According to the Gospel of John, Jesus’ first miracle was one of his most famous and has become one of the most controversial. At some point early in his public ministry, Jesus and his disciples are invited to a wedding. If the accounts that I’ve read are accurate the first century Jews knew how to party. You’ve never experienced a party like a Jewish wedding in first century Palestine.
The wedding in the town of Cana would have been no different. Spirits were high and the wine was flowing. And therein lies the problem. The wine was flowing faster than the host intended. They ran out of wine before the party was over and this was a major faux pas.
This is where Jesus comes in. Jesus didn’t want the party or the host’s reputation to be ruined. Not far from where Jesus was standing when he heard the news were several large ceramic barrels used for ceremonial washing. You see, not only were the first century Jews great partiers, they were also spiritual hypochondriacs. They lived in a constant state of fear of becoming spiritually impure. (This is an issue that Jesus will address repeatedly in his ministry.)
The guests of the party used this water to wash their hands before they ate to ensure that they consumed no spiritual impurities. This hand-washing was not just good hygiene. This was religious ritual cleansing.
This water represented a way of relating to God that Jesus came to renew and improve upon. This water was symbol of why people don’t experience the love of God the way he intends. This water is a symbol of sin and evil and all the bad things we deal with because of sin and evil in the world.
Jesus takes this symbol of sin and how humanity isn’t experiencing God’s love and changes is to wine. That’s pretty impressive in and of itself. Changing water into wine is almost as good as walking on water (we’ll get to that on later.) Yet changing water to wine so that the party could continue is only a small part of what Jesus is doing.
For first century Jews, wine is a symbol of joy and God’s favor. Jesus took the symbol of religious fear and the consequences of sin and changed it to a symbol of joy. Jesus took something that reminded people that they couldn’t live up to God’s standards and changed it into something that reminded them that God loves them. One of the biggest transitions that Jesus leads us through as faith in God transitions from the Old Covenant to the New, from Mosaic Judaism to Christianity is the transition from focusing on the need to be restored to God to focusing on God’s love that restores humanity to him.
That’s really the story of the Bible. God created humanity to express his love to us. The first humans and every human after rejected this love by choosing to love themselves more than God. God desperately wants to restore his relationship with humanity. God sent Jesus to restore that relationship. We can experience the love of God through Jesus.
Jesus’ first miracle was a symbol of that story. He took a symbol that represented how we are missing out on God and changed it to a symbol of joy and God’s love.
How should this inform the life of the Christ-follower?
All around us there are ceremonial washing vessels. There are symbols of sin and our separation from the love of God. They can be seen in poverty, racism, disease, suffering, hatred, anger … do I need to go on? As Christ-followers, we can’t let the symbols stand. We need to actively transform these symbols to something else. We need change these symbols to symbols of love and joy. We need to show people they can experience God’s love. We do this by expressing it.
Earlier this week, I saw a news story of a New York City police officer who did just this. He saw a homeless man sitting on the street without any shoes. On a whim he went into a shoe store close by and bought a pair of shoes for the man. He then went to the man and put shoes and socks on the man.
Very few things reveal the reality of sin and pain in the world that a homeless person who cannot even find shoes in the winter. Very few things express God’s love more than putting shoes on the feet of someone who desperately needs them. This police officer transformed a symbol of sin into a symbol of joy and peace.
May we all open our eyes and see the world the way this officer does, the way Jesus does, and may we transform symbols of sin and evil into symbols of joy and peace by expressing God’s love to a world that desperately needs it.