Water, Wine, and Partisan Politics
The first miracle in John’s gospel has always been a bit mysterious to me. Alcohol in and of itself has political influence, economonic influence, psychological and sometimes even spiritual influence in our lives. When alcohol is mentioned, particularly in many societies today, it is difficult to parse through the lens of our current context and return to a time where it frankly was not such a big deal.
For example, deaths due to intoxication while driving did not occur in Jesus day. There were no motorized vehicles, and most people just walked from place to place. The alcohol made was not as strong nor did it come in as many varieties as we have today. While it certainly still had some addictive properties to it, it was simply not as available to the common person as it is today. It was essentially a luxury item.
That is important to understand in this passage. Jesus is not setting up a brewery or distillery here. He is providing a luxury item for a wedding celebration that, while it was a common experience, it was not an everyday experience. It was probably not even a monthly experience. There is an incredible articulation of balance here as John unashamedly describes this story of Jesus using miraculous power to transform water into wine.
On the third day there was a wedding at Cana in Galilee, and the mother of Jesus was there. Jesus also was invited to the wedding with his disciples. When the wine ran out, the mother of Jesus said to him, “They have no wine.” And Jesus said to her, “Woman, what does this have to do with me? My hour has not yet come.” His mother said to the servants, “Do whatever he tells you.” (The Holy Bible: English Standard Version. (2001). (Jn 2:1–5). Wheaton: Standard Bible Society.)
It begins with Jesus (and his disciples) at this wedding celebrating with his mother. I fully expect they were drinking – not because John says so anywhere, but, as stated above, alcohol simply was not the social issue then that it is today. More importantly, hospitality was a major issue. To refuse the hospitality of the host, regardless of personal issues was a major social insult in this society that had no concept of diets, allergies, or personal preferences regarding food and drink. In the middle east, you were simply grateful to be offered anything, and in a Jewish household, nothing would have been suspect. Furthermore, Jesus is accused by the Pharisees as being one who hangs out with drunks throughout His ministry, so there is no reason to claim this as the one time Jesus celebrated with alcohol.
For John came neither eating nor drinking, and they say, ‘He has a demon.’ The Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, ‘Look at him! A glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!’ Yet wisdom is justified by her deeds.” (The Holy Bible: English Standard Version. (2001). (Mt 11:18–19). Wheaton: Standard Bible Society.)
Even so, Jesus does not initiate this miracle nor draw undue attention to Himself by it. It almost makes me wonder if Jesus had to pick seven miracles to record, if this one would have even been considered, let alone included as the first. His own statement comes as the question to which all the miracles stand as a testimony, “What does this have to do with me?”. That is the question we all must find an answer to if we are to understand this miracle. He knew His time of drawing the attention of the whole middle eastern world had not yet arrived, so He kept this particular miracle as quiet as possible.
Now there were six stone water jars there for the Jewish rites of purification, each holding twenty or thirty gallons. Jesus said to the servants, “Fill the jars with water.” And they filled them up to the brim. And he said to them, “Now draw some out and take it to the master of the feast.” So they took it. When the master of the feast tasted the water now become wine, and did not know where it came from (though the servants who had drawn the water knew), the master of the feast called the bridegroom and said to him, “Everyone serves the good wine first, and when people have drunk freely, then the poor wine. But you have kept the good wine until now.” (The Holy Bible: English Standard Version. (2001). (Jn 2:6–10). Wheaton: Standard Bible Society.)
Six stone jars were set aside for the ritual purification by washing. This ritual washing is very closely tied to the ritual baths practiced by the Essenes and the baptisms done in the Jordan River, so these jars tell us two things about this household. First, this is a Jewish household that is trying to maintain a level of spiritual purity (perhaps inspired by the nearness of the Passover celebration). On the other hand though, ritual washing was supposed to be done by “living” or running water, not to be stored in jars. While this water was probably not especially dirty water, it was not drinking water, nor was it even truly appropriate for the use of ritual washing. (Keener, C. S. (2012). The Gospel of John: A Commentary & 2 (Vol. 1, p. 510). Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic.)
The transformation of this substandard water, in substandard vessels, and its transformation into wine – a luxury item of celebration makes a significant spiritual statement. The concern and practice for ritual purity is at once exceeded and redirected to celebration. It is like a sneak preview of the ministry of Christ that is to come. Yes, baptism is a wonderful thing, but it is just the beginning. For these Jews, who were so concerned with being ritually cleansed, particularly for the holy celebrations, Jesus invites them to take in and drink the very water that was meant to cleanse the inside. As far as I am aware, it is an unspoken rule that you do not drink the baptism water. You certainly do not serve it at a party. Yet that was precisely what Jesus was asking this servant to do.
When it was dipped out though, it was not water, pure or otherwise, it was wine… and not just any wine. The master of the feast proclaimed it as the good wine, or the wine that was to be served first while the guests still cared about taste. John takes the ritual of purification and turns it into a joyful celebration.
The idea of political purification today is ripe with racial, ethnic, and cultural sentiments that all to often lead to hatred, violence, and suffering on a mass scale. This miracle did not mark a line drawn in the sand between those who were friends and enemies of God. Quite the opposite. It marked a union of two becoming one, and on that day, in that celebration, the very ritual tools made to separate became intruments to celebrate a union. Put another way, Jesus used the concept of baptism (setting apart) to celebrate a marriage (coming together) in one move.
What are the instruments of our political separation? We have colors and mascots that represent political parties, whose existence may be the greatest instruments of separation we have. In many cases, when asked about my political beliefs, I am not asked about particular issues. I am simply asked which party I support. How can Christ take these instruments of separation and transform them into a celebration of union?