Jesus arrives at a wedding. At the doorway he is greeted by 6 great jars made of stone and carry 20 – 30 gallons of water each but still not full. It was clearly a well-to-do wedding.
And the jars at the point of entrance were not a practical matter for questions of hygiene. They didn’t wash their hands and feet to clean them in the way we would think of cleanliness. They washed themselves to make themselves religiously clean. They washed themselves to please a God they believed wanted them separated from all kinds of impurities, impure people as well as objects. Sure dirt was ‘unclean’, but dirt was only one of many things that were unclean. So these jars were a kind of extension of the temple (the temple is where Jesus stages his protest in the very next segment of John’s gospel).
There is a crisis at the wedding. The wine runs out. How are they supposed to celebrate a wedding without wine, for goodness sake? Jesus’ mother Mary plays the role of administrator and calls on Jesus for assistance. Jesus is not prepared for this change of plan. His time has not come, he says. And yet when flexibility is called for Jesus switches to plan B.
He fills up the water jars of purity and lo and behold it turns out to be good wine, the kind of wine you usually have at the beginning (because what’s the point of good wine once you’re drunk) and the party goes on…
It’s a sign!… says the author of John’s gospel. And in calling it a sign the writer of John’s gospel reminds us of how the ancient Christians (first 1500 years) understood all the stories of scripture, indeed how they understood the scriptures themselves – as signs… signs to be interpreted by the gospel. The ancient church says to us, if you look closely at these stories, whether it’s a story of Moses, or Rebeccah or a story of Jesus himself you can see what God is doing in Jesus of Nazareth.
My favourite blogger, Richard Beck once posted two passages of scripture, side by side, under the heading Jesus: in Microcosm.
The first passage is from Leviticus 13 (45-6) and reads:
Anyone with such a defiling disease must wear torn clothes, let their hair be unkempt, cover the lower part of their face and cry out, “Unclean! Unclean!” As long as they have the disease they remain unclean
They must live alone; they must live outside the camp.
The second passage is from Matthew 8 (2-3):
A man with leprosy came and knelt before him and said, “Lord, if you are willing, you can make me clean.”
And Jesus reached out his hand and touched him.
And it’s in the contrast, suggests Richard Beck, that we see the heart of what God is doing in Jesus. It’s a sign
During the holidays I watched a movie by Lars Von Triers entitled “Breaking the Waves”. And it tells the story of a very conservative Scottish Presbyterian religious community that maintained its purity by obeying a strict set of rules some of which were about purity… and how the main character Bess McNeil marries an outsider introducing a threat to the purity of the community. Bess has a kind of personality disorder, you might say… and one aspect of it is her profound attachments that she forms. In the end (to cut a long story short) her love for Jan the outsider she married leads her to act in ways which offend deeply against the moral code of the community and she is cast out of the community and dies at the hands of a brutal mob of sailors.
It’s a great movie, but not for the faint-hearted. It portrays in stark images the waters of purity. The jars that Jesus was greeted by as he arrived for a wedding.
So the water signifies the religion of purity. What does the wine signify? We say it every month in worship. This wine is my blood of the new covenant. It is the life of a man poured out in love. Or in the movie it is represented by the life of Bess McNeill poured out in love.
The rituals and rules of purity represent a God who cannot touch the unclean. A God (and therefore a people) who barely connect with the earth. A God waiting in heaven to admit the select few, who have purified their existence. In the wine we see a God who gets involved in all of creation and who lives among us a life poured out in love, touching those that the Pure One refuses to touch.
It’s a sign. A bit like the story of Les Miserables… one of the greatest parables of the gospel ever written has been made into a movie… you’ve got to see it! Anyway, the story tells of three kinds of politics, three ways or organizing life (here I am also indebted to Richard Beck). There is the police officer, Javert. Javert represents the pure religion of law. The God of justice cannot touch the sinner. Javert’s religion means he cannot look on sin except to punish. Then there are the revolutionary students. They are middle-class boys who dream of a better world. In their own way remain pure and separate from the common folk in their idealism, and their attempt to fight the forces of evil at the barricades. The main character, Jean Valjean is different. He has been touched by grace, earlier on in his life. Jean Valjean offers what we might call a politics of compassion. He, like Jesus, reaches out and touches Fantine, and Fantine’s daughter. In his life too the water of purity becomes the wine of grace.