WATER TO WINE
“I can’t believe that!” said Alice.
“Can’t you?” the Queen said in a pitying tone. “Try again: draw a long breath, and shut your eyes.”
Alice laughed. “There’s not use trying,” she said: “one can’t believe impossible things.”
“I daresay you haven’t had much practice,” said the Queen. “When I was your age, I always did it for half-an-hour a day. Why, sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.”
As one with background and training in science, I have to confess that if I were looking for impossible things to believe from the gospels before breakfast, (or at least struggle to believe in a literal sense), the miracle of turning water into wine at the Wedding feast in Cana would be high in the list. Unlike the healing miracles, where medical science does at least allow that the healing process can sometimes involve the release of helpful chemicals into the bloodstream triggered by various brain functions, turning water into wine involves using a simple word for the creation of transmuted atoms aplenty. Even water into ethanol (H2O into CH3CH2OH) would be hard enough without all those complex molecules in exact proportions required for a high class red wine.
Strangely the problem with claiming Jesus was literally in total control of nature in this way, is that this might then undercut many of his other reported teachings and actions. Someone so much in control would almost certainly be only playing at being a human with the strong suspicion that for such a being, temptations are impossible and suffering and even dying is then only an act.
Because we are separated by some centuries from the events that formed the basis of the gospels and because we know that objective recording of events was not always uppermost in the minds of those who wrote the New Testament, perhaps we should not be surprised that amongst the range of commentators on today’s passage in John about turning water into wine, that not everyone accepts this miracle is literally true. Because it is also important that everyone is at least honest about what they actually think, as opposed to the argument of the sort that I am right, therefore you are wrong which is hardly likely to convince anyone, rather than rushing to judgement, let us consider for the moment what some commentators are saying.
Certainly we should notice the problems with the story. Look for example at the way Jesus talks to his mother….. is that parental respect? And for those who understand the dangers of the unwise use of alcohol would we really approve of someone suddenly conjuring up another 500 litres of wine when the drinking presumably had been going on for at least two days previously.
Yet noticing problems with a literal story is hardly the best way to read John. A number of scholars have for example noted the way that John seems to have provided not so much an outline as a commentary of Jesus life. He almost seems to assume his readers will already be familiar with the main story. At the same time there is a growing recognition that John is in effect providing a commentary on the other three gospels. It is therefore probably not so much the facts that John now wants to bring to our attention. He seems far more interested in alerting us to meaning.
Bill Loader for example suggests we should remember that John collects “wow” miracles together to make the point that even if people have witnessed such miracles they still will not truly comprehend Jesus unless they first reorganise their basic attitudes (which John refers to being born from above). A little further on past this story of Cana, at the end of the second chapter of John’s gospel, Nicodemus almost gets to understand what Jesus is about through his miracles which he recognises as coming from God. “Rabbi”, we find Nicodemus saying: “We can see you are from God because no one could do these miracles unless he was from God”. But even although Nicodemus attributes these great deeds to a man of God, John has Jesus telling Nicodemus that he needs to be born from above before true understanding will be his.
If we rush to focus on the factual nature of the miracle we are also in danger of missing the typical John type themes and symbolism.
As any expert in Jewish numerology would tell you, six stone jars represent initial impurity. Seven is the number the Jews associated with perfection, and six with incompleteness or imperfection. The jars have to be made of stone because stone is seen as unable to be affected by impurity and the water added is the purifying agent typically offered to clean those who have arrived as travellers or those about to eat. The oblique reference to the third day and the casual passing reference to the “hour” of glory yet to come in the story appear to be one of John’s frequent reminders of the impending resurrection event. Further, the wine John uses as a theme seems likely to pre-empt the Eucharist where the wine will be seen to have value surpassing expected earthly values in its different context. The all important wedding imagery is a theme John returns to when he represents Jesus as the bride groom, with the church by implication representing the bride. You may remember that elsewhere in this gospel, John the Baptist makes passing reference to himself as a friend to the bridegroom.
Jesus brings life – and here in the story he brings new dimension to wine. The custom of offering the best wine first was a way of ensuring the first served, the important guests, were the best catered for, and leaving the cheap stuff for the uncultured drunks at the end would have been expected – so saving the best till last challenges the expected order.
The liberal catholic priest Dominic Crossan mounts a persuasive case that Jesus’ fressing [eating] was perhaps the most radical element in his life – and further suggests that his table manners pointed the way to his spiritually inspired morals. Jesus was of course living and acting within a Mediterranean Jewish peasant culture, which is (as it may well remain today) a culture of clan, belonging and recognition of cohort, in which who eats with whom defines who stands where and why. The barriers between people were reinforced by the formal customs – and for good measure the conventions were given authority by the scribes and the Pharisees. This is why, as Jesus repeatedly violates the rules on eating for what the social biologists would call ‘commensality,’ he introduces changes which would have shocked his contemporaries. He dines with people of different social rank, which would have particularly shocked most Romans, and with people of different tribal allegiance, which would have shocked most Jews.”
The God Jesus presents, then, becomes accessible to saints and sinners alike. The prostitutes and tax collectors and women represented those marginalised by convention.
When we look back on this gospel story, we have the choice of being the disinterested spectator, or alternately, being continually seeking our own inspiration as the pilgrim. Because weddings are now very different in our culture, applying the principles of this story to our own situation is no simple matter. Most Western nations are set up with different social structures to those of first Century Palestine. The barriers of our own society are likely to be localised yet their identification is important. If we accept the general principle that Jesus is using hospitality to show valuing of individuals despite society’s values, perhaps we should start by reflecting on our own cross section of acquaintances. The simplest test is to ask ourselves who we encourage to share our table. In a real world it is unlikely that we will behave totally without being influenced by local barriers – but if for example we live in a multicultural society but strongly favour those of the same religious, racial, political and socioeconomic persuasions as ourselves when offering hospitality we are not necessarily showing we follow the Christ of the New Testament.
I find myself increasingly drawn to John Dominic Crossan’s major hypothesis that much of the gospel writing was designed as parable about Jesus, as well as the more obvious parables attributed to Jesus. For those who share this interpretation, we might remind ourselves that when Jesus told his parables he often left some of the explanation to the interpretation of his hearers. Although it would be nice to have someone do our thinking for us, it seems to me, that such is the variety of individual situations, ultimately this is a challenge we should not pass off to others.
Gospel is intended as good news for all – and today’s story is part of John’s gospel. What part of today’s good news can we see as being good, practical and relevant as we attempt to live what we learn? As is sometimes explained at the beginning of a question in a formal examination, candidates do not necessarily have to attempt all parts of the question in order to achieve a pass.