The story of Jesus turning water into wine at the wedding in Cana (John 2:1-12), contains one of the most powerful messages in all of Scripture. But it seems that a lot of times, people get snagged on one of the details and end up missing the joy of the message. There are several ways in which people get hung up on this story and end up missing the point, so I want to start off by getting those out of the way.
The first stumbling block tends to be issues surrounding alcohol. You might find it uncomfortable and difficult to explain, but the story says that Jesus was at a wedding party where the guests were already pretty tipsy. Then, when the wine ran out, instead of saying “Good, now go home and sober up,” Jesus provided about 120-150 gallons more of the best wine around!
Now, alcohol is often a deadly and destructive force in today’s world as anyone who has lived with an alcoholic or has faced that addiction themselves can tell you. But don’t get stuck there. This is not a story about alcohol, and if you get worried about that, you’re going to miss the point.
The second thing that hangs people up in this story is the way that Jesus talks to his mother when the wine runs out. No matter that Jesus is 30 years old, most people feel like Jesus is at least a little bit rude to his mother. She turns to Jesus and says, “They have no wine.” Jesus answers quite abruptly, “Woman, what concern is that to you and to me? My hour has not yet come.” But it depends entirely on the tone of voice used as to whether that is abrupt or caring. Don’t get hung up on it.
John is a different sort of Gospel. John was not written to get the facts out there. It was written with the assumption that people already knew the facts about Jesus’ life. John is not looking to tell his readers what happened in Jesus’ life – he wants to tell his readers what the life of Jesus really means…what the core message is really all about. To enter the Gospel of John is to enter a world of symbols and allegory that have different levels of meaning.
John is highly selective about the material that he includes, but because people don’t realize that John is talking in symbols and philosophy and metaphor, they allow themselves to get caught up in details – like was it really wine or how dare Jesus talk to his mother that way. At best they end up saying that this is a story about empathy – Jesus sees people who are embarrassed because they can’t provide for their guests. He feels their pain and helps out.
Good points can come from all of that, but all of those things stay on the surface. The only way to get at John is to start out with the assumption that the message John wants to convey is below the surface and the details of the story are just a means to that end.
So, let’s look at the story with that in mind. Let’s assume that this is not primarily a story about a wedding, about drinking, or about who scurried around to do what for whom. It’s in John, so it must be something more than that. The first thing to notice is that John does not call it a miracle. In fact, John does not call anything a miracle in his Gospel. Instead, John calls them signs. He records seven “signs” in his Gospel and changing the water into wine is the first. We can assume that all that is intentional. This was a sign for people, something that would inform people about what they might expect from this Nazarene, something that would point them toward a deeper meaning.
The first clue that we should look for a deeper meaning is found in the story’s opening words – “on the third day.” This points us to what has gone before in the Gospel. The Cana story marks the conclusion of a series of events that begin in John’s first chapter. John begins his Gospel with a kind of recapping of the creation story found in the Bible’s first book. His first words are even the same as the first words of Genesis – “In the beginning…”
It’s likely that John’s opening verses are adapted from an early Christian hymn (see John 1:1-5,9-18). They draw on Greek thought, which indicates he was writing it for a Greek audience. There are similarities between John’s hymn and other hymns or hymn excerpts identified in the New Testament. Like these, John’s hymn identifies Jesus with God, the One through whom all things were created, who manifests himself in the flesh to be a light for the world.
As the first verses of Genesis describe God creating light and separating it from darkness, so in John’s first verses Jesus is described as a light shining in the darkness.
Genesis shows us, in the beginning, “the Spirit of God…moving over the face of the waters”. John, in turn, shows us the Spirit hovering above the waters of baptism (see John 1:32-33).
There are more parallels. Notice John’s Genesis-like repetitions of “the next day” On the first day, John the Baptist is introduced, on the second day Jesus is baptized. Days three and four describe Jesus’ calling of disciples. Three days later, on the seventh day, the Wedding at Cana took place. The point to observe is that John’s is describing a seven-day “inaugural week.”, echoing the seven days of creation in Genesis.
John wants us to see the coming of Jesus into the world as a new creation. In this new creation, a new people of God is to be born by faith in Jesus and the power of water and the Spirit in Baptism (see John 1:12; 29-34; 3:5).
There is other symbolism as well. There were six stone water jars. Whenever you see numbers in John’s gospel, they are significant. There was a great symbolism in numbers held by the jews. 6 was the number of imperfection, 7 was perfect. Water represented the Jewish faith according to the Law and the Prophets, wine represented a new revelation of abundance. The jugs that Jesus had filled with water were the water jugs used for ritual purification and washing. They were there so that the wedding guests could comply with Jewish law. Jesus takes that ritual water and turns it into something that wouldn’t satisfy the law. Washing your hands in wine wouldn’t count. Jesus is making a statement about the Law. The Law, like water, is lifegiving, necessary, good, and pure. But Jesus came to transform the Law into something that was not just necessary, but joyful. It wasn’t that the Law was ugly or evil or impure…what they had was good, but it was just the basics. Jesus came to transform the Law through Grace…put God back into it…put love into it…make it more than plain water…make it wine. Give it texture, taste, let it warm you as the glow spreads through your veins, let it free you to love and laugh. Jesus came to take the wholesome duty of the Law and make it giddy with joy and abundance.
Remember, it is only in the Gospel of John that Jesus is recorded as saying, “I have come that they might have life and have it more abundantly.” This statement is central to the gospel and is what the sign at Cana is all about. Water, the basic necessity of life, is changed into wine–the symbol not just of life, but of abundant, joyous, and celebrative life. Wine in Scripture is a symbol of joy and warmth and celebration and abundance. In changing the water into wine and allowing the wedding celebration to continue, John is clueing people in on Jesus’ mission. Jesus has come to transform us, to take us on from where we are, to a new way of being.
And that message that Jesus gave to the Jews at Cana he also gives to us. This is not message about changing from a sinful life. This is the promise for those whose lives are really pretty OK. The transformation at Cana is the promise for those who are pretty much on the right track–those with a basic level of faith in God, who treat their neighbor with respect and mercy, who live a life of basic moderation, gentleness and self-control. This is the message for those whose life is like water–good, nourishing, and life-sustaining.
And the message is, I think, “lighten up’, or ‘be enlightened’ It is not God’s desire that we live our lives with only a sense of duty and resignation – there’s more to life with Christ than obedience. “I came that they might have life, and have it more abundantly.” Not just life, but abundant life…joyous life…life lived in freedom. This doesn’t mean God promises us material wealth. It doesn’t mean we are promised a life free from pain or suffering. It doesn’t mean you’ll never do another task you don’t enjoy. But, it does mean, that when the water of our lives becomes wine through the presence of Christ, that even the worst circumstances that life can offer have a richness and depth that they never had before.
Its about transformation of our attitudes to life and living, so that we live from an enlightened place, a place that is both full of radiant light, and is lighter, not a burden to weigh us down. When we live life trusting that God is with us and in us, and that we are being transformed into the image of God, we begin to see with a different perception, we begin to walk with God.
Water into wine – a great thing to be able to do at a wedding, but a much deeper meaning when it applies to the transformation of our lives.
A friend of mine in America, David Karchere, described what it is like to live the transformed life. Ha called it ‘Being a Sun’
What your world, and the people in it, need most from you is for you to be a sun.
They need your warmth. Your ability to offer your care for their well-being. Your ability to offer blessing. Nothing imposed. Nothing affected. Just the abiding spirit of love, constant in your heart of hearts.
When faced with the coldness of other people, or the coldness of the world, return that coldness with your warmth. And in the fire that fuels your warmth, transform what the world gives to you without reaction. Let the coldness be transformed and transmuted in your inner fire until it is burnt to ash and ascending flame. Then return to your world the fire of your love. Let your world feel the warmth of the sun through you.
Your world needs your light, your wisdom, your intelligence, your vision. You have the ability to light up your world so that the people in it can see. Faced with judgment or condemnation; faced with prejudice and bias; or faced with the dogged determination to imagine the worst thing that could happen and act out of fear of that, bring your light. Not in other’s faces. Not as a bludgeon.
This is the light that illuminates the path ahead. The light that illuminates not only what is, but what could be if we would only let it. This is the light that lets humanity find its way.
That’s what it is like when our water is transformed into wine – transformation of being
. That’s the potential of Christ in us, Christ is us, the hope of glory.