Commentary on John 2:1-11
You can’t exhaust the richness of this text.
You may enjoy it. Swirl it in the glass. Sniff its delicate aroma. Sip it. Swish it around in your mouth. Talk about its uniquely Johannine vintage. Marvel at its rich, silky, smoky texture.
But please, as you move to the sermonic moment, don’t spit, as if you were only tasting Christ as a connoisseur!
Although the cup of the Johannine Christ is rich, and while we may, as careful exegetes of this text, parse the narrative quite closely, John refuses to parse Christ into ever finer distinctions of taste. Ultimately, John aims to turn connoisseurs into communicants. This cup, he would insist, is Christ’s own cup. As anyone acquainted with John probably knows, John writes that we may believe in Christ and, as if that were not enough, believe again in Jesus Christ, the Word of God made flesh.
That said, wine tasting does involve the swirl, the sniff, the swish, and the spit. Leaving off the spit (I just can’t go there!), we do need to get an interpretive location with this text. 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”.1 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.
Feeling the raw flesh of poverty exposed to one and all, she sidles up to Jesus who is perhaps enjoying the fruit of the vine himself (irony alert!), to say, “They’ve run out!”
“Hm?” grunts the Word made flesh, still smiling, feeling the pleasant warmth of wine and festive fellowship.
“They’re out of wine,” she repeats. “Look at the waiters, they don’t know what to do. I’m so ashamed!”
In light of the piety of your congregation, you may not want to “work” too much the idea that Jesus and the disciples were heavy drinkers. That distracts from the text’s witness — John witnesses not to Christ’s drinking habits as such, but to the promise that Christ gives life and life in abundance.
Perhaps the text addresses a particular facet of our life together: Maybe our earthly weddings serve wine for a particular class of guest. And yet, Jesus and the disciples “crashed” the party, not necessarily as the uninvited, but as the unanticipated poor. It was the “crush” of guests, particularly the poor, that the hosts of the wedding felt that day.
We get it. Our invitation lists frequently include those who can “afford” our parties. Our churches reflect too regularly our income brackets. We don’t want the wine to run out. But what if the often-extravagant love of the poor is the wine that God saves until last? Jesus will praise the woman who poured out her one prized possession, a pound of expensive perfume, anointing his body. She gave her precious tears of devotion. With the locks of her hair, she washed Jesus’ feet. It was the last gift of devotion and perhaps, like the wine that was served last in the wedding at Cana, also the sweetest.
But there is one cup yet to drink…
And one cup yet to share.
1. Raymond Brown, The Anchor Bible: The Gospel According to John I-XII (Garden City: Doubleday, 1966), 104-110.
2. Brown, 102.
PRAYER OF THE DAY
God of revelation,
You made your son known at a wedding, a public celebration of love. Celebrate love with us by revealing Jesus in our midst. Amen.
O God, beyond all praising, Gustav Holst