Commentary: John 2:1-11
This text is an extremely familiar story to preachers and parishioners alike. After doing considerable reading, I discovered allusions and references to this passage that may not be immediately apparent. So, rather than doing a regular exegesis of function, context, etc., I have chosen to offer three unique approaches to this passage. My hope is that they will inspire newness for you as you preach.
Elijah and Elisha
Allan Mayer, of the University of Manchester, noted that although John seems to hint at Jesus being a prophet like Moses, there is also a typological tendency to portray him as a prophet like Elijah and Elisha.1
Specifically, the Changing of Water into Wine and the Healing of the Official's Son (4:46-54) can be seen as being influenced by the Elijah and Elisha cycles. Focusing for our purposes on the Water into Wine passage, Jesus' miracle can be compared to Elijah providing the meal and oil in 1 Kgs 17:1-16 and Elisha's similar miracle in 2 Kgs 4:1-7. The similarities are: a woman informs the prophet of a shortage; there is a command to fill available vessels for the miracle; and, the situation changes from one of lack to one of abundance.
The social situations can be compared also. In both the Elijah and Elisha stories, the women were in desperate situations. The prophets provided what they needed to live. Jesus' concerns are broader. He is not only concerned with giving life, he is concerned with the quality of life. Jesus offers the best wine to the wine steward, a foreshadowing of his purpose in ministry: "I have come that they might have life and have it abundantly" (Jn l0:10).
Sr Vandana uses a tool indigenous to India, the Dhvani, a Sankristic method of exegesis, to interpret Christian texts.2 This method stresses the evocative, the beauty of the passage, and the emotive grip the text has on the hearer. Using this methodology, she offers the following.
Water is an ordinary, everyday, familiar thing. It is usually taken for granted, except when it is found absent and needed. The Lord used water as an instrument to manifest glory. As God often uses ordinary things for extraordinary purposes, it may be helpful to look at the creation story and then at John's gospel as an aid to understanding the miracle at Cana. Consider that out of the waters came the rest of creation. Out of water came plentiful wine. Later wine becomes the blood of Jesus.
The last verse of the pericope announces that "this was the first of the signs given by Jesus." Signs is an Old Testament term often meaning Yahweh's wonderful works. What was meaningful about those wonderful works was that they were worked by the God of Israel to reveal Godself to the people. So it is with the signs of Jesus: they reveal the nature of Jesus as the revelation of God.
Like ordinary water, an ordinary (and not so ordinary) mother is present in this story. The mother of the first creation was called Eve ("Life") because she was the "mother of all the living" (Gen 3:20). Mary is the mother of new life, not only as the mother of the Word made flesh, but also as the figure of the Church.
It may be that Mary is like water in another way. There is nothing weaker than water, yet nothing like water can overcome the hard surface of stone the way water can. Weakness overcomes strength and gentleness overcomes rigidity. In Mary's request of Jesus, was she not like water?
Jesus commanded the servants to fill the jars to the brim. This is the extravagance of water and of the love of God. God does not do things by half measures, but with abundance. Jesus himself dwells in the fullness (abundance) of God.
The wine itself is symbolic--of joy, celebration, life, love, new creation. (As a sidebar, the reader may want to look up "wine" in Frederick Buechner's Wishful Thinking: A Theological ABC.) Wine is offered at the Eucharist. The disciples, drunk on the Holy Spirit, were accused of being inebriated with too much wine. It may be understood that as Jesus gave the best wine, so believers can be inebriated with the love of God.
Only the servants "knew" what had happened. It is one thing to know in your head, it is something else to know by experience. Such was the knowing of the ones who had filled the jars. They were the ones who had labored, who had tasted, who experienced personally the Living Water. The servants were the ones who truly knew who Jesus was.
The Feast at Cana and the Great Hour of Jesus
Joseph Grassi, of the University of Santa Clara, has extrapolated on M. Girard's alternative hypothesis of the seven signs in John's gospel, rather than the traditional structure of the signs.3 Girard offers the following chiastic structure:
1 The wedding feast at Cana (2:1-12) 2 The restoration of the dying son (4:46-54) 3 The Sabbath healing at Bethseda (5:1-16) 4 The multiplication of loaves (6:1-71) 5 The Sabbath healing of the blind man (9:1-41) 6 The restoration of Lazarus to life (11:1-44) 7 The great hour of Jesus: his mother, the cross, and the issue of blood and water from Jesus' side (19:25-37)
Pertinent to our study and using this structure, we can see the similarities in the first and seventh signs. First, the presence of Jesus' mother is not incidental, but central for both these signs. Her name and presence open and close the first sign at Cana and the last sign at the cross.
There are also parallels in terms of obedience. In Jn 2:1-11, there is an emphasis on perfect obedience to Jesus' word. This is demonstrated three times: by Mary's word ("Do whatever he tells you"), by the waiters filling the jars as Jesus directed, and by their bringing the jars to the chief steward. According to Grassi, in the seventh sign, Jesus obeys the Scriptures and God's plan by taking the imperfect bitter wine as the cup of suffering prepared by his Father (19:28-30). As Jesus obeyed his Father's words, so Mary directs the community to obey Jesus' words.
In Grassi's words, "The episode at Cana may then mean that the choice wine of the new age can be prepared only in obedience to Jesus' words, just as the parallel blood/water/spirit from Jesus' side was made possible only by his acceptance of the imperfect, bitter `blood of the grape' in obedience to his Father. The community must participate in Jesus' hour and its meaning if they wish to receive the choice wine and spirit made possible by his death. Jesus' mother has witnessed this death and acts in her remembering role by pointing to imitation and duplication of her son's obedience.4
Prophets, ordinary water, an ordinary mother, wine, parallel signs--there is more than one way to get at this familiar passage. As new wine came out of ordinary water, may it be that new sermons come out of an "ordinary" scripture.
1. Allan Mayer, "Elijah and Elisha in John's Signs Source," The Expository Times, March 1988, pp. 171-173 . 2. Sr Vandana, "Water--God's Extravaganza: John 2:1-11," Voices from the Margin: Interpreting the Bible in the Third World, ed. R.S. Sugirtharajah (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1991), pp. 117-127. 3. Joseph A. Grassi, "The Role of Jesus' Mother in John's Gospel: A Reappraisal," The Catholic Biblical Quarterly, Jan. 1986, pp. 67-80. 4. Ibid., p. 79