Rethinking Water into Wine - Jeff Nowers | January 21, 2019 |
If you’ve been following the Gospel readings in the lectionary from week to week, you may find that today’s Gospel—the wedding at Cana, a town near Nazareth—catches us a bit off guard. Christmas was not even a month ago, and images of the infant Jesus are still fresh in our minds. But then last week we heard the story of Jesus’ baptism, which thrusts us suddenly into Jesus’ adulthood, leapfrogging over the first 30 years of his life. Those silent years have been a source of intrigue. Since the mid-19th century some have speculated that Jesus traveled to India and sat at the feet of spiritual masters—but that is mere conjecture. We simply don’t know what Jesus was up to as he was coming of age. But there are a couple of clues from the New Testament.
First, there is the story in Luke’s Gospel of Jesus at age 12 being inadvertently left behind in Jerusalem after his parents and extended family have begun the return trip to Nazareth. When they realize that Jesus is missing, they rush back to find Jesus in the Temple deep in theological discussion with scribes and rabbis. Jesus is rather nonchalant and indifferent when he sees them anxious and worried: “Didn’t you know that I should be here in the Temple attending to God’s work?” We can take from this story that Jesus was a fearless and precocious youth who had an appetite for serious religious learning. Another clue about Jesus’ missing years is found in Mark’s Gospel. When the people in Jesus’ hometown of Nazareth first encounter him teaching in the local synagogue, they’re stunned. “Isn’t this the carpenter?” It’s clear that up to age 30, Jesus led a life under the radar as an ordinary carpenter. In any event, by the time we get to today’s Gospel, Jesus has a following of disciples, his father Joseph is out of the picture, and his mother Mary seems to believe that there’s something special about Jesus.
The story of Jesus turning water into wine has achieved iconic status. How did he pull off this incredible feat? That “how” question is loaded with all sorts of modern assumptions about what constitutes a miracle, which I think are a distraction from the intent of the story. Nowhere in today’s Gospel do we find the term “miracle.” Instead, the spectacle of turning water into wine is called a “sign.” When we ask the “how” question—How did Jesus pull this off?—we’re really trying to figure out how, if at all, Jesus managed to suspend the laws of nature that govern the world. But that’s a concern not central to the story. So even though I don’t think we can completely avoid the “how” question, we need to put it on the back burner and focus on the more important “why” question. Why does Jesus seem hesitant to turn the water into wine? And why did he finally agree to do it?
That first question of Jesus’ reluctance, I think, is related to why Jesus throughout Mark’s Gospel tells his followers not to reveal his messianic identity to anyone. He’s reluctant to have his cover blown, as it were. And in the story of the wedding at Cana, he’s hesitant to do anything that would reveal him to be a wonder-worker. His mother Mary seems aware that Jesus is some sort of prodigy, which is why she informs him right away that the party is in jeopardy because there’s no more wine. She expects Jesus to step up with a solution, but he responds, “My hour has not yet come.” In other words, he doubts whether his messianic moment has arrived—or perhaps he even questions his own messianic identity.
There’s an uncertainty, a cautiousness, even a humility that we see here in Jesus. I think that says something for those of us who call ourselves Christians. Following Jesus is not about feeling confident with impulsive answers to all problems. There’s an uncertainty and cautiousness that we must bring to bear on our daily living and spiritual longing. Just as Jesus grew into his messianic identity over time, so we too grow into maturity of faith—sometimes painstakingly slowly and sometimes enduring a lot of bumps along the road.
For all his cautiousness, however, Jesus does in the end deliver a profound sign. Why did he turn water into wine? Perhaps we get a clue from an old Jewish talmudic saying: “There is no rejoicing save with wine.” Wine was central to celebration—and it’s still that way today in many contexts. When we hear this story, we might think that the wedding host didn’t take care to plan ahead and ensure that enough wine would be available. But in Jesus’ day, it was the wedding guests who would bring most of the wine. The fact that the wine ran out so quickly is an indication that the bride and groom didn’t have many friends—or perhaps their friends were of basic means. In other words, this wasn’t a lavish wedding. The few guests that attended didn’t have the resources to supply the party with an abundance of wine. And when the wine that everyone brought was finished, it became hard to keep the celebration going.
What we learn about Jesus is that his first messianic sign is an intervention in a situation of poverty and loneliness. Jesus brought his own wine, in the most unusual manner, at a time when it was needed the most, because he was convinced that a newly married couple with a small peasant social circle should celebrate their love to the fullest. His initial cautiousness gave way to love—love for those who have so little and who nonetheless long to celebrate. I think, for us, following the Way of Jesus is an ongoing negotiation between hesitancy and cautiousness, on the one hand, and conviction, love and justice, on the other hand. It’s not all about hesitancy; we are compelled to act in solidarity with those on the margins.
I can’t end here without revisiting the “how” question. Did Jesus really turn water into wine? If he did, how? Was there something already in those six stone purification jars that made the water taste like fine wine? Or—my favorite explanation—was everyone so inebriated that they couldn’t detect the difference between the best wine and mere water? I don’t know, and we’ll probably never get to the bottom of exactly what happened. But perhaps one way to think about the “how” question is to relate it to what goes on in our liturgy here every Sunday morning. Does bread and wine really become the body and blood—the very life—of the resurrected Jesus? How? The last time I checked, the bread that we eat in the Eucharist really is bread, and the wine really is wine. But it’s also more than that. In the Great Thanksgiving at the altar we recall the words of Jesus himself: This is my body; this is my lifeblood. Ordinary things like bread and wine can be more than just that, just like water can be more than mere water. In fact, if basic substances like bread and wine and water can be more than what they appear, then perhaps all of creation—including each one of us—is more than what we imagine. The world in its apparent darkness is alive with the wonder and radiance of God. Following Jesus, in both his cautiousness and clear conviction, is how we can together discern that to be true.