“Now standing there were six stone water jars for the Jewish rites of purification, each holding twenty or thirty gallons.” Count them. Six. Not seven. Six.
They were stone jars. Stone. Not clay. Stone. Much harder to make, much heavier, but also purer.
Even at the lower estimate: 20 Gallon capacity, there seems to have been at least 120 gallons of water. That is a lot of water for purification.
“One the third day,” writes John, “there was a wedding in Cana of Galilee, and the mother of Jesus was there.” The third day of what?
This story happens in Cana. That is home to Nathanael (21:2), who, as we enter the story this week, has just been called to follow Jesus and was promised to see: “heaven opened, and the angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of Man.” (1:51) It is odd that this little detail is left out in chapter 2 but is recalled in chapter 21, almost as if to remind us of this beginning of the cycle of signs.
It is easy to get lost in the details numbers and it is usually posed that concern for the number of pots or amount of water and the like is brought to the text and not lifted from it. I will grant that with this comment: John very well may have meant that the 120 gallons was merely a hint at how great the miracle was but the details beyond just the amount of wine mattered to John somehow. So why not look at the numbers seriously, especially in John who likes to hide things behind double meanings?
The presence of that much water seems to say that the groom and his family had been diligent in their planning. They had plenty of water present for every guest to wash before entering the wedding as was customary. But, the number “7” has a place in biblical story as does the number “6”, simply by being incomplete. (Rev 13:18)
The jars are stone. That makes them expensive jars. So, it may well be that the host is well off since he can afford this luxury. He can therefore afford enough wine, but he has not. He is incomplete.
By the time Jesus commandeers the jars, they need to be refilled, at least Jesus orders that they must be refilled. They may not have been all empty but they are in need of refilling. That suggests that diligence has been done: people have washed as they should have.
So, what I see here is a wealthy family that could afford all the wine they needed. They planned for diligence and kept it. But even at all that, they are somehow “incomplete.”
This whole matter takes place at symbolic time and place as well. It is a wedding. That image is not unheard of in the Old Testament. Somehow the God of Abraham is Israel’s “Bridegroom.” Prophets use the image of adultery to describe Israel’s unfaithfulness to the God who has claimed them. It may well be intentional that we speak of a wedding then and it is Jesus, the Son of God, who assures that there will be enough wine. The great wedding feast of the Lamb will not run out of wine.
Further, it is the third day. Beyond the obvious resurrection reference it is also an Old Testament reference and it is the third day since Jesus gathered his first disciples to himself if the chronology of chapter 1 is followed. It also is on “the third day" in Exodus 19 that “the Glory of God” is revealed on Sinai. This being Jesus’ first great miracle in a gospel where only seven miracles will attend our reading until the resurrection perhaps this is intentional especially since John will end the section with the words: “Jesus did this, the first of his signs, in Cana of Galilee, and revealed his glory.” (2:11) As in Exodus, the people gather, the disciples, and then the Glory of the Lord comes. As the people gather in Exodus 19, they purify themselves and wash themselves. (19:10) The people hear the invitation and respond: “All that the Lord has spoken we will do.”
We probably do well to remember Jesus’ interchange with Mary here. She calls his attention to the fact that there is no more wine. His answer is that his “hour has not yet come.” But, somehow his hour had come if verse 11 is correct.
We will end the Epiphany season, as we do every year, with the words from Heaven: “This is my Son, whom I have chosen, listen to him.” (Lk 9:35) The Gospel of John operates without a Transfiguration story but somehow the words of Mary echo the words of Heaven: “Do whatever he tells you.” It also echoes the voice of God in Exodus 19: “Now therefore, if you will indeed obey my voice.” (Ex 19:5a)
It has been noted that the beginning of the Gospel of John is somehow “Genesis-like,” as it begins, like Genesis, “in the beginning.” It might not be far fetched then that here we are in a place in John’s Gospel that is “Exodus-like.”
I see the words of the steward in the light of all this. “Everyone serves the good wine first, and then the inferior wine after the guests have become drunk. But you have kept the good wine until now.” (2:10) He has kept the best for last. The word became flesh not at the beginning or at the time of Exodus, but now in the end of the ages. (Heb 19:26)
If so, then there is also a commentary on the state of Israel: They have become as “drunk.” In other words, they are in a stupor as the many arguments with “the Jews” will go on to prove. He came to his own but his own did not receive him or know him. (1:10-11) They could not. They were sick, paralyzed, deaf and dumb like a drunk. Three future signs will address all of that. (4:46ff, 5:1ff, 9:1ff) The first of these will remind us of this story in Cana. (4:46)
So many facets, so many parts of a simple story. What to look at, what to marvel at, what to think?
Will the people know that the Lord is with them? Will they realize that the Word is there among them? Will they be too drunk? A day in the near future will dawn and the house where the wedding has taken place will look about. Six empty stone jars will stand by the door and the question will be raised: “Where did all the wine come from?” Surely the head of the house who knows he had not bought enough wine will think to himself: “How did this happen and who did it?” Yet, to keep honor he will probably keep his mouth shut. Who wants it known that he, the proud father of the groom, who should have arranged for all the wine he needed, did not do so?
Is that not us? Too proud to admit that it will not work without the providence of God above but keenly aware we are incomplete?