Favourite biblical stories as the foundation for a joke must put Adam and Eve in the first place – Viv has long wanted to produce the definitive book of Adam and Eve gags – but in the contest for second place, the water into wine at Cana must be a strong contender. The faint undertone of religious people getting plastered, avoiding paying revenue and duty on alcohol, the ludicrous quantities on offer, all of them are traditional (if frequently tiresome) anchor points for humour.
It's probably fair to say, though, that only stories with a bit of depth and richness about them have the capacity for the sort of imaginative playfulness which underpins a joke anyway. And the multi-layeredness of the Cana story shouldn't be underplayed: what starts as a simple-enough story about someone being saved from the shame of a Temperance wedding (in the Jewish tradition you could sell a copy of the Scriptures to pay for wine for certain celebrations) has layer after layer of possibilities on which to ponder.
First,a point I know I've made before but an important one. Some preachers (and, regrettably even some bible translations) use the word 'miracle' in this story. It's not a miracle, which isn't really a NT word at all. Instead the word is 'sign' and like all signs this is an invitation to ask,'What does this say?' So from the outset we're being invited, not to boggle at the duty-frees, but to consider what it might all mean.
I don't think that there can ever be a definitive reply to that question. There may be things which are way off the target, like reading this as an 'Isn't he good' episode', but these unpickings are certainly not the last word.
First of all, what does this tell us about Jesus? Well, rather a lot – there's mention of his 'time', which is a trailer for a lot more of the Jesus story to come, and even implies a reluctance to get involved in 'signs' so early on. You'll notice a similar reluctance on Jesus' part in the other Gospels. It's as though the unanimous opinion of the NT is that Jesus is determined not to be seen as a wonder-worker, shocking people into belief.)
Second thing we might notice is that it's a slap in the face to anyone who wants to tie Jesus in with the Dead Sea Scrolls. There was a big industry in this in the 60's and 70's, with all sorts of peculiar rumours about how Jesus was an Essene, about suppressed texts and so on. Cana places Jesus about as far away from the Dead Sea Scroll community as it's possible to be: they were suspicious of marriage, kept themselves even from contact with the Pharisees,whom they regarded as hopelessly worldly, and were highly puritanical. Jesus is in the middle of a rowdy celebration of human joy, encouraging it. While we're at it, the Gospel of Judas type of nonsense, which tries to make Jesus into some sort of Gnostic teacher, falls at the same hurdle: the Gnostics were famed for being anti-material, anti-sex and anti-celebration. So this story sets down some very clear markers about who Jesus is – and even stronger ones about who he isn't. And we need to take these creation-affirming, people-affirming insights on board. As someone observed wryly, there are Christian puritans who wish devoutly that the Lord had turned the wine into water instead – but he didn't.
Then what of the sign itself? The provision of food and drink from nowhere was, of course, a talent of the 'greats' of the Jewish tradition, Moses and Elijah. But they provided the elements of survival, and under divine instruction: Jesus provides the stuff of celebration when asked. There's a clear message here, again about the person of Jesus, but also about the new Christian identity. This is a story about the transformation of the ordinary into the extraordinary, of the good into the glorious. We're encouraged to see the Jesus event, not so much as a new start but as the glorious ripening of what the Jewish faith had hinted at. The water of purification becomes the wine of celebration, we move from sorrow to rapturous joy.
And no Christian can hear the word 'wine' or 'feast' without thinking 'Eucharist'. Everyone knows that John's account of the Last Supper misses out the Eucharist. This is probably because he hints at it constantly. In this feast we're invited to see the seeds of the Feast in the Kingdom, and a thread is laid between our earthly experiences and the glorious truth of the Kingdom. God will not be found in antagonistic renunciation of the good things of the world: indeed he may be glimpsed through them.
This is a snapshot of part of what the Early Christians believed about their Lord and their God and their calling. It only begins to lift the corner on the story, and it's all based on following the invitation implicit in the word 'sign'. Spend a half-hour if you can this week and look at this so-familiar Gospel reading. What sort of sign is it? What does it tell you? Where's the glory for you?