How do we touch the intangible? How do we live with that insistence which floats at the edges of our seeing, and sometimes invades our lives? Can we? Does it have any substance? The religion of Jesus’ people was insistent that God is, that God does touch us, that God creates order without which there would be a formless void. The religion persisted despite the repeated conquest of the nation. It struggled toward a universalism which saw that God loved all people, not just Israel. And like all religion before and since, it experienced that the insistent intangible did not conform to its expectations. Like us, Israel was often disappointed with God.
My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?
Why are you so far from helping me, from the words of my groaning?
O my God, I cry by day, but you do not answer;
and by night, but find no rest. (Psalm 22)
In his typical allusive style John imagines a wedding feast where they’ve run out of wine. It’s meant to be a celebration of new beginnings, the formation of new family connections, and the strengthening of the community, but the blessings— the signs of God’s generosity and good will— run short. This is a bad omen.
“There were six stone water-jars there for the Jewish rites of purification, each holding twenty or thirty gallons.” In the symbolic language of John, six jars are one jar short of perfection. They are the artist’s portrayal of what is lacking; the religion’s experience of its disappointment with God.
When the jars are filled with the water which would normally be used to symbolise the people’s connection with God, they are found, instead, to contain the finest wine. The steward called the bridegroom and said, “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 is presented as the one who completes what is missing in the religion of his people. He is God’s answer to our disappointment.
John says that drinking this new wine is like being born again. It’s life in all its fullness; never ending streams which mean we will never thirst again. He’s talking about touching the intangible, experiencing something that is not describable, something of which we might say, “You had to be there.”
If we are of the mindset that wants “proof” and a recipe for “how,” John’s gospel is somewhere between mystical and meaningless; reading it is an exercise in frustration. It’s like the student still convinced that life is made up of rational certainties, who asks a musician for proof of the existence of God. The musician says, “Well, there is the music of Bach. Therefore, God exists. You either see this, or you don’t.” The answer is incomprehensible.
But what if the student took the proof seriously? Such a student might begin to study music theory, learn an instrument dear to Bach, even join an orchestra. And learning the discipline of the language of Bach, might one day stumble into, or be opened up by, a mystery worthy of the name God. Or take what might seem the more direct route, and study theology.
The interesting thing about John’s story is the odd detail that the only people who knew what was going on, were the servants: “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… but you have kept the good wine until now.’ ”
The language of John is not particularly subtle, once we learn it: being a servant who does what Jesus tells us is what opens our eyes to Jesus. It lets us understand the new wine. Practising service of the kind which honours our neighbour— who is everybody— just as we honour ourselves, is the musician’s discipline needed to play Bach.
So if we were a student who decided to take John seriously, we would be the one who carried the wine, rather than one who wanted to be a guest of honour at the wedding. Service, love, and compassion are training to touch the intangible.
The text for this week: John 2:1-11
On the third day there was a wedding in Cana of Galilee, and the mother of Jesus was there. 2Jesus and his disciples had also been invited to the wedding. 3When the wine gave out, the mother of Jesus said to him, ‘They have no wine.’ 4And Jesus said to her, ‘Woman, what concern is that to you and to me? My hour has not yet come.’ 5His mother said to the servants, ‘Do whatever he tells you.’ 6Now standing there were six stone water-jars for the Jewish rites of purification, each holding twenty or thirty gallons. 7Jesus said to them, ‘Fill the jars with water.’ And they filled them up to the brim. 8He said to them, ‘Now draw some out, and take it to the chief steward.’ So they took it. 9When 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 10and 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.’ 11Jesus did this, the first of his signs, in Cana of Galilee, and revealed his glory; and his disciples believed in him.
Direct Biblical quotations in this page are taken from The New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.