s gospel) for ceremonial washing. They are regularly filled with water and used in religious rites. Feet must be cleaned when entering a building, and hands must be washed before and during each course of a meal. Along comes Jesus, and he takes the jars – six of them, which is the number of “incompletion” in Jewish philosophy – he dares to have them filled with water, and sacrilegiously uses them for a purpose other than that for which they are meant. He fills them with water and then turns the water into wine, which is consumed by everyone at a party, of all places. For John, Jesus completes the incomplete, fulfills and transforms what is holy into what is even better.
And let us pull back even further, reading some even more deeper meaning into the story. John does not describe the Last Supper as the other Gospel writers do. In fact, some wonder whether John’s community even celebrated it as the other early Christians did. But perhaps here we have a hint of the cup of Christ. Perhaps the wine signifies the wine of the new covenant, the living covenant in Jesus’ blood, as opposed to stone jars, or other covenants, based in stone. And the wine is consumed at a wedding feast, which points us towards the wedding feast of the Lamb of God, plus a whole lot of other feasts referenced by the prophets when God fulfills the promise to redeem Israel. One example? From Isaiah 25:6 “On this mountain the Lord of hosts will make for all peoples a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wines, of rich food filled with marrow, of well-aged wines strained clear.” Maybe you remember some other stories about banquets in the Gospels? Banqets are a favourite image in the Synoptic Gospels for the coming of God’s kingdom. Let’s not discount the volume of the wine, either, which John goes out of his way to describe. Six stone jars each holding 20 – 30 gallons. This water that Jesus has replaced with the wine of the new covenant, the giving of himself, overflows with crazy generosity.
To the end of the passage. “This, the first of his signs, Jesus performed at Cana in Galilee. He thus revealed his glory, and his disciples put their faith in him.” And not just anywhere, but it was at a party that he revealed the incredible overabundance of his glory.
So we meet Jesus in the first event after his baptism celebrating the joyous event of a new life of a young couple with friends and neighbors. So we will continue to meet Jesus in every event in our lives, good and bad, joy-filled or grief-stricken. Jesus is there with us to meet our needs with overwhelming and gracious abundance. He is there to take what is traditional and useful and turn it into something even more rare and wonderful – something that brings gladness to the hearts of those who are present. There is no need to look elsewhere. There is no sleight of hand. With Jesus Christ you get more than you paid for. In fact, his grace and glory are free.
Thanks be to God. Amen.
(This is a sermon based largely on the work of the Rev’d Eric Muirhead, Presbyterian Church in Canada. Eric passed away in 2012 of ALS, having served the church in Saskatchewan faithfully for almost the entirety of his ministry. Please do not repr