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A missionary friend of mine once wrote about the wedding at Cana, Jesus’ first miracle where he turns water into wine. It’s a passage many Christians know well, but it is easy to miss the little parenthetical phrase in verse 9 that captured the attention of my friend: “(though the servants who had drawn the water knew).”
The guests and the host of the wedding did not know where such excellent wine had come from, but the servants who had drawn the water and filled up the jars knew. We read this story and wonder, why didn’t Jesus just make wine appear in the jars to begin with—why even use the water? And why ask the servants to do the tedious task of filling all the jars? Only a word from him and every cup at the table would have overflowed with the finest wine.
It wasn’t just about the wine. There was something else going on here. The old laws were being changed, fulfilled in the most unexpected way. And there was a secret message Jesus wanted to whisper into the hearts of the servants, in the back room where the jars were kept, in that familiar place beside the well where they spent so much of their lives.
I have been in that back room before. One spring break during college, I went with a mission team from our church to Kensington, a neighborhood that’s part of the Philadelphia Badlands. It’s the birthplace of notorious gangs, and in 2007—around the time our team went—it was listed the No. 1 recreational drug corner in the city. Everywhere we turned, the utter depravity of the human soul was laid bare with nothing to hide behind. The dismal rain of early spring fell on trash piles heaped on the sidewalks and dripped down the angry graffiti on every wall. The abandoned buildings had rags hanging from dark and broken windows. Men and women drifted aimlessly across the streets and sat hunched in corners and crevices, some shouting belligerently to no one, others in a zombie-like trance.
In the very middle of Kensington was the building belonging to Inner City Mission, run by Pastor Frank Vega. A former gang member and drug addict, Pastor Vega had met Christ in prison and felt called to minister in Kensington. He knew every passing man and woman by name. Each time he shook a hand or put an arm around someone, the transformation that passed across their face was astounding. If only for a moment, glory flashed in a sudden smile, in the softening of the eyes, as they were embraced in love. Here was water turned into wine.
I think of others I have met since then, other servants drawing water in back rooms. There was the young seminary graduate who served the homeless in Los Angeles’ Skid Row. He scratched at his head, infested with lice, which he’d contracted from sleeping many months on the floor in the food distribution center, as he told us how so-and-so always came at this time and preferred this kind of soup. It took kingdom eyes to see the secret ingredient he put into each meal he handed out—prayer.
The back room of the kingdom is full of servants who draw water, day in and day out, filling jars for the Lord to turn into wine. Pastors who scrambled to learn how to livestream services, set up Zoom meetings, and console congregants as churches closed in the pandemic; mothers who wake for the fourth time in the night to feed a wailing infant; missionaries who choose to stay in the midst of war and famine. In heaven we will be astonished to see that right beside the Pastor Vegas of the world, there will also be countless multitudes of God’s people standing shoulder to shoulder who served in countless miraculous ways.
Perhaps for as long as they lived, each time the servants went to the well to draw water, they would remember Jesus. They would remember the way his eyes twinkled as he told them to draw from the jars and take the water to the master. They would remember the stories of Elijah and Elisha, great prophets of old, to whom ravens brought bread and who made a widow’s supply of flour and oil never cease. They would remember the great promises in Isaiah, when the Lord himself would prepare a banquet of the finest wine and the best meats. Perhaps they would know that that kingdom had come. Perhaps they would realize, trembling, that at that wedding feast, they had played a part.
Lord Jesus, turn all our water into wine. All our plans, our difficult conversations, our lonely endeavors, our unexpected crises, our lingering fears. All we can do is draw the water; all we can do is listen for your voice and do as you tell us. And somehow, we are astonished to find that we, too, live our lives in the parenthetical statement—we, too, know where the wine comes from.