Studies in John’s Gospel: Bible study lesson 4
by Reta Halteman Finger
No shotgun wedding here. It’s a very proper arranged marriage—and the whole village of Cana is invited. The problem is, the whole village comes, whether they have RSVPed or not. So the wine starts running out on the third day of the festivities. Somehow the problem is solved, the family’s honor is preserved, and everyone goes home happy and maybe a bit tipsy. But the funny thing is, afterward nobody can remember who actually got married at the party! Somehow it doesn’t matter.…
Most church people know the story of “The Wedding at Cana” because that’s when Jesus changes water into wine. Unless you’re an old-fashioned Methodist, any biblical encouragement to drink wine is a good text to know!
An Unusual Sermon
In April I visit my home church, Salford Mennonite in Harleysville, Pennsylvania, and John 2:1-11 is the sermon text. The preacher is the lead pastor, a likable young man named Joe Hackman, whom I’ve recently met. Having taught Johannine literature in college, I doubt I will learn anything new about this text. But I am wrong.
In the church bulletin are photos similar to the one you see here of several pottery jars called amphorae for holding wine, and another of a large stone container able to hold about 20 or 30 gallons of water. In Jesus’ day, issues of ceremonial purity are reaching fever pitch. Many things can cause pollution: touching a corpse, blood and other bodily fluids, eating gentile food, etc. Only water in stone containers remains pure for washing. Wine, not ceremonially pure, is stored in impure ceramic amphorae.
By the time the wine runs out (2:3), there are many empty amphorae lying around. Why, asks Pastor Joe, doesn’t Jesus ask the servants to fill them with water rather than the stone jars which were used “for the Jewish rites of purification”? (2:6). Aware that contaminating the stone jars is a huge breach of Jewish law, the author stresses that the steward in charge does not know where this new batch of wine is coming from (2:9-10). Only Jesus and the servants in the back room can chuckle over their little secret.
Pastor Joe concludes that through this action, Jesus deliberately attacks oppressive purity laws and ushers in a new age of abundance. Then Joe proposes parallel application for his church. For five weeks this spring, Sunday school will be canceled so everyone can work in the huge garden the church grows for local food pantries. The Fourth Commandment prohibiting work on the Sabbath will be revoked to create abundance for neighbors who lack food!
More Challenges to the Present Regime
What Joe doesn’t mention, but I discover later, is the significance of the first four words of this story: “On the third day” (2:1). The third day must be more symbolic than chronological, since we already have had three “next days” (1:29; 35, 43). It may look forward to Jesus’ resurrection on the third day—but we must also look backward to the author’s scriptures. Sure enough, the “third day” occurs at the most critical juncture in Israel’s history—the giving of the Law in Exodus 19:9-25. As the Hebrews arrive at Mount Sinai in the desert, Yahweh tells Moses to consecrate the people by having them wash their clothes “today and tomorrow”— because “on the third day Yahweh will come down upon Mount Sinai in the sight of all the people” (19: 10-11). “The third day” is used repeatedly here (vv 11, 15, 16).
Clearly, John’s Gospel shows through symbol and story what Matthew’s Gospel explains in plain language in Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. Instead of Moses, Yahweh’s Son/Sophia has come down “in the sight of all the people” to introduce a New Age where human need and enjoyment trump overly-rigid Law (see John 1:17).
Redeeming the Story for Women
There’s more good stuff here—but first the downer. The Mount Sinai account includes this instruction: “Prepare for the third day; do not go near a woman” (Exodus 19:15). This is a problem if one already is a woman, so apparently only men can be ritually pure enough to meet a holy God.
But this Gospel erases such gender exclusion by placing Jesus’ own mother in the center of the drama (John 2:1-5). She is apparently the first to find out from the servants that the wine has run out. Much has been written about this exchange between Jesus and his mother, but never have I read the obvious: Jesus’ mother understands him better than he does himself! She does not argue with his objection that his “hour has not yet come.” She just tells the servants to “do whatever he tells you”! He does, and they do. Three cheers for a take-charge Jewish mom!
Mary thus becomes the first in a series of women in this narrative who intuit spiritual truth better than their male counterparts.
The First Sign
The author ends the story with a pregnant summary: “Jesus did this, the first of his signs, in Cana of Galilee, and revealed his glory; and his disciples believed in him” (2:11). In John, unusual events are never called miracles; they are signs. A sign signifies something—a trail marker, a stop sign, a warning. Is it possible to see a miracle and miss what it signifies?
Questions for Reflection and Discussion:
What does water-to-wine signify? How does it reveal Jesus’ glory?
Did Jesus perform this sign mainly so his disciples would believe in him? Or are “the disciples” in this case us, the readers?
Feel free to write your thoughts in the comments.