Song of Songs 4:9-15, John 2:1-11

February 5, 2023
Joanna Harader

Fun fact: Song of Songs and Esther are the only books in the Bible that do not explicitly mention God. Though at least in Esther God is implicit in mentions of worship, prayer, and fasting. Song of Songs is also the only book in scripture where a woman speaks the majority of lines.

It’s easy to see why biblical scholar, Dr. Wil Gafney, says that “It is a marvel – perhaps a miracle . . . – that the Song [of Songs] was received as scripture.” This book seems out of place in the Bible.

It’s also easy to see why this book of erotic love poetry has been read as allegory by many people in both the Jewish and Christian traditions. When we are in church, talking about sex seems . . . weird. Surely we should, instead, use this poem to talk about God’s love for God’s people or Jesus’ love for the church.

Now I’m certainly not saying God doesn’t love God’s people or that Jesus doesn’t love the church. So many parts of the Bible are about God’s love for us—I just don’t think this particular part of scripture is an allegory about Divine love. The poetry of Song of Songs is, according to most biblical scholars, about exactly what it seems to be about—two people who love each other and relish expressing that love in physically intimate ways.

And yes, it is a bit strange to find these love songs in the Bible.

It’s also a bit strange, I’ve long thought, to find Jesus at a wedding turning water into wine.

These readings—Song of Songs and Jesus at the wedding in Cana—are both assigned readings for today in Dr. Gafney’s Women’s Lectionary. The obvious connection between the two has to do with romantic love and marriage. (Though there is significant debate about whether the lovers in Song of Songs are married or merely engaged.)

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, 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?

Remember that Dr. Gafney says the inclusion of Song of Songs in the Bible at all is a miracle—an act of God. Perhaps these love poems, too, are a sign.

These are odd signs we have this morning, pointing us toward a God of desire, joy, longing, pleasure. These are both texts of abundance and delight. The lover of the Song appeals to all of the senses, speaks of their beloved in rich, over-the-top imagery. “Your lips distill nectar . . . honey and milk are under your tongue.”

At the wedding, the servants fill the jars to the brim. And the party continues.

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.

I want to pause here for just a moment to acknowledge that the bodily experiences celebrated in these passages are not universal, unmitigated goods. Sex is not always good: it can be manipulative, violent, unhealthy in any number of ways. And indulging in food and drink in general—and alcohol in particular—can harm our health and even put us in a state of mind where we are harmed or where we do harm. I heard someone on a podcast recently comment that when people ask him why he doesn’t drink alcohol he tells them, “I’m allergic. When I drink I break out in handcuffs.”

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 consuming food and drink, in ways that enhance our relationships, promote our health, and bring true pleasure and enjoyment. This is not an “anything goes” type of message.

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?

Did you notice all of the garden imagery in the Song of Songs passage? A garden, an orchard of choicest fruit, a garden fountain, a well of living water. This imagery takes us back to the Garden of Eden, back to humanity created in the image of God, back to the delight of clear water and fresh fruit, back to living in harmony with all creatures and in right relationship with each other, back to people being naked and unashamed.

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.