An Unconventional Menage a Trois
Response to Sermon
Stuart Manins writes:
Jesus so often took the everyday experience, and not only drew attention to it in a web of detail that enhanced it in a new way, but also used it to make available some perception needed for the new kingdom that he continually talked about. What is needed to rediscover this freshness? Some of the contributing factors are in this sermon: contextual understanding about wedding procedure, as well as water for drinking and washing, some knowledge of the original languages used, and a thorough familiarity with the rest of Scripture to find comparable situations and the explanation of what this particular incident is really all about. Yet a bigger question arises. What reality undergirds John’s Gospel? Indeed, do all the Gospels ultimately signify a different reality called the kingdom? Of the many themes propounded in this short miscellany of sermons and reflections, we are inexorably led to ask, is this what faith means? It is among the most provocative and stimulating questions and we would expect it to be asked in every pulpit.
More On Miracles
What Faith means at a wedding: reflections on John 2:1-11
What does faith mean at a wedding? We can learn a lot about human behaviour by studying weddings, and all the preparation that goes on for them. But these days, as society is redefining a lot of traditional concepts, it seems to me very important for Christians to look specifically at the faith dimension of weddings. And what better place to start than the wedding at Cana, recorded in John’s Gospel.
Now Jewish weddings were certainly grand. They could go on for up to a week. The Bible has many references to weddings, and Jesus himself uses weddings as the setting for a couple of his teaching parables. I have observed at many weddings that the preparations can engender certain feelings of tension. Parents of the bride or parents of the groom, or the bride or the groom, or even more distant relations, can have a fixed point of view on how to do the arrangements in every respect.
Usually people manage to overcome these feelings, but once in a while they can spill over into open dispute, even hostility among the various parties. In one way, to the modern reader, that is what is so very interesting about the wedding at Cana. We read that Jesus actually rebukes his mother at this wedding. I am sure that many people have trouble understanding this, but it is a very human and maybe even necessary response in the narrative. It sharply reminds us that such behaviour is the very antithesis of honouring one’s parents according to the fifth commandment.
Is there an explanation for it? Mary and Jesus are important guests at the wedding, probably through family ties, yet these are not made explicit. Mary certainly seems to have something to do with the preparations. It is not the steward of the wedding, the master of ceremonies, who expresses concern that there is not enough wine. Instead, it’s Mary. She says, in a factual way to her son, “The wine has run out”. Yet obviously more was meant by her than a simple statement of fact. She expected Jesus to do something about it. The question is, what did she expect him to do?
Think about this for a moment. We know that more was expected because of Jesus’ sharp reply to his mother. So it must have been an extremely embarrassing and difficult moment for Mary. Yet for those familiar with John’s Gospel this is not the only time Jesus puts his mother at arm's length. At other times Jesus also wants some distance between them. Nor is it Mary alone who suffers a sharp rebuke. At times the disciples, notably Peter, are similarly put at a distance, treated not coldly but with polite reservation.
We may wonder therefore how strange yet how apt that the first rebuke should occur at a wedding. But Mary seems not to respond to the rebuke at all. She says to the servants do what he tells you. In other words, my faith needs no rebuke.
The person responsible for the financial arrangements of a Jewish wedding was the groom. He would appoint a steward of the feast, whose function was like that of master of ceremonies. It would be a major source of embarrassment, especially in a culture where one would be utterly ashamed to lose face, by having supplies run out at a wedding. There is even evidence of brides’ families suing over similar incidents. Jesus’ mother undoubtedly did not want the groom to face similar shame, hence her reliance on Jesus to put it right was altogether the right response.
But she did not expect a miracle from him. This point is crucial yet neglected. Virtually everyone, including preachers, misunderstands the Gospel at this juncture. She did not expect a miracle from her son for the simple reason her son had never performed miracles before. The Gospel spells it out that what was to follow on from this, here at Cana, was the very first of Jesus’ signs and wonders. So what she expected of him was not what you thought. Her faith in her son was of a quite different kind. She expected that her resourceful son, a rabbi no less, a new rabbi, just beginning his ministry, just starting to assemble a group of disciples around some incredible new ideas, - she expected that he would instruct the servants with words of wisdom about how to handle the situation, perhaps tell some rabbinical story that would pour oil over troubled waters, give a blessing such as only a rabbi might. Even the steward of the wedding party could not have expected more. Yes, the wine had run out, but the best wine had been served. There might be shame but it would not be a great shame. This guest, Rabbi Jesus would see it right.
Until you have the fact clearly established that no one expected a miracle, it is impossible to understand the tone of the rebuke, its coolness, the emphasis that Jesus’ hour is not yet come. When his hour is come then, and only then, would his glory be revealed. Actually this tone of voice, this rebuke is a pattern that occurs three times in this Gospel: here at Cana, later at Capernaum with the healing of an official’s son; and again at the raising of Lazarus. On each occasion Jesus hears someone specifically make a request for help, for miraculous intervention. And on each occasion he refuses to act in the expected way. We would say that he refuses to be manipulated. In response to his keeping his distance, his apparent coolness or even lack of sympathy, something distinctive happens to each petitioner. They actually respond in simplicity of trust, they act, if you like, out of the conviction that no matter what, Jesus will give spiritual sustenance. They no longer want a miracle in the situation but rather they want to show that they can keep faith despite the situation. Then, in each case, Jesus does act, but the sign is not the expected sign. The three cases indicate a definite pattern.
Maybe we need this kind of faith ourselves, not only at weddings but in every circumstance of life. But to return to the celebrations. Verse 6 reads: Now six stone jars were standing there for Jewish purification, each holding twenty or thirty gallons. The detail is interesting and significant. They were stone not earthenware or clay pots. Why? Because stone was impervious therefore did not become unclean, and were thus most suitable for ceremonial washing, purification, cleansing. At a wedding according to Jewish ritual, the guests would need to cleanse their hands and all the cooking utensils would need to be washed according to the rules.
The detail that the jars were stone awakens us to what is about to happen. Heavy stone jars filled with a large amount of water were almost immovable by one man alone. Water weighs a lot. Try carrying just a couple of gallons any distance. The old laws were good, symbolized by the stone jars of water, but what Jesus was to do was to give something better than the old laws. We would say water into wine was the metaphor for a new and better way, a living way. But it was far more than a metaphor, which, after all, is just words: it was a metaphor associated with a real action.
This comes to its head at the 8th verse which is truly and utterly astonishing. It brings the idea of faith at a wedding to its sharpest point. Verses 7 and 8 read thus. Jesus said to them, fill the jars with water. Obviously they were not empty, but neither were they full. Have you an idea of how long that took? There was no tap with running water. It meant walking to the village well. There had to be access to a well. There was. But it takes time to get to the well and draw the water, carry it back and return so that these large stone jars could be filled again. Naturally the celebrations went on. You may be wondering how the guests were getting on with no wine. Well, drinking patterns are well documented from all over the Roman empire in those times. In Palestine they did what everyone did - they diluted wine with water. It was frowned on to imbibe wine at its full strength just to get inebriated. The best wine was the least diluted but as the party progressed so did the rate of dilution.
Returning to this particular wedding then, eventually, maybe an hour after getting the instruction from Jesus, the servants finished the job. They filled them to the brim, six stone jars, holding a lot of water.
“Jesus then said to them, “Now draw some out and take it to the steward of the feast.” So they took it, and he tasted the water now become wine and didn't know where it had come from.” What is the absolutely crucial phrase in this cluster? I suspect that it is not “the water now become wine”, but rather it is to be found at the start of the sentence, “Now draw some out”. Here we reach the denouement, the critical turning point of story.
This phrase “draw out” is used almost always to describe drawing water out of a well, not out of jars specified for ceremonial washing and purification. Let me be explicit. The water that the steward calls the best wine saved till last was drawn freshly from the well not the stone jars. The stone jars had been filled to the brim to symbolize the old laws and customs. The new wine was drawn freshly from the well. The servants had not finished their task when the jars were brim filled. They had to return to the well and draw up the water again and take that to the steward. I am afraid that our English translation has muddied the waters, so to speak, but in the original Greek it is clear. The new wine that the steward receives is the water drawn fresh from the well. It stands, or rather it tastes, in distinct opposition to the stone jars of water. New wine or old customs. This is the first great sign. In fact it is the greatest sign, for in the Greek testament it is called the arche sign, from which we get our word archetype or first and primary quality.
Thus the new wine that Jesus brings is the freshest water from the well of life-giving water that he alone provides. In fact that is precisely how he refers to it - drink this water and you will never thirst again - in the soon coming encounter with the Samaritan woman at Jacob’s Well.
The presence of Jesus is the best wine of all. The life giving water is the freshest, liveliest wine, by which one is refreshed beyond mere thirst. The miracle of the water into wine is the miracle of the real presence of God. When people are celebrating this way it is the sign of God’s glory revealed. That is why the story ends this way: “This, the first of the signs, Jesus did at Cana in Galilee, and manifested his glory and his disciples believed in him.” In other words they saw what the sign pointed to: a new, living way of God.
In conclusion we can ask again what is the faith that Jesus brings to this wedding? It is the inauguration of the banquet of the kingdom of heaven where extraordinary things are going on. A bride and groom are the primary or archetypal signs of faith itself. They embark on a great new adventure of life. They do not know when the wine or the money will run out. They will be forced finally at the end of all things to see their radical dependence on the best wine which comes last of all, not first in a married life. It will come when they are no longer intoxicated with the wedding celebrations but in the midst of even rebuke they will find a greater sign than they ever thought possible. It is the primary sign of the best wine of all, Jesus Christ.
Faith at a wedding, then, is the acknowledgement that it is not about two people falling in love. It is about a living God being felicitously in love with them, a third person if you like, a menage a trois, who is God, the source of life and love. When it is acknowledged there is a marriage of true minds and true hearts. Such a marriage is unlikely to falter or to fail.