What’s a great wedding without lots of wine?
That seems to be Mother Mary’s question to Son Jesus at the reception following the ceremony in Cana, which was somewhere in Galilee but we still don’t know exactly where.
According to the second chapter in the Gospel of John, it took a somewhat surly Jesus a moment or two to figure out the possibilities that his mom’s query presented.
(I suggest “surly” because Jesus isn’t exactly on good child-parent behavior here. After mom reports that the host family is out of wine, Jesus replies dismissively, “Woman, what concern is that to you and to me?” Maybe “arrogant” or “churlish” or “crabby” would be better choices to describe Jesus’ put-down of his parent.)
And possibly the relatively short delay in Jesus’ creative response to the situation can be accounted for because this opportunity came so early in his ministry. After all, according to the Johannine narrative, he’d only been on the job for three days.
But once he had just a bit of time to think about it, he was ready to make the best of a bad situation.
Jesus must have looked around to see what resources could be utilized, not just to please mom as well as the bridal party, host family and all the guests, but also to convey the message he had come to share.
He spotted, tucked away in a protective place, six stone water jars that were explicitly reserved for the Jewish rites of purification. These jars were, that is, sacred equipment. But Jesus tells the waiters from the reception to fill these holy vessels with plain old water from the tap – not blessed or baptized water, mind you.
We can imagine that the waiters could have been reluctant to do what Jesus had instructed. After all, to follow the orders would in some way be an act of profaning what was sacred. But they had heard Mother Mary tell them quite clearly, “Do whatever he tells you.”
So the waiters did it. Following Jesus’ orders, they filled each of those sacred jars – “each holding 20 or 30 gallons” – to the brim with plain-ol’ profane water.
Then Jesus told the waiters to provide a sampling of liquid from the jars to their catering manager, who, of course, had no idea where the sampling came from.
The headwaiter took a sip and was – how best to say this? – simply stunned by the exquisiteness of the wine he was tasting, by its body and structure and balance, its intensity and bouquet and color.
He rushed to the bridegroom to congratulate him not just on the quality of this wine that had been seemingly held in reserve but even more for breaking the normal practice of only serving the best wine at the beginning of the party and then, after everyone had lost their palate because of various degrees of intoxication, serving a cheaper and more vulgar variety.
“You have kept the good wine until now!” the headwaiter exclaimed in wonderment to the bridegroom.
And, if calculated conservatively, there would be so much of this exquisite wine available that the celebration could continue long into the night. (I say “conservatively” because even if only two of the sacred jars held 30 gallons and the other four held 20 gallons, it would mean that Jesus had supplied 140 gallons of wine for the rest of the party.)
Now I recognize that the typical way of interpreting this story from John’s Gospel is to concentrate on the miracle of Jesus turning water into wine and, as the Gospel text itself says, of this being the first of Jesus’ signs, revealing his glory and causing the newly appointed disciples to believe in him.
But this supposed focus on the miracle doesn’t really take account of the rich meaning of this biblical narrative.
What’s really important in this text is Jesus’ teaching about what is typically mistaken as “sacred” and what is so often, unfortunately and even tragically, dismissed as “profane.”
Yes, this is a “first sign” on Jesus’ part, but of what?
It’s a “first sign” that we get it all wrong when our religion has primarily to do with ritual and purity and a distorted sense of what it means to be “righteous” or “pious.” It’s wrong, Jesus is claiming, to think that the sacred is something – like the collection of those six stone jars – that has to be protected, kept separate, away from what is erroneously understood to be profane – like a party with lots of wine that brings people together to celebrate the union of two people in love.
Yes, this is an occasion at which Jesus is revealed in “his glory.” But what is that glory but his amazing capacity to recognize that the sacred is precisely not what the Pharisees teach and practice – a kind of separateness, aloofness and holier-than-thou-ness – but is exactly the communion of diverse people celebrating the fundamental truth about mutual love being the “new righteousness,” the “new holiness,” the “new piety.” That communion, according to Jesus, all occurs in what had been mistakenly thought to be strictly the domain of the profane.
And, yes, this miraculous event was the cause for the disciples to “believe in Jesus,” but to believe in him because he radically, even miraculously, turned everything around: He made the sacred profane and the profane sacred.
Unlike Jesus, it may take us more than a moment or two to recognize what opportunities avail themselves to us, his followers, for sharing and enacting this miracle of reversal of what is sacred and profane, based on the law of love. But those opportunities are always there in our family lives, our social and professional lives, and even in our public and political lives.
Now it’s up to us, by God’s grace, to be the life of the party.
Larry Greenfield retired on Dec. 31, 2018 as the executive director of the Parliament of the World’s Religions. He served previously as executive minister of the American Baptist Churches of Metro Chicago, a regional judicatory of the American Baptist Churches U.S.A, and the theologian-in-residence for the Community Renewal Society.