Reading John 2.1-11
Preacher Reverend Neil Summers
The story of the wedding at Cana, is jam-packed full of symbolism with many layers of meaning. John’s Gospel presents the changing of water into wine as the first of a series of miracles – or ‘signs’, as the writer refers to them – which are intended to manifest to the reader just who Jesus was. Other signs include the healing of a nobleman’s son in ch. 4, the cure of a sick man in ch. 5, the feeding of the crowd and walking on the water in ch. 6, the restoration of the blind man’s sight in ch. 9 and, perhaps most significant of all, the raising of Lazarus in ch. 11. John’s Gospel is structured in a very particular and ordered way. It begins with the majestic ‘In the beginning was the Word…’ resonating with the creation account in Genesis, but here indicating a new creation as the Word of God takes human form. In the middle, we encounter the signs and a number of discourses between Jesus and his disciples. It ends with the passion, death and resurrection of Jesus. It is the cross, which John terms Jesus’ ‘glorification’, which provides, at the close of the Gospel, the fulfilment to which all these signs have been pointing. And glory is one of John’s key themes: the Son has not only disclosed the glory of God through what he has said and done, but is also ultimately glorified himself on the cross. For John, any believer at any time can share in the life of glory. The signs, including today’s wedding story, testify to that glory.
Just consider some of the symbolism contained in this brief account. First of all, we are told it takes place on the third day, which obviously points forward to the day of Jesus’ resurrection – to new life. Second, the imagery of a wedding is found in various parts of the scriptures and it, too, looks forward, frequently acting as a picture of what is often called the Messianic banquet, or the coming of the Kingdom of God. Third, it is the water, which is there primarily for Jewish purification rites, which becomes the wine of the new kingdom. Certainly, water was available, but it took Jesus to supersede the Jewish law and make that water life-giving. For John, this symbolises the intoxicating transformation which takes place through Jesus. New wine equals new creation through the Word made flesh. And notice that the new wine is better than the wine the guests had been drinking before, and that there is also plenty of it – 120 gallons, John tells us. Rather like the account of the feeding of the five thousand, this is another aspect of the symbolism of this story. Large quantities of wine are a regular feature of the OT prophecies regarding the ‘last days’ when all things will be summed up in Christ. In the new dispensation, joy will be unconfined, and God’s generosity will be there for all to see. The new will not even compare with the old: as the steward at the wedding declares, ‘You have saved the good wine until now.’ Finally, Jesus, in speaking to Mary his mother, tells her, it seems rather brusquely, ‘My hour has not yet come.’ ‘The hour’ is also a recurring theme in John’s Gospel. It also points forward towards Jesus’ death on the cross, and his resurrection, which is the supreme moment – for this Gospel writer – when Jesus’ true glory is seen.
It is, of course, no accident that we read this wedding story during the part of the church calendar called Epiphany, the season which marks the manifestation of Jesus to the wider world beyond the Jewish community. The story is essentially concerned with the transformation of a routine ceremony into a special revelation of the divine: God breaks in and transforms the ordinary. How often do we expect to see the divine in the ordinary, the special in the mundane, for surely that’s what Immanuel, ‘God with us’, is all about. Or are we content to leave the baby behind in the Christmas story, till we dust it down again next December? Do we come to church expecting a real and meaningful experience of the divine? And do we open ourselves to the possibility of encountering the divine presence in the very ordinariness of everyday life?
Archbishop Cosmo Gordon Lang once wrote: ‘At Cana the wine did not simply come; the water became it.’ He also wrote, ‘We are to take the water of life as we find it’ – in other words, the ordinary, the everyday stuff of life – ‘and convert it into wine. It is not too much to say that the main business of the Christian is to go through the world turning water into wine.’ To put it in a nutshell: the authentically Christian life is one which discerns God in the ordinary. For those of us who may consider our lives to be mundane, uninteresting, or of little value or significance in the great scheme of things, the reality of Immanuel compels us to think again.
One final thought. In many ways, this is a rather traditional sermon on this Gospel passage. Whenever it comes up, the tendency is to regard it as an allegory, and to explore the many examples of symbolism within it, which is, in itself, a fascinating pursuit. But it might also be worth reflecting that, instead of looking upon the story as a puzzle to be ‘solved’, we could regard the sheer mystery of this wedding story, and its elusive and enigmatic character, as perhaps its main function. This story is not about our tying up all the loose ends into one neat package of meaning, and feeling that we have somehow ‘cracked it’. In Christmas services, the first chapter of this Gospel is often introduced with the words, ‘St. John unfolds the great mystery of the incarnation’. As the first of the signs, the Cana miracle is one part of that mysterious story that is to be unfolded for us throughout the rest of the Gospel. Miracles are mysterious events in scripture and, although there is often a tendency, in our rationalist climate, to want to find an answer to all our questions, and to explain everything to our own satisfaction, perhaps – just perhaps – sometimes we might be content to live with the mystery….