And don’t forget to wash your hands

According to John’s account, Jesus turned water into wine, really good wine, at a wedding in Cana. I have enjoyed that story for years and now, as an old man, I am beginning to get the beginnings of an idea of what it is about.

I grew up in a culture and in a family where drinking anything alcoholic was frowned Cana 1upon, the example of Jesus to the contrary notwithstanding. That meant that Jesus’s “making” the wine and how much he seems to have made, were sources of mildly rebellious humor. A hundred and fifty gallons of wine?  Really?  That’s a lot of wine for just one wedding.  And then there is the odd interaction between Jesus and his mother. She says, “They have run out of wine. This is a disaster.” He says, “Not really. You want to see a disaster, you see what happens if I launch this ministry before the launch window is fully open.”

As I say, it’s all good fun. But none of that fun leads to the question, “What is this story about?” So the two questions for today are going to be, “Why is the significance of the story not clearer to us?” and “Well…what is it? You think you’ve got some idea of what the significance is, let’s have it.”

You would think that John would be more help than he is. He is the most reflective of the evangelists, but he doesn’t say why he is telling us this story. He does say, “This was the first of Jesus’ signs: it was in Cana in Galilee. He revealed his glory and his disciples believed in him.” [1]

That seems straightforward, but it isn’t, really. You have to know what a “sign” is. John has no interest at all in miracles; signs are important because of what they signify. [2] You also have to know that John has organized this part of Jesus’ ministry around the theme of “replacement.” Those practices of “the Jews,” as John will call them, using a fully alienated way of describing them, are not important to us (believers in Jesus) anymore, but instead, we get this!”

Cana 2As I see it, if Cana is a sign then the sign points to the replacement. [3] Let’s spend a little time with that. According to Brown’s understanding, John has no interest in miracles at all. He doesn’t deny them. He just thinks of them as elementary. It is the semiotic value—the value as a sign—that interests John. So all the attention paid to the “how did he do that?” part of the story is just wasted. This action of Jesus is a sign of something; what does it mean? [5]

If it is a sign of replacement, what is being replaced? This question is the entry to the whole maze to me. My attention has always been drawn to the wine. Wow! Look at that! There’s a lot of wine now and it’s really good wine! But when you get as far as saying that the wine replaced the water, you have to ask why there was so much water there and what it was used for.

All that water was there for washing. The washing was a part of “the tradition of the elders,” according to Mark (see below) and therefore a functioning part of the Mosaic Law.

2  And when they saw that some of his disciples were eating loaves of bread with impure, that is unwashed, hands— for the Pharisees, and all the Jews, unless they first wash their hands with the hand shaped into a fist refuse to eat, since they hold fast to the tradition of the elders; nor, when they come from the marketplace, do they eat unless they immerse; and there are many other customs which they have received to preserve, immersions of cups and of pitchers and of copper utensils and of beds— and the Pharisees and the scribes asked him, “Why don’t your disciples walk according to the tradition of the elders? —but they eat bread with impure hands. [5]

The washing symbolized, as Mark makes plain, the adherence to the Mosaic Law. Jesus makes adherence to that Law impossible for the partygoers. When you look at the wine, you think, “How wonderful! Wine for all!” When you look at the fact that there is now no water at all—no water for the ritual purifications that the Law requires, you say, “Uh oh.” This understanding calls to mind Luke’s use of sēmeion when the old man Simeon says to Mary in Luke 2: “Look, this child is marked for the fall and the rise of many in Israel, to be a [sēmeion] that will be rejected…”

Let me pause for a personal Gee Whiz moment. It never ever occurred to me to wonder Cana 4what the guests would do now that there was no water available. I knew the water was there for use in the rituals of purification. I knew the formerly water, now wine could not be used for that purpose any longer. But my mind still followed the wine and the happy partygoers. Only now—finally—does it occur to me to wonder what they are going to do without water.

You can play it for comedy and I confess that was my first reaction. The partygoers washing their hands in the wine [6] and going to the tables with sticky hands. The hands stick to everything they touch, including each other, and very likely stain whatever they touch as well. You can see the slapstick possibilities. As kids, we did the same thing with the amount. Six stone jars, we mused, with 15—25 gallons per jar, so 90—150 gallons of wine. Whoa! Now that must have been a party to remember! In addition to which, I collected these fantasies from my daughter, Dawne, yesterday. If you washed your hands in the “water,” would they be sticky? Would they leave little purple handprints on the tablecloths? And what it look like if the servants used that “water” to wash the feet of the guests?  How far up would the servants wash? Would those sandals EVER come off again? OK, that was the personal moment and I confess it was fun.

B22-623180 - © - Jean-Marc CharlesSo…what does it mean to say that this event—a sign—was “about” the lack of a continuing need for the water? It means that the Law’s demand for ritual, not for hygienic, purification had been displaced. In its place, a marvelous beverage, fitting the celebration of the coming of the Messiah. Jesus is saying to John’s hearers, “You don’t have to do that anymore.” [7]

Bearing in mind that Jesus’s enemies reviled him as “a winebibber and a glutton” (Luke 7, I am using the King James because I love the phrasing here), it may be that his generosity at this wedding followed him as a story. I picture the story featuring Jesus saying to the guests, “Well, there isn’t any more water, but I have an idea. Let’s all have a drink.”

[1] One of the most charming remarks I have read about how John manages to seem so obvious and so puzzling at the same time was offered by Dr. Merrill C. Tenney: “One of the peculiarities of the Fourth Gospel is the fact that its author chose to hang its key by the back door.”
[2] Ordinary English has let us down yet again, I’m afraid. When we started to use significant as a synonym for important, we lost the obvious question, “Significant. Really? What does it signify?”
[3] This is as good a place as any to indicate my debt to Catholic scholar Raymond E. Brown, this time to his commentary of the Gospel of John. Brown says that this is the first of many “replacements” to follow. Jesus shows up at all the major feasts, for instance, denigrating the central symbolism of the feast and replacing that symbol with himself. The meaning for the followers in the Johannine community was “You don’t have access to these feasts anymore, but if you have Jesus, you haven’t lost a thing.” Replacement.
[4] The Greek word is sēmeion, “sign,” a word from which semiotics, the study of the nature and relationships of signs in language” is derived. John uses sēmeion seventeen times in his gospel.  That’s a lot of times.
[5] The translation is by Joel Markus, in his commentary of the Gospel of Mark, part of the Anchor Yale Bible Commentary series.
[6] John never actually says it “became” wine. He says that the party manager tasted it and said it tasted like wine. That’s what we know and that’s all we know.
[7] To his followers at the party, he is saying “There is no way you could to do it anymore even if you wanted to.”

About hessd

Here is all you need to know to follow this blog. I am an old man and I love to think about why we say the things we do. I've taught at the elementary, secondary, collegiate, and doctoral levels. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. I have taught political science for a long time and have practiced politics in and around the Oregon Legislature. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. You'll be seeing a lot about my favorite topics here. There will be religious reflections (I'm a Christian) and political reflections (I'm a Democrat) and a good deal of whimsy. I'm a dilettante.
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2 Responses to And don’t forget to wash your hands

  1. Very inspirational content. I really learned something right. Thank you.

    • hessd says:

      Thank you, Zoey. I am amazed, as I pursue these old stories, that I have spent my whole life on them without noticing what they were about.

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