On the third day there was a wedding in Cana of Galilee, and the mother of Jesus was there. Jesus and his disciples had also been invited to the wedding. 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.” Now standing there were six stone water jars for the Jewish rites of purification, each holding twenty or thirty gallons. Jesus said to them, “Fill the jars with water.” And they filled them up to the brim. He said to them, “Now draw some out, and take it to the chief steward.” So they took it. When the steward tasted the water that had become wine, and did not know where it came from (though the servants who had drawn the water knew), the steward called the bridegroom and said to him, “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.” Jesus did this, the first of his signs, in Cana of Galilee, and revealed his glory; and his disciples believed in him.
The story of Jesus turning the water into wine has always been a little bit strange to me and it’s one that in the prison the men often banter with me about. “Father, can you turn water into wine?”
“No. I’m sorry. I was away that week but I can do it the other way round!”
Ha ha ha!
The dialogue between Jesus and Mary is strange and it seems odd that Jesus would turn water into wine, which really isn’t that impressive in comparison to his later miracles. Why would this be his first one recorded in John? Why does John even bother to tell us about it at all, and why are there so many details?
Jesus had already enlisted five disciples: Andrew, Peter, Philip, Nathanael, and John. Together, Jesus and these disciples had accepted an invitation to a wedding in Cana where members of Jesus family were also on the guest list. John makes a point of telling us that Jesus’ first miracle was done here in response to Mary’s request and she doesn’t take no for an answer: first she taps Jesus on the shoulder and says, “They have no wine” and, after a seeming rebuke, goes with perfect trust to the servants and tells them, “Do whatever he tells you.” and stands back in expectation.
But was it a rebuke?
Why would Jesus rebuke her? For her “faithlessness?” That makes no sense at all. She obviously expected Jesus to be able to do something about the wine and that’s clearly an act of faith in him as Messiah: after all there’s no reason, to think a poor carpenter would be able to do anything so spectacular, so she’s obviously expecting something supernatural here. Why would he rebuke her and then immediately give in and do it anyway?
Some preachers explain this event in the early ministry of Jesus as a picture of Mary as pushy stage mother and of Jesus as a sort of sullen young actor shoved—whining about his unreadiness—on to the stage of history. That interpretation plays to the stereotype of the domineering Jewish mother but is paired with the absurdity of an omnipotent divine Son too wimpy to stand up to her.
We’re not helped here by the inadequacies of language and translation either: the address “Woman” is perfectly polite and doesn’t have the cold ring in Jesus’ native language that it has in English, and “What have I to do with you” was a common conversational phrase. Again, it meant no disrespect. It becomes harder and harder to see this as some sort of telling off. Instead what we begin to see is a degree of affectionate banter between mother and son and it’s not at all clear from the text that Mary doesn’t quite understand what is going on, nor that that’s what Jesus thinks. Quite the opposite, Jesus’ response shows he thinks Mary knows perfectly well what is going on: he’s the Messiah and she wants him to show himself clearly to Israel.
What we’re seeing here is not Jesus the Teenage Messiah badgered by his bossy mother and her neurotic need to impress the ladies from her book group with “My son, the Miracle Worker”. What we’re seeing a piece of conversation between two people who are both acutely aware of who Jesus is and what he is called to do.
Mary is no fool. She knows her scripture. She knows the meaning of the mission of Israel. And most of all, she knows her Son. A quick read of the Magnificat in Luke’s Gospel shows that she’s spent a long time pondering how, in the coming of Jesus, God “He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy, as he spoke to our fathers, to Abraham and to his offspring forever.”
Every word both Jesus and Mary speak is spoken in light of their shared awareness of that messianic mission and of the words of the prophets who taught Israel to await his coming. With all that as the backdrop of their conversation, Mary is revealed to be lovingly calling Jesus to get on with his mission, not to impress the neighbours with a special effect or a publicity stunt. Her point is not simply that the wedding guests have no wine. It’s that the whole nation has no wine. All Israel is waiting for the coming of the Messiah.
The whole conversation makes it clear that Mary believed it was time for Jesus to announce his identity as Messiah and usher in the Kingdom of God; it makes it clear that Jesus knew perfectly well this is what she meant and that she knew he knew it. Rather than some inane request for drinks all round followed by a meaningless “rebuke,” what we’re really looking at here is a profound conversation in which Jesus and Mary know and understand each other perfectly.
This is the first recorded miracle in John. It was the first mark of Jesus’ divinity, and it demonstrated his glory. The men who followed Jesus already had a sense that this man was marked out by God, even if, as the Gospels repeatedly tell us, it took some time for them to fully catch on, but now they begin to see his glory for themselves and the result is that they believed in Him. This action confirmed to them that although they didn’t yet have all the answers or a full understanding of Jesus as the long awaited Messiah, they had been right to heed John the Baptist when he said, “There is one who is more powerful than I coming after me.” We don’t have their excuse of unfolding events slowly making things clear: we have the benefit of hindsight and should know exactly what this and the other signs of Jesus meant about who he was.
The thing that impresses me most about this story is that the events took place in rather ordinary circumstances. Many of the great truths Jesus taught and the miracles he worked took place in response to the circumstances Jesus found himself in. This event wasn’t planned by the wedding party to be a stage for his activity. Jesus was simply engaged in the life of those around him and met a need.
Today, we believe that the Son of God is ever present. He meets with us on an impromptu basis all the time but perhaps - sadly - is most recognised when we’re in need. He’s with us at work or study, at home in family life, in the supermarket, during our hobbies, in the car or on the bus. When needs arise, he’s present – but not just when need arises. We don’t have to set up an appointment to see him. He makes his presence known if we’re open to seeing it.
This should be a source of great encouragement. To know that Jesus, by his Holy Spirit, walks with us in all aspects of our life should perhaps make us a bit bolder as disciples because in our own ways we are all ministers of the gospel and, as such, we too need to be ready to meet the needs of others which we may be confronted with at any time.
I think, too, there is often an impatience about us as disciples: why is there still hunger in the world? Why do despots seem to prosper while the innocent suffer? Confronted with a need, Mary went to Jesus and we should follow her example. When we have a need, we should come to Jesus, of course, but we must come knowing that all things are ultimately in his hands and he will determine the when, why, and how of its resolution. Certainly, we can express our desires and call on Jesus in faith, but we must in the end put all things in his hands. With Mary, we must be willing to accept his decisions and actions - but don’t misunderstand me: that’s not a call to passivity or inaction.
We must also follow the example of the servants in the story: Jesus told the servants, "Fill the jars with water." and they quickly obeyed. When Jesus meets our needs, when he answers our prayers, he often gives us something to do: in our services we’ve often used the words of St Teresa of Avila, “Christ has no body now but yours. No hands, no feet on earth but yours. Yours are the eyes through which he looks compassion on this world. Yours are the feet with which he walks to do good. Yours are the hands through which he blesses all the world. Yours are the hands, yours are the feet, yours are the eyes, you are his body. Christ has no body now on earth but yours.” If that’s not a call to action I don’t know what is! In a text-book I used to use I came upon this wonderful, but sadly anonymous quote, “Sometimes, I want to ask God why He allows poverty, famine, and injustice in the world when he could be doing something about it, but I'm afraid he might ask me the same question.”
Together those two quotes seem to sum up our awareness of God’s constant presence and our consequent responsibility as obedient disciples: discipleship is an active not a passive calling. It’s as if God is saying to us, “You see the needs of the world too. I’ve called you to bring the Kingdom closer. Off you go.”
In today’s Gospel passage John calls Jesus’ miracle a "sign" and this is the first of eight miracles that John records. John wrote His Gospel, he tells us, that people might believe in Christ as the Son of God. Clearly, miracles provide a witness for this.
Through this sign, Jesus did what Mary wanted him to do. When Jesus performed a miracle, his glory was there for all to see and this miracle strengthened the faith of the five disciples who were with Jesus, as it should strengthen ours.
Let’s look around us and see what Jesus is doing in our world. The church talks a lot about mission but we need to remember that mission is always God’s mission. Let’s follow the advice of St. Teresa and see where God is already at work and join in with him there to bring his Kingdom closer recognising that by his Spirit Jesus is always with us to sustain us and meet our needs, in the everyday as in the spectacular.