Jesus’ Chemistry Class

View of Nazareth, with the Basilica of the Annunciation at the center

Gospel of John 2:1-11

1 Two days later there was a wedding in the Galilean village of Cana. Jesus’ mother was there and he and his disciples were invited to the festivities. Phillips  

We must start with a translation issue. The Greek text reads, And on the day third a wedding…. I cannot explain why Phillips calls it two days later when nearly every other translation has three. If we return to chapter 1 and follow the timeline, then add three days, we still do not know when the wedding occurred because we do not know the starting day. For John, that was unimportant.

When we first read these two verses, it seems simple enough, Mary, Jesus, and his disciples (however many there were by then) end up at a wedding. But GJohn packs in a lot. Cana may have been about eleven miles north of Nazareth, with the wealthy city of Sepphoris about halfway between. Those three towns were about halfway between the Mediterranean Sea and the Sea of Galilee. Today, the location of Cana is still in doubt. Many excavations have failed to match all the written evidence identifying it. Jerome visited Nazareth about 400 CE and reported that he could see Cana, so it may have been much closer to Nazareth than eleven miles.

Today Nazareth is a city of about 80,000 people, about 24,000 are Christian and the rest are Muslims. It is the largest city in northern Israel. See the picture above.

Galilee has always been a farming region, dotted with small villages in ancient times housing the farm owners and workers. Nazareth and Cana were such villages.

Jesus’ mother was there, possibly because she knew or was related to someone in the wedding party. At any rate, she had enough authority to boss around the servants.

Jewish weddings were required to take place on the third day of the week—Tuesday for us. But weddings lasted at least a week. The ceremony came after a long feast, without going into detail, and then the newlyweds were carried through town so everyone could give them best wishes. Here’s the fun part; the couple lived in their new house, wearing crowns as ‘king’ and ‘queen’ and receiving guests all day for a week. And we wonder that they ran out of wine.

3 Then it happened that the supply of wine gave out, and Jesus’ mother told him, “They have no more wine.” “Is that your concern, or mine?” replied Jesus. “My time has not come yet.” So his mother said to the servants, “Mind you do whatever he tells you.” Phillips

Most water was dangerous to drink, so wine mixed with water was the main drink. Even among the Romans, drunkenness was rare and frowned on by all, and a drunk Jew was nearly unheard of. Because they drank wine to avoid sickness, they mixed it with at least as much water, even at weddings.

More importantly, wine, like bread, was essential. No one could allow a guest to leave without having their fill of both. They might run out of lamb or the fatted calf, but not wine and bread. For a wedding, that was enough wine and bread for the entire village for a week.

We cannot know from this text why Mary became involved with the wine issue. To me, it suggests that she was close to the wedding party or the master of ceremonies (modern planner). The quick exchange only muddles the issue. Jesus seems to suggest, “Mom, just leave it to the man in charge.” She responds by rounding up several servants.

Something is missing in the Phillips translation; he may have wanted to soften the response. Jesus literally said (in Greek), What to Me and to you, woman? That last Greek word is gune, wife or woman. There are only two other Greek words GJohn could have used, eleutheros—not a slave—and thelus—female. Understand that this exchange occurs behind the scenes, with only the servants possibly hearing what was said. Of course, he could have said, ‘Mother’ or left woman off altogether. Again, this scene rings the bell for John the disciple being there and remembering for six decades. If that is true, John would have been a follower for a week or less; he would hardly know Jesus, and the exchange would have seemed strange at best.

“My time has not come yet.” Jesus has already selected some of his disciples and has probably decided to leave for Jerusalem to kick off his ministry. But his mother asked, so he said, ‘sure.’

In the room six very large stone water-jars stood on the floor (actually for the Jewish ceremonial cleansing), each holding about twenty gallons. 7 Jesus gave instructions for these jars to be filled with water, and the servants filled them to the brim. Phillips

Several things to note here. Large stone jars held purification water because clay jars could cause contamination. The jars stood about four to five feet tall, carved from a solid block of stone. They held water for purification before prayers and meals. Neither the wedding couple nor their families likely owned six jars; they were on loan for something as important as a wedding. Twenty gallons is a rough figure since each jar was a different size.

Notice Jesus does not argue with his mother. He may be thirty years old, but he knows when to back down.

Jesus ordered each jar to be filled to the brim, not to leave any space. The Greek is metretes duo ay treis, measures two or three. They had a standard bucket to measure the quantity of water, and it would take two or three of them for each jar. We do not know the details, but we can be sure that the servants walked to the town well with some easily carried water jar holding perhaps five gallons. In case you are wondering, that job fell to the women servants. No one would ask even the lowest male slave to carry water. If you do the math, 120 gallons would be a lot of trips, to use the technical term.

8 Then he said to them, “Now draw some water out and take it to the master of ceremonies”, which they did. Phillips

At this point, what had been water is now wine. The well water was perhaps 90% H2O, the rest a mix of things we would not want to drink. But now, in addition to H2O, there is a large concentration of carbon, several acids—tartaric and citric—and tannins formed after some months-to-years of aging. We just watched the servants fill each jar to the tippy-top. Jesus did not slip anything into the water. How does Jesus do something even Houdini could not do?

Jesus did not do it. His Father, who created a universe of a trillion-trillion stars, did the chemistry. That would not have been much of a challenge for the Creator.

Do not forget; John is standing there with his mouth hanging open. Sixty years later, he dares to finally record what he witnessed to be a witness to you and me. It is all these personal touches that make GJohn so unique. Matthew, Mark, and Luke were lucky enough thirty years earlier to write from notes collected from hundreds of interviews of first-hand witnesses. John was the only one of the four to be a first-hand witness.

9 When this man tasted the water, which had now become wine, without knowing where it came from (though naturally the servants who had drawn the water knew), he called out to the bridegroom 10 and said to him, “Everybody I know puts his good wine on first and then when men have had plenty to drink, he brings out the poor stuff. But you have kept back your good wine till now!” Phillips

KKeep in mind that the master of ceremonies did not even know there was a shortage of wine. He had done several weddings and had never seen anyone be so generous with the good stuff. This wine might be equal to someone opening a bottle of Cheval Blanc St-Emilion, 1947, costing $135,125 per bottle for a Tuesday lunch. Or maybe for Sunday Eucharist.

11 Jesus gave this, the first of his signs, at Cana in Galilee. He demonstrated his power and his disciples believed in him. Phillips

This is the first of his signs. GJohn never calls them miracles, nor are all the signs miracles.

This last sentence is the key to the story. It is the reason GJohn opens with what seems to many people today to be a bit trivial. He does not heal anyone or bring anyone back from the dead. It’s a party.

Look again at the last five words. His disciples believed in him. This explains why John remembered that day for six decades. It is what compelled GJohn and the other eleven to stick with a man who seemed at times to have lost his good sense. It is the drop-jawed, brain-frying vision that none of them could forget. Yet, the only disciples named at this point were Simon, Andrew, Philip, and Nathanael, but almost certainly, James and John were there, even if GJohn never mentions either by name.

We should not forget that they were all new boys. They responded to his call and almost immediately walked from Capernaum to Cana to a wedding of people they probably did not know. Jesus may have talked with them some along the way, but, hey, it was party time. Jesus saved the momentous messages for later.

We need to look ahead three years to the night of Jesus’ arrest, but we must go to Matthew to find it. Matthew 26. 26While they were eating, Jesus took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and gave it to his disciples, saying, “Take and eat; this is my body.” 27 Then he took a cup, and when he had given thanks, he gave it to them, saying, “Drink from it, all of you. 28 This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins. 29 I tell you, I will not drink from this fruit of the vine from now on until that day when I drink it new with you in my Father’s kingdom.” NIV

GJohn does not include this because he places Jesus’ arrest the day before Passover. Nonetheless, today’s sign is connected. The wine of the wedding reminds us of the marriage coming between the Groom, Jesus, and the Bride, the Church. The wine reminds us of Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross. The wine, symbol of life, connects to eternal life through Jesus. The whole of the Gospel of John is rooted in this sign.

The transition from this sign to attacking the Temple must have shocked the new believing disciples.

Be Righteous and do Good

Mike Lawrence

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