Drawers of Water
For the second week in a row I feel I need to begin by clarifying my sermon title: “drawers” is to be read as “draw-ers”, those who draw; not “drawers”, a place to store socks.
It’s one half of a very Canadian expression as in: “hewers of wood and drawers of water”, an expression we keep trying to reject because it suggests we’re not sophisticated, that we’re too rural or remote. Expert campers, maybe, but cut off from the benefits of city life.
That’s too bad, really. To hew wood and draw water makes us close to nature, admittedly in a fairly sweaty way, but it means that we have a realistic sense of what life actually demands; what it takes to stay warm and fed in the real world.
The drawers of water are important in the lesson of the wedding in Cana of Galilee. John’s gospel is full of symbolism and this story generally gets interpreted around deep symbolic terms: Jesus’ mother representing the old ways and Jesus representing the new; the deeper challenge of the relationship between Jesus and Mary; the old wine vs. the new wine and how the new is superior to the old. There’s a lot to sort out there since all of this is generally understood to represent the relationship between traditional Judaism and this new-fangled thing called Christianity.
But I would like to focus this time on the drawers of water: those servants who had to do all the heavy lifting so that there could be any kind of miracle at all. Those 6 jars didn’t fill themselves and if each one was between 20 and 30 gallons, that means that someone had to lug between 120 and 180 gallons of water from the well to the jugs.
Oh, my aching back! This was not some “snap of the fingers and twinkly lights” sort of miracle; there was hard work involved here.
The wine steward might have been fooled; the bridegroom might have thought the wine came out of thin air, but John makes it clear that the servants who drew the water knew what was really going on.
That’s no mistake. It’s not a passing comment. It’s a recognition that the people who do the hard work often have a deeper understanding
than those who claim to be in charge.
It might be fair to ask why the jars were all empty. The Jewish Rites of Purification John mentions were many and varied and could include ritual bathing, which explains why so much water was needed.
The usual explanation is the ritual of foot washing for guests who had been on the road. This must have been a really big wedding, to use up all the water. If Jesus had to create well over 100 gallons of wine – I really hope it was a large wedding!
I don’t think John was suggesting that the servants had been derelict in their duties. Rather, the empty jars probably signified that the value of traditional ritual had run dry. There were six jars, a symbolic number one short of seven. Seven was the holy number of completion and perfection – like the seven days of creation – so John is setting us up for the understanding that the purification rituals were imperfect to begin with.
Then there’s the symbolism of the wine replacing the water of cleansing. Drinking wine is symbolic of joy and celebration: ritual washing is a symbol of careful obedience to rules, of working to approach the ideal of purity God requires.
Think about it: would you rather be sipping wine or scrubbing the floors? It’s a clear contrast.
Does this miracle suggest that all the heavy lifting connected to the ritual purity was over; that with the advent of Jesus, the time of celebration had begun; that the drawing of water could be left behind?
Many have claimed that John is saying that Christianity is about celebration, while Judaism is about following the rules. That’s a rather superficial contrast but the early Church did take that kind of position a lot. Even as he is saying that, John isn’t suggesting some kind of naïve magical thinking.
John’s presentation of this story makes it clear: coming to this joy requires work; the wedding celebration may get notched up a level
with the new and superior wine, but there are still servants involved, drawing the water and filling the jars; behind the celebration are workers making the miracle possible.
This is an important thing to remember, especially when we start to bubble over with idealism. John’s gospel is arguably the most idealistic of the four gospels and he makes a point, in this, Jesus’ first miracle, of drawing back the curtain and letting us see what goes on behind the scenes.
This revelation won’t be a surprise to many people. Anyone who has been in a choir or an orchestra or a play knows that for an hour of magnificent performance there have been countless hours of rehearsal; fussing about how to see the director when the person standing in front of you is too tall; being reminded to look up from the music or script; learn your lines; and pay attention!
The same is true for things that are more personal. The person who has saintly levels of patience had to develop that, had to practice and may not even be so patient at home if you were to ask their family.
The person who is able to offer wise advice undoubtedly made a lot of mistakes along the way and can speak from hard experience rather than some abstract theory. And who is to say they aren’t still struggling
behind the scenes to get it right?
Our faith is not a static thing; it is not a performance we have to perfect.
Yes, we want to live our lives in the best way we can so that people learn about God’s love and justice through our sincere actions rather than our preaching. But we need to remember that for all the celebration we are promised, for all the joy of being in a good relationship with God and with each other, our faith isn’t just a wedding feast where we get to sip wine and laugh. A lot of work is needed behind the scenes.
It’s a bit of a stale saying now, to point out that relationships take work, but they do. And our faith, which brings us so much promise, is all about relationships.
None of us get to simply party. Each one of us is called to be a drawer of water. We each contribute through our efforts to making the joy of our shared faith available to all. That water isn’t going to draw itself.
But we shouldn’t only think of this as work; there are rewards. As John points out, when you work behind the scenes you get a deeper appreciation of what is really going on. I’ve always felt that sort of insight is worth the effort.