Voices, “Wedding at Cana”

1. David Lose
“Each of the four gospels starts with some kind of introduction, an encounter with John the Baptist, and then some form of a calling of the first disciples. And then each marks the move to Jesus’ ministry by describing a particular event.

“In Mark, the first thing Jesus does is cast out an unclean spirit, announcing his intention to stand against all that would keep the children of God from abundant life. In Matthew, the first major event of Jesus’ public ministry is his sermon on the mount, where he teaches the crowds from the mountain and comes across as one like Moses who brought down from the mountain. In Luke, Jesus first preaches, announcing his intention to heal and feed and release the captives and bring good news to the poor. First things matter.

“Here, in John, the first thing Jesus does is go to a wedding.

“How different from the other three. No healing, no preaching, no teaching. Just a wedding.

“More than that, Jesus doesn’t only attend the wedding, but he saves the day, turning water into wine when the wine had run out. Why?

“Perhaps the key is a line from John’s Prologue, the profound and poetic introduction to his telling of Jesus’ story. There John writes, “From his fullness, we have all received grace upon grace” (1:16). Not just grace, mind you, but grace upon grace. An abundance of grace in other words.

“And that’s the case here, as well. To run out of wine at a first century wedding would not have been just embarrassing, but disastrous. Wine was associated with blessing, joy, goodness, and more. To run out of wine would have felt like a curse, like you’d run out of blessing. And Jesus doesn’t just offer enough wine to cover the balance, but turns six huge washing basins of water into wine, providing more wine – and blessing – than they could have possibly consumed. More than that, and as the steward acknowledges, it’s the best wine they’ve had.

“Jesus, that is, creates abundance. Wine upon wine, blessing upon blessing, joy upon joy, and grace upon grace.”

2 Lindsey Trozzo

I’d like to offer three “tasting notes” to pay attention to as we encounter John’s story of Jesus’ first sign:

  1. What cultural expectations surrounding hospitality sit in the background of this story, and what might that tell us about Jesus’ mission?

Jesus’ actions are that of a friend and faithful community member; the provision of wine is a sign of shared hospitality. Rather than serving mediocre wine near the close of the wedding (when celebrants’ senses were less keen), Jesus brings a surprising abundance of fine wine. We may draw parallels to God’s work in the world. The beginning of Jesus’ ministry marks the start of God’s work in the world that has been long-awaited. The story leads us to expect surprisingly good and abundant things to come as Jesus begins his ministry. Starting the story with a provision of wine at a wedding feast, we can see Jesus’ mission as continuing God’s work in the world that provides hospitality and a space of belonging outside of the existing honor/shame structure.

  1. What other texts might the audience think of when encountering this story, and how might that enhance our understanding of the story’s meaning?

The image of wine at a feast echoes “Wisdom’s Feast” in the Hebrew Bible and continues the presentation (begun in John 1) of Jesus as the Jewish figure of Wisdom (Proverb 9:1-6). Jewish prophetic literature uses the marriage metaphor for God’s covenant with Israel (Hosea 2:14-23), and the abundance of wine figures as an eschatological image of restoration, particularly for Israel (Joel 3:13, 18; Amos 9:11-15). The abundance of wine and saving the good wine for last draws upon this imagery of eschatological hope that is often coupled with messianic expectations. 

Speaking of God’s promise to bring justice to all in the restoration of the Kingdom of Israel, Isaiah issues the invitation to enjoy wine without price. The invitation is accompanied by a declaration from God that the word that goes out from God’s mouth will not return empty but will accomplish God’s purposes (Isaiah 55:1-11). It’s hard not to see the resonances with the Prologue, where Jesus is described as God’s Word who is coming into the world to make God known. 

  1. What power dynamics, social structures, and expectations are subverted by the story, and how might that challenge us to consider our own ways of being in the worls

This story plays on the motif of insiders and outsiders and reverses expectations regarding who fits into those categories. This first sign of Jesus’ glory is revealed to just a few, and it is not who we would expect. We might expect the groom or the bride to play a key role here, noticing how Jesus has saved their family from shame — but they obliviously enjoy the wine. We might expect important guests to have inside information about where this good and abundant wine came from, but it is the servants who get a sneak peek at Jesus’ glory in this story. 

Isaiah’s imagery of a free feast with an open invitation to all (Isaiah 55:1-2) reminds us that from the beginning, God’s work for Israel would be work for the world at large. While Messianic expectations often focused on political redemption and independence for the nation of Israel, God’s “love for David” (Isaiah 55:3) was intended to draw in other nations (Isaiah 55:4-5). After another famous act of hospitality where Jesus washes his disciples’ feet, John famously commands that those who follow Jesus should “love one another” (John 13:31-35). The Gospel’s story shows that the goal of this love is that the whole world might be reconciled to God (John 17:20-23). God’s abundant provision of life goes beyond the anticipated boundaries.

3. Robert Hoch

Let’s begin with the structure, which is readily recognizable in other Johannine texts:

  • The narrator gives us a problem, a quite significant problem, something we care about: the hosts have run out of wine;
  • Someone, in this case, the mother of Jesus (Mary), presents Jesus with this problem;
  • Jesus responds with what seems like a disturbing level of indifference: “Woman what has this to do with me?”;
  • Just when we were beginning to think Jesus was above the fray of our human troubles, he turns around and answers the crisis with a dramatic superlative of mercy, in this case, with hundreds of gallons of wine, exceptionally fine wine.
  • Finally, the narrator underlines the purpose of this narrative, that we might believe in Jesus as the Christ, especially in light of the (future) resurrection.

That’s the formula (see also John 4:7-25; 4:46-54; 11:1-44).

At the level of theological themes you have a number of options available to you and all of them trend back towards a Johannine Christology. Raymond Brown identifies four major themes, any one of which might supply a theological motif for the sermon: (1) messianic replacement/abundance (Christ “replaces” the “old dispensation” with the abundance of the “new dispensation) — the doctrine of the eighth day; (2) the text plays a role in the evolution and eventual completion of the call of the disciples; (3) mother of Jesus takes the form of the “New” Eve (which is “completed” at the crucifixion, resurrection, and ascension); (4) the Eucharist is the choice wine, which the host gives “last”.While these theological themes are not mutually exclusive, they are sufficiently distinctive that they can stand on their own sermonically.

Just now, I might begin at the beginning, with the shortage of wine. Why did they run out of wine at this most important occasion in the village of Cana? Did the host not plan adequately? Were there more guests than the hosts had anticipated? What, precisely, went wrong?

That’s one way of beginning this sermon, locating the cause of the shortage. However, this is not just a shortage but a shameful feeling of poverty at the precise moment when we would want to convey the richness of hospitality.

This, I suppose, might begin our experience of the Johannine Jesus — we would not willingly drink from this cup. Think Lazarus, dead in his grave for four days. Or the taste of tears, which convey our regret rather than feelings of joy. Or the shame that poverty makes us feel, the sharp stab of public exposure causing us to reflexively turn into ourselves, to disguise our existence rather than proclaiming it.

Shame, a public emotion, informs my interpretation of this text. One possible reason that the wine ran out was lodged with Jesus, the mother of Jesus, and the disciples themselves. How so? Guests were expected to bring wine, according to the prevailing etiquette of the time — it was a BYOW (bring your own wine) wedding. But the disciples, the mother of Jesus, and Jesus himself were voluntarily poor. They may have imbibed but they did not bring wine as a gift for the wedding party.2

And yet, crucially, they were as thirsty for the joy of life as anyone else — perhaps thirstier. And acutely visible in their poverty. So perhaps their presence, as the poor, led to the shameful shortage. They ran out of wine because the disciples and Jesus interrupted the party of apparent abundance with the actual thirsts of the impoverished.

We don’t know that this was the case. The text doesn’t say. But maybe this begins to explain why the mother of Jesus (Mary), a guest, takes this to heart.