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28th April 2024

Passage: John 2: 1-11

How do you view and understand this passage from St John’s Gospel? Does it grab you and enthuse you – or puzzle and perplex? These are rhetorical question so do not panic. But I am sure that there are many different interpretations. Alex has kindly agreed to give his perspective.



So you are the Christ

You're the great Jesus Christ
Prove to me that you're divine
Change my water into wine
That's all you need to
And I'll know it's all true
Come on, king of the Jews

Thus begins Lloyd-Webber’s Herod’s Song in Jesus Christ Superstar. The miracle of the Wedding at Cana, the first in St. John’s Gospel is one of the Superstars in public imagination, alongside Lazarus and feeding the multitudes. Let’s consider two aspects following Johnstone’s focus today of looking at things in two ways: the wine and Mary.

Alongside the fact that Jesus turns water into wine, a miracle and we see him at a party, condoning the gift of alcohol, St. John has a literary, metaphorical aim for making this Christ’s opening miracle. The scene, a feast with water becoming wine, points the way towards Communion, instituted by Jesus at the Last Supper and which was an aspect of early Christian worship as shown in St. Paul’s writings. He is the better wine saved for later hinted at to the groom by the Master of Ceremonies.

Let’s now consider Mary. Here we see two further pieces of literary craft by St. John. How did he know what she told her son? He seems quite certain using vivid direct speech here. Maybe it was an old story passed down amongst the disciples. We are witness to a charming moment where Mary gives her son a firm motherly prod to help solve the situation; we learn about her understated importance in giving Christ the confidence to embark upon his ministry. St. John demonstrates this relationship in Jesus’ words to her, translated in our reading today as ‘dear woman…my hour has not yet come’ which is the same as it is in the Authorised Version; The Message has ‘mother’. Neither really capture the Greek here. The NIV gives a tantalising footnote pointing out that ‘woman’ here has no sense of disrespect and that is correct hence The Message’s use of ‘mother’. The Greek is γύναι which means woman-wife (gynocracy, gynaecology) and although the word can have patronising and rude connotations similar to Rene Artois’ ‘woman!’ condescendingly addressing his long-suffering wife Edith in ’Allo ’Allo, here it is closer to ‘mother’, maybe even with a hint of an affectionate, slightly embarrassed teenage ‘ma’ or an aristocratic ‘mama…do I have to?’.

What The Message misses is that when Jesus next addresses his mother, from the cross (at 19.26), he again says γύναι as he gives her into the protection of the so called disciple whom he loved. There, The Message writes ‘woman’ like other versions, when in fact what we have here is St. John framing his narrative with a ring composition where Jesus’ ministry begins and ends with his mother who is at his birth and death; after the Apostles in Chapter I she is the first person in the Gospel to whom Jesus speaks and one of the last. The use of γύναι highlights this. The Wedding at Cana is the initiation of a story at a party which ends in sacrifice.

Thus this miracle has a threefold purpose. Firstly, in reporting a miracle. Secondly, in linking us to Jesus through the Eucharist. Thirdly, in demonstrating the importance of Mary the blessed Virgin without whose obedience, Jesus would have been nothing.

Johnstone A suggestion lifted from my Google search is,’ Jesus chose a wedding doubtless to emphasize the sanctity of marriage’. Doubtless to emphasize the sanctity of marriage? Doubtless? – Doubtful in my opinion.

More obviously, is to accept the account at face value: ‘Jesus performed this first miracle in Cana in Galilee; there he revealed his Glory and the disciples believed in him’. But, is such a demonstration his style?

Whichever way you view this miracle, if you are happy with your perspective please do not feel I am trying to change your view. I only wish to show that it is ok to question such passages and seek another perspective.

For me, there are just too many issues in this first miracle where a literal explanation does not work.

I used to enjoy watching Paul Daniels on his television shows. So clever, so convincing but I knew his magic was just tricks and sleight of hand. Jesus was a human being and no human can turn water into wine without the passage of time and some essential other ingredients. Secondly, demonstrating such powers does not fit with, for example, the Gospel passages telling the temptations of Jesus. I could extend the list of questions this passage raises for me. - Why is this first miracle not mentioned in the other Gospels; Why is the whole style of John’s writings so different in content and style to the other Gospels. Etc, etc. So, this passage was for many years a puzzle, but then came a eureka moment.

That moment occurred in a sermon from this very pulpit many moons ago. It is not often that sermons stick in my mind. I am minded of the story of a conversation between father and son set in a small croft in Highlands of Scotland:

Story - Dad, do we have to go to church? …

Stories stick in the mind the way straight statements do not.

It was suggested in the sermon that John was using this passage as a frontispiece to his Gospel; a literary technique in which the author seeks to encapsulate, in a brief illustration, what his narrative is all about. Using this illustration, John is saying ‘I am writing my Gospel, this Good News to show that Jesus transforms lives’. As water is transformed into wine, so your lives can be, will be, transformed by following Jesus. Life without Jesus is bland and tasteless, it is unfulfilled. Life with Jesus is life full of richness and colour.

I was struck whilst thinking about this explanation by the way this message is hammered home in subsequent passages of the Gospel. Consider the ‘I AM’ sayings which are such a feature in John’s Gospel.

  • I am the Bread of Life Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.
  • I am the Light of the World He who follows me shall not walk in darkness, but have the light of life.
  • I am the Door If anyone enters by me, he will be saved, and will go in and out and find pasture”.
  • I am the Good Shepherd I know my sheep and my sheep know me
  • I am the Resurrection and the Life whoever trusts in me, even if he dies, shall live.
  • I am the Vine If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit
  • I am the Way the Truth and the Life No one comes to the Father except through me.

Metaphors layered upon metaphors in which John interprets all that Jesus lived and died for. John really does not want you to miss his message.

My Gospel, my message’ says John is ‘follow Jesus and your life will be transformed’. Just as the water was transformed into wine, wine of the best quality so too can my, can your lives be transformed and fulfilled.

This is the Gospel truth. Whichever way you interpret it and many other passages, may it be the way that gives you the eureka moment when the purpose makes sense.