In John 2:1-12, the story is told of Jesus attending a wedding with his disciples in Cana.* Jesus’ mother appears to have been in charge of food and drink, by the way she approached the problem of a lack of wine and commanded the servants. Jesus and his disciples may have arrived toward the end of the multi-day feast that typically accompanied a wedding, coming up from the Jordan River valley.
When Mary came to Jesus with the problem, she stated it simply: “They have no wine.” Jesus’ reply is less straightforward: “Woman, what does that matter to you and me? My time has not yet come.” Many have tried to explain Jesus’ address to his mother as “woman,” but the fact remains that it seems overly formal for the situation. His next phrase comes across as dismissive: “What does that matter to you and me?” ‘Why should we care that they have run out of wine?’ he seems to be saying.
The final phrase is the most enigmatic of the three: “My time has not yet come.” What “time” he was referring to is not clear. Jesus had already started preaching and was gathering disciples, so the “time” did not refer to the beginning of his ministry, but perhaps to a transition to a more public element as he performed miracles. Jesus may also have been saying that he is prepared to help but at a time of his own choosing, not hers.
The Joseph Smith Translation softens and language and changes the nature of Jesus’ reply to a statement of willingness to help:
Jesus said unto her, Woman, what wilt thou have me to do for thee? That will I do, for mine hour is not yet come.
Whatever Jesus’ intent, Mary felt like action was indeed about to happen, and instructed the servants “Do whatever he tells you.” This will prove to be a test of faith for the servants themselves, though that test is not as clear in the King James Version.
Jesus instructed the servants (which word is not slave but diakonos, meaning one who waits on tables or serves in other ways, and is the basis for our modern word ‘deacon’) to fill the six stone water vessels that were there with fresh water. The mention of stone is significant, indicating these were not for drinking water but purification purposes. Stone could not be rendered impure by Jewish law, unlike pottery or wood, so such vessels would be placed by entrances or other locations where living (flowing, at least when it was collected) water was needed for washing. The servants needed to go to the nearest source of living water that could be found, and likely make several trips back to the wedding area to fill the six pots, which according to John’s measure, would have held between 120-128 gallons, total.
After completing that substantial amount of work, Jesus simply instructed the servants, “Now draw some out and take it to the master of the feast.” We can only imagine the concern of the servants at this very odd request. Living water was not for drinking, it was for washing. And it was wine they were lacking, not water. That they did it showed their respect for Mary and her son. But imagine the servant carrying the cup of water to the man in charge, who was likely paying their wages and who could send them away penniless if they offended him. It was water when they filled the pots, it was water when it was drawn out, and it was water when the cup was handed to the master–an insight lacking in the KJV but not in Wayment’s better translation of the Greek: “When the master of the feast tasted it, the water changed to wine.” It wasn’t until it touched his lips that it became wine, meaning that even as he was drinking it, the servant who handed him the vessel was thinking he was serving purification water. Imagine his complete surprise when the master held up the cup and declared, “You have kept the good wine until now.”
The curious thing is that John doesn’t say what we all expect to have happened: that marvelous wine was served to everyone at the feast for the duration of the wedding. He doesn’t say that the water in the six pots became wine–though we typically assume both of these things (and it may be correct). John only says that the master tasted the good wine, and there the story ends with the summary statement: “Jesus did this, the first of the miracles, in Cana of Galilee, and he revealed his glory, and his disciples believed in him.”
What prompted this little study was that Come, Follow Me asks the question related to this story: “As you read about the Savior changing water into wine in John 2:1-11, what insights do you gain about the power of Christ to change you?”
Here are four thoughts that I drew from the story.
- The symbolism of the act has been discussed by many. The living water is a symbol of Christ, one that he uses in chapter 4 of John with the woman at the well. Wine was viewed as a symbol of blood, with its red color. Thus this miracle could have a Christological interpretation, pointing to Jesus’ future as the living water becoming the blood of sacrifice, providing each of us with a path to eternal life and exaltation.
- I find the between-the-lines story of the servants quite compelling, as outlined above. Whether through faith in Jesus, sheer obedience to Mary, or some other factor, they were willing to comply and were witnesses to an amazing miracle, completely unexpected to them. They must have turned and looked at Jesus in amazement after the positive acclaim from the master, wondering who this man was who could apparently change the elements in an instant. How many of them became disciples is not discussed or known, but the impact must have been substantial. So it can be with us, helping us to move forward with faith even when the outcome looks less than promising and completely uncertain.
- How Jesus’ disciples that he brought to the wedding knew about the miracle is not clearly stated, just the result that it cemented their belief in him. It is likely that they were seated with Jesus and heard the conversation between him and Mary. Perhaps they quietly watched him telling the servants to fill the pots and observed as the cup was given to the master, then saw his reaction. However they learned or saw those events, the impact was substantial, and so should it be on us as we read it. It should strengthen our faith in Christ, as the JST adds in verse 11.
- Scholars typically recognize that John provides seven signs or miracles that represent Jesus’ authority in the book of John, with this being the first. The others demonstrate other aspects of Jesus’ authority over the temple and the priesthood leaders of his day, over illness, disability, and the blind, his power to produce not just wine (as he did here) but substantial food by feeding 5,000, and the culminating miracle of raising Lazarus from the dead. These signs portray a power that can heal and feed and lift and in the end deliver each one of us from death and hell. They represent the full power of his Atonement to fully change us into true disciples and servants of God.
And a bonus insight, from my friend, Steve:
“I love that we have from the mother of the Savior, she who had many personal witnesses of the divinity of her Son, starting with Gabriel’s announcement to her more than thirty years earlier, and perhaps including a multitude of person experiences as she raised this special and unique son, that we receive this powerful counsel: “Do whatever he tells you,” as Professor Wayment translates it, or “Whatever he saith unto you, do it” in the KJV. When we follow this course of action in our own lives, amazing miracles often follow.”
* All scripture quotes are from Thomas Wayment’s The New Testament: A Translation for Latter-day Saints, A Study Bible (Provo, UT: BYU Religious Studies Center, 2018), unless otherwise indicated. Many of the insights above come directly from or are influenced by study notes in that same translation.