By Austin Jacobs
“His mother said to the servants, ‘Whatever He says to you, do it.’ Now there were six stone waterpots set there for the Jewish custom of purification, containing twenty or thirty gallons each. Jesus said to them, ‘Fill the waterpots with water.’ And they filled them up to the brim. And he said to them, Draw some out now, and take it to the headwaiter.’ And they took it to him. And when the headwaiter tasted the water which had become wine, and did not know where it came from (but the servants who had drawn the water knew), the headwaiter called the bridegroom, and said to him, ‘Every man serves the good wine first, and when men have drunk freely, then that which is poorer, you have kept the good wine until now’” (John 2:5-10).
Jesus uses waterpots to enact the first of his signs in Cana of Galilee (2:11). These waterpots, John informs us, were “set there for the Jewish custom of purification.” Their presence at the wedding celebration was a practical and symbolic reminder of the purity system that defined the lives and identities of each of the wedding guests.
Marcus Borg comments on the importance of the purity system in settings like the one John describes in John 2:
“In first-century Jewish Palestine . . . purity was neither trivial nor individualistic. Rather, to put it concisely, purity was political. The purity system established a spectrum of people ranging from the pure through varying degrees of purity to people on the margin to the radically impure.”
The purity system had a bearing on economic class, among other things. Therefore, the fact that the wedding takes place in Cana, a rural village that was home to many who were perhaps economically disadvantaged, is also significant.
“To be sure,” Borg continues, “being rich did not automatically put one on the pure side, but being abjectly poor almost certainly made one impure. To some extent, this association resulted from the popular wisdom, which saw wealth as a blessing from God and poverty as an indication that one had not lived right. And to some extent, it arose because the abject poor could not in practice observe the purity laws.”
In a stunning act of supernatural intervention, Jesus re-purposes the waterpots. Now, instead of symbols of an oppressive system—and perhaps reminders to many present at the wedding of their status as “outsiders”—the waterpots become containers of “good wine.”
This sign sets the tone for Jesus’ ministry, which later meets with criticism from those who advocate for a rigid purity system. Rather than advocating for the purity system, however, Jesus advocates for those whom the purity system diminishes, marginalizes, and casts aside. In addition to saving the bridegroom from the embarrassment—and even legal trouble!—that would have resulted if the wine had run out, Jesus puts his signature on a wedding celebration in a way that restores dignity to a group of people who were not members of the social or religious elite.
“Recognizing this,” says Borg, “adds a fresh nuance to the eucharist.”
What an exciting paradigm shift! New wine appears and is being drawn from the waterpots, those symbols of a system that defines many of these wedding guests as outsiders. In a parallel to God’s provision for the Israelites in the desert (see Exodus 15), John presents Jesus as one who is capable of making bitter water sweet. Seen through the lens of salvation history, this story shows Jesus embodying the compassionate heart of the Father, offering sweet wine to those who are accustomed to the bitter cup.
Jesus not only transforms water into wine, but he also transforms waterpots into winepots. Through Jesus, we see the image of the one who makes water flow in the wilderness. Through Jesus, we see the image of the one who drowns out the command to “go and wash” with an invitation to “come and drink.”