Wedding at Cana Countdown: Seven signs (of miracles) in the gospel of John

January 13, 2013          John 2: 1-11

Our gospel reading this morning is about a party.  Joy is in the air, the wine has been flowing freely.  And then we have this curious, surprising action by Jesus; some truly funny dialogue between him and his Mom; and the day ends with a whole new source of the best wine ever.

It really is an odd story, and methinks it was not by accident that the gospel of John places it at the very beginning of the ministry of Jesus.  John knew a lively story when he saw one, and I’d like to retain that sense of quirky vitality by having a bit of fun with it.   In the spirit of a David Letterman “top ten countdown” I have a “ Wedding at Cana Countdown” to share with you.  I’ll be starting at seven rather than ten, partly to make sure we don’t go too long, but mostly because I couldn’t actually think of anything for 8,9 or 10!

So our countdown begins with the number SEVEN: this is the first of the Seven signs (miracles) in the gospel of John.

In the gospel of John, Jesus’ ministry up to the point when he enters Jerusalem is marked by seven miracles – called “signs” by John.  The signs are:

1. Turning water to wine (2:1-11);

2. Healing the Government Official’s son (4:46-54);

3. Healing the lame man at the pool of Bethesda (5:1-9);

4. Feeding the 5,000 (6:1-14);

5. Walking on water (6:15-21);

6. Restoring sight to the blind man (9:1-4);

7. Raising Lazarus from the dead (11:1-44).

In these miracles, John’s desire is to build evidence for Jesus as one who is not fettered by the usual dividing line between human existence and divine glory.  Jesus is shown as one who adeptly crosses that line, bringing the supernatural into our realm in these little bits.  Why?  Because he can.  Jesus is, for John, God’s own Word made flesh, able to bring God to us and able to bring us to God.  The miracles are little proofs along the way, just to underline Jesus’ complete God-connection for those who witnessed him in the flesh, and those of us hundreds of generations later who rely on John’s account of his life.  Some of the miracles were signs of God’s profound concern for us – healing us, feeding us, restoring us to live – while others, like this one and the “walking on water” incident, didn’t address a situation of dire need, but were more intended as signs of Christ’s divinity that would amaze and perplex the reader into greater faith.

But this story also contains all kinds of between-the-line references to other Bible stories, and I think that’s another reason why John leads off with it.   Christians and non-Christians alike are pretty skeptical about the events of this story as reported in John, but whether we accept it as factual or not, it still contains gallons and gallons of truth in the way that it brings together so many aspects of God’s story with us.  And with that idea in mind, we move on in our countdown to number six;

Six jars of water are transformed.

Folks, this is a LOT of wine we’re talking about.  There are six stone jars, usually used for religious purification rituals, containing roughly 100 litres each.  Even with Jewish weddings typically lasting a full week, 600 litres is a lot of wine, especially considering that they’ve already blasted through who-knows-how-much of the fermented grape before Jesus and the lads show up.

And this is one of those places where John is doing quite a bit between the lines, and giving us a little wink.  In the other gospels (Mark 2, Luke 5, Matthew 9), the idea is put forward that you “don’t put new wine into old wineskins”– that is, in order to receive the fullness of this new thing that Jesus is doing, you need to transform the entire way you live and perceive life, not just receive his word without changing the “old you”.  Here, John is basically saying the same thing, but going one step further:  Jesus is taking something from the old ways – these vessels used for ritual purification – and showing that none of the old barriers is relevant any more in our relationship with God.  We need no in-betweens, no ritual sacrifices, just relationship.  Jesus is here, the new wine is abundant (as per the 600 litres!), so drink deeply and know the love of God within you.   More than likely, John is also making a sidelong allusion to the wine of Christ that we share at communion – a time when that relationship with God in Christ reminds us that we are loved and freed and forgiven.

So now we move to number five: Five disciples ruin the party.

Five disciples, not twelve?  Well, at this point, maybe.  In the first chapter of John’s gospel, Jesus starts gathering disciples: Andrew, and another unnamed disciple are inherited from John the Baptist; Andrew snags his brother, Simon Peter; Philip is called, and he gets his brother, Nathanael.  And then boom! We’re at Cana for a wedding feast.

Whether it’s 5 disciples or 12, we get the impression that they are uninvited guests.  By middle-eastern hospitality, they would never be turned away, but Jesus and his disciples have evidently crashed this party.  So when Mary says in a sort of stage whisper, “they’ve run out of wine” it is indeed a little passive-aggressive note to her son, indicating that he and his entourage have caused this mess so perhaps they should solve it.  After some hilarious back-and-forthing, which will get into in a few moments, Mary completes the passive-aggressive loop by leaving, throwing one last comment over her shoulder instructing the servants to do whatever Jesus tells them to do, and the “out of wine” problem is indeed solved.

Here we are reminded of other Bible stories where unexpected arrivals cause a problem: the parable of the workers in the vineyard, (Matthew 20: 1-16) where the group that show up at the tag end get rewarded the same as those who have been working all day; or the parable of the prodigal son (Luke 15: 11-32), where a party is thrown for the wayward younger son who shows up unexpectedly, a party celebrated in the face of the dutiful older son.  In all of these stories we are reminded of the grace of God, which calls to everyone, everywhere, at any and every stage of life, to get with Christ’s program and start living life in joyous abundance.  Jesus and his disciples were unexpected guests but at God’s party the problem was instantly solved.  In the abundance of God’s love, there really is no such thing as scarcity or unwelcome guests – there is always room for more.  Newcomers at Christ’s table are ALWAYS welcome.

Our countdown continues with number four: there are four gospels, but only one tells this story.

Earlier I listed the seven miracles in the gospel of John.  Most of these miracle stories is included in the other gospels as well, but this one is only in John.   Why might that be?

To be fair, boosting the wine supply at a wedding is not necessarily something important enough to get picked up by all four gospels.   But even more than that, one thing that the gospel of John loves to do, is develop the characters of these stories, so that truths about Jesus are revealed in the course of conversation.  So Nicodemus (reported only in John 3) sets Jesus up to say, “I am the way, the truth and the life.”  The Samaritan Woman at the Well (reported only in John 4) gives a platform for Jesus’ speaking about living water offered to all nations and genders.  The death of Lazarus (reported only in John 11) prompts Jesus to weep, and to show his power to raise us from the dead.  And the Wedding at Cana, reported only in the 2nd chapter of John, gives a platform to for us to see the joy one experiences with Jesus… as we shall see as our countdown continues.

Number three: this was the third day of life with the disciples.

As mentioned earlier, Jesus had just called his disciples – in fact, he may not have even assembled the entire inner circle of 12 yet – and they went straight into this event.  What a great reminder for those of us who have been Christians for as long as we can remember:  Jesus starts his journey with those who love him with a party!  Later on there would be more than enough time for sacrifice and sorrow, the heartbreak of loss and the joy of resurrection, but to start things off there was hootin’ and hollerin’ and eatin’ and drinkin’.

In religious life, we can get very serious about Christ’s call for justice in the world, and miss his call for ALL people to experience the full measure of joy that he has to offer.  Our ceremonies can be very solemn, but Jesus himself was not fundamentally about sadness – he was about the end of human bondage, the end of attachments to worldly things, the end of tears.   He got his followers conditioned to what would lie ahead by taking them to a wedding feast, he sealed the deal by showing his God-connection through this very jazzy miracle, and that joy is still at the very heart of his call to us.

Number Two:  Jesus and his Mother, two for the ages.

The dialogue between Jesus and Mary is both funny and unusual.  Mary says out loud, but supposedly not directly to Jesus, that there’s no wine left.  Jesus could have just let this dissolve into the ether but he picks it up and says she can’t tell him what to do, it’s not the right time.  Mary leaves,  Jesus acts.

When I was in my mid-twenties, I certainly recall having this kind of exchange with my Mother!  Shannon and I were married at 23 and went off to seminary at 24, so we had several years there of coming back from seminary at Christmas and at the end of spring term, and bunking in with the parents/in-laws.  It was really hard to re-define the relationship of being at home, but not being a ten-year-old child anymore.  I get a sense of that awkwardness in the dialogue between Jesus and Mary.

But there’s more than that going on here.  In the gospel of John, not once does Jesus address Mary as “mother” – in John’s retelling of the story, Jesus calls her “woman.”  That strikes our ears as pretty abrupt, but apparently it was a common and not impolite way of a man speaking to a woman in those days.  But while it was common for a man to address a woman this way, it was unheard of for a son to address his mother this way.   So what is John trying to tell us here?

The gospels are clear in telling us that our connection to God through Christ, is stronger than any other bond.   Think of the places where Jesus says that he has come not to bring peace, but a sword (Matthew 10:34-36; Luke 12: 51-53) claiming that his mission will set sons against fathers and daughters against mothers, or where, when challenged by the locals, he disowns his family connection and embraces his disciples, saying” Look! Here are my mother and my brothers!  Whoever does what God wants him or her to do is my brother, my sister, my mother.” (Mark 4, Luke 8, Matthew 12).   By having Jesus address Mary as “woman” rather than “mother,” John is just as pointedly saying that the mission of Christ is far beyond and earthly connections or family responsibilities he may have.   While I might want to soften that a bit, it is important for us to note that even with the great love we have for one another in our families and primary relationships, the container that holds all of those loving relationships is the fact that we all “belong” to God.  That comes first, and all other love flows from there.

And now we have arrived at the end of our countdown, the number one.  There is, according to John, one point to the story: “he revealed his glory, and his disciples believed in him.”

Within the Christian understandings I grew up with, Christianity was mostly about doing good, and helping others.  Jesus was mostly about telling parables, and encouraging people to be courageous in their commitment to helping those in need.  I think that was a pretty common message in mainline North American churches of the 1960s and 1970s, all of whom are struggling these days.

Meanwhile, in other parts of the world, particularly Africa and Asia,  and within other Christian approaches here in Canada, the message has always been much more about the glory of the Lord.  In helping others, Christ’s glory is revealed.  In prayer being answered, Christ’s glory is revealed.  In accomplishing something great in one’s life, Christ’s glory is revealed.   That message is just starting to find its way into mainline Church life here in Canada, and thank goodness that it is.

For all of the other interesting bits and pieces in our top-7 countdown, the point that stands tall at the end is that in the story of this wedding feast, Christ’s glory is revealed.  In this event, and whenever Christ’s story intersects with our story, we see God reaching into our lives and that is a glorious thing.   When Jesus showed a glimpse of his glory at Cana, his newly-minted disciples were confirmed in their faith, and when we sense the presence of God stretching us beyond our usual limits, our faith and trust in God gets a boost as well.

In the change of ordinary water into choice wine, in the symbolism of bread and wine we will share together this morning, may the glory of our Lord truly enter and inspire you this day and forevermore. Amen.

© Rev. Greg Wooley, Ralph Connor Memorial United Church

Rev. Greg Wolley is the minister at Ralph Connor Memorial United Church, Canmore. He was participating this week in a pulpit exchange with Rev. Doug Powell the minister at the Banff United Church, Rundle Memorial United. Learn more about our current news, our Thrift Shop, and how to get married in Banff.