Over the past couple of years, I have posted several times on the Gospel of John and its intricate construction. Last time, I argued that themes of baptism dominate the gospel’s opening chapters, most spectacularly in the stories of Nicodemus and the Samaritan woman at the well, but also elsewhere, with the pervasive water imagery. One seeming outlier in that pattern is the story of the Marriage at Cana, which certainly talks about water and water pots, and changing water into wine, but how on earth can this be linked to a baptism motif? Yet I think it can.
In the gospel as we have it, the story of the Marriage at Cana follows directly on from Jesus’s baptism and the calling of his first disciples. For some modern writers, Cana has become part of an elaborate (and silly) mythology about this being Jesus’s own wedding, presumably to Mary Magdalene, but much more is going on here. Nor is the water’s transformation a conjuring trick. Patristic writers drew obvious conclusions about the supersession of Judaism by the new revelation, of “the best wine left till last.”
But the detailed language used is significant. Please check out my earlier post on the Samaritan woman, which stresses the Greek words used for springs and wells. I concluded there that the Samaritan woman passage is clearly and specifically referring to the story of how Isaac found his wife Rebekah in Genesis 24. There are various possible Greek words for bodies of water, and both in Genesis 24 and John 4 we are dealing with a pege, a spring.
In my earlier post, I continued:
Other connecting words (apart from pege) include the term for the water vessels, hudriai, which appear in that very “watery” Genesis 24 account. Hudriai are also found twice in close proximity in John’s Gospel, first at the marriage at Cana, and then in the [Samaritan] story – and nowhere else in the New Testament.The author of John is clearly integrating the Cana story with the later Samaritan passage. That is a classic Johannine tactic, where the subtle use of a word or phrase serves to link passages and their motifs, and yet again, the unifying strand is watery.
Now, plenty of other continuities and parallels link the two stories, the wedding and the well, both of which have Jesus in dialogue with a woman. Both stories too stress the concept of the coming Hour, an apocalyptic moment when things will be different: “My hour is not yet come…” “The hour is coming…” The Greek neither requires us to capitalize Hour in this context, nor prevents us from doing so, but it is a natural temptation. Both wedding and well passages also have a powerful and explicit messianic theme. As I have argued before, it is hard to read any of these early chapters except in light of the idea of baptism.
Apocalyptic, messianism, and baptism – that potent combination may also take us back to the context of Qumran, and all those texts in the Dead Sea Scrolls about “washings” or “lustrations.” Modern translators work so hard to avoid using the dreaded B word, baptism, although most eventually give up and use phrases like “baptismal liturgy.”
It always pays us to remember that apocalyptic context of baptism, from Qumran through early Christianity.
However that Cana story might originally have been meant, its context in John’s gospel has infused that baptismal element into it.
One final comment. I have no objection whatever to speculations about Jesus being married or widowed. I just don’t think that theme is relevant to the Cana story.