Water Into Wine

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Every day during this season of Lent we’re looking at the miracles of Jesus – his spectacular displays of supernatural power that are reported in the Gospels.    

Jesus’ first recorded miracle didn’t save someone from a dreadful disease or an approaching storm front.

Instead, he saved a bride and groom and their families from a nightmare of public humiliation. 

A wedding in a Middle Eastern village during Bible times was a very big deal.  It brought together friends, family and neighbors for up to seven days of feasting, celebrating, and drinking.  Did I mention there would be a great deal of drinking? 

For the bride, this was quite possibly the happiest week of her life.  For her family, it meant investing a significant chunk of their net worth to sustain a party that might go on and on and on.

Why were such events so important?  Marriage (which brought the possibility of children) was a sign of God’s blessing, a public recognition that the village would survive and thrive.  It was in everyone’s interest that a new generation would come into the world.  Life is good, and life will go on. 

Therefore, a wedding should be a joyful spectacle to be savored in the public mind for years to come.  In a culture that exalted hospitality, however, shame and dishonor would descend upon any family that fumbled the ball at this critical moment. 

And running out of wine was definitely fumbling the ball.

In John 2:1-11, the author tells us that Jesus, his mother, and his disciples are invited to a wedding in the village of Cana, which lies not far from Jesus’ hometown of Nazareth.  Mary somehow gets wind of the impending social catastrophe and says to her son, “They have no more wine.” 

Jesus replies, “Woman, why do you involve me?  My hour has not yet come” (2:4).

It’s hard for modern readers to warm up to this text.  Suffice it to say that 21st century moms would not be thrilled to receive a card on the second Sunday of May that reads, “Woman, have a happy Mother’s Day.” But in the first century, addressing your mother as “woman” was actually an expression of endearment.  Jesus would speak with such tenderness to his mother when he was dying on the cross, saying, “Woman, here now [pointing to the disciple John] is your son” (John 19:26). 

That being said, it’s hard to read between these lines to know exactly what’s happening between mother and son.  Is there a twinkle in Mary’s eye when she points out the Great Wine Disaster, knowing that he might be able to do something about it?  Or is she just being a nagging Jewish mother, as some commentators suggest?

When young film director Dallas Jenkins decided to create The Chosen, the first-ever multi-season TV series depicting the life of Jesus, he recognized he would have to make some hard choices.

In order to depict significant scenes like the wedding in Cana – in order for them to make any sense at all – it would be necessary to add dialogue that does not appear in the Gospels.  That would inevitably ruffle the feathers of certain Bible purists.  Likewise, Jenkins knew that he would have to commit himself to an interpretive “take” regarding the relationship of Jesus and his mother.

Here’s what he came up with: Jesus turns the Water into Wine 🍷 (youtube.com).  Most observers think he succeeded brilliantly.  It’s a long clip – more than 10 minutes – but it provides an imaginative window into life in the first century, not to mention the many different reactions to Jesus’ first miracle.

In his notes about this scene, Jenkins reveals that he decided to weave in the notion that Jesus is fully aware that he is now crossing a line.  For the first time, he is revealing to the world his unique relationship with his Father. 

One feature in the text is frequently overlooked.  Mary says to the servants, “Do whatever he tells you.”  John then observes, “Nearby stood six stone water jars, the kind used by the Jews for ceremonial washing, each holding from twenty to thirty gallons” (John 6:6). 

Nothing in Scripture is arbitrary.  Is Jesus making a point by intentionally transforming the water that was typically used for ceremonial washing?

By way of background, it took a great deal of water to stay on God’s good side, at least according to the Pharisees.   

The Pharisees were a layman’s sect within Judaism, probably numbering no more than about 6,000 individuals, who were deeply serious about pleasing God.  They were widely admired even by those who didn’t have the energy or the perseverance to keep up with them.  

In the Pharisees’ version of Judaism, the rules ruled.  

They lived by what can only be described as a passion for specificity, especially when it came to the regulations for dining.  According to the Pharisees, the ceremonial cleanness or uncleanness of food, dishes, and utensils was not just about good manners.  It was a matter of spiritual life or death.

Pharisaical regulations went far beyond the 613 commands contained within the Torah – the first five books of the Old Testament. 

If you were committed to “doing things right,” both hands needed to be washed before every course of every meal.  With palms up and fingers elevated, clean water would be dribbled over the right hand, then over the left.  Then the fingers were turned downward so the water ran off onto the ground.  Rabbinical literature specified that the amount of water used should be equivalent to the amount contained within “half an eggshell.” 

If someone ate with unwashed hands, their food was considered no better than excrement.  One rabbi who failed to wash his hands the right way was buried in excommunication.

Then along comes Jesus.

And he changes the water in those stone jars – upwards of 180 gallons – into wine. 

Pleasing God does not come down to washing one’s hands the right way.  Jesus did not come into the world to give us a new list of rules, but to show us how to live.

And a joyful party that affirms the goodness of God’s creation – food, drink, marriage, friendships, and celebration – lies at the very heart of his intentions for his people. 

Jesus spares a young couple deep indignity.  At the end of the week, there’s a reason for everyone to laugh.  What a Godlike thing to do. 

But as anyone knows who has ever opened the pages of the Gospels, Jesus is just getting started.