The Wedding in Cana is one of the more familiar stories in the Bible, partly because it is the source of the “water into wine” miracle that most everyone knows about, and partly because somewhere along the line, the church decided that all weddings are sacred because Jesus attended this one. Our traditional wedding liturgy almost always includes some version of these words: “Marriage is an honorable estate, instituted of God, and signifying unto us the mystical union which exists between Christ and his Church; which holy estate Christ adorned and beautified with his presence in Cana of Galilee.” Presence – that’s it. All he had to do was be there. This is the only wedding we know of that Jesus attended, and John is the only gospel writer who bothered to talk about it, but in our tradition, because he was there, we affirm that all weddings are blessed.
The way John tells the story, shortly after the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry, right after he has gotten all his disciples together, Jesus takes a side trip to Cana with his mother. Cana was a small town some few miles north of Nazareth. This story is the only place Cana is mentioned in the Bible. As to the wedding, we don’t know who was getting married, how they met and fell in love, or, more likely, how their marriage was arranged. We don’t know what the bridesmaids wore or how tall the groom was? We don’t know how they might have been related to Jesus or his mother. In short, in telling this story, John leaves out all the information we would usually like to know when we hear about a wedding. Instead, the entire focus of the story is on the miracle, the “sign” John calls it, of Jesus saving the party by keeping the wine flowing. This, according to John, was the first miracle performed by Jesus. It revealed his glory and made believers out of his disciples.
Now certainly this is a good story. John tells it well. But what it means isn’t all that clear. I say that because what I think John wanted his readers to get out of the story doesn’t really work for most of us anymore. If you read through John’s whole gospel, you’ll notice that John talks a lot about “signs and wonders.” Turning water into wine was “the first” of the signs, but there were lots of others. Jesus heals the paralytic, feeds the 5000, cures a blind man, walks on water and raises Lazarus from the dead. He even fills his disciples’ nets with fish after they had failed to catch anything all night.
But it isn’t just the miracles themselves. All of the gospel writers tell miracle stories, but John just goes on and on about them. Not only does he tell us about the signs themselves, he also makes numerous other references to them:
2:23 – “Many believed in his name because they saw the signs he was doing.”
3:2 – “No one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.”
4:48 – “Unless you see signs and wonders you will not believe.”
6:30 – “What sign are you going to give us…”
11:47 – “This man is performing many signs. If we let him go on like this, everyone will believe in him.’”
And if, after all this, we have somehow managed to miss the point, John goes on to make it crystal clear when he sums it all up in his last chapter. “Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the messiah.” (20:30-31)
For John, that seems to be the whole point: the signs prove Jesus was the Messiah. The other gospel writers don’t focus so much on the miracles. They are there in the background, but not really the focus of the message. But John was writing for a different audience. John was writing mostly for a Roman culture steeped in the Greek gods. And in Roman culture, at the time, being able to perform miracles was the least the gods could do. The idea of a god who couldn’t perform signs and wonders would have been simply ridiculous. It would be like applying for a job as an attorney without having been to law school first. So, you might say, John was simply making it clear that Jesus had all the credentials he needed in order to be taken seriously as a god. He was talking about Jesus to the Romans in a way they could understand. When in Rome, do as the Romans do.
The problem is, we’re not in Rome. We’re not citizens of the Roman empire. We don’t worship a Pantheon of gods. In our more rational ways of thinking, signs and wonders don’t impress us all that much. In fact, they are more likely to have the opposite effect. Rather than proving the divinity of Christ, these days miracle stories are more likely to leave people thinking the faith is not based in reality. When we read a story like the Wedding in Cana, we hear it very differently than John’s Roman audience did. If it’s going to have continue to have meaning for us, it will probably need to be a different meaning than what John had in mind.
So, let’s go back to the story. The question I find myself asking is, what does it say about the nature of God? The idea that God, or Jesus, could perform miracles isn’t really what I care about, although it would certainly be handy to have someone around who could turn water into wine. We could see the story as a symbol of God’s abundance; an affirmation of the goodness of life, divine approval for our human celebrations. Even Jesus can appreciate our need to “let the good times roll.” How great is that? It makes you wonder why have so many of his followers over the years been so afraid of dancing, singing, celebrating and drinking an occasional cabernet?
That’s one way of looking at the Wedding in Cana; God’s blessing on our human celebrations. But if we think about the story a little more deeply, it isn’t long before some pretty troubling thoughts come to mind. O.K., so Jesus saved the party, but he seemed pretty reluctant about it, didn’t he? His first reaction was, “So they’re out of wine. Why is that my problem?” That doesn’t sound much like the sympathetic Jesus we’re used to. But then, Mary tells the servants to do whatever Jesus says, which suggests to me she had some idea that this might not actually be her son’s first miracle. If she knew he could do it, it’s probably because he had done things like this before.
In stories like this though, where I really get stuck is when I begin thinking about all the other weddings, all the other parties where the wine ran out and Jesus wasn’t around to make more. I begin thinking about all the desperate situations that arise in our lives, and the prayers that seem to go unanswered. Before long, I discover that thinking about the Wedding in Cana has brought this week’s news to mind; the turmoil in the Middle East, the fires in Australia, the earthquake in Puerto Rico, not to mention the people in our own congregation who are suffering. The problem with building a faith on miracles, is that they don’t always come when we pray for them.
One of the most difficult questions a pastor hears is just this; How could God let this happen? That question always bubbles to the surface after a tragedy. How could God let this happen? Why is it that God turns water into wine for some and lets the prayers of others go unanswered?
That question is right at the heart of our faith. In fact, I believe it is the fundamental question that all of our human religions and philosophies have tried to answer, in one way or another. Why do people suffer? Simply shrugging it off isn’t really an option for us. Human beings have a fundamental need for some explanation that we can live with. We need life to be meaningful. We need some understanding that helps us make sense of it all. So, some people decide that suffering is God’s way or testing us, or that people who suffer really deserve it for some reason, or that suffering is simply an illusion that we need to wake up from. Some people choose to believe that there simply is no good explanation because the universe is simply random and chaotic; that God is a delusion, that “stuff just happens.” This last one seems to be an explanation that there are no explanations. But that’s just another way of making sense of it all. It is entirely possible to find our meaning in the belief that life is simply meaningless. For some people, that’s the answer that seems to make to most sense.
But it’s no answer for me. Horrible things happen all the time. I don’t pretend to know why. But I don’t believe either that God is punishing the people who suffer, or that God simply does not exist. I believe that, in Christ, suffering can lead to redemption; that death and darkness never have the last word; that beyond crucifixion, there is always the possibility of resurrection. As Christ, Jesus himself suffers with those who suffer. God is right there in the fires, the earthquakes, the acts of war and the diseases of our human lives. The fact that people suffer does not have to mean that God is angry, or that God doesn’t care, or that God doesn’t exist. We can choose to believe in a loving, gracious and forgiving God, in spite of the fact that life is often not loving, gracious and forgiving. We can look upon suffering as a chance to roll up our sleeves; to feed and clothe and comfort those whose lives have been devastated, to embrace and embody the love and compassion of God in the midst of tragedy. And to take our communion liturgy to heart when it says, this is my body, which is broken for you. Miracle stories make for interesting reading. But the real miracle is that even when life comes crashing in, we are never abandoned by God.