Water to Wine: Saving the Best for Last

“Everyone brings out the choice wine first and then the cheaper wine after the guests have had too much to drink; but you have saved the best till now.”
-John 2:1-11

“You never get a second chance to make a first impression.” Perhaps you’ve heard this phrase as you went to your first job interview or went to your first day at school. Researchers in the social sciences tell us that it takes a tenth of a second to form a first impression and longer exposure doesn’t significantly alter the first impression.

In our Gospel lectionary text this week, we see the “first” of Jesus’ miraculous signs. Of all the miraculous signs Jesus could have chosen to give a first impression, why does he choose a simple wedding and the situation of a young couple desperately in need of avoiding social embarrassment? Jesus’ first miracle is to keep a party going. As far as first impressions are concerned, wouldn’t it have made more sense to give sight to someone born blind, or cast out some demons?

An extravagant feast for all peoples

The prophet Isaiah helps paint a picture of a Messiah who will bring unbridled joy through displays of extravagant abundance, “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” (Isaiah 25:6). Over and over throughout the New Testament we encounter Jesus turning the tables on scarcity by means of extravagant abundance. The miracle of water to wine is a beautiful example of this oft repeated theme.

It is no mistake that Jesus chooses the vessels of ceremonial cleansing to become the containers of liquid delight. The stone jars were used for ritual washing and it is notable that they were empty and in need of filling. Jesus does not reject the jars and what they stood for; he is re-purposing them for a different use. You might say that he is replacing the “water” rituals with “wine” meaning. Purity laws controlled by the Temple divided humans arbitrarily into designated categories of clean and unclean, but Jesus’ actions now serve to liberate that empty purification process into truly life-giving possibilities. The “water” from the containers of the Old Testament sacrificial system are replaced with the “wine” of Jesus’ love.

New wine, new guests

Dostoevsky makes poignant use of this story in the Brothers Karamazov. The great spiritual father Zossima has just died. When his decomposing body begins to create a stink, many of the people are disoriented, including Zossima’s follower, Alyosha. Late at night, the distraught Alyosha is praying in the hermitage near the body. Another monk happens to be reading the story of the marriage of Cana. The scene unveils a vibrant celebration and Alyosha see’s the elder monk rejoicing. Perplexed by what he sees, Alyosha confronts the monk in a spirit of disdain. The monk replies, “We are rejoicing….we are drinking new wine, the wine of great joy. See how many guests there are? He (Jesus) became like us out of love, and he is rejoicing with us, transforming water into wine, that the joy of the guests might not end. He is waiting for new guests, he is ceaselessly calling new guests.”

Jesus scandously invites us all to the party, the party that transforms the body and blood of Jesus into the bread and wine of unbridled joy and feasting. It is a lavish party full of delight….Jesus indeed saves the best until last.
 
Joel Van Dyke
Director of the Urban Training Collaborative
Street Psalms