There are Baptists, believe it or not, who believe Jesus turned ordinary Galilean well water into Welch's grape juice.
Granted, that would be impressive as miracles go. But it’s not the same as a palate pleasing cabernet sauvignon.
Nor does it seem to ring true with the biblical account of the wedding feast at Cana. Despite the Baptist bias, it seems doubtful that the sudden disappearance of grape juice would distress a host so visibly that it would capture Mary’s attention.
There are also Baptists, believe it or not, who insist Jesus’ beverage of choice—at wedding feasts, dinners, celebrations, and his Last Supper -- was unfermented juice, and that this is what the Bible means by wine.
How they reach this conclusion is a mystery because the Bible clearly knows real wine.
There are at least 75 references in the bible to the deleterious effects of alcohol, and anyone who has over-imbibed will identify with the author of Proverbs 23:29-35. There is no doubt this dude has experienced something stronger than Welch's:
Who has woe? Who has sorrow?
Who has strife? Who has complaining?
Who has wounds without cause?
Who has redness of eyes?
Those who linger late over wine,
those who keep trying mixed wines.
Do not look at wine when it is red,
when it sparkles in the cup
and goes down smoothly.
At the last it bites like a serpent,
and stings like an adder.
Your eyes will see strange things,
and your mind utter perverse things.
You will be like one who lies down in the midst of the sea,
like one who lies on the top of a mast.
“They struck me,” you will say, “but I was not hurt;
they beat me, but I did not feel it.
When shall I awake?
I will seek another drink.”
Be that as it may, the second chapter of John finds Jesus in the midst of a wedding revelry in which the wine has been flowing so freely the urns have been prematurely drained.
The guests are still at the point at which the wine sparkles in their cups and they want more.
Jesus, a 30-year-old woodworker living with his parents, is schmoozing with his twelve hangers-on and doesn’t notice the pending crisis.
But his mother notices. Mary knows Messiahs-in-Waiting have their obtuse moments, and this is one of them.
“They have no wine,” she says.
Taken aback, Jesus looks down his nose at his mother.
“Woman, what concern is that to you and to me? My hour has not yet come.”
But according to John, Jesus already has disciples following him and Mary may well be tired of thirteen grown men hanging around the place, adjusting each others’ phylacteries while waiting for the hour to come.
Ignoring her son’s rather insolent response, she gives him a firm nudge toward the servants. “Do whatever he tells you,” she says.
For most Christians, what happens next is a joyous sign of the power God has given Jesus over the laws of nature.
British humorist Rowan Atkinson, imitating an Anglican priest, captures the delight better than most preachers do. Summoning a sonorous and slightly condescending tone, he reads the ersatz scripture:
“And on the third day there was a marriage in Cana in Galilee. And it came to pass that all the wine was drunk. And the mother of Jesus said unto the lord, ‘they have no more wine.’ And Jesus said unto the servants. ‘Fill six water pots with water.’ And they did. And when the steward of the feast tasted the water from the pot it had become wine and he knew not from whence it had come. But the servants did know, and they applauded loudly in the kitchen. And they said unto the lord, ‘How the hell did you do that?’ and inquired of him, ‘Do you do children's parties?’ And the Lord said, ‘No.’ But the servants did press him, saying, ‘Go on, give us another one.’”
Contrary to the viewpoints of many Baptists, there is no question that Jesus was a connoisseur of wine. He openly acknowledged that he came into the world “eating and drinking,” leading enemies to call him a “glutton and a wine bibber.” But there are Baptists who can’t bring themselves to believe it.
When I worked for American Baptists Churches USA, the staff had a certain amount of freedom to express their personal and theological viewpoints on controversial topics, ranging from pacifism to sexual orientation.
“But don’t drink in public,” we were warned. One staff leader put it this way: “If a Baptist saw a member of the staff drink, it would be as if we had uncovered the body of Jesus.”
Some staff were suspected of getting around the prohibition by disguising their Jack Daniels in porcelain cups where it took on the appearance of innocent java.
But those who tried it knew they were risking their jobs. Even Baptists who accepted that Jesus drank wine were not happy about it. “It’s the one thing I didn’t like about him,” an aging dowager once told me.
Baptist teetotaling preceded the temperance and prohibition movements of the 19th and 20th centuries. The same crusading evangelicals who opposed slavery and demanded women’s suffrage also followed Carrie Nation into bars where she threatened property and patrons with her ax. Nation, a 6-foot-tall prohibitionist terrorist, said she was “a bull dog following at the feet of Jesus, barking at what he doesn’t like,” and she claimed God had ordained her to wield her ax. As far as Carrie Nation was concerned, and despite the evidence in her bible, Jesus didn’t like booze.
Just to be clear, the Baptist aversion to devil drink has modified over the years. I have friends who refer to themselves as “beer drinking Baptists” as if they had joined a specialized sect. A sizable number of Baptists now follow their Lord in wine bibbing, but they don’t like to tipple in front of each other. I once overheard a Baptist staff leader discussing annual meetings with his counterpart in another denomination.
“Times have changed,” said the counterpart. “The local bars no longer lose business when our church descends en masse on a city.”
“It’s different with us,” the Baptist leader said. “When Baptists come to town the bars lose money but room service charges soar.”
The wine-soaked wedding feast in Cana will be preached about in many thousands of Christian churches this Sunday, and once again Baptists will be forced to struggle with their attitudes toward alcohol.
As a member of the beer drinking Baptist sect, I try to keep an open mind about my teetotaling sisters and brothers.
Many of them are convinced that alcohol is satanic, and many have the anecdotes to back them up. God knows wine and demon run have obliterated many a liver and destroyed many lives and families. There is no question that, in the wrong hands, alcohol is evil.
Then again, there are many things that are evil in the wrong hands. Polls suggest a majority of Americans now think guns are evil enough to be controlled. But guns are designed solely to shoot things, so the burden of proof is on those who think they re good to have. There are many other things that are not intrinsically evil but can be used for evil purposes, and these could include the Internet, WiFi, and the keyboard of my MacBook Air.
People who think wine is evil or is too likely to be used for evil purposes will not be easily dissuaded.
And therein, perhaps, lies the key to the miracle at Cana.
Jesus and his mother (and his twelve hangers-on) were at a wedding where the mood was joyous and the wine was flowing. When the wine stopped flowing, Jesus – when prompted by his mother – saw nothing evil or ungodly about resuming the flow to keep joy alive.
In fact, for the first time in his ministry, Jesus discovered his effortless power to intervene in basic laws of physics and biology and fundamentally change them.
Change water into wine? Nice trick, you say, if you can do it.
But the wedding feast at Cana was more than that. It was there that Jesus – again, prompted by his mother – took the first step through the door that would lead to even more amazing miracles: miracles of teaching, healing, and the ultimate miracles of resurrection and redemption.
When Jesus turned water into wine, he took the first step toward changing the human condition from hate to love, from doubt to faith, from death to life.
When the wine jugs were drained at Cana, a pall was cast upon a gathering that was intended to celebrate the joys of human love.
When Jesus enabled the wine to flow again, the celebration was dramatically renewed, and the imbibers suddenly experienced the love of God that is boundless, eternal, and unconditional.
Even a Baptist would drink to that.