In the early church there was a method of interpreting scripture which looked at what they called the different levels of interpretation. They talked about three levels and they associated them with the three aspects of the human being: body, mind, and spirit. The body of the scripture is the literal interpretation, it is what the text says at face value. The mind of the scripture is the moral interpretation, insights about how we can live our life which the story doesn’t directly say but are implied. And the spirit of the scripture is the mystical interpretation where we learn hidden truths about the soul’s journey into God. I am going to briefly look at how story of Jesus turning water into wine (John 2:1-11) can be interpreted according to each.
In our gospel reading today the literal interpretation is simply that Jesus was at a party and ran out of wine so he used his God-powers to make more. The text tells us that the purpose of this miracle was to reveal the glory of Jesus and so that his disciples would believe in him. And so that is the first level of interpreting the story. Jesus turned water into wine so that we would believe he was the Son of God. But there is obviously more to it than that.
Before I go on to explore the other two levels of this scripture, I would like to point out that they don’t cancel each other out. The literal interpretation remains true even as we look at the moral and mystical levels. So, as we discuss the moral meaning of the story, don’t lose sight of the fact that the literal meaning is still true, Jesus performed a miracle and did so to reveal his own glory so that his disciples might believe in him.
The literal meaning is usually the easiest to find and it just sort of is what it is. The moral interpretation will have more nuance and variation, and the mystical will have as many interpretations as there are interpreters. Since there are many potential moral meanings of this story, I will simply pull out a couple which stand out to me acknowledging that there are many others I will be passing over.
Over and over again in the gospels Jesus creates abundance out of scarcity. When the crowd of 5000 people were hungry, he fed them with a basket full of bread and a few fish. The story of turning water into wine seems to be of a similar nature.
One of the things we can discern from this is that when we follow Jesus, and have that belief in his ability to perform miracles we just talked about, there is always enough for everybody. It seems to me that one of the moral lessons we can learn from this story is that if you “do whatever he tells you,” as his mother Mary said, then even when it feels like there is only water in our cups, we will find that there is actually wine, in fact the best wine of all.
If we have faith in God, then we share what we have even when it feels like it’s not enough. If the servers at the wedding had been using their skeptical minds they never would have served the water to the guests, because they would have looked like fools serving water at a wedding. Often our skepticism tells us to keep what we have and not trust in God’s abundance, but when we have faith then we can take 5 loaves and feed five thousand people with them.
So the moral of the story, or at least one moral of the story, is that we should have a stance of generosity in life, trusting that God will take care of the details if we are willing to share with the people around us.
Another moral interpretation that we could take from this story could look at the fact that the best wine was reserved for last. The guests say in surprise, “Everyone serves the good wine first, and then the inferior wine after the guests have become drunk. But you have kept the good wine until now.”
The fact that Jesus does not try to fool his guests by giving them good wine while they’re sober and slipping them cheap wine once they’re drunk, could be understood as referring to the human tendency to get away with treating people poorly when we can avoid the consequences. We often only give people our best when we think they can tell.
If good wine can be understood as good behaviour, then many people will give bad wine to people who are drunk and unable to tell the difference. It is a more Christlike way of life which has good wine to share no matter the situation. A person who does good even when nobody’s looking is one who serves good wine even when their guests are drunk.
So those are a couple moral interpretations of the story. Let’s turn our attention to the level of interpretation which I feel is best suited to this story in particular. With a story like this, there is no end to mystical interpretations. In fact, a story like this seems to be written with a mystical interpretation in mind.
If we understand ourselves to be the jars of water in this story, then we can understand wine to be the holiness which Christ calls to live into. The spiritual journey is one where we are turned into wine. In this kind of interpretation, each part of the sequence in the story can represent a stage in the spiritual journey from water into wine.
The first piece of information we are given in the story is that Jesus’ mother is at a wedding feast. This tells us that the circumstances in which spiritual growth happens are celebration and union. The spiritual journey is often also described in terms of marriage. John the Baptist, in the chapter immediately after this one, refers to Jesus as a bridegroom and says that he will be a good best man and give the groom the spotlight. And so, the spiritual journey is a wedding where two become one, we become one with God, and this is a cause for celebration!
Next, Jesus and his disciples are invited to the wedding and this tells us that in order for the water to be turned into wine we must first invite Jesus to the party. Not only Jesus, but his disciples too. The first stage in the journey is to open our hearts to God and to spiritual community. If we try to make the spiritual journey all on our own we won’t make it very far.
Jesus and his disciples arrive at the wedding and right away Mary says to Jesus, “they have no wine.” Which is to say that we are lacking something. We have no more wine, and wine is the symbol for goodness and love. Jesus seems to already be aware that we are lacking in wine when he says, “what concern is that to you and to me? My hour has not yet come.”
This response from Jesus is the first hint we have that this story is meant to be read on the mystical level. It’s a non sequitur. What hour is he referring to? What does that have to do with wine? If you were hearing this story for the first time you would have no idea what he is talking about.
You wouldn’t know that wine is a Christian symbol for blood. You wouldn’t know that it’s the primary image behind our most sacred ritual. If the wine is the blood of Christ, then it makes perfect sense that Jesus says, “My hour has not yet come” when his mother tells him that the people have no wine. He is saying that soon enough he will pour out his wine for them and they will have more than their cups can hold.
His mother understands his enigmatic statement and then turns around to give her final instruction before passing the mic over to Jesus. She tells us to “do whatever he tells you.” And that is the best advice anyone can be given. Mary has realized that the soul has no wine, she has invited the one who can transform the water, and now she wisely tells us to do whatever he tells us.
What Jesus told them to do was to fill the jars of purification with water, fill up a cup from them, and serve it to the chief steward. Jesus doesn’t make the wine appear out of thin air. Rather he uses the material which he has at hand and transforms it. The water represents who we are before this encounter with God. It is good in and of itself, it’s just not as good as wine.
First, we have to pour ourselves into the jars of purification. Jesus doesn’t actually pour the water for them, but rather instructs them how to do it themselves. This means that if we wish to go any further on the spiritual journey we must first purify (or heal) those things inside us which are unhealthy. Jesus is the great healer, his miracles are ones of healing more than anything else. When the water is poured into the jars of purification it is made good for drinking. Like drinking tap water instead of water from the lake, it has been purified and made clean.
We become clean water when we stop the arguments going on in our minds. When we let go of old hurts and resentments. When we set aside our sadness and seek after joy. Each person has their own journey to go through and that is represented by the fact that there are many jars of purification. If you are a person who struggles with pride, then you may need a good dose of humility. But if you are a person who struggles with shame, then you may need a good dose of encouragement.
After the water is purified it is ready to be transformed. But, there is still one more step. The water is taken out and served and then it becomes wine. Water does not become wine if we keep it hidden away in jars. While we must, at some point in our lives, come to terms with the impurities we’ve picked up along the way, that alone will not transform us. We become wine when we leave the jar of purification behind and serve the people. The jars are a step on the journey, but they are not the destination.
It is truly in service, joy, and hospitality that we are finally transformed into wine, into the blood of Christ. When we become one with the blood of Christ, then we partake in his death and resurrection, which is also a transformation into something new and miraculous. Jesus turns water into wine and death into life. This is the miracle which is promised to all who change their hearts of stone into living hearts of flesh. This is the good news. If you throw a party and invite Jesus then you’ll always have a good time.
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