Reflection on Song of Songs 4:9-15 and John 2:1-11, readings from Dr. Will Gafney’s Women’s Lectionary for the Whole Church, Year W. You can read the full sermon text here.
The speaker in Song of Songs says, “how much better is your love than wine,” but Jesus’ mother knows that a wedding party can’t run on love alone—they need wine! She tells the servants to do whatever Jesus tells them, and Jesus tells them to fill the water jars. And then, at the party where there was no more wine, there is, suddenly, six nearly-overflowing jars—probably 150 gallons or more—of wine. And not grocery store box wine either–the good stuff!
In the Gospel of John, Jesus performs many “signs,” and this turning of water to wine is the first. The signs from Jesus are miracles, yes, but they are more than that. They are not simply displays of power or entertaining party tricks. As signs, they point to Jesus as the Messiah, as a revelation of God. Through the signs, Jesus shows us who God is.
And for those of us who grew up in serious religious environments where we were taught about moderation and self-sacrifice and hard work . . . well, this sign of water to wine is a bit disconcerting. What does water to wine show us about the nature of God?
Dr. Gafney says the inclusion of Song of Songs in the Bible at all is a miracle—an act of God. So perhaps these love poems, like Jesus’ miracle in Cana, are a sign.
These are odd signs that point us toward a God of desire, joy, longing, pleasure. These are signs of abundance and delight. These signs point us to aspects of God—and of ourselves–that us religious types too often neglect. Traditional Christian culture tends to focus so much on the spirit that we neglect our bodily reality; and if we do focus on a body, it is Christ’s body on the cross, which makes physical desire and pleasure seem unfaithful—even profane.
But this stunning love poetry of the Song and this unexpected first sign Jesus offers at a wedding point us to a different understanding of our bodily desires and pleasures in the context of our relationships with God and our relationships with each other. These signs point us to a God who delights in our delight, who created our bodies to experience many kinds of pleasure.
We want to be discerning about what we do with our bodies and what we put into our bodies, of course. We don’t want to harm ourselves or others. We want to engage in physical intimacy in ways that enhance our relationships and honor ourselves and others. We want to consume food and drink in ways that promote our well-being. Not all pleasure is, in the end, good pleasure.
Still, I think that the Church’s response to the potential dangers of seeking bodily pleasure has done a lot of harm to a lot of people. Religious leaders have too often addressed issues of our bodies in general and sex in particular by making long and exhaustive lists of everything people shouldn’t do. That approach has resulted in so many Christians carrying heavy burdens of shame around anything that has to do with our physical bodies.
What if, instead of worrying so much about what we shouldn’t do, we celebrated these signs we have been given that point us to what we should do? What if we look to these passages—and others—as signs that show us how to enjoy these bodies that God has created for us?
Our bodies are part of—an essential part of—God’s good creation. That is something the Church often seems to lose sight of. And something the passages we have heard this morning can remind us of. Our most intimate love is sweet. Our celebrations with food, drink, and friends, are blessed.
These signs in scripture point us to a godly life of love, intimacy, enjoyment, and pleasure.
Thanks be to God.