© Gillian Moses, Epiphany 2, 2019
Water water everywhere
There is an old joke told to new priests, about turning water into wine, as though that comes with the ordination rite. Or you may have heard the one about the priest who gets pulled over for an RBT, and the police officer spots a bottle in the front seat. That is just water, says the priest, but of course on closer inspection it is revealed to be wine. “He’s done it again!” offers the hapless clergy person – it is a joke which always gets a laugh because who wouldn’t want to be able to do that?? But of course we clergy are not Jesus, so there is that.
There is often a focus on the quality of the wine in the story – Jesus doesn’t just turn water into Chateau de Coolibah (as though anyone could do that, so it is not really impressive as a sign. I can’t even make that kind of wine!) But this was the Grange Hermitage of Cana, which in itself must be a mark of divinity!
It is a rich story, as is all of John’s gospel. Nothing appears by accident, and no details are unimportant. But I would like to begin with a reflection on a different source of water. I wonder if there is anyone here who has not heard something of the large fish kills in the Menindee Lakes over the past week or so. Many species of fish, including some venerable Murray Cod which may be as much as 100 years old, washed up dead in the Lakes. It was heartbreaking to see the carcasses of so many fish on tv, and to think about the ‘flow-on effect’ of the fish kills to the rest of the environment. Then of course there was the blame game – was it the drought, the government, the cotton and rice farmers or something else that caused this event? Certainly the drought has not helped matters, and every government specialises in its own brand of corruption, it seems. And there seems to be good evidence that certain water users are taking more than a fair share, leaving others, including the natural environment, to pay the price.
Water, water, everywhere, nor any drop to drink.
I couldn’t help but think of the cod and golden perch of Menindee Lakes when I read the gospel reading this week. Any theological reflection on water (even water turned into wine) has to wonder what theology might say in this context. What is the good news for Menindee Lakes and the Murray Darling System? Is there a Jesus ready to turn wine back into water, because I am not sure we are prepared to do anything else. As long as we insist on growing crops that need more water than is naturally available, and devise grand irrigation systems run for profit, and build houses and factories on the best farming land, we will always need more water out west, and our grand rivers and lakes will be tapped to provide.
As an aside, I was thinking about the cotton industry the other morning as I read about the vast quantities of clothing and other goods being dumped on charity shops, and which often end up in landfill rather than being recycled. We Australians buy around 27 kg of textiles each year and dump 85% of it each year. There is around 50 billion tonnes of cotton sitting in stockpiles around the world. I’m not sure we need to grow more cotton. I’m pretty sure we don’t need to sacrifice our rivers and the environment to grow more.
Ok, but what does all this have to do with Jesus turning water into wine?
John tells us there were 6 stone water jars nearby, ready to be used for purification rites. What an interesting bit of information! Like I said, John doesn’t include irrelevant details. The Jewish people engaged in purification rites for many occasions, and these jars would have been necessary at a wedding feast or on other special occasions, as well as in the course of daily life. The need to be pure is not limited to Jewish practise but is something that all humans engage in. We seem to have this need to declare ourselves pure in comparison with others – I am good, but you are bad. I am clean, but you are dirty. I am saved, and you are condemned. Some do it with water, others with other rituals, still others with ideology, but we all want to be pure. And once I am pure or clean, then it doesn’t matter what I do because I remain clean. Once you are unclean, then you might never be pure again.
When pressed by Mary to do something about the wine situation, Jesus does not ask the servants to fetch water in just any containers, but uses the jars set aside for purification. And it is that water that he changes, so it can no longer be used for purification. Because Jesus knows that rituals of purification are a waste of time – not just for Jewish people, this is not anti-Semitism – but for all of us. In fact that harder we strive for purity, the harder we fail! Ironically we become more unforgiving, more judgmental, more selfish and narrow-minded.
We are not impure, and we do not need to be made clean. By turning the water into wine, meant for feasting and celebration, Jesus directs our attention to the heart of salvation, which is community not purity. We are saved by belonging with one another and belonging with God. And community is made by celebration and sharing story and food and joy with one another.
It is no coincidence then that John, who begins his story of Jesus with this sign, should end it with an echo – the Last Supper, where wine from the common cup replaces the blood of sacrifices, and where feet are washed not to make them clean but to help us belong. Do this and remember me. Unless I wash your feet you can have no share with me.
What does all of this mean? It means that we are kidding ourselves if we think God needs or wants us to be pure. God calls us to be human and to give ourselves to the experience of shared humanity. We are called to be in community and in communion with one another, eating around God’s table, and sharing our lives and stories. God calls us to be in communion with all of creation, and that includes the Murray Cod and the golden perch, and all the other life forms that depended on the water in the Murray-Darling system, which we have taken for our own purposes.
We humans are very skilled at disfiguring – taking what is good and distorting it for our own selfish needs. Water into cotton, fish into carcasses, humans into objects clean and unclean. Jesus reminds us that the work of God is to transfigure – to take what we have distorted and return it to its intended state. Water into wine, humans into the divine, perhaps even fish and bread into a picnic with God, by a lake, full of water.