It’s a story that has become part of the collective consciousness, even for those who have never attended church and it has placed a couple of phrases into the language which are still very widely used. Whenever we say someone “has saved the best till last” or comment that someone was so gifted that they could “turn water into wine”, we are referencing one of the earliest stories about Jesus.
It’s a story about Jesus attending a wedding in the hill town of Cana in Galilee. Jesus and his disciples have been down in the Jordan valley with John the Baptist. They return to the area to join the wedding celebration. Jesus’ mother Mary and his brothers are already there, so it seems to be a family affair.
Weddings were a big thing in those parts and the occasion not only celebrates the marriage, but displays the family success and status. Whether through poor planning, a larger that expected crowd or because things got quite festive, by day three, the wine has run out. Mary turns to Jesus and the rest of the story is well-known to everyone – he turns water into wine, which upon tasting the head steward declares to the host, “Everyone serves the good wine first, and then the inferior wine after the guests have become drunk. But you have kept the good wine until now.”
I grew up in a teetotal house and in a church that maintained abstinence from alcohol. It made for some interesting and dubious interpretations of this passage. I’ve always been interested how people who often take a literal reading of these ancient texts, start to twist the obvious meaning of a story because it conflicts with some other firm beliefs they might hold.
This isn’t wine for medicinal purposes or because the water wasn’t safe, this was specifically alcohol for celebratory reasons. There are many valid reasons to be cautious in our use of alcohol, but there is no valid grounds for assuming that this story is about anything other than wine; good wine, abundant wine. But more than that it is a story about abundance, it’s a story about grace that compensates our poor planning. It’s a story about believing that the best is yet to come. The party isn’t over. It’s a story about how God transforms emptiness into celebration.
As we look around our world it’s not hard to see a lot more emptiness and need than abundance and feasting. It’s not hard to identify with the Mary who tells Jesus something has gone terribly wrong. “The wine has run out. This party is over, Jesus, unless you do something.”
Sometimes our own lives take a turn for the worst. Relationships breakdown, we go through a painful divorce, we lose our job, we get sick, loved ones die. These times can be overwhelming. We can feel that the wine has run out. We seem to be surviving on bread and water. Our prayers seem to say, “This party is over, Jesus, unless you do something.”
Throughout the gospel story we see Jesus fighting this corrosive mindset of scarcity and decline. Beyond this story, we see it in the story of the feeding of the multitude stories. We see it in the transformative actions of one man in a far off time in a backwater of the Roman Empire who dares to proclaim God’s abundant grace. Where there are always possibilities of new life beyond our imagination for the outcast, the foreigner, the criminal and the shamed.
When the party seems to over, Jesus takes the water of our bare existence and transforms it into wine, good wine. Have faith, the best is yet to come.
This is the gospel, and it’s good news.
Brian Spencer, Minister
P.S. I got annoyed that there are no hymns (that I could find) about the wedding in Cana. So I wrote one. Must be all that squeamishness about alcohol. It’s set to the tune “Here I am Lord” and Jeanette Robinson from our Murchison congregation has generously and creatively set it both for the organist and as a melody line version. Feel free to use it if you want: