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.” (John 2:3-5)
Here we are at one of the driest times of the year, and yet today is the day our lectionary chooses to present us with the story of ‘Jesus the winemaker’!
Some people refer to this whole month as ‘Dry January’, as it’s our period of recovery after the ‘silly season’. Some of us get more silly than others over the Christmas period, of course, and some of us let the frivolity extend right on into the first few weeks of January as we take the kids away and sun ourselves on various beaches and continue to consume far more alcohol than either our livers or our credit card can handle. We dink like Princes, which means we’re paying up to $50 per bottle but partying like it’s 1999!
Either way, by this time of the month, we are all starting to sober up, surely. The school holidays are coming to an end and even the most slothly amongst us is being drawn back into the workplace. Yet now is the time when Jesus brings out the best wine – right at the end of the party!
It really is odd timing, especially when you consider that our Gospel readings for this whole season are being taken from the Gospel of Luke. I guess the church inserted this reading from the Gospel of John into the series because it is Epiphany – the season of ‘revelation’ – and this passage concludes by noting that Jesus ‘revealed his glory’ through this miracle (John 2:11), but what an odd way for Jesus to choose to reveal Himself, and exactly what glorious aspect of Himself was Jesus revealing through this miracle anyway – that He is the source of unending streams of alcohol?
I don’t mean this as a flippant question either, for in the other Gospels – Matthew, Mark and Luke – Jesus’ miracles are referred to as ‘signs of the Kingdom’ (‘semeion’ in Greek), as they are concrete illustrations of the message that Jesus is preaching.
Jesus is proclaiming the coming of the Kingdom of God – an age where there will be no more violence, disease or death – and He illustrates His message through His signs that show us what the new world is going to look like.
The blind see because there is no more blindness in the Kingdom of God. Lepers are cleansed because there is no leprosy in the Kingdom of God. The dead are raised because death itself will be no more in Jesus’ Kingdom, but if this miracle too is a sign of what is to come, what’s it saying about the new world coming – that the alcohol never stops flowing? If so, I wonder how some of our Baptist brethren are going to cope?
Personally, I have no problem with that as an image of the Kingdom of God. Even so, I think we run the risk of trivialising this passage and missing what the Gospel writer is trying to say to us here if we reduce the whole message to one about the Kingdom of God being a non-stop party. It is a party – no doubt – but there’s a lot more going on at this party than just drinking!
We are in the Gospel of John, and John is a book with a lot of levels to it, and where there are often a lot of double-meanings and hidden messages.
I’m not suggesting that there are scandalous truths hidden in code anywhere (as the authors of ‘The Da Vinci Code’ might have us believe) but rather that John, as the last of the Gospels written, was crafted very artistically, and you often need to read over John’s words multiple times to get their full meaning.
This is the Gospel where Jesus speaks of how the ‘wind blows where it will’ (John 3) but he’s really talking about the movement of the Spirit of God and it’s easy to get confused! Likewise, He speaks about ‘flowing water’, or was that ‘living water’, and was He talking about the Spirit again?
Those who have looked for hidden meanings in this particular passage have often done so by looking at parallels between this miracle story and some of the ancient myths about the Greek god, Dionysius, who is probably better known to us by his Roman name, Bacchus. He was the god of wine, and turning water into wine was something he was very good at. Interestingly too, Dionysius was supposed to have been the result of a virgin birth, and his birthday was celebrated on December 25! This has, of course, led some to suggest that the early church simply stole this story about Jesus from the myths of Dionysius, but this is hardly likely.
Lots of Greek and Roman gods and demi-gods were the result of virgin births, or at least of strange sexual encounters between the gods above and the mortal women who fell victim to their lusts, and when it comes to December 25th, the reason the Greeks and Romans celebrated Dionysius’ birthday on that day was probably the same reason that Emperor Constantine decided to celebrate Jesus’ birthday then (in 388 AD) – not because anybody really thought that that was when Jesus (or Dionysius) was born, but because it was the beginning of the Winter Solstice and a good time to celebrate.
In terms of the miracle of water into wine though, is the Gospel writer subtly trying to let his Greek and Roman readers know that anything their gods can do, Jesus can do better? This is possible, but it’s hard to be clear about anything like this in John’s Gospel. The wind blows where it will, and so can your imagination when you’re reading the Gospel of John.
I might add at this point that I do genuinely believe that any similarities we might find between the stories in the Gospels and the myths of ancient Greece and Rome are entirely superficial, and I believe this not only because of differences in the stories themselves, but more so because of the entirely different role that these traditional Greek and Roman myths played in their respective societies when compared to the Gospel stories.
For the worshippers of Zeus and Jupiter and their respective pantheons, nobody really cared whether any of the stories about these characters were historically true. I suspect that many worshippers probably thought that their stories had some basis in history but it really didn’t matter because the way you practiced your religion was by participating in the cult and doing the sacrifices. Nobody ever asked you what you believed as it didn’t matter.
The whole concept of ‘orthodoxy’ (right belief) really only starts with Christianity, where all of a sudden it became very important what you believed because the historical facts about Jesus were seen as being very important.
For this reason, I think we’re frankly on much firmer ground in our speculations about John’s Gospel when we look for connections within the Gospel itself. For instance, when John begins this passage by saying “On the third day there was a wedding in Cana of Galilee” (John 2:1), is there some double meaning to the words, ‘third day’? John didn’t seem to be counting days up to this point. Is this a subtle allusion to the resurrection?
It’s impossible to know for sure, of course, but that would connect this story from the beginning of Jesus’ ministry to what happens at the end of the story – namely, the crucifixion and resurrection – a connection that is made more explicit in the odd dialogue between Jesus and his mother.
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” (John 2:3-4)
Jesus seems to be being disrespectful, referring to his mother simply as ‘woman’, but this is not the case, as is made clear by the only other mention that is made of Jesus’ mother in John’s Gospel, which happens at the foot of the cross, where Jesus speaks to her again:
“Near the cross of Jesus stood his mother, his mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene. When Jesus saw his mother there, and the disciple whom he loved standing nearby, he said to her, “Woman, here is your son,” (John 19:25-26)
Some translate both references as ‘dear woman’, as it’s obvious, in this second case especially, that Jesus is speaking to His mother with tenderness. Even so, the exchange in Cana it is a mysterious one, and the mysterious statement of Jesus – “my hour has not yet come” – connects this early scene to the later one. For some reason, Jesus sees His mother’s invitation to do something about the wine as the beginning of the end!
Why is that? Is there something going on here between Jesus and His mother that is not obvious? Is there something about wine that has a special significance for Jesus? Is there something in the water (so to speak)?
I believe the water is the key, in fact, because we’re told quite explicitly that
“there were six stone water jars for the Jewish rites of purification, each holding about one hundred litres” (John 2:6), and the water in these jars was not for drinking – not as water, let alone as wine! This water was holy water (or sorts) used to make people ready for worship.
The Torah strictly regulated how you had to purify yourself with water before coming to pray, and so you would rinse your hands with this water, symbolically washing away your sins so that you could be close to God. It is this holy water that Jesus takes charge of – water that is meant to purify people and bring them closer to God – and He turns it into something radically different, and then He makes it available for everybody to drink!
Now … I don’t want to start making connections here between water and wine and blood and the cross and the Eucharist, but Jesus evidently saw some of these connections, and the Gospel-writer, John, obviously saw connections. How exactly all these things connect, I don’t hazard to guess, but this is John’s Gospel, and maybe we’re not expected to figure it all out.
Now … you’ll have to forgive me if I’ve overworked the brain this morning, venturing into Greek mythology and exploring convoluted connections between the beginning and the end of John’s Gospel. As a preacher, the danger in preaching like this is that everybody checks out at around the 10- minute mark as that’s about as long as most people’s concentration can last. Mine (with all the hits I’ve taken to the head) normally only lasts about half that distance.
Even so, I haven’t finished yet, as there is one more thing I want to draw attention to in this passage, but it’s something really obvious that doesn’t require any subtle guesswork or intricate knowledge of the text. It’s the fact that this is a really big miracle that results in lots of wine!
We are told that there were six massive jars, each holding around 100 litres, and Jesus quite explicitly tells the staff at the wedding to “fill the jars with water”, and we’re told that they “filled them to the brim” (John 2:7), meaning that they ended up with at least 600 litres of liquid!
If you think of this in terms of wine for the party, that’s the equivalent of around a thousand 750 ml bottles (which is the standard size) and would go around a long way between one hundred or even two hundred guests!
The figures look even more extreme when you think of this liquid in terms of it being holy water that washes away sin. According to the Torah, you only needed one cup of this sort of water to purify a hundred worshippers. Now … I haven’t attempted to do the maths as the figures get quite astronomical, but I think that might have been a part of John’s point – that what Jesus has done here is to create enough holy liquid to cleanse the sins of the whole world!
Of course, Jesus acting on a crazy large scale like this is nothing new. When Jesus goes fishing, there are so many fish caught that the nets can’t hold them all! When Jesus organises lunch for a crowd, there is so much food left over that it fills a dozen baskets! Jesus provides, and He provides abundantly, especially perhaps for those who follow the instructions given by His mother, “Do whatever he tells you” (John 2:5).
That is a useful thing to be reminded of at this time of year especially – in this ‘Dry January’, when Yuletide merriment has all but frittered away and been replaced with sober contemplation of the credit-card bills. Jesus provides!
When the friends and family have all gone home and we’re coming to terms with being alone again, Jesus provides!
And most importantly, as we continue to struggle with our own weaknesses and watch things collapsing around us and feel the weight of our own sin and failures pressing in upon us, Jesus provides!
There is plenty of wine to go around. Nobody need be left out, and if you’re feeling like you’ve run your race and it’s all too much and you can’t go on any further, then grab yourself a glass and break open another bottle! It’s all good! We’ve saved the best till last!
I appreciate that some might find this imagery offensive, as indeed many of us might find John’s Gospel impenetrable. Even so, this is how Jesus first chose to “reveal his glory”, “and his disciples believed in him.” (John 2:11)
First preached by Father Dave at Holy Trinity, Dulwich Hill on Sunday 20th January, 2019.