There was a red octagon, a red triangle pointing down, and a yellow diamond with parallel wavy lines. I was taking the written portion of the exam to get my learner’s permit on my way to a real driver’s license. You need to know how to read the signs to drive safely. Not only do you need to recognize what kind of sign it is and be able to read its information, but you need to respond in real time to what it is conveying to you.

A driver does not think about why it is an octagon instead of a hexagon, nor does she ponder the particular shade of red chosen, or what the choice of font tells us about the sign designer’s aesthetics. Of course not. She reads the sign and responds accordingly. She stops before the intersection.

A preacher need not mention “semiotics” or “perlocutionary force” in order to get the idea across. Signs do something beyond simply conveying information. And if all you are doing is studying the sign (shape, color, font, dimensions, reflectivity), you are doing it wrong. You do need to see and understand the sign to figure out what it is signifying, but the sign itself is never the point of the sign.

John 2:11 makes it clear how Jesus turning water into wine was more than just a miracle, it was a sign. It signified something. And as a sign, it invites us to respond accordingly. John 2:11 tells us that it was a sign and how to respond: “And His disciples believed in Him.” Believing in Jesus is the appropriate response to seeing this sign.

Jesus turning water into wine was more than just a miracle, it was a sign. It signified something.

This fits the context near and far in John’s Gospel. After turning the water into wine, Jesus cleanses the Temple and promises to raise a new one. That scene concludes with John commenting, “When therefore He was raised from the dead, His disciples remembered He had said this, and they believed the Scripture and the word that Jesus had spoken” (2:22). The very next verse reiterates the point: “Many believed in His name when they saw the signs He was doing” (2:23). The same theme runs all the way through John 20:30-31: “Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of the disciples, which are not written in this book; but these are written so you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in His name.”

Red octagons call for you to stop your car before entering the intersection. Jesus turning water into wine calls for you to believe: To believe in Him. It is a call to believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God. I belabor this point a bit because it can be tempting to dissect the sign and then miss what it signifies, at least that has been the case for me.

After all, it is such a curious sign. This brief scene raises so many questions for me and my people: What was Mary’s role at the party? Why were Jesus and the disciples there? What would have been the cultural significance of running out of wine? Did Jesus’ words in verse 4 sound more respectful in their context than in ours? What does wine have to do with Jesus’ “hour”? If it was not Jesus’ hour, why did He do what Mary asked? How much wine did He make? Does the former use of the jars have significance, or were they simply available for Jesus’ use? What were these servants possibly thinking? Did anybody ever tell the host what really happened? Does the context of a wedding point us to the Great Heavenly Wedding, or was that just where Jesus happened to be?

I have attempted to answer some or all those questions through various sermons in the past, in part because I was curious, in part because my members were asking those questions of the text, and in part because I wanted a new “angle” to preach on the same familiar story. I do not think I was bad or wrong to do so. But I do think it is tempting to dive into the history or the narrative possibilities and lose sight of the sign’s significance.

Each of those questions above (and certainly many others as well) can be a helpful way to process the text and proclaim the Gospel. Whatever you choose to focus on in this beautifully enigmatic reading, I would encourage you to keep asking yourself, “How does this help invite my hearers to respond in belief?”

Whatever you choose to focus on in this beautifully enigmatic reading, I would encourage you to keep asking yourself, “How does this help invite my hearers to respond in belief?”

For my part, I think I am going to focus on the servants this time. I want to imagine their facial expressions, their inner monologue, a hypothetical dialogue between them, the image of the moment they fill the first cup, an image of the moment they hand it to the host, and especially what their faith may or may not have been in the end.

Picture them standing awkwardly by when Mary asks Jesus for help, and He seems to rebuff her. Or maybe they were bored with their catering job, and they were hoping to see some drama. What were they thinking when they filled jars or when they filled a cup from the washing jars? Did they play “Rock, Paper, Scissors” to see which one would hand the cup of dirty water to the sommelier on duty?

John specifically mentions that “the servants who had drawn the water knew” where the water (now wine) had come from (2:9). Their perspective on the sign is clearly highlighted. They were agents and witnesses of what Jesus was up to. They knew. They saw. What did they do with that? And from there, it is a quick jump to us today. We know. We have heard. What are we going to do with it? We can hope and imagine what it was like for them to respond in faith, but that is not really the point. Jesus performed and John recorded this sign so we would believe.

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Additional Resources:

Concordia Theology-Various helps from Concordia Seminary in St. Louis, MO to assist you in preaching John 2:1-11.

Text Week-A treasury of resources from various traditions to help you preach John 2:1-11.

Lectionary Podcast-Dr. Charles Gieschen of Concordia Theological Seminary in Ft. Wayne, IN walks us through John 2:1-11.