Water into Wine: a sermon on the meaning of Jesus’ miracle at Cana
A sermon preached by Canon Kenneth Padley, Treasurer.
Sunday 29 January, The Fourth Sunday of Epiphany.
Reading: John 2.1-11
Why did he do that one? Of all the many exciting things that Jesus got up to, the transformation of water into wine during the wedding at Cana is a tricky miracle to get our heads around.
- It is not like one of Jesus’ healings – the problem confronting him was hardly a matter of life and death. Nor was he responding to chronic human need. Neither was Jesus exactly improving the wellbeing of the wedding guests; indeed, the aftermath of his generosity might have had some undesirable side-effects.
- Secondly, the miracle at Cana is not like those occasions when Jesus’ actions welcomed an isolated figure back into the community. The woman with a haemorrhage, and the epileptics for example were shunned by society, such that their healings were moments of reinclusion. This wedding, however, was an exclusive affair; guests had been invited and Jesus just happened to be among them. So there is no message here about the breadth of embrace within God’s Kingdom.
- Nor can we claim that this miracle has a moral agenda, a lesson which we can easily apply. It is not like Jesus’ healing of the ten lepers, for instance, with its reminder to say thank you to those who help us.
Indeed, the more we look at the story of the wedding at Cana, the more the whole water-into-wine business seems problematic.
- From the point of view of the wedding party, either the guests are too greedy and have cleaned out the supplies, or the hosts are too stingy and have not bought in sufficient.
- And, from the point of view of Jesus, the miracle seems rather showy, a magical demonstration of secret powers.
In the light of these combined difficulties, Mrs Padley informs me that the Wedding at Cana heads up her leaderboard of most-pointless miracles.
What consolation or explanation might mitigate Mrs. Padley’s concern? What is the point of this story?! And why does John’s gospel give it such a prominent position, emphasising that it was the first of Jesus’ miracles?
We should start with the context, a wedding. There are many passages in the Old Testament and other Jewish literature which liken the days of God’s Messiah to a wedding feast. Time and again the prophets compared Israel’s faithlessness to fornication and adultery. And then those same prophets went on to promise that in the last days God shall ‘marry’ his people afresh, binding them to himself in a new and eternal covenant.
Stories in the Christian gospels draw on this prophetic tradition about weddings: the wise and foolish virgins, the king who gives a marriage banquet for his son but nobody turns up, the story of a wedding guest who is not wearing the proper clothes, the story of the guests who choose the highest and lowest places at the feast, and so on. And then there is the book Revelation, written by the same community that produced John’s gospel and its wedding at Cana story. The book Revelation uses a wedding as a metaphor for the end times – God’s new and perfect world compared to lively table-fellowship, the whole family united in harmony over food, old injuries healed and forgiven.
Mindful of this Jewish background, we can start to unlock the picture-code of the Cana episode. The gospel account of this sign is a proclamation of spiritual truth about the coming of the messianic age, not a practical conundrum about an empty cellar and related social embarrassment.
The story of the wedding at Cana is saying that God in Jesus is doing something new. John’s use of numbers points towards this.
- At the very beginning we heard that the wedding happened ‘on the third day’. This was the third day after Jesus called his disciples in John chapter 1, but it is also a nudge to make us think of Easter and the resurrection. ‘Wake up’, it is saying, ‘this Jesus is in the transformation business; he is bringing new life’.
- Later in the tale, we were told about stone water jars intended for Jewish rites of purification, and in particular that there were six of them. Hebrew symbolism associates the number seven with God – think of the cycle of the week and the completeness of the creation story. Six comes close but, ultimately, seven is better. So John is telling a story of displacement – not just of water by wine – but of former rituals being replaced with something even better.
- That something better is likened to a wine lake. With apologies to the teetotalers here today, the Hebrew prophets regularly portrayed the end times as an age of unprecedented, unimaginable, fruitfulness, overflowing yields of oil and wine. This is the point where number symbolism breaks down. The total volume of booze across the six jars was between 120 and 180 gallons. That is a vast quantity, especially for a humble village wedding. So the message is about superabundance, God’s generosity overflowing beyond limit. Such liberality of God’s gifts says John, is a characteristic of the age of Jesus.
Of course, the action and the agent are bound up together. In telling us that God in Jesus is inaugurating the last days, the story of the wedding at Cana is also proclaiming Jesus as Messiah. The gospel of John does not use the term ‘miracles’ for Jesus’ amazing deeds. Consistently, it talks about ‘signs’. For John, the significance of the miracles lies in what they say about Jesus and his mission, not in what might (or might not) have happened. Thus, at the end of today’s narrative we heard, verse 11, ‘Jesus did this, the first of his signs, in Cana of Galilee, and revealed his glory; and his disciples believed in him.’ Here we see that the signs reveal Jesus’ glory, and result in belief.
The word used in verse 11 for ‘reveal’ is significant. That word is ‘epiphany’, manifestation, a light-bulb moment. Throughout this Church season of Epiphany, we are rejoicing at the ways in which God told people about Jesus – the wise men, onlookers at his baptism, and now, today, the disciples – helping them (and us) make connections, to see further, to trust deeper, to perceive and to celebrate.
Cana is the first of those signs which declare Jesus’ messianic activity and divine nature. Note in this regard the conversations at the beginning and end of the story. At the start, Jesus tells his mother that ‘my hour has not yet come’. But by the end of the reading, the steward says that ‘the good wine is now.’ So the miracle is a turning point, a moment of initiation and revelation – maybe even for Jesus, certainly for those around. The now moment of the messianic age, hidden for ages long in the heart of God, has arrived and is being broadcast.
That’s nice, Kenneth, but what does this mean for us today? Well, firstly, I would say that the wedding at Cana is very much about the present because John believed that the Church lives in the same messianic age which Jesus inaugurated. John believed that the end times are now. One day, we will sit down at the wedding in heaven, but in Jesus the party has begun in all its fullness.
That said, I would, on this occasion, crave an indulgence from the more hands-on doers among you. The story of the wedding at Cana is consciously not a practical, ethical text. The whole point of miracles-as-signs is to lift us out of over-worldly, literal, readings and to set our eyes on higher and more distant horizons. And maybe, given the tensions of the world around us, that is sometimes the tonic we really need.
 John, Jeffrey, Meaning in the Miracles, 47.