On the third day there was a wedding in Cana of Galilee, and the mother of Jesus was there. 2Jesus and his disciples had also been invited to the wedding. 3When the wine gave out, the mother of Jesus said to him, “They have no wine.” 4And Jesus said to her, “Woman, what concern is that to you and to me? My hour has not yet come.” 5His mother said to the servants, “Do whatever he tells you.” 6Now standing there were six stone water jars for the Jewish rites of purification, each holding twenty or thirty gallons. 7Jesus said to them, “Fill the jars with water.” And they filled them up to the brim. 8He said to them, “Now draw some out, and take it to the chief steward.” So they took it. 9When the steward tasted the water that had become wine, and did not know where it came from (though the servants who had drawn the water knew), the steward called the bridegroom 10and said to him, “Everyone serves the good wine first, and then the inferior wine after the guests have become drunk. But you have kept the good wine until now.” 11Jesus did this, the first of his signs, in Cana of Galilee, and revealed his glory; and his disciples believed in him.
One thing you should know about the gospel of John is that it’s a bit like an onion: It is dense; it is intense; and the gospel flavors all of Christian worship – hymns, liturgy – the imagery and language of John is everywhere. But, more to the point, like an onion, John peels off in layers …
If you’re holding an onion, you can examine one layer at a time, or you can cut it in half and see the layers in cross section. It might help to keep that imagery in mind as we make our way through John because at any point in the story or in a conversation with Jesus, what started out on the surface, like a layer you can read and peel off, suddenly becomes a cross-section and you realize that you’re way down deep in this onion. You’re on a different ring altogether than where you started. Jesus is forever talking past people. Someone introduces a topic of conversation and Jesus responds, but after two or three exchanges they don’t know what the topic is anymore …. and we barely do. John gives his readers insider information, but it can still be confusing.
We are handed an onion today. “On the third day there was a wedding…” Within the narrative, it is the third day after Jesus invited a small flock of disciples to follow him from Jerusalem to Galilee. But we who know the story can’t hear, “on the third day” without hearing echoes of that other third day when, just at daybreak, in another way and toward another end, Jesus came and changed despair into rejoicing. So the very first sentence of the very first story that is told to reveal God’s glory in and through Jesus, brings us to the very thing the whole gospel points us toward – which is the ending – his crucifixion and resurrection – which is Jesus’ hour – and the full revelation of the glory and power of God.
But back to the story. It’s a nice setting: Jesus, his mother, and the disciples have somehow all gotten invited to a wedding in a little town in Galilee. In the ancient world wedding celebrations could last for several days – up to a week. I don’t know what they did all that time. I’ve always heard that traditional Polish weddings last for three days, and I do think I know what they do: Eat, drink, and polka. Not necessarily in that order. It’s a party! I’m not sure I can picture anyone at our family weddings still standing on the third day. But, back to the Bible before I get myself in trouble!
As we enter this scene in Cana, we hear distressing news: the wine is gone. Jesus’ mother announces that fact the way mothers do. “The sink’s full of dirty dishes.” “The laundry needs to be folded.” “The speed limit is 55.” “The wine is gone.” It’s not a request, exactly, but it is said in such a way that implies action is expected on your part. It’s a statement of fact not really intended to share information so much as it is to share labor – or to initiate the guilt of inactivity.
“They have no wine,” she says…and probably gives him that look, because Jesus responds, “Woman, what does that have to do with you or me?”
Now, I can’t tell you how much paper has been used interpreting this one sentence. I’ll cut to the chase and say it is not a statement of hostility or disrespect toward his mom. But it is interesting. Jesus’ mother is only mentioned twice in the gospel of John. You will remember that there is no birth story in John – we meet Jesus for the first time when John the Baptist points him out to the Pharisees and scribes on the banks of the Jordan River during the baptism stuff. And this is the first mention of his mother, who is never even named in the gospel of John. The only other time we hear of her is at the foot of the cross in chapter 19. “Standing near the cross of Jesus were his mother, and his mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene. 26When Jesus saw his mother and the disciple whom he loved standing beside her, he said to his mother, “Woman, here is your son.” 27Then he said to the disciple, “Here is your mother.” And from that hour the disciple took her into his own home.28After this, knowing that all was now finished, Jesus said, “I am thirsty.”
The only two times Jesus’ mother is identified he calls her “Woman.” It may be odd, but it’s not uncaring. And more interesting is the fact that she is at the beginning and the end. It is beautifully written that she brackets his life, surrounds his earthly ministry. The Madonna and Pieta. She initiates his ministry now by telling him there is no wine and she is his last thought before he drinks the sour wine offered to him on a sponge on the cross. Perhaps this treatment of Mary is a reminder that whenever Jesus reveals his divinity, he is simultaneously revealing something about his humanity. We are intended to remember that he is a human son of God. Both.
So how many layers of this onion have we cut through? And we haven’t even begun the story!
The Woman says, “They have no wine.” Jesus says, “My hour has not yet come.” The Woman says to the servants, “Do whatever he tells you.”
She doesn’t know what he will do, she doesn’t know what hour he’s talking about, but she knows that he will do something. She has faith ahead of the fact. The disciples have faith once they see what happens. This knowing /seeing dynamic shows up fairly often in the gospel – notably, in the upper room at the end of the gospel after Jesus’ hour has come. He appears to the disciples again for the sake of Thomas and says, “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet believe.” Blessed is his mother.
Now, standing there were six stone water jars for the Jewish rites of purification, each holding twenty or thirty gallons. 7Jesus said to the servants, “Fill the jars with water.” And they filled them up to the brim. 8He said to them, “Now draw some out, and take it to the chief steward.”
Six stone jars. How long would it have taken to draw 150 gallons of water from a well, carrying it bucket by bucket to the jars, pouring it in, returning and repeating this until the jars are spilling over? Just think of it! I’m struck by the compliance of these servants, based on the word of a woman, one of the guests, not even someone from the household with authority, but a woman without a name, telling them to do whatever Jesus tells them to do, and they did it even when it turned out to be this laborious job! How many trips did they make? But they filled the jars to the brim. In a courtyard of an un-noteable family, in a nothing-much little town somewhere in Galilee, the glory of God, the over-flowing, out-pouring, unfathomable abundance of the finest wine appeared in stone jars – – unknown to everyone at the party except Jesus, his mother, his disciples … and the servants.
When, in Mary’s magnificent Magnificat, she says that the poor are raised and the mighty made low – maybe this is what she’s talking about— this kind of sneaky thing— where it doesn’t happen by violence, by overthrowing the powerful with greater power, by out-blustering the bullies. But more like a mustard seed. The wealthy, the mighty at the wedding don’t know they are made low. The “first” don’t realize they’re suddenly left out and “last” and clueless. In fact, the likely confused wine steward compliments the bridegroom on his unconventional distribution of wine in saving the best for last instead of using the general state of inebriation as occasion to bring out the box of Franzia. The steward doesn’t know what he doesn’t know. The bridegroom doesn’t know why he’s being complimented. The invited guests don’t see. Based on Rozumalski weddings, the guests wouldn’t even have noticed!
But the servants know. The slaves see. The lowest are suddenly ushered into the kingdom of God, suddenly they are raised off their feet in wonder —made to be insiders to the power of God in great stone jars of wine.
If we are to find ourselves in this story, I think we are the stone jars. I’d like to think we are the servants: those who take the word we are given, and do the task placed upon us, no matter how hard, how time consuming, how vexing; those who help reveal the miracle of God’s word as a reality in the world.
But… I think really, we are more often the jars. Big, old stone jars standing along the wall in the shade, self-contained – that is to say – empty. Until we are filled, and the wonder happens within.
That’s not a terrible thing. The stone jars filled with simple water become the medium of a miracle. Water, wine, the wedding feast, brimming vessels poured out. We are the ones from whom others may dip to find refreshment and joy and new life.
In this story, the wine’s the thing that reveals God’s glory, that reveals the power of God’s transformative, creative work through Jesus. The jars are an inanimate, passive part of the scenery until they are filled. But stone jars filled to overflowing with good wine ushers in the wedding feast at which Christ is the true bridegroom. Being the vessels holding this wine is not an insignificant role to play: a whole lot of water becomes a whole lot of wine.
The amount of wine that Jesus produces may seem like a fabled exaggeration, but this exaggerated amount is precisely why John introduces Jesus with this story. God’s presence now fills the world up to the brim, spilling over, running down. The extravagance of water to wine symbolizes the “fullness we have all received, grace upon grace” that was promised in the prologue. Jesus told the disciples to follow him and they would see greater things than his mysterious ability to identify Nathanael from under a fig tree. Greater things have just come into view.
Another part of this story that is significant and often overlooked is that it an occasion of joy. In the gospel of John, Jesus comes of age in an everyday, regular kind of special occasion. It’s a wedding. It’s not a miraculous healing of some awful disease, or the exorcism of a terrible demon, or a sermon preached from the scroll of Isaiah… Jesus is the conduit of God’s power at a happy, slightly raucous, very human event. A party.
The Christian community has not historically been good at joy. It was pointed out by one commentator that the Sad Danes actually believed that joy was incompatible with the life of Christ. That is sad. But this first act, the first signpost of the glory of God is placed at a joyful, robust, slightly out of control wedding. On the surface layer of this onion, it is a story about a regular occasion of life. “Come and see,” Jesus had told them – this is what they saw. A wedding party and, almost in secret, water turned into wine to help the celebration continue. In the story the wine serves no further purpose, but in the process we see Jesus’ glory, the weighty splendor of God, and the one sent by God to bring redemption to the world. This is the inaugural story pointing us to how God is in the world, how God works: sneakily, invisibly, powerfully, and where we don’t even know to look, so that, perhaps, we will look everywhere.
“That my joy may be in you,” Jesus says later in the story, “so that your joy may be complete.”