Turning Water into Wine

January 22, 2012

(Genesis 14,17-20; John 2,1-11)


After a family wedding some years ago, we sent a video of the ceremony and the reception to relatives who had emigrated to Australia. Some time later a report came back that their Australian in-laws were very surprised at how sober  and well behaved everyone was at the reception. It left us wondering what goes on at some Australian wedding receptions – they are obviously not always the nice respectable affairs you used to see on ‘Neighbours’ and ‘Home and Away’!


I can’t help wondering what the video of the wedding at Cana-in Galilee would have been like. With 120 to 180 extra gallons of wine to consume, even at a Middle Eastern wedding reception which goes on for some days, it must have been some party, and the majority of guests must have been really merry by the end of it all!


This Gospel reading always used to strike me as rather strange. Here we have Jesus performing a miracle, not to heal someone or save them from disaster, but simply for social convenience – to get a friend or a relative out of an embarrassing situation caused by their own incompetence. Not at all Jesus’s usual style.


Yet John placed this miracle at the beginning of his gospel and highlights it as the first sign which Jesus did, which caused his disciples to believe in him, and revealed his glory.


Then, however, I read more about John’s Gospel, and particularly about the Signs Gospel that scholars think underlies it. The seven signs included in John’s Gospel reveal what is already present in Jesus’s presence among us, and anticipate the glory that is to come at the end of time. As the Methodist Biblical scholar, Kenneth Grayston says, they are more like parables than miracles.


We always have to read John’s Gospel at two levels, looking for the hints, the references, the code that informs us what it is really all about.


On the surface, this story tells us about a happy occasion at which Jesus, his mother and his disciples were present. It tells us about his kindness, and about the trust that existed between him and his mother. It tells us about a rather spectacular miracle.


But at a deeper level, the story is about who Jesus really is, and what his presence on earth means for those who meet him; and to understand that, we have to decipher the clues.


A story about a wedding feast should immediately alert us that this is a story about the end times, the Day of Lord, when God will intervene in a decisive way, and reward those who have been faithful. In the Old Testament, Hosea writes of a marriage feast when God would renew the covenant with Israel, remarrying her in spite of her faithlessness. Christians also took up this symbol, particularly the writer of Revelation who, in the passage set for the third reading today,  writes about the marriage feast between the Lamb and his bride, who is clothed with the good deeds of the saints, so represents the church.


Wine is a symbol of rejoicing, healing, unity and the favour of God, especially at the end times. Amos writes that at the end time the mountain streams will run with wine not water. 2 Baruch a Jewish apocryphal book, written about the same time as John’s Gospel, says each grape will produce 120 gallons of wine in the last days. This association would also have been understood by Gentiles, for there was a myth about Dionysus, the Greek god of wine, who would turn the local village stream into wine when he visited.


Our first reading spoke about Melchizedek, a mysterious figure who was believed to be both priest and king, and to be the ancestor of an alternative line of priests from the Aaronic line. You note he brought both bread and wine to Abraham, so here is an association being made with the Eucharist. In the Psalms Melchidedek is associated with King David, who like him, the passage says, will be a priest forever; the NT letter to the Hebrews applies this to Jesus. But a contemporary meditation on the story, by the Jewish philosopher, Philo, says ‘let him (Melchizedek) give wine rather than water, and give souls strong drink, that they may be seized by divine intoxication’.


As John explains, the water was used for the Jewish rites of purification, so is understood to stand for approaching God through obedience to the Law, or, more positively, for repentance. The number of jars, six, one less than the perfect number, seven, implies that this way of approaching God is imperfect. Mary, in John’s Gospel, stands for the perfect female disciple, as the Beloved Disciple stands for the perfect male disciple. She is addressed as ‘Woman’ as she is again at the foot of the cross when she and the Beloved Disciple are committed into each other’s care. When Jesus answers her, he says,’his hour has not yet come’. In John’s Gospel, the ‘hour’ is  the hour of the cross, when reconciliation between God and humanity is accomplished by Christ’s death.


So, the story looks back into the Old Testament, and forward to the cross. Most telling of all is a phrase which is unfortunately missed out in the lectionary portion we heard. The story begins “on the third day” a phrase which any Christian believer immediately associates with the day of resurrection. This is the strongest indication that this story is actually about eschatology, not matrimony. It’s about the glory of Jesus revealed when God raised him from death, and the reconciliation that brought, not just about the glory revealed at a wedding in Cana. The miracle we are meant to wonder at is not the turning of water into wine, but the the turning of sinful human beings into welcome guests at the divine wedding feast.


This morning we meet to share in Holy Communion, which is meant to be a foretaste of that heavenly banquet. What can the story of the wedding reception at Cana tell us about what we should expect from this experience?


The first sign in John’s Gospel tells us we should experience the glory and grace of God, pouring over us and into us, like hundreds of gallons of wine.  It tells us we should anticipate a real celebration, as we do when we go to a wedding. Do you feel like this when you come to communion? If not,  ask yourself, why not?  Could it be that our worship provides more water than wine? That is to say, we are more concerned with the rules and regulations than with joy and grace and love?  And if this is so, what can be done  to change things?


This sign also tells us we should experience the joy of union with God in communion, as the Eucharist is a symbol of the mutual love and self-giving between Christ and the church, in the same way as a marriage symbolises the mutual love and self-giving of the couple. But we are in Christ as a corporate body, not individually, so the communion should also express our unity as a congregation, as a church and as Christians – which is an appropriate thing to ponder on this Sunday in the Week of Prayer for Christian unity.


The Gospel and epistles of John speak a lot about love; but some commentators believe that John was speaking of an exclusive understanding of love, only between those who were within the community, and not of a love which included everyone, including those with whom they disagreed. That exclusive sort of love is very often demonstrated by groups of Christians who believe they alone have the truth, and those who disagree with them should be excluded from fellowship or from the sacraments.


I think however, that this sign, of water into wine, speaks of the superabundant, overflowing love and grace of God, which is available to everyone, regardless of their beliefs of practices. I think we are called to express that in our worship and in our fellowship.


We have come a long way in ecumenical activity during my lifetime, to a stage where most Christians can now express what unites them by sharing in Holy Communion together.  The Week of Prayer is a chance for us to give thanks for that progress, to repent of those things that still divide wedding guest from wedding guest, whether within  churches or between them, and to rededicate ourselves to cooperate more widely with God to bring more people to share in the divine wedding celebration.


There’s a joke that is often told in religious circles, about someone who dies, and goes to Heaven, and is shown round by St Peter. In one part of heaven is an area surrounded by a high wall. The person asks to see inside, but St Peter says “No. We can’t go in, because it would destroy their illusions. They think they’re the only people here”.


Who ‘they’ are depends on who’s telling the joke. Sometimes it’s the Roman Catholics, sometimes the jehovah’s Witnesses, or the Fundamentalist Evangelicals. It’s never the denomination of the person telling the story!

As we laugh at the punchline, perhaps we should remind ourselves of the times when we have mentally placed ourselves in that exclusive enclosure – when we have believed that we, and those who think like us, are the only ones who are going to heaven. We have all done it, to a greater or lesser extent; but that is not the attitude of the God described in this sign, who turns the water of purification into the abundant wine of celebration.


The miracle at the wedding at Cana reminds us again of our need to invite Jesus into our homes and our churches, to be present in our meals and our religious life, and to allow him continually to change our reliance on rules and standards, purification and separation into the enjoyment of the new and better wine of joy and love and fellowship which he provides for us, a sign of our unity with God and each other, a sign of his glory which we are charged with revealing to the world.


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