Reflection for North Balwyn Uniting Church
16th of January, 2022
The story of the miracle at Cana must be one of the better-known miracle stories. People who know little else about what Jesus did, know that he once turned water into wine. But it is also a story that for a long time I found troubling. First, I did not like the way Jesus spoke to his mother. ‘Jesus said to her, “Woman, what concern is that to you and to me? My hour has not yet come.”’ That struck me as unnecessarily rude. Second, it is sometimes used to support ‘replacement theology’ or supersessionism, the idea that Christianity has replaced Judaism and that the Church has replaced the people of Israel as the people of God. The argument is that the ‘stone water-jars for the Jewish rites of purification’ are no longer necessary because Jesus has come and filled them with the wine of the messianic banquet. It was only when I read that Jesus had produced somewhere between 450 and 680 litres of wine, a frankly ridiculous amount of wine, that I took another look at this miracle story.
As with all of Jesus’ miracles, we can find ourselves impressed by or puzzled by or dismissive of the unlikeliness of what happened at this wedding in Cana. But the miracle itself is not the point. Incredible as it is for water to become wine, the wine itself is only a sign. The author of the Gospel according to John liked symbolism and metaphor, and this short story is full of them. The miracle takes place at a wedding, where people are celebrating a great feast, prefiguring the messianic banquet that the Scriptures describe so often as a wedding feast. In Jesus’ life and ministry, and especially the meals he ate, this imagery from the prophets came to life. An accusation consistently made against Jesus during his lifetime was that he was a glutton and a drunkard, that he and his disciples did not fast as religious people were meant to, and Jesus answered that accusation by saying, ‘The wedding-guests cannot mourn as long as the bridegroom is with them, can they?’ (Matthew 9:15) At the wedding feast at Cana Jesus is a guest, rather than the bridegroom, but he is still the one who provides the feast with its best wine. It is Jesus who makes the full celebration possible. And so in this feast we see the coming of the messianic kingdom.
I have already mentioned the interpretation that the water in the stone jars symbolised the old religion, while the wine symbolises the new. The rites of purification had enabled people to connect with God. But now that Jesus has come, the way to the Father is through him. Later, when talking to the Samaritan woman at the well, Jesus tells her that the time is coming when the Samaritans will no longer worship God on the mountain and the Jews will no longer worship God in the Temple, instead everyone will worship the Father in spirit and in truth. The rites of purification belonged to the past and have now been replaced by a new order of grace. The water has become wine; the old Temple has been replaced by the temple of Jesus’ body. Something new has come to humanity in Jesus, and the wine of celebration that replaces the water of purification symbolises that newness. The author of the Gospel probably did intend us to make this interpretation but, as I said, it makes me uncomfortable. We are reading this story in the 21st century after millennia of Christian antisemitism that culminated in the Holocaust, the Shoah. We know how dangerous supersessionism can be.
The conversation between Jesus and his mother is a puzzle. She approaches him and tells him that the wine has run out. Why did she do this, and what does she expect Jesus to do about it? Jesus is, after all, only a guest at the wedding, not the host. One commentator has suggested that Jesus and his disciples were uninvited, and so the host hadn’t catered for them; another that the amount of wine depended on the gifts of the guests, and as poor men Jesus and his disciples hadn’t brought gifts. Other commentators argue that the mother of Jesus is not suggesting that Jesus do anything, she is simply informing him. Initially it doesn’t seem to matter whether she expects her son to do anything, because he tells her that he is not going to. His hour has not yet come. Jesus’ hour will only come with his betrayal and death. Later in the Gospel, after his triumphant entry into Jerusalem, Jesus will say, ‘The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.’ (John 12:23-24) But that is far in the future. Now Jesus appears to reject his mother’s request – if it was a request. Jesus’ response to his mother reminds her, and us, that human intervention cannot bring on his hour. No human can dictate Jesus’ actions. The timing of Jesus’ hour is to be determined by his Father, not his mother.
And yet Jesus’ mother does not accept his rebuke as the end of the story. She instead turns to the servants, and tells them: ‘Do whatever he tells you’. The servants do; the miracle happens; and John writes that in this way Jesus revealed his glory and his disciples believed in him. One of the commentators I read this week said that Jesus might have initially been reluctant to do anything because ‘the expectation that Jesus be a cash and goods dispenser is both ridiculous and corrupting’. But maybe his mother’s response to Jesus’ words is a reminder of the importance of trust and persistence. Maybe we should, like her, keep prodding God to do something in situations of need and poverty, because we know that God wants a world of abundance and generosity.
We know that God is a God of abundance and generosity because Jesus provides the feast with a lot of wine. It is almost funny; how much wine is produced. There is nothing sensible or moderate about the amount of wine that the guests are now able to enjoy, and the response of the steward tells us that there is not merely a lot of wine, it is good wine. Both the quantity and the quality of the wine is sensational. This makes sense when we remember that another of the things that this wine symbolises is love; God’s love first, and then the way in which we are called to love each other in imitation of God. The super-abundance of wine reminds us that God’s love is incredibly generous, extravagant, over-the-top. The God that Jesus reveals is a God of lavish liberality, who calls us from emptiness to excess. Celebrating God’s extravagant excess is a prominent theme in the Scriptures, and an important part of this story.
How do we hear this story today, in a world in which so many go hungry and thirsty? When so many people have no access to clean water, let alone to abundant good wine, does it feel as though we are stuck in that moment when Jesus’ response to lack is, ‘Woman, what concern is that to you and to me? My hour has not yet come’? Through January we are collecting a retiring offering for UnitingWorld’s Fresh Water project in PNG because so many people around the world have only access to dirty water for drinking, cooking, and washing. How does today’s story read in juxtaposition to that?
Maybe for us that very juxtaposition is the point. The mother of Jesus brought the need to him, and her actions showed her faith in him. Jesus was right, his hour had not yet come. But his mother’s words and actions led to his own, and to the super-abundance of good wine. Maybe we, too, are to speak honestly to God about the needs of the world and are then to act out our faith in the God who we know responds to those needs with divine compassion and generosity. In a world in which so many people must live without clean water we can make a difference. We can be part of the means by which God provides clean water to those who need it.
Today’s story tells us that the God we worship, the Father of Jesus Christ, is a God of abundance and extravagant generosity and joy. The kingdom of God is a wedding banquet, an extravagant feast to which Jesus invites us. Living in relationship with this God is like enjoying an extravagant abundance of the best wine – God’s goodness, mercy, and love. And we can imitate God’s extravagant and generous love because, like the mother of Jesus, we have faith that God wants to do something in situations need and lack. Our actions can even be the means by which God does do something. That is absolutely something to celebrate! Thanks be to God. Amen.
 Moloney, p. 71.
 Brown, p. 102.
 Hess, p. 260.