Cana: the sign

wedding-canaThe Jars of Water. 6 Now there were six stone water jars there for Jewish ceremonial washings, each holding twenty to thirty gallons. 7 Jesus told them, “Fill the jars with water.” So they filled them to the brim.

The gospel provides an interesting amount of detail: the number of jars, their composition, purpose and size. The half-dozen represented a good store of water for carrying out the kind of purification of which we read in Mark 7:1–4. Before the meal servants would have poured water over the hands of every guest. “Stone jars, in contrast to earthen jars, are free from the possibility of levitical impurity (Lev 11:33). The ‘rites of Jewish purification’ probably refers to the ritual cleansing of hands at meals (cf. John 3:25). Even taking into account the possibility of a large gathering at the wedding, the quantity of stone jars and their capacity is unusual. Everything about v. 6 is overdrawn, from the description of the jars to the amount of narrative space the Evangelist devotes to the description. The narrative technique mirrors the size of the jars in order to emphasize the extravagance of the miracle that is about to take place.” (O’Day, 537-38)

A Miraculous Sign. 8 Then he told them, “Draw some out now and take it to the headwaiter.” So they took it. 9 And when the headwaiter tasted the water that had become wine, without knowing where it came from (although the servers who had drawn the water knew), the headwaiter called the bridegroom 10 and said to him, “Everyone serves good wine first, and then when people have drunk freely, an inferior one; but you have kept the good wine until now.”

We are told what happens before the miracle and what follows, but not the miraculous transformation itself. The jars from which the new wine is drawn were filled to brim. Since each jar was 20-30 gallons, there is suddenly an astonishing amount of wine available to the wedding celebration. The extravagance is at the heart of the sign John wants us to consider. It is this extravagance which will be on display in the feeding of the 5,000 (John 6) and points to the superabundance of the gifts available through Jesus.

What is also presented is a pivotal question in this Gospel – the question of where Jesus’ gifts come from. It is asked of the wine, the Spirit (3:8), the Living Water (4:11), and the Bread of Life (6:5). The headwaiter, who was responsible for the wine, should have known, but does not. In some ways this character will prefigure Nicodemus, a leader of Israel, who also should have know where Jesus’ gifts come from and their deeper meaning. All those reported “in charge” are clueless as to the source of this superabundance; yet the servants know.

O’Day [358] also points out the quality of wine and its significance: “The steward’s initial words to the bridegroom sound like a hospitality maxim, although no exact parallel has been found in other documents from the period. His final words, “you have kept the good wine until now,” have a double meaning. They work on the level of the story line, but the steward’s words also inadvertently witness to the deeper truth. He attributes the good wine to the beneficence of the bridegroom whose wedding is being celebrated, when in fact the wine derives from the beneficence of Jesus, the true bridegroom (3:29).”

Does this miraculous sign have Eucharistic overtones? One has to acknowledge that the account is fully comprehensible without considering whether such allusions are present. That being said, a Eucharistic interpretation is consistent with the larger theme of the miracle – a superabundant gift available through Jesus. As many commentators have noted, wine (John 2) and bread (John 6) hold central positions in the Johannine narrative.

Believing. 11 Jesus did this as the beginning of his signs in Cana in Galilee and so revealed his glory, and his disciples began to believe in him.

O’Day [539-40] insightfully notes: “The contrast between the responses of the steward and the disciples can help the contemporary Christian interpret and appropriate this text. Modern Christians distort and oversimplify when they assume that first-century people would have more immediately embraced the miraculous. The steward is perplexed by the sudden appearance of wine of such quality. He summons the bridegroom, the host of the party, because he assumes that the wine can be explained by conventional reasoning. He attributes the wine to the unprecedented hospitality of this man, but this miracle cannot be explained by an irregularity in etiquette. Rational explanations miss the mark. Jesus’ disciples, by contrast, see in the miraculous abundance of good wine a sign of God’s presence among them. They recognize the revelation of God in the prodigious flow of wine, and they recognize Jesus as the one who brought God to them. The miracle of the wine shatters the boundaries of their conventional world, and the disciples are willing to entertain the possibility that this boundary breaking marks the inbreaking of God. The steward tried to reshape the miracle to fit his former categories, while the disciples allowed their categories to be reshaped by this extraordinary transformation of water into wine, and so they “believed in him” (2:11) as the revealer of God


John 2:8 headwaiter: The word architriklinō is an unusual word. It is often translated as “chief steward” or “headwaiter,” but it 1st century secular use is more often what we would call “a masters of ceremony.” In those times the one who served in the role was often a leader of the community and a well-respected elder. Some scholars have posited that this is the reason the architriklinō can “call” the bridegroom to come hear the news. While this more exalted position is not necessary for the encounter with the sign, it does further emphasize that those in leadership do not know from where comes this superabundance of grace.


  • Raymond E. Brown, The Gospel According to John, vol. 29a in The Anchor Bible, eds. William Albright and David Freeman (New York, NY: Doubleday, 1966)
  • Neal M. Flanagan, John in The Collegeville Bible Commentary, eds. Dianne Bergant and Robert J. Karris (Collegeville, Minn.: Liturgical Press, 1989).
  • Colin G. Kruse, John: An Introduction and Commentary, Tyndale New Testament Commentaries (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2003).
  • Francis J. Moloney, The Gospel of John, vol. 4 in Sacra Pagina, Daniel J. Harrington (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 1998)
  • Leon Morris, The Gospel According to John, The New International Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1995). 153-64
  • John J. McPolin, John, vol. 6 of the New Testament Message, eds. Wilfred Harrington and Donald Senior (Wilmington, DE: Michael Glazier, 1989)
  • Gail R. O’Day, John in the New Interpreter’s Bible, Volume 9, ed. Leander E. Keck (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1996) 535-40
  • Brian Stoffregen, CrossMarks Christian Resources, available at com/brian/


  • Gerhard Kittel, Gerhard Friedrich and Geoffrey William Bromiley, Theological Dictionary of the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: W.B. Eerdmans, 1995)
  • Horst Robert Balz and Gerhard Schneider, Exegetical Dictionary of the New Testament (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1990) –
  • The Anchor Yale Bible Dictionary, ed. David Noel Freedman, Gary A. Herion, David F. Graf, John David Pleins and Astrid B. Beck (New York: Doubleday, 1996).

Scripture – Scripture quotes from New American Bible by Confraternity of Christian Doctrine, Inc., Washington, DC. © 1991, 1986, 1970 at

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