Water to Wine

Passover with Jesus and disciples

During the Greco-Roman feast of Dionysus stone vessels were filled with wine as a sign of the god’s ability to instill life. Many of these Greek and Roman rituals were taken and adapted into Christian rituals. At Cana Jesus replaces the jars of water with wine. According to John’s gospel Jesus is now the sole god who instills life. The large earthen jars at the wedding feast filled with water were there for washing. For ‘purification’, for the washing of guests who had traveled over the dusty roads and could wash hands and feet before they sat at the banquet table. This water was not drinkable. And because in those days there were no water purification systems – unless you got your water directly from a well, fed by one of the many springs that ran under the city – the meals were accompanies by mead, the precursor to our beer, and/or wine.

Jesus changing the undrinkable water into wine at the wedding feast at Cana is usually interpreted as one of Jesus’ first miracles. But Jesus’ reply to his mother, seems to indicate two things: that he wasn’t too concerned about the lack of wine and that whatever he saw his life to be about, it was not time to show himself. The man who becomes largely known for his miracles and healing doesn’t see himself as a miracle worker. I like what Michael Chabon says, and I paraphrase, faith bought by signs or miracles is bought very cheaply. Jesus seems to have no need to demonstrate or prove himself as a miracle worker in the ordinary sense of the being a magician. But John has told this story at the beginning of Jesus public ministry for a reason. And I don’t think it’s about proving Jesus was god by doing magic. For it seems that the real miracles Jesus performed were those of healing other. Those that helped others and brought about their well-being. A little wine more or less at a banquet would most likely not have been uppermost in his mind. Of course, the case could also be made that at his mother’s behest he provided what was best, even the best wine, for the bridal party. At the end, of life, of the current system, Jesus is bringing to us the best of what is life-giving. Himself.

One purpose of the wedding feast at Cana may have been to signal to those listening to the story that Jesus had come to change things. That transformations were coming. And these transformations would be life-giving. That Jesus, like his Father, was the god who brought life and could change it, purify it and that the quality and substance of life would be the best. Also notice, that in each of the gospels every scene is about change. Someone or something changes. Fishermen leave their trade, evil spirits are sent packing, people see and walk again, large shrubs grow from tiny seeds, a child comes back to life, water turns into wine. A man comes as guest at a wedding and later will liken himself to the bridegroom. A jar is broken and expensive oil from it becomes his anointing.

At the Passover meal which we celebrate tomorrow night, the jars of water will be there again. But at this final meal of Jesus and his disciples, unlike his first at Cana, the bridegroom will wash the feet of those he loves, and their lives will be changed forever.


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