In John 2 we find the story of Jesus turning the water into wine at Cana in Galilee. At face value, we have here a simple story of Jesus helping out in response to his mother's urging that he step in and pull off a miracle - his first one, according to John's account - to help out the bride and groom. The passage has been used by preachers as evidence of Jesus endorsing the institution of marriage ... and has also raised questions about the amount of wine Jesus created for guests who it seems had already drunk their fill!
Below the surface of the story, however, there is a lot more going on - more that needs to be appreciated in order to hear the story with the ears of John's original first century audience. As so often, this begins with 'context', by which we mean several things. In this case, it includes the incident in its societal setting, the passage within the book in which it appears, the human writer's particular authorial concerns, and, its significance within the wider context of scripture as a whole - the overall, big story of which it is a part. All of this and more (for example - the rhetoric involved) comes into play in understanding the passage in ways compatible with its original audience.
It will be apparent to most readers that John's Gospel is quite different to the "Synoptics" (Matthew, Mark and Luke), whose stories and styles are quite similar, drawing on much of the same materials and sources. It is from this commonality that we get he term 'synoptics', meaning literally "together-view" (from 'syn-' and 'optics'). John, however, demonstrates some different concerns and selects and orders his content differently.
Features of John include:
· much more 'theological' content, e.g. a strong focus on the relationship of Jesus to the Father, the nature and identity of Jesus as the Son of God, and the role of the Spirit (John is very 'charismatic', in comparison to the others, and hence verses from John are often quoted more frequently by preachers from that church tradition).
· a significant intentional interaction with the institutions, symbols and thought-world of first century Judaism (NB John was probably quite early, pre AD 70).
· Jesus' miraculous deeds explained as 'signs' of Jesus' identity (there are 7 such 'signs' in John). Their significance is therefore not as a 'miracle', as such, but in what they point to. NB Cana is the only one of the 7 which is not also mentioned in the Synoptics.
· the use of critical language referring to "the Jews", which is not being used as a reference to ethnicity (that all Jews are bad, or that Judaism is bad), but as a catch-all term for those within Judaism who were opposed to Jesus. It must be remembered that Christianity itself was 'a Judaism' at the time, and hence this was part of a debate happening within the religion, involving people seeing "what God was doing" in different ways. It was not a debate between two fully-formed distinct religions, the old and the bad of Judaism versus the new and the good of Christianity. Though some of the language in John (and elsewhere in the NT) comes across as quite sharp and vitriolic, we have to understand that that was just the way people debated with each other in those days, and in fact, the NT tone is quite mild in that context!
With regard to the structure of the book, the stories in chapters 2 through 4 engage with some key Jewish institutions and practices. The one in the story here is marriage. Chapters 5 through 10, meanwhile, engage with important Jewish festivals and their symbols. Each story is 'saying something' theologically about Jesus in relation to those.
John's intentions in assembling his narrative from the materials are made clear in John 20:30-31. Jesus did many other things, he says, but the ones that John has focused on "... are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name." John's purpose is not just history but explanation.
Turning then to the passage ...
In those days, wedding celebrations would typically last a whole week. That the wine should run out (perhaps, here, on day three) was not merely an embarrassment, but a total catastrophe. Social disgrace and endless shame for the family, bride and groom.
Now, the custom was for guests to bring wine as gift. So, lack of wine also implies lack of friends. Perhaps inviting Jesus and his disciples had upset the quantities? Had they not brought any wine, because of their poverty? This is but speculation. In any event, Mary is concerned, and brings her concern to Jesus. Maybe this is because Mary is related to the wedding family, as one early tradition suggested (and which would explain her invitation to a wedding in another town), so she feels a more acute sense of familial responsibility and one that she obviously feels Jesus should share. Perhaps she consults him because Jesus (as the eldest male) is the head of the family, assuming that Joseph has by this point died. Either way, it's clear that she expects Jesus to intervene, though not in what way. It is not obvious from anything in the text that she is expecting him to perform a miracle, particularly because Jesus has not yet done so in John's narrative.
Jesus sounds rude here when he addresses his mother as "Woman" (softened by the NIV 84 to "Dear woman"), but this is not the case. It is actually a polite term. Similarly, when he responds "Why do you involve me?" This is a well-known Semitism, or Jewish idiom/saying. Literally, "What to me and to you?" (What does this concern have to do with us?)
The story then turns to the 6 jars, each holding 20-30 gallons. That's probably around 600-900 bottles of wine. Note that Jesus doesn't turn ritual purification water into wine; the jars are empty to begin with, and have to be filled. He is making new wine in old containers. New wine is coming out of old vessels. It is not about replacing something, it is about doing something new from within the existing context.
The superior quality is a key point in the theological point John is making; something of a different order has come out of the existing religious context. Jesus has done more than appeared in Judaism and its festivities, he has transformed it.
We now need to understand the critical importance of all of the symbolism involved, in terms of Jewish messianic expectations:
"When Jews reflected on what heaven or the arrival of the Messiah would be like, they thought about banquets, and the wedding banquet was the foremost model that came to mind." Gary Burge, NIV Life Commentary.
The theological statement John is making is that the Messiah has arrived and the messianic banquet (portrayed as a wedding feast) has begun. NB Revelation 19:9, an invitation to the wedding feast of the Lamb.
An abundance of wine had significant 'eschatological' meaning (the end of the age and the restoration of Israel) - it was a sign of the messianic times, when God would put right everything that was wrong. Amos 9:13-14; Hosea 2:22; Jeremiah 31:12.
Wedding imagery in OT prophecy is symbolic of the Messiah's coming (Isaiah 54, 62). Both wedding and banquet were images on which Jesus drew (Matt 8:11, and esp. 22:1-14).
In Proverbs 9:5, people are invited to eat of the bread and drink of the wine of divine Wisdom. So too, Isaiah 55. Jesus, as John rightly presents him, is the incarnation of divine Wisdom (see the Prologue in John 1) and thus the Bread of life (John 6:25 onwards). This helps explain Jesus words, "Unless you eat my flesh and drink my blood ..."
'Revealing his glory' is a reference to the presence of God. The shekinah glory that resided first in the tabernacle and then in the Temple. That glory, presence, has now become flesh and dwelt among us, John is saying. We have seen his glory (John 1). This 'changes everything' in terms of religion as we know it, John is saying. The stone jars have been filled with new content. God is now involved with humanity through Jesus and the abiding Spirit in a new, different and revolutionary way!
"My hour" (not yet come) is an important phrase in John, meaning the events of the cross and resurrection. (1984 NIV's 'my time' is an inadequate translation.)
So why exactly did Jesus act, not least because he seemed initially reluctant? Did Mary's persistence change his mind? Did he reflect on the situation and ask God what he should do (John 5:19) and the Father showed him to act? Discuss ...
Finally, we may note that we have here Mary's last recorded words in John - do whatever he (Jesus) tells you to do. This provides a great reason for us Protestants to follow our Catholic friends' example and honour what Mary says! Not a bad legacy for the mother of Jesus to leave with us ...