I told the story of Jesus’ first miracle three times on Saturday. I was asked to choose two Jesus stories as part of a story walk through Bradford City Centre for the Biblefresh Festival, organised by the local Methodists. Water into Wine was my immediate first choice.
Why? Because I love it. Almost every time I read it or hear it told, it brings something fresh with it, sometimes asking a new question, or bringing a previously unnoticed detail to life, other times letting a familiar aspect of the story shine, like meeting an old acquaintance for the first time in ages.
There is nothing better than telling stories that you love. As a storyteller, my job is simply to stand in the story and invite others to join me there. And that’s easy with a story like this one, so rich and vivid in detail.
There is lots about it that I love. But this weekend, perhaps for the first time, I realised the thing I love best – here, right at the beginning of his public ministry, Jesus is revealed as fully divine yet also remains fully human.
It starts two days after Jesus has called his first followers. He, his friends, and his mum are at a wedding in Cana, in Galilee. The wedding feast lasts seven days after the ceremony but sometime into the celebrations, disaster strikes – they run out of wine!
Somehow, Mary finds out and goes straight to tell Jesus. His response? “Why are you telling me? It’s not my time yet.”
In typical mum-style, Mary ignores him completely and bids the nearby servants to do whatever he tells them. And so begins the miracle – at Jesus’ command, the servants fill six large stone jars with water, fill a cup from one of them and take it to the Master of the Feast. When he drinks it, it has become the best wine he has ever tasted.
And there, at the wedding in Cana, Jesus shows his glory – and his followers believe in him. What a moment that must have been for them, ordinary men who had left everything they knew to follow him – a vindication of sorts, a sign of things to come.
In revealing his glory, Jesus not only shows his ability to do great miracles, he also reflects the abundant generosity of God. Each water jar carries 100 litres of liquid – and Jesus tells the servants to fill them right to the top. 600 litres of the best wine ever tasted in celebration of a couple’s marriage – what better way to show his divine identity for the first time?
Yet the miracle is also intensely human. It was while listening to my friend tell the story a few months ago that I first fully realised how much hard physical work would have been involved in the servants filling the water jars. The never-ending cycle of trips to the well, filling the buckets, carrying them back, pouring their contents into the jars, until 600 litres had gone by.
And there is such human yet Godly beauty in how it is these hard-working lowly servants who, along with Jesus’ followers, are given the opportunity to see his glory and to understand. The Master of the Feast doesn’t know where this fine wine has come from, and calls the bridegroom out to thank him. But the servants know. Right at the start of his ministry, Jesus turns the world order on its head.
But it is at the beginning of the story that Jesus’ humanity is most wonderfully revealed. For there is the moment when the miracle almost doesn’t happen, when Jesus says, “My time has not yet come.” And the start of his ministry, his first miracle, hangs on his mother’s response – she is the catalyst that makes things happen.
There is something typically, comfortingly motherly about how Mary ignores everything Jesus says, over-ruling him, challenging him to do something he would have otherwise left undone. At the heart of this miracle is a very human relationship between a mother and a son.
I’ve often wondered exactly what is behind this parent-child exchange. Is Jesus right – was this not his time to act, should the miracle never have taken place? Or was Mary more in touch with God’s timing than Jesus himself? Did Jesus’ first miracle need to be catalysed by someone else, someone who had faith in him before he had proven himself? If so, who better than Mary, his mother, who had been there for his miraculous conception and birth?
Or is it just possible, I ask myself from my very human perspective, that Jesus, being fully divine, knew what must happen, where his public ministry would ultimately take him? And is it possible that, with this fully divine knowledge and a fully human heart, a part of him might have hesitated to set that chain of events in motion? Might he have needed a mother’s love, a mother’s encouragement, to take that first step?
The best stories, the ones I love most, are the ones that leave you with so many questions…