Mr. Bean, parlor tricks, and turning water into wine

A couple of years ago a priest named Chris Yaw published a new book designed to introduce people to the Episcopal Church.  The religious literary graveyard is littered with such books.  Every time I receive a catalog from Church Publishing, there is a page full of new offerings eagerly encouraging me to purchase copies for newcomers and the Explorers Class.  But in Fr. Yaw’s case, he came up with a book title that set his book apart from all the others and caused his sales to skyrocket.  Fr. Yaw’s book is entitled, with no pretense to humility, Jesus Was An Episcopalian, and You Should Be Too!

At first blush, that seems arrogant.  But the more I thought about it I wondered, maybe Jesus was an Episcopalian.  I mean, sure, there’s the chronological problem that the Episcopal Church didn’t exist in the first century, coupled with the fact that Jesus was Jewish.  But since when have minor impediments such as these deterred Episcopalians?  I mean, we claim eleven U.S. presidents, more than any other church.  Why shouldn’t we claim Jesus?

Two of these three presidents, and nine others, were Episcopalian.

So, I began a research project to identify passages in scripture that would substantiate Fr. Yaw’s claim, and it didn’t take long before Providence pointed me to the second chapter of John’s Gospel.  Here we have it.  Jesus is at a wedding in Cana of Galilee.  As one who performs many weddings, I can tell you that the cares and concerns surrounding nuptials are legion.  Most importantly, there are the worship service itself and the emotional well-being of the bride.  These or innumerable other details might draw the primary attention of Jesus were he of some other church affiliation.  But Jesus saves his mojo for the reception.  He makes sure that the good folk in Cana don’t run out of wine!  And not just a little wine; six enormous stone jars full.  And not just any wine; the best, most delicate to the palate.  Jesus was an Episcopalian!

If there were any lingering doubt, let’s see from whom Jesus takes his cues in this story.  It’s not the groom or the best man.  No, Jesus hops-to when his mama, a fine and proper woman who understands how these social weddings work, tells him to.  Yes, I’m convinced that Jesus was an Episcopalian.

All kidding aside, we do exalt this story in the Episcopal Church.  In fact, so far as I can tell, this is the only miracle other than the Resurrection itself that the Book of Common Prayer singles out for special prominence.  Did you know that?  In the opening of the marriage rite the priest says, “The bond and covenant of marriage was established by God in creation, and our Lord Jesus Christ adorned this manner of life by his presence and first miracle at a wedding in Cana of Galilee.”

In other words, we lean on the miracle of turning water into wine as our support for the Christian Church being involved in the marriage game at all.  But I have to say, with all due respect to the compilers of the 1979 Prayer Book, and while there are many, many compelling reasons for the Church to be involved in marriage, this particular rationale is a bit flimsy.

Jesus doing magic tricksAt the risk of incurring a lightning bolt from heaven, Jesus’ miracle here seems like a parlor trick.  He’s not stilling some hurricane or exorcising a demon.  In fact, British comedian Rowan Atkinson (you know him as “Mr. Bean”) has a hilarious YouTube clip in which he plays an Anglican priest expositing this passage.  Atkinson preaches that Jesus followed the water-into-wine miracle first by pulling a rabbit from a hat and then by sawing Mary Magdalene in half.

This is a problem.  If we claim with a straight face that the essential thing about this story is a magic trick by the one we call Savior and Lord, we open ourselves to the caricatures that cynical and antagonistic folk in our culture love to make of the Church.  How, then, might we view this story differently?

As is so often the case in scripture, the story of the wedding in Cana is rich with meaning.  But to discern any of it, we must catch the interpretive clue at the story’s very outset.  Reread the throw-away line with which this passage begins: “On the third day there was a wedding…”  On the third day.

Rowan Atkinson (not actually a priest, though he'd make a good one)

Rowan Atkinson (not actually a priest, though he’d make a good one)

Sound familiar?  It should.  It’s supposed to resonate with us.  It’s not a throw-away line after all!  It foreshadows what will come in the Gospel.  It reveals that the truth of this story runs deeper than the events themselves.  As we are reminded each time we say the Nicene Creed, Jesus is resurrected “on the third day.”  The third day is the dawn of new life.  The third day is the first day of forever!  John begins this story with these words very intentionally.  With this beginning, we are to recognize that Jesus’ presence in Cana transforms the significance of this otherwise normal, rural, first-century wedding into a vision of resurrection life, a vision of what life in Christ looks like.

Everything that follows is, then, potent with symbolic meaning, including the note at the end that this is Jesus’ very first sign to the world.  This is, in other words, how he begins his ministry.  From the outset, then, Jesus foreshadows the end.  Namely, he reveals to us that everything he will say and do in his ministry points to his own resurrection.  For those who want to interpret Jesus primarily as a moral teacher or a healer or just a really good guy, this is crucial.  He is all of those, but he is primarily, essentially, the one who lives so that he may die, so that he can destroy death and all that separates us from God.

So what happens at this wedding reception?  It begins as a very normal, very worldly party in which all the guests launch themselves into having a raucous time.  But we get the sense that there is a forced quality to their revelry, mainly because the wine runs out so quickly.  To be blunt, they are drinking in order to get drunk, and in their world as in ours people do that when they are trying to deny or forget some difficult reality.

What reality might they be trying to forget?  A reminder of it sits just at the edge of the party: six enormous stone jars used for the purification rituals that are necessary in order for the people to be in right relationship with God.  Without the purification ritual, these men and women cannot be justified before God.  This is their reality: They are unworthy—unacceptable—to the One who has made them.  Their frenetic party masks an underlying despair.  Despite their finest clothes and wittiest toasts, they are not good enough.  There is a chasm between themselves and God.

By participating in the purification rite—through just the right motions and just the right magic words—they can experience a fleeting moment of what it is to be accepted before real life despoils them again and shatters the illusion.  (That’s the parlor trick in this story.)

From the corner Jesus looks back and forth between the party and the water jars.  Though at first he resists, his love gets the better of him, and he acts.  Jesus takes the water vessels, the very jars that pretend to offer acceptance but really accentuate separation, and he changes their water into wine.

Water into wineWith that, the party changes.  People recognize that this wine is different, and they ladle it from the water jars that have been freed from their old purpose and redeemed to something new.  The revelers don’t entirely understand what’s happened.  It will take Jesus’ entire ministry, his death, and his resurrection to reveal that with clarity.  But we, who know the whole story, can understand.  We know that the wine in the jars anticipates the blood Jesus will shed on the Cross and thus the wine of the Eucharist, in which the Lord binds himself to us so closely that we take him into ourselves.  Jesus’ miracle here says that the old hocus pocus–which insists that God is other, God is separate, or, in our modern culture, that God is simply not and we are both not good enough and in this world starkly alone–is all illusion.  Jesus’ first sign says that God is with us; God accepts and desires us immediately, and God wishes to fill us—like wine drunk deeply—with his love abundantly and endlessly.

When Jesus turns the water into wine, the real celebration begins.  Then the revelry—our revelry—takes on the character of eternal life.  It’s no longer frenzied or forced, because our separation from God is gone.  All we must do, like the servants directed in this story by Jesus’ mother, is trust Jesus that this is true.

Here at the end, because I downplayed it at the beginning, I want to come back to the importance of this miracle specifically for marriage.  It may be, as I said earlier, a stretch to claim that Jesus’ mere presence at this wedding intends to serve as his approval of marriage per se.  After all, we’ve all attended weddings in our lives of which we did not approve.  But the juxtaposition does matter in another, crucial way.  Jesus’ miracle at this wedding speaks to a deep truth about marriage and, indeed, about any loving partnership.  As any married couple knows, at some point in their lives together, the wine runs out.  The grand party ends.  The music fades.  The splendor gives way to life, and we feel separated from one another, just as we can feel separated from God.  The wine runs out.  And when it does, one of two things usually happens.  Either the marriage breaks down, or the couple rediscovers that the only wine that never runs dry is Jesus.

Whether in our relationship with God or our relationship with the person who is closest to us, it is Christ who overcomes separation, who binds us together as one.  Faith in Christ—centering our relationships in him—is the elixir that accepts us, sustains us, and indeed, in the best way, intoxicates us with love.

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