A lot of people in the world around us think Christianity takes things away from your life. They look at us Christians and they think ‘anti-sex, anti-gay, no parties, no drinking, gloomy thoughts about death and judgement, no leeway for having fun.’
Of course Christians haven’t always helped. I can’t say this for sure because I haven’t read it in the writings of St. Augustine myself, but I’m told he did allow that on certain days of the year — days that weren’t especially holy in the church calendar — it might be okay for a Christian married couple to have sex together, as long as it was strictly for procreation and they didn’t enjoy it. Honestly, with quotes like that, the world doesn’t notice a thing that you say on other subjects!
C.S. Lewis uses a lovely illustration in one of his books. Imagine a colony of shellfish, clinging underwater to the side of a dock, living their lives with no idea of what happens above the surface of the water. Then one day a particularly adventurous shellfish lets go of the dock and drifts up to the surface of the water. He spends a long time floating there, watching all that happens on the dock. Finally he sinks down again and rejoins his fellow-shellfish. They crowd around and ask him what he’s seen and what the people are like up there. He says, “Guys, you’re never going to believe this! I couldn’t believe it myself when I first saw it! Their bodies are unprotected; they don’t have shells!”
It would never occur to a shellfish that a shell might be a limitation rather than a protection. They wouldn’t understand that we humans are free to do so much more with our bodies because we don’t have shells! The only thing they would see is that something essential to life is missing from us humans, and the thought of living as we live would fill them with fear (if a shellfish can feel fear).
That’s the way it is sometimes when people who aren’t Christians think about the way we Christians live. All they can see is the things they think we have to give up. But what they don’t see is the things we gainfrom our faith in Christ. They don’t see the sense of joy we get from the presence of God, or the sense that we’re discovering the life we were created for in the first place. They don’t see our relief at being able to lay down our guilt and ask for God’s forgiveness, or the comfort of knowing that we’re not alone when times are tough. They don’t see the sense we have of being part of a church family where people love us and support us through the struggles of life. These are just a few of the things Jesus means when he talks in the Gospel of John about giving us ‘abundant life’.
Jesus uses these words in John 10:10, the passage about the good shepherd. He says, “The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly’. That’s what we’re discovering in Jesus: not less life, but more life, abundant life. It’s as if someone took the glass of water you were drinking and turned it into the most delicious glass of wine you’d ever tasted.
Which is what today’s gospel is all about. John’s was the last Gospel to be written, probably about sixty years after the events of Jesus’ life. John had spent many years thinking about the story of Jesus and what it meant. He writes his book on two levels. On one level, it’s a true story about events that really happened. But on a deeper level it’s like a parable, and each story has a deep spiritual meaning.
This is especially true of Jesus’ miracles. John doesn’t actually call them miracles. He calls them ‘signs’, because each one points us to something about Jesus. For instance, after he tells the story of the feeding of the five thousand, he goes on to say that Jesus is the real Bread of Life. If we come to him we’ll never be hungry, and if we believe in him we’ll never be thirsty. Or again, after he tells us how Jesus healed a blind man, he goes on to talk about what it means to be spiritually blind and how Jesus can restore our spiritual sight.
So here we are, right near the beginning of John’s Gospel. He says in verse 11 that turning water into wine was the ‘first’ of Jesus’ signs. He doesn’t only mean ‘first’ in the chronological sense. He also means that this sign is the ‘basic’ sign, the one that controls all the rest or explains all the rest. So what exactly is this sign teaching us about Jesus?
Let’s look at the basic story first. Jewish weddings in Jesus’ time were different from the ceremonies we know today. A newly married couple didn’t go away for their honeymoon; they stayed at home and kept open house for a week. In a life where there was so much poverty and hard work, this week of festivity and joy would have been a highlight of the year in a small village. It was a week-long feast!
For a Jewish feast wine was essential. There wasn’t a lot of drunkenness. Drunkenness was actually considered a great disgrace, and they actually drank their wine in a mixture of two parts wine to three parts water. Hospitality was seen as a sacred duty and failure of provisions would have been a problem at any time. But for the provisions to fail at a wedding would be a terrible humiliation for the bride and bridegroom.
The six stone water jars were there to provide water for Jewish purification ceremonies – things like washing hands before meals and between each course of a meal, and ritual washings of dishes and plates. This was nothing to do with biological cleanliness; it was about ritual purification. People would actually wash their hands like this before praying to God. Not to wash your hands before you prayed was almost like refusing to confess your sins.
So this water standing there would remind everyone of the ceremonies of the Jewish religion. This was the water Jesus used to replenish the wine supplies at the feast. John tells us that the servants poured out the new wine and took it to the chief steward, the man in charge of the feast. When he tasted the wine the servants brought him, he could hardly believe his palate! He tasted it again and then went to the bridegroom and told him off. “Why didn’t you serve this stuff first? This is the best wine I’ve ever tasted!”
This is the basic story. Out of his love and concern for this young couple, Jesus performed an act of kindness for them. But what’s going on at the second level, at the level of the deeper meaning? We have to dig a bit for this. The key to it is the six stone water jars. As we said, they were used in Jewish purification ceremonies. You might say that they represent the Jewish religion. There’s nothing wrong with religion; believing in God, trying to be good and performing correct rituals are probably good things to do. But we can notice two things about these water jars.
Firstly, the number six. To the Jewish people, seven was the number of perfection, so six was one short of perfection. It’s as if John is saying to us ‘Religion by itself is incomplete; without Jesus you still haven’t got everything you need’.
Secondly, the liquid in the jars was water; useful, essential, refreshing, but no Jew would prefer water to wine! Water is flat and uninteresting, while wine is tasty and exciting! It’s as if John’s saying to us “Without Jesus your life may be alright, but it doesn’t have that extra quality to it. But Jesus can transform your life into something wonderful, something quite intoxicating!” Remember that on the Day of Pentecost people thought the Christians who had been filled with the Holy Spirit were drunk.
Transformation – that’s what Jesus is all about. Millions of people get up in the morning, drink their coffee to zap themselves awake, go to work and function all day. They come home in the evening tired out, and after a bite to eat they watch TV or play video games or do housework until it’s time to go to bed. They do this for five or six days a week. Now and again they go out to the gym or take in a movie or play some golf. They have a few friends, and they might visit with them from time to time. They bring up children and put them through education so that they’ll be able to do the same thing.
But deep inside, many of them are wondering, “Is this it? Is this all there is to life? Surely there’s got to be more to it than this!” It doesn’t seem to matter how much money they make, how many things they buy, how many friends they have – something still seems to be missing. Their life is ‘just one water jar short of perfection’.
John is telling us “Jesus and his gift of eternal life — that’s what’s missing”. Later on in John’s gospel Jesus uses the illustration of being born again. Birth isn’t the beginning of life. The baby is alive before, in the womb, but it’s a very limited kind of life. There’s not much room for growth or achievement or relationships. But after birth there’s a whole new world out there, with all kinds of possibilities for growth and new experiences and freedom. In the same way, life without Jesus is limited, but when Jesus connects us to the God who made us, he opens up a whole new world for us. To be in conscious contact with the God who created you is the most satisfying experience you can ever have. It transforms your whole life.
So how do we experience this transformation that John is talking about here?
Well, one thing’s for sure – if we believe this gospel reading, we won’t expect to find what we’re looking for in religious ritual alone. Religious rituals and ceremonies can be wonderful ways of deepening our relationship with God. But if we don’t have that basic connection with Christ, they’re just human activities, initiated by humans, controlled by humans, and totally explainable on the human level. It’s a sad fact that many, many Anglicans have been baptized as babies, confirmed as teenagers, and come forward every week to receive communion, but if you get into an honest conversation with them, they’ll admit that they’ve never experienced anything like a sense of connection with the living God. I know, because I’ve had those conversations.
At the end of today’s gospel, in verse 11, we read these words:
‘Jesus did this, the first of his signs, in Cana of Galilee, and revealed his glory; and his disciples believed in him’.
From start to finish, the purpose of the gospel of John is to help us come to believe in Jesus so that we can find life in his name. It seems such a lame thing, really; what’s so special about ‘believing in Jesus’? Census questions routinely ask if people ‘believe in God’, and routinely large numbers of people reply that they do. But when you question them a bit more closely about what they mean by that, most people really only mean that they believe there is a God of some sort, somewhere.
But believing in someone is far more than just believing that they exist. If I were to say to you, “I believe in Brian Popp”, you would know that I meant far more than “I believe that Brian Popp exists”. I’d mean, “I’ve been getting to know Brian for a few years now, and we’ve had some long conversations, and I’ve asked him for his help a few times and he’s always come through for me, and I’ve come to trust him, because I know he won’t let me down”.
In other words, believing in someone is a relational thing, as when a man and a woman commit themselves to each other in marriage. So much of the future is outside our control, but on my wedding day, for me to say, “I will” meant saying to Marci, “I’m taking my life and putting it into your hands”. That’s an act of faith, and that’s what ‘believing in Jesus’ means.
What does believing in Jesus look like in our daily lives? Let’s listen to Mary here. What does she say to the servants in our gospel today, after she has her little conversation with Jesus? She says, “Do whatever he tells you.” (v.5) That’s what believing in Jesus looks like. If I trust my doctor, I follow his instructions. If I don’t follow his instructions, it would be reasonable for people to conclude that I don’t really trust him. In the same way, we believers in Jesus are learning each day to put the things he taught us into practice. That’s what faith looks like.
John is calling us this morning to do as the first disciples did, as Mary did. He wants us to see this sign that Jesus performed, to understand what it means, and to put our trust in him — for the first time or the thousandth time. Our life may feel dull and uninteresting, like stagnant water, but Jesus holds out the promise of abundant life, like the best wine imaginable. And he invites us to believe and trust in him, to put our lives into his hands in faith, and to live in obedience to him, because this is the way to experience abundant life. The invitation comes to you and to me and to every human being, every day. ‘O taste and see that the Lord is good; happy are those who take refuge in him’ (Psalm 34:8).