Now standing there were six stone water-jars for the Jewish rites of purification, each holding twenty or thirty gallons.
There’s an intriguing detail in the story of Jesus turning water into wine at the wedding feast at Cana in Galilee, one which I hadn’t really pondered before. It is that detail of what the water was stored in. Stone water jars for the Jewish rites of purification. It’s very specific.
Purification rites were very important in the Jewish law, as they still are. You had to be clean before you came to God, and this was symbolised by ritual washing.
It wasn’t about hygiene – ancient people didn’t know anything about germs. It was about ritual uncleanness, which you could contract in all sorts of ways – contact with unclean animals or dead bodies for example. So at home you’d have to wash before prayer, before Sabbath meals, before breaking bread. It’s no accident, either, that this water is held in stone jars. Pottery jars were thought to be able to pick up uncleanness, while stone didn’t – they were more porous, I suppose. Ritual washing water stored in contaminated pottery might become contaminated itself. So stone jars had to be used to store the water you’d use at home.
And look how much of it there was. Somewhere between 120 and 180 gallons. That’s a lot of water. The kind of ritual you would do at home consisted simply of pouring a cupful of water over your hands. How much of that did they think they were going to have to do? Six huge stone jars full of water borders on the obsessional.
The family hosting this wedding strike me as being a very pious and careful lot. They were very well prepared, religiously speaking. There was no way they were going to be caught out without water to purify themselves. If cleanliness is next to godliness, as they say, then this was a very godly family. They were ready to do whatever was in their power in order to keep themselves in a right relationship with God.
I don’t doubt that they’d been equally careful in the way they had prepared for this family wedding. I am sure they had laid in wine in large quantities. Wedding parties could go on for up to a week, and even for poor families – perhaps especially for poor families - they had to be as lavish as possible. Your family honour depended on it. So running out of wine wasn’t a trivial matter. It was a source of deep shame, which would have lasted for many years. Your neighbours would never forget that yours was the wedding where everyone had to go home early, disappointingly sober!
But all their efforts to get it right hadn’t been enough on this occasion. The wine was running out, and there was no possibility of getting more. Even if they could afford to buy it, I don’t suppose you could just pop down to the off licence for another bottle or two. It is Jesus’ mother who realised what was going on, maybe she was among the women who were actually preparing the refreshments. And she knew, somehow, that her boy would help . And that’s what he did – eventually!
I expect there was other water around, water for cooking, maybe even a well close by, but that’s not where Jesus directs the servants to go. The Gospel story is very specific about it. It is this water for purification that he uses. That matters, it seems to me, because John’s Gospel is always very precise in what it says.
This little detail is a reminder of what Jesus’ ministry, his life, his death, and his resurrection will do for people. Jesus’ actions here proclaim that God wants us to have more than ritual purity, more than that rather cold and grudging sense that we can creep into God’s presence, provided everything in our lives is sorted out and ship-shape. No, said Jesus, what God wants is for us to have lives that overflow with joy, hearts that sing, life “in all its fullness”, as Jesus puts it later in the Gospel.
And this is a gift, a surprise, not something we create through our own frantic effort, but something God gives. All we have to do, like the servants in the story, is to be open to its possibility, to be be prepared to scoop it up and pour it out, to have our eyes open to see God at work in our lives and in the lives of those around us.
This morning, at our all age worship, I asked people what joys they had had over this past week – the moments, usually unplanned and unforeseen, when their hearts had been lifted. The smile of a grandchild, the sight of the first snowdrops, something going well that they’d expected would be a struggle, unexpected help turning up in the nick of time; these were some of the answers people shared. But perhaps if I hadn’t asked, they might not have thought of these things. The moments when water had been turned to wine in their lives, when God had turned up to bless them, might have gone by unnoticed.
Tonight, in the silence, then, let’s think of our own moments of joy, the water that God has turned to wine in our lives, and let’s thank God for those moments, and ask for grace to taste his goodness, the rich wine of his love, in the coming week too.