by Daniel Harrell
Whenever I think back on the scores of weddings I’ve been privileged to participate in, the first memories that usually come to mind are all the bad things that happened. Things like the time the bride fainted to the floor during the vows (and none of us caught her). Or the outdoor wedding where it was 102 degrees and both the bride and groom took their vows with sweat dripping down their noses and through their clothes (and the guests left early to find air conditioning). Or the one where the couple hired a piano player to play jazz at the reception and he independently decided that it would be a better idea to bring an accordion. Or the one where the groomsmen thought it would be funny to kidnap the groom and paint him with the colors of his alma mater, indelible shoe polish, just before the wedding pictures. No matter that all of these couples ended up married and stayed married for more than 72 days. Looking back you still recall the weddings mostly as social disasters. Like you would recall a wedding reception that ran out of wine—now and back in Jesus’ day too. You don’t invite guests bearing gifts to a wedding banquet and then shortchange them on the food and drink.
We’re doing water stories in the Bible this fall, and today’s is a memorable one. Jesus saves a family’s social standing from total disaster by changing ordinary water into choice vintage wine. Hearing the story read, you get the sense that Jesus didn’t really want to do it. He says it’s none of his business. But Jesus’ mother presses him and apparently gets her way. John’s gospel doesn’t record the entire conversation, but with Mary being a good Jewish mother and all, I like to imagine her saying something to Jesus like, “So saving these sweet people from complete embarrassment is none of your business? That’s fine my son, to whom I gave birth in a cattle trough. Don’t worry that your father and I had to endure enormous disgrace and embarrassment to bring you into this world since no one would ever have believed I was pregnant by the Holy Spirit. This is not your problem. You just enjoy yourself.”
Last Sunday’s plunge into Biblical water had us at Jesus’ baptism—the most important water event of them all. Mark’s version brought forward all of the stories we’d explored thus far. At Jesus’ baptism there was the spirit hovering over water as at creation, a dove signaling safety as with Noah’s ark, the presence of a Jeremiah-like prophet in John the Baptist, and parallels between Elisha and Jesus—both of whom did miraculous signs and whose names both mean “God saves.” Jesus was baptized in the Jordan river, reminiscent of Ezekiel’s miracle river flowing out of the Temple (a Temple which Jesus will say is himself). And finally we had Jesus being driven by the Spirit into the desert to confront Satan—a reminder of Israel’s own desert sojourn. The Israelites ran out of water there only to have Moses rescue them by miraculously drawing water from a rock; a rock whom the apostle Paul recognized to be Christ.
Just as the wedding at Cana doesn’t appear in the other gospels, Jesus’ actual baptism doesn’t technically appear in John’s gospel. All we get is the testimony of John the Baptist. He identifies Jesus as “the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world” and says he saw the Spirit descend like a dove and remain on Jesus, and that he heard the voice of God claim Jesus as his Son. But there’s no mention of Jesus ever getting wet—though we can probably assume it. There’s no mention of Jesus being driven into the desert to be tempted by Satan either—though there would be plenty to tempt him later. In this gospel, Jesus goes straight from John the Baptist’s testimony about him one day, to gathering a few disciples due to John’s testimony the next day, to then showing up at this wedding “on the third day.”
John’s gospel being what it is, it’s hard not to see something symbolic in whatever he writes. We know that Jesus rises from the dead on the third day as the “first fruits” of the best yet to come. We know that the new reality begun with Jesus’ resurrection works like a betrothal between heaven and earth, a pledge from God to be with his people forever. And we know that the Bible envisions this betrothal leading to an eventual marriage. Revelation reports a Holy City coming down from God “prepared as a bride adorned for her husband.” And “God himself will be with us; he will wipe every tear from our eyes, and death will be no more; nor crying nor pain.” So sure, for John to say, “on the third day there was a wedding” could be a huge hint.
Or it could just be that on a third day there was a wedding. After all, Jesus doesn’t seem especially thrilled to be here. While it’s clear that he was invited with his new disciples, we don’t why he was invited. Was this a family wedding? Did Jesus’ increasing popularity land him on the guest list? Or did his mother make him come because he hadn’t had a decent meal in days? Discussing this passage at last Wednesday night’s sermon group, we all agreed that Jesus does seem annoyed with his mother. When the wine runs out and Mary prods Jesus to do something, he curtly responds, “Woman—what concern is that to us?” The Message translation has Jesus saying, “Don’t push me.” It’s all pretty abrupt coming from the savior of the world. And all Mary wanted was for Jesus to save the party.
What did she expect him to do? Having been through all that we’ll celebrate at Christmas—the inexplicable conception and birth, all the angels and shepherds and wise men, the heavenly host praising God that Jesus is born as Christ the Lord—maybe Mary was simply eager for Jesus to do his first miracle. Like any proud mother, she wanted everybody to see what a special boy he was. But miracles aren’t that easy to do. Jesus only does seven of them in all of John’s gospel. According to the physics, to change water to wine would require the complete rearrangement of the bond between hydrogen and oxygen atoms, which in water is spectacularly stable. The fierce clinginess of water molecules supplies the glue that holds most of the natural world as we know it together. You can’t rearrange water molecules without emitting an explosion of energy capable of leveling most of Cana. For Jesus to do that meant he’d have to absorb quite an atomic blow.
But this wasn’t why he was hesitant. As creator of the world, he could manage molecular rearrangement. Jesus was hesitant, he says, because his “hour had not yet come.” In John’s gospel, Jesus’ “hour” refers to his crucifixion, when he would absorb a blow that puts nuclear fission to shame. The Lamb of God would take away the sin of the world by taking the sin of the world onto himself. Victory will be achieved through abject defeat. This was not how Saviors were supposed to save. In the desert, Satan mocked Jesus, tempting him to be a real Son of God and show some power. Call out your angelic army and do it right. Here at the wedding, Mary pushes Jesus to use power too, which may explain why Jesus was so abrupt. It’s bad enough when people we treat like gods act like people—you don’t have to be a Penn State grad to know that anger and grief. But when a person who is God doesn’t act like we think God should act? How can you not crucify him? The clock would start ticking once Jesus’ true identity went public. He knew his hour would come fast.
To Mary’s credit, she submits to her son as her Lord, telling the servants “to do whatever he tells you.” Her faith in her son sets his fate in motion. Jesus eyes six stone water jars used for Jewish purification rites. The Judaism of Jesus’ day, set up by the Pharisees, taught that everything having to do with eating and drinking had to be ceremonial washed for the sake of ritual purity. Jesus’ ongoing gripe with the Pharisees was their emphasis on externals. The Pharisees could behave as badly as they pleased as long as their hands were clean. Never mind that Scripture said you needed a pure heart too.
Granted, water does more than just ritually clean. Due to its sticky molecular structure, practically anything dissolves in water. It’s an amazing solvent. The computer giant IBM operates a semiconductor plant in Vermont where water is used to clean computer chips. The only catch is that given the small size of the chips, the water used can’t just come from the tap. While tap water is clean enough to drink, and quite refreshing in Vermont, it’s absolutely filthy from the perspective of a semiconductor. Minerals, ions, bacteria, viruses, and plain old bits of dirt too tiny to bother a person are microscopic boulders. You’d no more wash your computer chips in tap water than you’d ladle water from your toilet to make lemonade. Water is the only thing computer chips can be washed with, but it literally has to be pure water. H2O and nothing else. What would happen if you drank this pure water yourself? No one really knows, but since absolute water is so sticky, it’d likely leach every mineral right out of your body. Sort of like Jesus would leach every impurity out of our souls. “I baptize with water,” John the Baptist had said, “but the one who is coming baptizes with the Holy Spirit.” You need more than tap water to get a clean heart.
Jesus takes the purification jars and has them filled to the brim. Then follows the nuclear reaction that blows everybody away: Jesus miraculously converts the water to wine. And not just any wine—but reserve wine. The chief steward gets a sip and immediately recognized its high quality. “You have saved the best for last!” he exclaimed—which was as much a statement about Jesus as it is about the vintage. And not only was it the best, but there was an abundance of it. Six water jars each holding twenty or so gallons filled to the brim: we’re talking wine enough to keep a wedding banquet joyfully flowing into eternity. The tap water of ceremonial cleansing had become the wine of new creation. Reality replaced ritual. Thy kingdom comes.
Verse 11 provides the punch lines. “Jesus did this… and revealed his glory; and his disciples believed in him.” In John’s gospel, “glory” is God’s purview alone. For Jesus to show glory says something unbelievable about him. And the disciples find faith to believe the unbelievable. They realize that God has shown up in person. The Word has become flesh. This was mostly good news, except when God’s glory showed itself on a cross. When Jesus’ hour finally arrives and the Lamb of God takes away the sin of the world by dying, it took all the faith in the world to see the glory in that. But Mary was there, still full of faith in her son, the only other time she shows up in John’s gospel. And from the cross Jesus addressed her simply as “woman”, so she knew everything would turn out OK.
Then on “the third day,” which John calls the first day with a nod toward new creation, Jesus gloriously rises as the first fruit of what’s to come. He saved the best for last. The risen Jesus appeared to his disciples—whose faith had gotten a bit wobbly—and breathed the Holy Spirit on them, just like God breathed life on Adam in the beginning. It’s another nod toward new creation. Jesus converts their ordinary tap water lives into abundant fine wine. The wedding is on.
Of all the weddings I’ve been privileged to participate in, among the most memorable wasn’t much of a wedding at all. The couple each carried heavy crosses of personal hardship: hers an abusive family that caused her undue psychological stress and disorder; his an irregular heart that required surgery soon, but his insurance was reluctant to cover it and his job wasn’t enough to pay for it. These hardships drew them toward each other love each other, as hardships can do. They grew to love one another and wanted to get married, but presumed that they could never afford a church wedding. They could go to City Hall for a cheap civil service, but they believed in Jesus and deeply wanted their marriage vows to be grounded by their faith in him. Jesus was in the business of getting glory out of suffering. No problem, I said. We can get you married in church today, right now, if you like. I got the authority vested in me. Let’s do it. (They asked if it’d be OK if they went home and showered first. They wanted to change clothes.) But a few hours later they were back and scrubbed and ready. I escorted them into our spacious sanctuary, grabbing a member of our admin staff on the way as a witness. I then opened the marriage book and recited those familiar words, “Dearly beloved: We have come together in the presence of God to witness and bless the joining together of this man and this woman in Holy Matrimony. The bond and covenant of marriage was established by God in creation, and our Lord Jesus Christ adorned this manner of life by his presence and first miracle at a wedding in Cana of Galilee. It signifies to us the mystery of the union between Christ and his Church.”
This mysterious union between Christ and his church is the marriage of God to his people, “a Holy City coming down from heaven “prepared as a bride adorned for her husband.” It is the word made flesh who dwells among us, full of grace and truth, the resurrection of the dead and all things made new. It is “light shining in darkness” and “every tear wiped from our eyes.” It is the glory of the Lord revealed, as of a father’s only son, for all nations to see. I saw plenty of glory in that simple wedding that day. They didn’t need a fancy reception or a truckload of gifts because they had Jesus, and he was enough. “I came that you may have life,” he promised, “and have it abundantly.” One successful heart surgery and two children later, Jesus remains enough, just as he promised. That’s the good thing about abundance. It’s always enough.