‘CANA IN GALILEE is a three-day journey from Bethany beyond Jordan,’ the Apostle says. ‘So, it was on the third day –’ He turns to the Elder who is about to start writing. ‘Please be sure to put exactly that, my dear friend. It was on the third day – a Wednesday, the seventh day after my story began – that the five of us – Jesus, Andrew and Peter, Philip and Nathanael, and I – turned up in the village and made our way to the house where the wedding feast was clearly in full swing. Jesus’ mother, Mary, was already there. I’ve already told you, I think, that she was related in some way to the groom – his aunt, I believe – and that that was why she was there; she had agreed to supervise the catering arrangements.
‘Of course, as soon as the news reached those inside the house that Mary’s son, Jesus, had arrived with some friends, we were all invited in and plied with as much food and drink as we wanted. It was a great party, but, behind the scenes, unbeknown to us, our unexpected presence there was putting a big strain on the catering; and after only a few hours, Mary discovered to her consternation, that all the wine had gone. What a catastrophe! If the news were to have got out, the bride and groom and their families would have been carrying the shame of it for the rest of their lives, so something had to be done and it was Mary’s job to do it. But what? Well, she thought, as her son and his friends were the main cause of the upset, she would put on him the burden of fixing it. So, taking Jesus aside, his mother told him bluntly, “They have no more wine.”
John’s audience is gripped by the story; the Apostle has everyone’s full attention.
‘So, what did Jesus do?’ asks Leandros.
‘He didn’t do anything – not straight away,’ replies John. ‘All he said was, “Woman –” (And that, by the way, was a highly respectful way of addressing her; it was by no means rude or curt. Indeed, I recall Jesus addressing her in exactly the same way from the cross [John 19:26].) “Woman,” he said, ‘why do you involve me? My hour has not yet come.”’
‘What did he mean by that,’ asks Archippus.
‘That’s not an easy question to answer,’ replies John. ‘It certainly didn’t mean what Mary thought it meant – that he wasn’t yet prepared to do so something about the impending crisis caused by the wine running out – because, as I’m about to tell you, he did do something about it. What I think he meant, on one level, was that it was not time for him to “go public” with his “signs and wonders” ministry if I can call it that. And on a deeper level still, I think he was saying that the hour his whole earthly life was now heading towards – the hour when, on the cross, he would be the Lamb of God taking away the sin of the world – was still some years away. I say that because, when the time for him to be delivered up to death did approach, I remember him saying [John 12:23]: “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified.”’
‘What did Mary do when she thought Jesus was refusing to get involved?’ asks Barnabas.
‘At first, nothing,’ says John. ‘She just looked into his eyes, and … well, something passed between them. I think that was the moment she knew that her son was now fully under his heavenly Father’s authority, not hers; that she no longer had a part in telling him what to do or how to do it. At any rate, after a moment or two, she gave a little nod of assent, went over to the servants who were looking scared and said to them, “Don’t worry. Just do whatever he tells you.”’
The Apostle lapses into silence, lost in his memories.
‘John, please go on,’ says Barnabas after a while.
‘Sorry,’ says John. ‘Well, the thing was that away from the party, over by the entrance to the house, stood six stone water jars. each holding from twenty to thirty gallons …’
‘Six water jars!’ exclaims Leandros, interrupting the Apostle. ‘Holding twenty to thirty gallons! That’s … that’s …’
‘Between 120 and 180 gallons,’ says Barnabas (who is better at maths than Leandros.)
‘Exactly,’ says Leandros. ‘Who needs that much water?’
Ezra is quick to jump in and answer him. ‘Devout Jews do – Jews who take seriously the purification laws in the Torah. I imagine the jars will have been the kind used for ceremonial washing and the reason there were so many must mean that the household was a priestly one. Am I right, John?’
John nods his head. ‘The groom’s father was a priest.’
‘You see,’ Ezra continues, ‘in those days, when there was still a temple in Jerusalem, there were 24 divisions of priests and the members of each division lived in one of 24 towns and villages scattered throughout Israel. Cana was one such village. And although the priests served in the temple at Jerusalem for only a fortnight each year, they observed the purity laws to the nth degree on a daily basis whether they were on duty or not; so, they needed lots of water. Water not only for washing feet but also for washing utensils and for washing hands at the beginning of every meal and between every single course.’
‘John, we know you like numbers,’ says Barnabas, ‘and you have stressed that there were six water jars. Is that of any significance?’
‘What do you think, Ezra?’ asks the Apostle.
‘Well, seven is the number of perfection and completeness,’ says Ezra, ‘and, because six falls just short of that, it represents incompleteness and imperfection. So, given that you’re talking about water jars that symbolise Jewish law and tradition and ceremonial purity, I’m guessing you’re underlining the fact that that whole Jewish way of relating to God was inadequate and defined a way of life that fell short of what God really wanted for his people.’
‘But, so what?’ says Leandros. ‘What’s that got to do with the story?’
‘Because of what happened next,’ says John. ‘Jesus said to the servants, “Fill the jars with water” – as it was towards the end of the feast, you see, a great deal of the water had already been used. So, the servants did as they had been told, brought water from the well and filled the jars to the brim. Then Jesus told them, “Now draw some out and take it to the master of the banquet.” Well, that’s what they did, and the master of the banquet tasted the water, but (as you might have guessed) it was, by then, no longer water; it had been turned into wine. Not that the master of the banquet knew anything about that, of course – though the servants did. Anyway, the master of the feast was a bit bemused by the sheer quality of the wine he’d tasted, so he called the bridegroom over and whispered, “What’s going on? Everyone brings out the choice wine first and then the cheaper wine after the guests have had too much to drink and can’t tell the difference; but you have saved the best till now.”’
Everyone is silent for a while, pondering the story; then Leandros speaks. ‘We Greeks have stories like that,’ he says. ‘You know, of course, that Dionysus is the Greek god of wine. Well, I’ve heard that each year, at the festival of Thyia which is held near the shrine of Dionysus in Elis, empty jars are placed in the building by the priests, in front of everyone, then the priests leave, and the doors are sealed, yet the following day the jars are always found to be full of wine.’
‘And do you believe it?’ asks John.
‘No,’ says Leandros. ‘I think most people know there’s some sleight of hand involved. But it’s a bit of fun, and everybody wishes there really was a god who could make wine out of nothing … or even out of water, for that matter.’
‘And Jesus came to show us that there is,’ says John.
‘But the story is not really about wine, is it John?’ says Barnabas. ‘I mean, I know that the story is true; it really happened. But the point of it is surely not just that guests at a village marriage feast ended up knee-deep in the best wine ever. I’m sure there’s more to it than that. Indeed, I’m getting the feeling, John, that this story is loaded with meanings – lots of them – or you wouldn’t be making such a big thing of it. And I’m guessing one of the meanings has to be that Jesus came to do away with the old law-based way of life and to put a new, better way in its place.’
‘Er, sorry,’ says Leandros, ‘and no disrespect, Barnabas, but that isn’t what happened with the jars and the water and the wine, is it? Jesus didn’t magic the old ones away and get rid of the water and then conjure up a new jar full of wine. It was the water in the old jars that he turned into wine.
The old Apostle chuckles. ‘Well said, young man; well said! You know, I remember Jesus once declaring – quite early on in his ministry – that he had not come to abolish the law but to fulfil it. If you think about it, to fulfil is to fill full, or to “fill to the brim,” you might say – and that’s what happened with the water jars. The “best wine” of the new creation was the “filled up” water of the old creation. The one flows out of the other. The water of the old order was always an anticipation of, or a looking-forward to, the wine of the new order. And, though the water was never bad, it was always inadequate; it only ever foreshadowed – and was only ever meant to foreshadow – the reality of the finest wine which was yet to come. And not meagre quantities of it, but wine by the hundred gallons – the “fulness” I talked about earlier from which we have all received, “grace upon grace.”’
Ezra is nodding, an excited smile on his face. ‘You know, John,’ he says, ‘when you talk about banquets and the finest wine, to say nothing of the disgrace that would have dogged the bridegroom’s family if Jesus hadn’t stepped in, I’m reminded of what the prophet Isaiah once said [Isaiah 25:6, 8]: “On this mountain the Lord Almighty will prepare a feast of rich food for all peoples, a banquet of aged wine – the best of meats and the finest of wines … The Sovereign Lord will wipe away the tears from all faces; he will remove his people’s disgrace from all the earth.” It’s almost as if that is what Jesus was acting out at the wedding at Cana.’
‘Yes, yes, yes,’ cries John. ‘You’ve got it, Ezra! That is exactly what he was doing! There, being congratulated by the master of the feast for the quality of the wine, was the bridegroom of Cana who would shortly claim his bride, while on the side-lines, watching that bridegroom, was Jesus, the Bridegroom of Heaven, who had come to earth to fling open the doors to his own great wedding banquet, at the close of which he would claim as his bride the Church – the ransomed, healed, restored, forgiven, united and glorified people of God to which you Ezra, and you Barnabas, and you Leandros, and you, you , you …’ (the apostle points to each one sitting and standing and listening to him) ‘… belong. Isn’t that just wonderful?’
‘And, oh, my goodness,’ exclaims Barnabas. ‘now I understand why you told the Elder to make sure he wrote, “On the third day.” You’re thinking of the resurrection, aren’t you – the day when the Great Wedding Feast was launched, when the new creation dawned, when the kingdom of heaven was opened to all believers – ourselves included?’
‘Perhaps I am,’ says John. ‘Perhaps I am.’
‘You know,’ says Phoebe. ‘I shall be thinking of this story when we meet to partake of the Lord’s supper on the first day of the week. It has given me a new way of entering into what we shall be doing. As I drink from the cup, I shall be joining in the wedding feast and drinking the wine of the kingdom and worshipping the Bridegroom.’
‘I hope you will, dear sister, for the wedding at Cana and the Lord’s supper both point to the same ultimate reality,’ replies John. He turns to the Elder. ‘You can end the story, my dear friend, by saying, “What Jesus did here in Cana of Galilee was the first of the signs through which he revealed his glory; and his disciples believed in him.”’
‘I thought you believed in him back at the Jordan when you began to follow him,’ says Leandros.
‘So we did,’ says John, ‘but not as the one who had come to turn water into wine, to breathe life into the old order and make all things new; not as the one who had come as the bridegroom to woo and to win the whole wide world and make it – us – his bride. I said earlier that “the Word became flesh” and that we “beheld his glory,” well it was there, at the wedding at Cana, that we caught our first glimpse of it – the glory that, three years later, would burst out in triumph from the cross and empty tomb and would fling wide the gates to the marriage supper of the Lamb.’
John leans back. ‘It has been a long day, my friends, and look, the sun is setting. I am rather weary and beginning to feel cold and hungry and thirsty. Shall we have a fire and some food and wine?’
‘That must be quite some party,’ says Barnabas as the sounds of revelry from the city below is carried to them on the evening breeze that is coming off the sea. He leans back contentedly and views his now-empty platter.
Ezra laughs. ‘It’s a good job we got your wine when we did, John. By the sound of it, Simon will have none left to sell by tomorrow; certainly not by the end of the wedding couple’s “open-house” week.’
‘Did the wine at Cana keep going for the whole of the wedding week?’ asks Leandros, starting to clear the empty dishes from the table.
‘So far as I know,’ replies the Apostle. He picks up his cup and looks within it. ‘In fact, I’m sure it did – kingdom wine never runs out, the new life in Christ is inexhaustible – but we weren’t still around to find out. After the wedding feast, we stayed for the wedding ceremony itself and saw the bride and groom carried off in torch-lit procession to their new home, but then, the following morning, we left with Mary and Jesus and his brothers and went to Capernaum for a few days.’
‘Why Capernaum?’ asks Barnabas. ‘I’ve always understood that Jesus’ family home was in Nazareth and that’s where Mary and Jesus’ brothers and sisters still lived.’
‘It was,’ replies John. ‘But Simon and Andrew and I (and my brother James) were all living and working in Capernaum and Jesus saw it as a more central location from which to do his work than Nazareth which was about 20 miles to the west. Once we were back in Capernaum, we easily found lodgings for Mary and the rest of Jesus’ family.’
‘What about Mary’s husband, Joseph?’ says Ezra. ‘Where was he?’
‘Dead,’ says John. ‘He’d been dead for some time. Jesus had been the breadwinner for many years, but now that his half-brothers and half-sisters were no longer children, he was free to be about his true Father’s business in the fullest possible way.’
‘If Jesus was making Capernaum the centre of his activities, why did you all stay there for only a few days?’ asks Leandros, sitting back down at the table.
‘Because it was the end of March and almost time for the Feast of Passover,’ says John, ‘and Jesus had already made it clear to us that, once we had attended the wedding in Cana, he would be returning to Jerusalem for the festival.’
‘So, he really did see his being at that wedding as a matter of great importance,’ says Ezra, adding more charcoal to the brazier glowing in the courtyard.
‘Indeed,’ says John. ‘As I hope I’ve made clear, that wedding and all Jesus did there provided the key and the context for everything that was to follow. Understand what Jesus was silently saying to us by what he was doing at that wedding, my friends, and you’ll have no trouble understanding everything that he did and said thereafter.’