'On the third day there was a wedding in Cana of Galilee, and the mother of Jesus was there. Jesus and his disciples had also been invited to the wedding. When the wine gave out, the mother of Jesus said to him, "They have no wine." And Jesus said to her, "Woman, what concern is that to you and to me? My hour has not yet come." His mother said to the servants, "Do whatever he tells you." Now standing there were six stone water jars for the Jewish rites of purification, each holding twenty or thirty gallons. Jesus said to them, "Fill the jars with water." And they filled them up to the brim. He said to them, "Now draw some out, and take it to the chief steward." So they took it. When the steward tasted the water that had become wine, and did not know where it came from (though the servants who had drawn the water knew), the steward called the bridegroom and said to him, "Everyone serves the good wine first, and then the inferior wine after the guests have become drunk. But you have kept the good wine until now." Jesus did this, the first of his signs, in Cana of Galilee, and revealed his glory; and his disciples believed in him.'
Each month, on the 3rd Thursday, I visit with two inmates at a local prison. At the end of my time last week I was walking out of the building with the chaplain, who was suddenly stopped by an inmate who had a very serious question. The inmate wondered: “If I pray hard enough, God can do anything through me, right?” The chaplain nodded. The inmate continued: “So if I ask God to let me turn water into wine like Jesus did, and I pray hard enough for that, God will do it, right?” As you can imagine, that started up a whole conversation around prayer and the motivations behind prayer, but suffice to say the inmate’s thoughts were that if he could perform such a magic trick people would believe him, and it would bring them to the Lord.
Fresco of the Wedding at Cana in the ceiling of Annunciation Cathedral in Jerusalem.
That is what the turning of water into wine sort of feels like: a magic trick, and one that we find nowhere else in Scripture. Whereas the other Gospels show Jesus’ first public action to be his baptism in the Jordan River, John instead has Jesus' inaugural action be to change six jars of water into wine, so that the couple and their parents will not be shamed for allowing the wine to go out, thus being seen as inhospitable. This, John tells us, was the first of Jesus’ signs. Yet, what that inmate did not understand, and what we sometimes forget when we hear such stories of Jesus' miraculous actions, is that signs always point beyond themselves. In the case of this sign, the feature of the story that is being pointed to is not the magic trick but what Jesus' actions point to within the context of the setting itself, the wedding banquet.
It was said: "A wedding is a time for good wishes, feasting, and joy. The Gospel of John tells us how Jesus shared in such an occasion when he performed his first miracle at a wedding in Cana of Galilee, giving there a sign of new beginnings.” If that sounds familiar to you, it’s because you among those who heard those words spoken by The Rev. Marshall Jolly at the beginning of a certain wedding in Greensboro of North Carolina back on June 2 of last year. As my then-fiancee Kristen and I were putting together the liturgy for our wedding, we were very intentional with those opening words, and we wanted to make clear the primary significance of Jesus’ presence at the wedding in Cana; that is, Jesus appreciated a good party.
The Rev. Marshall Jolly presides over our wedding on June 2, 2018.
That is not to say that Jesus was a "party animal," nor that he condoned over-indulging on alcohol at social events. Rather,Jesus saw the importance of celebrations and participated in them himself. As the wine starts to go out he makes sure that the party keeps going, that the celebration does not stop. What I find especially interesting about this story is that Jesus doesn’t even take credit for his action. Instead, his turning of the water into wine happens “off-screen”—if you will—and the one given credit is the bridegroom, who keeps the good wine until the end. What matters in this moment is not that everyone at the wedding sees Jesus perform this miracle, like when he later feeds 5000 people; after all, it seems that only the servants, Jesus’ mother, and the disciples even know what has happened. What matters is the celebration itself, and what everything about this scene represents. Any wedding is cause for a grand celebration among the community, and that is why Jesus’ presence and actions at this wedding matter.
It is the love between the couple, the guests’ love for the couple, and God’s love for the whole of humanity that is encapsulated by a wedding banquet. Not only does this story remind us of that, but by turning all of that water into wine, Jesus shows us once again the abundance of the grace and love of God. The six jars equaled roughly 180 gallons of wine. Think about that for a second. There is no wedding party on earth that can drink that much wine! It’s a laughable amount, and that is the point; so, again, the significance of the story is not the magic trick itself. Jesus' actions point to the gospel truth that the Good News of God, which Jesus has come to proclaim, can be compared to a wedding banquet that has more than enough libations (wine or otherwise) to satisfy the needs of all its guests, a party that never ends. This is the gospel of abundance, which tells us that the grace, mercy, and love of God are unending, that there is always more than enough for everyone, and Jesus has come into the world to not only share in our celebrations but to even use them to remind us of that gospel truth.
As I said in my post last week on his baptism, Jesus undertook the fullness of the human experience. This is the radical nature of the Incarnation, that God would not only come among humanity but would deem to put on humanity, to participate in our sorrows and joys, which are so often given shape and meaning in our rituals, such as a baptism or wedding. A wedding in first century Palestine, for example, lasted for seven days, and even in a place like Cana—which was and is a peasant village—there was copious amounts of food and drink. Folks who went about their daily lives struggling to even get a morsel of bread got to kick back and celebrate with those they loved because everyone contributed from the abundance of what they had. It is this act of celebration that Jesus adorns because it gives shape to that which Jesus came to proclaim, and that which we know to be the great truth of God: love.
It is the unbreakable bond of the love of God for humanity that we celebrate at a wedding. The binding of the couple’s hands—which came to be known as the tying of the knot—symbolizes the unity not only of the couple but of all of us to God our creator. To borrow words preached by The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. at a wedding he officiated in 1948, the couple becomes “the heirs of a legacy of togetherness.” Yes, it is the togetherness of the couple, of the blending of their families, friends , and communities, but the power of a wedding is also the reminder that we are part of the legacy of togetherness between the whole of humanity and God, and Jesus is the knot that ties us all together. Certainly Dr. King understood that, and we who work so passionately to create God’s Beloved Community understand it, as well, as we seek to walk the way of love.
The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. giving his speech "What Is Your Life's Blueprint?' on October 26, 1967.
Jesus turns water into funk, from season 1 of Family Guy.
That’s surface-level stuff. It’s not about Jesus performing a magic trick, but it’s about what his action represents. In a culture that valued so highly hospitality and celebration, Jesus makes sure that they do not run out. He not only meets our needs, but he provides far more than anyone could ever dream. He shares in our parties because the love that is poured out in them is a reflection of the love God has for us all, love that binds us together with God in the person of Jesus. And this love, through the power of God, will someday marry the whole human race one to another. May we always celebrate, walking the way of love, finding our joy overflowing with abundance, for as Jesus reminds us today, and as the great 20th century American poet Robert Earl Keen sang: the party never ends!
Robert Earl Keene sings 'The Road Goes On Forever (and the Party Never Ends),' circa 1990.