This text is an example of how we can miss important revelation from God if we get too caught up in, for lack of a better term, the humanness of the Gospel narratives. Or, more precisely, maybe it’s more that our cultural baggage and experiences that get us stuck when we read these texts.
I must admit, for instance, that as a woman, the discourse around trying to decipher Jesus’ tone when he tells his mother, “Woman, what’s it to you and me?” but then acts on her prompt, gets me stuck. There’s also the tightrope walk of making sense of how Jesus’ first miracle is producing more than enough wine to get a crowd of people drunk! For many Christians who abstain from alcohol for religious and moral reasons, this story can be a sticking point.
Then there’s the abundance of interpretations throughout the history of the church that make symbolic sense of this passage. Though some of these interpretations are perhaps more about making the story palatable, much of this symbolism is well-founded. In fact, it is this story’s placement in the grander narrative that helps get me unstuck and unattached from the baggage I bring to the text.
First, when we look to the narrative order in the Gospel of John, we see this story is, at least in part, about Jesus and his relationship with his disciples. Immediately preceding this passage, Jesus has been gathering and calling them to discipleship. Jesus promises to them that they will see some amazing things (John 1.50-51). These amazing things, according to the prologue in John (verses 1-18), flow from Jesus who is “full of grace and truth” (1.14). Now, notice how the story of the wedding in Cana ends in verse 11: “Jesus did this, the first of his signs, in Cana of Galilee, and revealed his glory; and his disciples believed in him.” As Dale Bruner points out in his commentary, the literal translation is actually that the disciples believed into Jesus—into that grace and truth he was full of and embodied to the world—because of what they saw him do. (This wording regarding “believing into Jesus” is used throughout John’s gospel.) That this miracle may have been more for the disciples than anyone else is underscored by the fact that it is only seen by a few, and understood by even less. You’ve got to wonder… did the bridegroom look confused when the steward sung his wine’s praises—or, lost in the revelry of his wedding party, did the weird comment simply pass to the wayside? It could be that a need was met before it was even felt.
So yes, this sign, like so many in the gospel of John, is about some who witness and come to believe in the God who keeps promises. But there’s also a way that this sign is purposefully paired by John with Jesus’ cleansing of the temple (which immediately follows this narrative in chapter two). Whereas the other gospel writers have this sign occurring at the end of Jesus’ ministry, John places it here at the beginning—also of note, the other gospels don’t have the story about Jesus turning water into wine. Commentators see this intentional pairing as another sort of symbolic prelude in the gospel; we had a cosmic prologue in chapter one, and now we have one for the life and ministry of Christ.
Most of these scholars see the cleansing of the temple as related to Christ’s death on the cross and his promises to destroy and rebuild the temple in three days. So what does the water-to-wine miracle symbolize?
Well, there’s the fact that this first sign of Christ was missed by most—if not all—of the people who benefitted from it. Like last week’s picture of Jesus being just “one of the many” in the crowd waiting and wanting to be baptized, Jesus meekly goes about his purpose without much show and circumstance and need for credit. It’s a rather boring miracle… Jesus tells the servants to put water into jars and then tells them to ladle some out to bring to the steward.
It seems like it’s simply not a big deal—although here, the possibility of getting stuck on that interaction with his mother pops up. If it isn’t a big deal to Jesus, why does he ask Mary what the need has to do with him and her? Interestingly, George Beasley-Murray draws on a Syrian idiom that sounds a lot like what Jesus says to his mom here, and points out that it could mean something like, “You and I understand what’s happening here, you don’t need to tell me.” Beasley-Murray, drawing from historical cultural studies, also points out that the wedding party might have grown in size by Jesus and his disciples being invited, and that Jesus would therefore be responsible for them as guests and the resulting shortfall in party supplies. (Word Biblical Commentary Series)
Though helpful to consider, I’ve digressed a little from the symbolism of this first sign… The very large jars that Jesus uses in the miracle were ones used by attendees to wash and cleanse their hands according to purification practices (in other words, religious rules/practices). In using them, Jesus turns a tool for meeting an obligation under purity law into a gift of blessing and celebration. Consider the scale of wine Jesus produces: at the low end, if each of the jars only has 20 gallons of water-turned-wine in it, that’s the equivalent of about 600 of our standard bottles today. 600! I’ve been to some weddings in my day, but I’ve never been to one with 600 bottles of wine… (If there were 30 gallons in each jar, there would 900 bottles of wine!)
Jesus provides an abundance of provision and blessing where there once was law and obligation; he transforms an old way with a new wineskin. And like clearing of the temple of that which does not belong to the way of the Triune God, this sign also looks at what’s to come. Sharing a setting of a wedding feast, the table the Lord sets for his beloved in heaven symbolizes this same provision, the wine coming to be recognized as his sacrificial blood.
Together, the cleansing of the temple and the provision of wine at the wedding, come to be the symbolic representations of every sign or miracle Jesus will perform while on earth, every promise God makes and then keeps, every human need met with way more than enough—and some needs being met before they are even really recognized. They point backwards and forwards and meet humanity in its happiest moment, at a party and oblivious to how someone is helping us, as well as when we are at our worst and exploiting one another in the name of the Lord. In each, God acts according to his will: with mercy and abundance as well as with justice and righteousness. They are his revelations of glory, full of grace and truth about God and the way God interacts with the world.
How much of that abundant goodness and glory of God continues to go unnoticed? How fortunate are we, that out of his abundant mercy and grace, God forgives our oversights and inability to give him credit as he is due, and invites us to the eternal feast and celebration of his love? How blessed are we to already be receiving more than enough and to be invited and transformed from obligation to celebration? Because of Jesus Christ, what a party!
Dale Bruner makes an interesting meaning of Mother Mary’s comments to the servants in verse 5. The text uses the present tense to describe her speaking the words, “Do whatever he [Jesus] tells you.” For Bruner, the present tense makes it seem like she’s saying it directly to us: no matter what challenge or circumstance we find ourselves in, do whatever it is that Jesus tells us to—it’ll be for the best. Mother knows!
This poem by Malcolm Guite captures through image the point George Beasley-Murray sees being made in this passage: “The glory of God is seen precisely in God’s bestowal of life in his kingdom, and this he gives through the Son.”
You can read it along with a short commentary on the Priest-Poet’s website.
Here’s an epiphany to have and hold,
A truth that you can taste upon the tongue,
No distant shrines and canopies of gold
Or ladders to be clambered rung by rung,
But here and now, amidst your daily living,
Where you can taste and touch and feel and see,
The spring of love, the fount of all forgiving,
Flows when you need it, rich, abundant, free.
Better than waters of some outer weeping,
That leave you still with all your hidden sin,
Here is a vintage richer for the keeping
That works its transformation from within.
‘What price?’ you ask me, as we raise the glass,
‘It cost our Saviour everything he has.’
Audio Sermons Related To John 2
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Sermon Commentary for Sunday, January 16, 2022
John 2:1-11 Commentary