Overflowing Cups

Written for St. Andrew Lutheran Church, Franklin, TN + 2nd Sunday after Epiphany + January 17, 2016

Readings: Isaiah 62:1-5; 1 Cor. 12:1-11; John 2:1-11

Many of you know that I have not been a lifelong Lutheran — at least not in church attendance. (In terms of beliefs, I think I have always kept pretty close.) I was baptized in an ELCA congregation, confirmed in a Missouri-Synod Lutheran congregation, and worshipped with many other denominations in high school and college. I joined the ELCA while I was in divinity school.

All of that biographical information is just to introduce this story: one of the congregations I worshiped with from time to time while I was in college was a Quaker meeting house in St. Paul, MN. We met in a very simple room, with chairs arranged in a big circle. And then, together, we sat in silence for an hour. The idea is for each person to listen for what the Holy Spirit is saying to them. If the Spirit moves you to speak to the group, you stand up and speak. Sometimes no one speaks at all; at other meetings there may be many speakers.

At one meeting I attended, a very elderly woman spoke. She couldn’t stand for very long, so she spoke from her seat. She told us about one of the strongest happy memories from her childhood: when she and her siblings would get a few cents from their parents and go down to the ice cream shop. The shop owner would always pack as much ice cream as he could into her little cup. That, she said, was where she first learned the meaning of the phrase “my cup overflows.” It was a very literal experience of that image from the Shepherd’s Psalm.

Then she gave more examples of how her “cup overflowed” in different ways throughout her life, talking more figuratively: children who grew up and established their own lives; the strength to get through difficult illnesses; faith that filled her life purpose.


Philip Serracino Inglott via Wikimedia Commons


A theme overflowing cups, of feasts, of shared bounty is threaded through the Bible. In the histories of the Israelites the promised land is referred to as “a land flowing with milk and honey” — two rich, luxurious foods flowing freely for everyone to eat. In the book of Proverbs, Wisdom is depicted as a woman saying, “Come, eat of my bread and drink of the wine I have mixed” (Prov. 9:5); in many other places, Wisdom is described as a gushing fountain (e.g. Prov. 18:4).[1] The prophet Isaiah proclaimed: “Everyone who thirsts, come to the waters: and you that have no money, come buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without price” (Is. 55:1).

We see overflowing cups and feasts in Jesus’s ministry. There are literal examples: like when a few fish and loaves produce enough food for thousands, and there are leftovers (e.g. Jn. 6:1-14). And there are figurative examples: like when Jesus tells a foreign woman that what he has to offer is only for Israel, and she responds “But even the dogs get the crumbs from under the table,” and then Jesus heals her daughter, letting his blessings overflow from Israel into the nations (Mark 7:24-29).

Saint Paul tells the Corinthian Christians that the Lord’s Supper ought to be a feast for everyone to enjoy equally (1 Cor. 11:17-34).

In the Gospel of John, the very first miracle Jesus performs in public is literally an overflowing cup. At a small town wedding the hosts are about to be deeply embarrassed in front of all their friends and family, because they didn’t prepare enough wine for the feast. But Jesus saves them from disgrace by producing another 120 to 180 gallons of good wine. Overflowing cups all around!

And this miracle is an example of very generous sharing in another way, too. When Mary suggests that Jesus step in and fix the wine problem, Jesus says, “Why is that our problem? My time has not yet come.” Despite the fact that he had planned to start revealing his divinity at a later time, Jesus doesn’t hold back when a friend is in need. He overflows.

I’ve been talking about this turning water into wine as a miracle, but the Gospel of John doesn’t call it a miracle. John calls it a “sign,” and that’s the word he uses for all of Jesus’s displays of power. He emphasizes that they are more than miracles; they are signs telling us who Jesus is. Jesus is God, the Son of God, come to earth.

But what does that mean? What are the details? What exactly does God-on-earth look like? What does he do?

One thing we see is that Jesus Christ, the Son of God, is the one who makes cups overflow, who shares a bounty so large that those who receive cannot help but share it, too. We see that not only in the wedding at Cana, but also in many other places throughout John’s Gospel. Jesus tells the woman at the well that he gives living water, water that becomes a spring inside of each person who drinks, so that the water of life is always gushing up (Jn. 4:13-14). After the sign of the fishes and the loaves (Jn. 6:1-14), Jesus tells the crowds: “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty” (Jn. 6:35).

In the end it turns out that all this talk of literal cups overflowing, literal water, literal bread…all that is figurative. And the literal point is this: “Love one another as I have loved you” (Jn. 15:12). Or, in the words of a letter from John, “We love because he first loved us.”[2] Christ’s love for us is so bounteous that we cannot contain it. We overflow. We love others because of how fully he loves us — and because of how fully he loves everyone (Jn. 3:16).

The whole “overflowing cup” thing sounds beautiful and easy when we say it like that: God loves me, so I love others. God has made my cup overflow, and so I can’t help but share with others. It gets more difficult when it hits the ground, when we ask just how we should overflow with the love of God.

It is difficult, because overflowing with the big, wide love of God means we cannot be isolationists. I can’t love just myself, or just my family, or just the people who share my ideas, my way of life, my traditions. All of that is hard enough, but Jesus took this “overflowing cup” thing much further than that. He said we are to give and borrow to everyone who asks of us; we are to love our enemies and to pray for those who are out to get us (Matt. 5:38-48). These are some of the toughest words ever spoken.

Tomorrow our nation commemorates Martin Luther King, Jr., a man we remember for trying to put Jesus’s toughest words into action. He preached and worked and protested so that all people would be treated equally as people created by God and loved by God. First he focused on establishing greater equality for people of color in the Civil Rights Movement; and when he saw that improvements in civil rights did not improve the economic, material situation of the people, he began the Poor People’s Campaign to help raise people out of the degrading conditions of poverty. Even when he was insulted, attacked, and threatened, Rev. King strove to obey Jesus’s command to love our enemies, and he remained committed to the path of nonviolence. Martin Luther King, Jr. offers us one inspiring, concrete example of how a cup can overflow.

Today, I challenge each us to think of just one new way that we can let our cups overflow, one new way we can be a little more generous with what God has given us. Listen, not just to me, but (like a Quaker in a meeting), listen for the Holy Spirit — what is one new way God is calling you to let God’s love flow? And then let that be your intention for this new year.

Maybe we can be more generous with our words: speak more kindly to those around us, or speak more kindly about those we disagree with, or stand up for others when they are being insulted or misrepresented. Politically, we can speak up for those who are in need of help.

Maybe we can be more generous with our attention: giving more time to our families, calling a relative or friend on the phone to see how they’re doing, visiting someone who is sick, volunteering, listening to someone with a different opinion and really trying to understand them.

Maybe we can be more generous with our forgiveness: for others, and for ourselves.

There are endless ways for us to love one another as Christ has loved us, to let our cups overflow with grace upon grace upon grace.

As you listen for what the Spirit is saying, please pray with me that God will be with us and fill us with the love we need in order to better love others. This prayer comes from Martin Luther King, Jr. Let us pray.

God, we thank you for the inspiration of Jesus. Grant that we will love you with all our hearts, souls, and minds, and love our neighbors as we love ourselves, even our enemy neighbors. And we ask you, God, in these days of emotional tension, when the problems of the world are gigantic in extent and chaotic in detail, to be with us in our going out and our coming in, in our rising up and in our lying down, in our moments of joy and in our moments of sorrow, until the day when there shall be no sunset and no dawn. Amen.[3]


[1] Sharon H. Ringe writes about “Wisdom’s Bounty” in Wisdom’s Friends: Communitiy and Christology in the Fourth Gospel (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1999). pp. 60.

[2] Most scholars agree that the Gospel of John and the letters 1, 2, and 3 John came from the same early Christian community. They share many themes and values in common.

[3] Taken from a published collection of King’s prayers: Thou, Dear God: Prayers that Open Hearts and Spirits,” ed. Lewis V. Baldwin, (Boston: Beacon Press, 2012). Found quoted online in John Dear’s blog On the Road to Peace: “The Prayers of Martin Luther King, Jr.,” National Catholic Reporter, Jan. 15, 2013, http://ncronline.org/blogs/road-peace/prayers-martin-luther-king-jr


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