We have all been following the news from Haiti with profound sadness. The things we have seen are beyond our capacity to understand. Pictures of the streets full of people, living and dead; scenes of agony and desperation in a place not far away, a place that suffers and suffers and then must suffer more.
How can we hear a text from scripture as we just have, about a wedding; a time of joy, in a time of such agony? How can we speak of banquet wine in abundance when we see desperate people queuing for survival-water? How can we speak of divine intervention, a miracle in which God changes the course of nature for the sake of a few at a celebration, when nature has been allowed once again to utterly ravage the lives of tens of thousands of poor people, men, women, and as we see daily, little children?
I believe that it is remarkable that our lectionary gives us this story of the wedding in Cana today, today of all days, because it speaks directly to these questions. We need to hear this story as it was meant to be heard.
John’s multi-layered gospel
I need to begin this way. John’s gospel was written a full 60 years or so after Jesus’ earthly ministry. The church has had a long time to think, ponder, and reflect: not just on what Jesus said and did, but on the meaning behind the events and words. The story of Jesus that comes out is different from the earlier gospels, Matthew, Mark and Luke in its style and tone.
John’s story of Jesus is also a thick story. It is layered deeply, richly. Almost every word and phrase is chosen like the dots of color in a Botticelli painting. The dots, or the layers, are the stories of Israel’s past. Each story adds richness, texture, and depth to the story of Jesus that John tells.
Israel’s founding story (layer 1)
Israel’s founding story is told in Exodus: you remember the scene in which the people, newly freed from slavery under Pharaoh in Egypt, cross the Red Sea, and come to Mt. Sinai. The Mountain is thundering and quaking, and a thick cloud hides the glory of the Lord’s presence. The voice of God tells Moses to tell the people to consecrate themselves; to wash their cloths in purifying waters and to be ready. On the third day, the Lord “will come down upon Mount Sinai in the sight of all the people.” (Exod 19:10)
And he did:
16 “On the morning of the third day there was thunder and lightning, as well as a thick cloud on the mountain, and a blast of a trumpet so loud that all the people who were in the camp trembled. 17 Moses brought the people out of the camp to meet God. They took their stand at the foot of the mountain.” (Exod. 19:16-17)
What happened on that third day? The Lord gave his Torah, his law, and the purified people experienced his awesome glory. This is level one. This is why John begins this story after a period of preparation for it “on the third day” and why, at the conclusion we read
11Jesus did this, the first of his signs, in Cana of Galilee, and revealed his glory; and his disciples believed in him.
And this is why there is so much attention given in this story to listening to the words of Jesus, doing everything he tells you to do, as his mother tells them, and why when they do, it is miraculous. Hearing the words of Jesus and acting on them obediently is like hearing the word of God giving his Torah from Mt. Sinai.
The layer of the purity quest (layer 2)
There is another layer in John’s story of Jesus at the wedding in Cana; the purity level. There is no such thing as understanding Jesus unless we understand this layer. What does God want from us? What is it that we need to do to make him happy with us?
As it turns out, there are two kinds of problems we have to solve in order to be in God’s good graces according to the Old Testament: one is that we have to deal with the sins, the bad things we have done. The other is that we need to make sure we dignify his presence with purity. It’s not a sin to touch a dead animal or blood, but it does make you impure, and in order to stand and worship God, you need to be purified. You need to go through ritual purification, often involving washing your clothes and bathing.
On the other hand, when it comes right down to it, rituals of purification like purification sacrifices, washings and bathings are not the weightiest, most important issues. They pale in comparison to what Jesus called “the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith.” (Matt 23:23)
What does God want the most from us? The prophet Micah sums it up this way:
6 “With what shall I come before the LORD, and bow myself before God on high? Shall I come before him with burnt offerings, with calves a year old? 7 Will the LORD be pleased with thousands of rams, with ten thousands of rivers of oil? Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?” 8 He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the LORD require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God? (Micah 6:6-8)
Is the quest to be ritually, ceremonially pure ever at odds with the quest to “do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?”
The Good Samaritan’s wine and the victim’s blood
Let me tell you a story: there was a man who went down the road from Jerusalem to Jericho who fell among some bandits. They stripped him of his valuables, beat him, and left him for dead beside the road. He had wounds that needed dressing, he was bleeding. Along came a priest and then a Levite. They knew that to touch him, to dress his wounds, to come in contact with his blood would make them ritually, ceremonially impure. So they passed him by on the other side of the road.
But a person who was not at all an expert in keeping the purity laws came by and saw him. He had compassion on him. He acted with mercy, and Jesus tells us,
34 He went to him and bandaged his wounds, having poured oil and wine on them. (The Story of the Good Samaritan is found in Luke 10:20, ff.)
The priest and the Levite, so concerned with staying pure, missed the “weightier matters of justice, mercy and faith.”
Empty jars in Cana
At that wedding in Cana, where did Jesus tell the servants to put the water that he was going to turn to wine? Into the 6“six stone water jars for the Jewish rites of purification.”
You might think that the people would be inconvenienced in some way by this: where were they going to wash themselves to make themselves ritually, ceremonially clean if their purification jars were full of wine?
John asks us to look more deeply at this picture: Jesus found those purification water jars empty. Nobody was going to be made pure from them. The quest to keep yourself in God’s good graces by ritual and ceremony was an empty, failed one. Jesus first told them to fill the empty purification jars with water, to the brim, and afterwards, he replaced the water with wine; wine of superb quality to drink – perhaps wine from which one could dress the bloody wounds of a victim on the road.
The layer of the abundance of the Banquet of Messiah (layer 3)
There is one more layer to see in John’s story of Jesus; the layer of abundance. Jesus did not just make a little wine that day. John goes out of his way to be specific with this detail. Jesus made wine out of z“six stone water jars each holding twenty or thirty gallons.” That’s a minimum of of 6 X 20, or 120 gallons of wine!
Why is this layer of detail so important? Because it comes from the ancient prophets of Israel. They imagined a time in the future when God would do a new thing for his people. God would come to be with them in a powerful, saving way. When he did, it would be like a huge banquet, hosted by his Messiah. Isaiah imagines it this way:
6 On this mountain the LORD of hosts will make for all peoples a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wines, of rich food filled with marrow, of well-aged wines strained clear. for the LORD has spoken. 9 It will be said on that day, Lo, this is our God; we have waited for him, so that he might save us. This is the LORD for whom we have waited; let us be glad and rejoice in his salvation. (Isaiah 25:6-9)
Seeing the Layers together
Let us look at John’s story of Jesus with the layers put back together in the rich, dense way that John gave it to us. Jesus comes to his people at a time when their efforts to please God through the quest for perfect purity has exhausted itself; the jars of purification water are empty and useless. He comes on the third day, as God did on Sinai, speaking words, as God spoke Torah to Moses. When those words are heeded obediently, when they do all that they are told, the hour of God’s salvation begins.
Now, where there was emptiness, there is abundance – enough for a huge banquet feast, just like the prophets imagined. Now, instead of the pinched-off, self-conscious, self-referential, agony over personal purity that leaves other people suffering and bleeding on the side of the road, there is wine enough to rejoice with for everyone; the clean, the unclean, the whole, the bleeding, the impure and everyone else. This is the sign that the kingdom of God has come! This is the sign that, if you see it, understand it, and believe it, will bring the most glory to God!
Implications for us in this Earthquake time
Now we see why this text is so important for us at this time of great need. This is not the story of a once upon a time magic trick. This is about what Jesus’ coming to earth means at its deepest level. It means the whole game has changed. God’s concern is not about ceremony and ritual; God’s concern is to bring his overwhelming presence into the midst of our daily lives. When it comes, when we hear his words, as we understand what he cares about, as we experience his abundance, we respond with the same extravagance to the hurting, bleeding people around us.
That is why we need to hear this when Haiti is in agony. We are the ones with the wine of the kingdom, bursting from our wine-sacks. The people of Haiti right now are the victims on the side of the road, bleeding, needing help. We will go over to them, touch them, bind their wounds, get bloody, become impure – who cares? – take out that wine and pour it on the hurting places, bringing healing and relief.
What happens when people of faith respond obediently to the words of Jesus in this way? Glory breaks out. God is glorified. Jesus is glorified. God’s will is done on earth as it is in heaven!
Photo credit: New York Times online