Winemaking was a practice in the ancient world we now call the Middle East and parts of Africa. Wine was made in the triangle of the Black Sea, the Caspian Sea and Lake Kinneret (the Sea of Galilee—consider eastern Turkey, Georgia and Armenia. Then the vines made their way to Egypt. There wine’s importance was first documented. The vines also passed through Canaan and ancient Israel. After that, Phoenicians, Greeks and Romans brought the vines to what is now Western Europe and North Africa and then the Spanish brought it to the Americas.
Wine figures prominently in the Bible—both the Old and New Testaments. Prophets like Isaiah use wine frequently as imagery in prophecy. Prominent characters like King David, Moses, and many others were wine drinkers. Noah was the first recorded vine grower. He planted his vineyard where the ark came to rest on Mount Ararat. Back in Jesus’ day, people drank a lot of wine because it was often safer than water. Wine was also a disinfectant for wounds, an agent for dying, a digestion aid, and an instrument for religious ritual.
Making wine was a family enterprise. Everyone would have a role in the harvest. People carried grapes in baskets and then put them on the floor of the winepress and then they pressed the grapes with their bare feet. Finally, though wine was stored in pottery jars–
When people traveled, they would put the wine in animal hides [often goat]. These wineskin flasks allowed for the wine to keep fermenting while it was stored.
So fast forward to Jesus of Nazareth, and let’s be honest—Jesus was a typical Nazarene Jew who enjoyed wine. He was referred to as the one “who came eating and drinking, a gluttonous man and wino, a friend of tax collectors and sinners.”
Sounds like my kinda dude.
How many times have you ever considered that Jesus may have been really fun to hang out with? Hmmmm….
Anyway, we find ourselves in a John Gospel story that is often referred to as the first miracle story. But let’s bring it back down to earth. Jesus and his fam and some of his followers are at a wedding in nearby Cana of Galilee. It’s a party. Now at some point, they ran out of wine. And that’s bad news for a wedding reception. How are grandma and grandpa going to do the electric slide without wine?
So Jesus’ mom tells Jesus as much: “There’s no wine.”
At first Jesus seems a little put off. I mean, is it really his problem that the hosts ran out of wine? But Jesus’ mom knows what she’s doing. She’s savvy. She’s in on the joke, you see. She tells the servants to do whatever Jesus says. Then we get some important details. There are 6 stone water jars for the Jewish rites of purification. Aha! Let’s explore this. In Jesus’ day, the Jewish people had developed water purification rituals before entering the temple or other religious rites. They would submerge themselves in a mikveh, a collection of water similar to a pool.
So those 20-30 gallon jars were for purification purposes. You sensing where this is going yet? I don’t need to fill in the blanks, right?
Consider that Jesus of Nazareth had recently met up with crazy John the baptizer at the River Jordan to be submerged in the water, baptized. It was a ritual cleansing for “reorienting” [repenting]. So now Jesus has the people fill those empty purification jars with water. What was supposed to hold “holy” water would now be party juice. They do it and then they draw some out for the chief steward. He takes one drink and is like: “What is this? It’s gooood…” See, usually you serve the good wine at the beginning of the reception and then people’s taste buds get numb so that at the end of the night you can serve the bleh or meh wine.
But the opposite was true—the best wine for last.
So let’s review the opposites at play here:
-best wine served last, not first
-religious, ritual jars filled with secular juice
-divine to profane
-clean to unclean
There is so much to say about this story. What stands out to me is the interplay of water as a purifying, cleansing, blessing agent and wine as coming from that water and bringing about joy, and existing in the everyday lives of ordinary people, and quite frankly, reminding us that all our religious rules and rites can blow up at any moment.
And it’s a world of opposite possibilities:
Exclusion to Inclusion
Division to togetherness
Walls to open spaces and welcome mats
Hatred to Compassion
Judgement to Acceptance
It’s a world of possibilities and the world of incarnation—of the divine and human coexisting just like water and wine coexist. It’s a world that exists in each one of us, the possibility to make change. You know, Martin Luther King once said:
There will be resistance to us turning water into wine, friends. There will be people with red baseball hats that call certain others unclean and shout hateful and harmful rhetoric about making things great again, but we’ve learned from this story, haven’t we? Being great isn’t about power or sovereignty or control. We don’t get to say who is clean or unclean. At any moment, things can flip.
See, greatness is about serving others in love.
For if our actions are generated by love, we will make change. We will change water into wine. We will turn the tables in ourselves and in the world. Salud!