Filling the Vessels to the Brim

A Sermon by the Rev. James P. Cooper

Toronto, Sept. 16, 2007

Jesus said to them, "Fill the waterpots with water." And they filled them up to the brim. (John 2:7)

Changing the water to wine at the wedding feast in Cana is generally regarded as the Lord's first miracle. Tradition holds that it was the wedding of the disciple Nathanael who had been called only a few days earlier.

A wedding feast was the closest thing to a vacation that people had in those days in Israel. There were no annual holidays, no 3 day weekends, only dawn to dusk labor in the fields or in the shops, broken only by religious observances on the Sabbath. It is not surprising then, that when given the opportunity to spend several days in celebration that such an opportunity was not wasted. The large supply of wine ran out before the planned end of the feast. This would have been a great embarrassment to the hosts and to the bride and groom, and marked an unfortunate beginning to their marriage. No one would want to be remembered for hosting the wedding feast where they ran out of wine!

When the wine began to run short it was a matter of some concern to the friends of the groom. Mary, who was also a guest at the feast, came to Jesus to tell Him that there was no more wine. This incident is a secondary theme to the story, for it clearly establishes the relationship between Mary and the adult Jesus. Everywhere in the New Testament where Mary is called the mother of Jesus, the words come from someone other than Jesus. He Himself always refers to her as "woman."1

That Mary came to Jesus with the problem shows that by this early date in His public ministry, she had already seen enough to be convinced that He was the Messiah. Her comments show her faith in Him, her assumption that He would wish to do something about the problems, and that she believed He had the power to do it.

That He rebuffed her tells us a number of things about His relationship to her: First, He called her "woman," which suggests that whole body of doctrine in which we learn that the Lord came on earth to glorify His human, and put off all those hereditary and environmental things He derived from Mary. Also, it tells us that He wanted to wait until the time was right in His view to perform the miracle.

Mary, thinking about the feelings of the host, wanted Jesus to do something before people found out that they had run short of wine. Jesus, however, knew that the miracle would mean nothing unless it were generally known. He had to wait for the right time, until His "hour had come" so that the miracle would draw attention to His power and support His claim to be the Son of God.

The Lord carefully chose the time and place of every one of His miracles so that they would have the maximum impact. The only reason for performing miracles was to draw attention to Himself, to show His Divine powers, and to confirm the belief that many had in His Divinity. For example, if He had come to earth to be a healer, why did He then heal relatively few people? And why was He unable to do miracles in Nazareth? The only explanation is that He only did miracles to attract attention to Himself and His teachings, and to confirm belief in those who already believed, or were strongly inclined to believe. At the same time, the record of the miracles in the Word contained within them spiritual things which can be discovered by applying the Science of Correspondences.

Throughout the Word, weddings represent the church, because a wedding is the celebration of the conjunction of a man and a woman. A man represents truth, and a woman good. When people know the truth from the Lord, and do it, they are conjoining good and truth, and they make up the Lord's church on earth. So the fact that the setting for this miracle is a wedding tells us that the main subject is the church.

That the wedding took place in Cana of Galilee tells us that this miracle is really about the establishment of the church among the Gentiles, for Cana was far removed from Jerusalem, and was populated for the most part by non-Jews.

We learn that the Gentiles, those with whom the Lord was about to establish the Christian Church, did have an abundance of external truths about life which they had received from the writings and traditions of the Jewish Church, for these external truths are represented by the 2 or 3 firkins of water kept in the house in six water pots of stone.

The number six represents "all" or "everything"2 and since it is here associated with stone pots full of water, it represents all the external truths of the Word. And because the stone pots of water were there for the purpose of ritual washings, they especially represent the external truths of the Word as received by the Jewish Church, for the purification from sin through ritual washings was the characteristic of that Church. That is why every Jewish home at that time kept stone pots of water near the door so that when a guest entered, water could be drawn and his feet washed by his host as a sign of welcome.

Wine, like water, represents truth. However, because it comes from grapes, and has gone through the process of fermentation, it has changed into something quite different. Therefore, wine represents spiritual truths, the truths of the internal church, the truths which the Lord had come to earth to reveal and with which He would establish the Christian Church.

So we can see that in general, making the water into wine stands for the process whereby the Lord would take the truths of the external church, that is, the truths of the Old Testament so carefully preserved and revered by the Jewish Church, and would make them into the internal truths of the Christian Church which was being established by opening the internal things that had lain hidden within them throughout the generations of the Jewish Church.

When we read about the ruler of the feast, and his reaction to the wine that the Lord had provided, we are being given an insight into the process whereby the Lord builds a New church on the foundation provided by the Old. As said before, the wedding itself represents the church. The tradition of serving the best wine at first, then the poorer wine later when the guests are no longer so discriminating represents the fact that each of the four previous churches established by the Lord have, in the process of time, declined. Specifically, this represents the decline of the Jewish Church. However, when the time of a church is at an end, the Lord comes again with new truth so that those who truly love the Lord and wish to do His will are inspired, and enfilled with a new vision of the church and heaven. This is represented by the delicious wine that was saved until last.

We read in the text that the wedding guests were surprised by the delicious new wine, and that many were unable to accept that it had been provided miraculously by Jesus. At the end of every church, new truth is revealed. Those who accept the new truth and carry it forward into life become the "remnant" of the old church from whom the new is to be built. The Lord, in His first public miracle, is announcing His miraculous powers, and therefore His divinity, thereby attracting those of the former church who are prepared to accept the new. Scripture tells us that although not all at the feast believed in Him, the disciples were inspired by this miracle, and their faith in Him increased.

We can easily see the "big picture" of this miracle, how the Lord, in His first public miracle is, in the internal sense, announcing that He has come to fulfill the Old Testament, to reveal the moral and spiritual truths that are contained in the letter of the Mosaic law, and inviting those Gentiles and Jews who are genuinely interested in spiritual things to follow Him and help Him establish a new, more internal, church. But what do these passages tell us that we can take home with us today and use in some way to make our lives better?

A home represents the mind, and, like the Jewish home where the wedding feast was held, we keep a great deal of water around: 2 or 3 firkins; 20 or 30 gallons; about 100 liters — in other words, during the course of our lives, we accumulate a great deal of information about the world. Water represents natural truth, the kind of truth which has for its subject the world and things in it. These are all important things that we need to know in order to maintain our homes, and keep our bodies healthy and fit for uses, but there is far more to life than the natural world and its delights.

If we are to be properly prepared for life in heaven, the water has to be turned into wine; the natural truths have to be reordered and enfilled so that they support spiritual goals, so that they lead our thoughts and actions toward the Lord and heaven.

The way this happens is represented when the Lord commanded that the waterpots be filled with water, and the servants filled them to the brim (text). Waterpots, being vessels which receive water, represents the mind which receives truth. Filling the water pots is, therefore, an image of learning.

The Lord Himself commands us to learn, to fill our vessels. Whether or not that water is turned into wine with us depends entirely upon our response. Do we approach learning half-heartedly? Do we fill the pots with only enough water to satisfy the master, to avoid getting into trouble, or do we learn with enthusiasm and interest, do we fill our vessels to the brim?

It's not a simple thing. Imagine what life would be like for people in Etobicoke if we had to depend on the Mimico (or the Humber) for all our water. Imagine the effort of filling six 100+ liter cisterns by carrying the water yourself. It's quite a job.

In the New Church we believe that even the simple can be saved, that if a man only knows one truth, but lives according to it because he believes that is what the Lord wants him to do, that he will find his way to eternal happiness in heaven. However, while such a person may be saved because he is far less useful than someone who knows many truths, he is not fulfilling the capabilities given to him by the Lord. The truth of the matter is that charity is the real life of heaven, and charity is according to the quality and the quantity of truth with a person.3

If we are planning a trip to a place some distance away that we had never visited before, we would certainly prepare ourselves by reading brochures and articles about the destination, and we would want to talk to others who had been there and could offer little tips that would go beyond what was mentioned in the articles. The more we could learn about the country before we actually arrived, the more relaxed we will be, and the more enjoyment we will get out of our visit. Do not the exact same rules apply about our future trip to the Spiritual World, a trip every one of us is going to take sooner or later?

Every truth that we learn is first of all a natural truth. When a little child learns that in the Word water corresponds to truth, he does not understand the spiritual truth within. He learns it as a fact, a natural truth, something he stores away with all the other assorted things that he knows. Adults learn spiritual truths in the same way — as facts presented to their minds as spoken or written words; natural truths. They are filed away in the memory with all the other things that are learned during the course of a day. And if that is all that happens, they soon fade into oblivion, like the contents of last week's newspaper, or the water in the stone pots beside the door that is periodically used up and replaced with fresh.

How then is the water turned to wine? How do the natural truths become spiritual truths? How do we turn our attention away from the short term pleasures of the natural world so that we can reach out for the things of real, lasting value, spiritual things? By living them. Only through experience, through temptation, through seeing that the principles of the church do work for us when they are consistently applied in our life do we finally come to the point where we really see what the truths mean, because we have lived them. Only then does true spiritual understanding come. Spiritual truth and enlightenment come to us through plain, good old-fashioned work, just like anything else of real, lasting value.

There is no magic involved, no short cuts. The Lord has given us each a vessel, a mind, and commanded that we fill it to the brim. That means learning to how read the Word with understanding (which is the main focus of our school and the Society doctrinal class), and continuing to read and study throughout life as our understanding increases through the experience of life in natural world. Then, having made the truth our own through life, spiritual light will shine on those truths we have acquired through great effort, and it will be seen that instead of ordinary water, miraculously, in its place is the most delicious new wine. Jesus said to them, "Fill the water pots with water." And they filled them up to the brim (text). Amen.

Hear now the Word of the Lord as it is written in …

First Lesson: 2KI 4:1-7

A certain woman of the wives of the sons of the prophets cried out to Elisha, saying, "Your servant my husband is dead, and you know that your servant feared the LORD. And the creditor is coming to take my two sons to be his slaves." {2} So Elisha said to her, "What shall I do for you? Tell me, what do you have in the house?" And she said, "Your maidservant has nothing in the house but a jar of oil." {3} Then he said, "Go, borrow vessels from everywhere, from all your neighbors; empty vessels; do not gather just a few. {4} "And when you have come in, you shall shut the door behind you and your sons; then pour it into all those vessels, and set aside the full ones." {5} So she went from him and shut the door behind her and her sons, who brought the vessels to her; and she poured it out. {6} Now it came to pass, when the vessels were full, that she said to her son, "Bring me another vessel." And he said to her, "There is not another vessel." So the oil ceased. {7} Then she came and told the man of God. And he said, "Go, sell the oil and pay your debt; and you and your sons live on the rest." Amen.

Second Lesson: JOH 2:1-12

On the third day there was a wedding in Cana of Galilee, and the mother of Jesus was there. {2} Now both Jesus and His disciples were invited to the wedding. {3} And when they ran out of wine, the mother of Jesus said to Him, "They have no wine." {4} Jesus said to her, "Woman, what does your concern have to do with Me? My hour has not yet come." {5} His mother said to the servants, "Whatever He says to you, do it." {6} Now there were set there six waterpots of stone, according to the manner of purification of the Jews, containing twenty or thirty gallons apiece. {7} Jesus said to them, "Fill the waterpots with water." And they filled them up to the brim. {8} And He said to them, "Draw some out now, and take it to the master of the feast." And they took it. {9} When the master of the feast had tasted the water that was made wine, and did not know where it came from (but the servants who had drawn the water knew), the master of the feast called the bridegroom. {10} And he said to him, "Every man at the beginning sets out the good wine, and when the guests have well drunk, then the inferior. You have kept the good wine until now!" {11} This beginning of signs Jesus did in Cana of Galilee, and manifested His glory; and His disciples believed in Him. {12} After this He went down to Capernaum, He, His mother, His brothers, and His disciples; and they did not stay there many days. Amen.

Third Lesson:

[2] The primary thing of the rational with man is truth, consequently it is the affection of truth, which makes it possible that man may be reformed, and so regenerated. This is effected by means of knowledges that are of truth, which are continually being implanted in good, that is, in charity, that so the man may receive the life of charity. It is on this account that the affection of truth in man is predominant in his rational. For it is the case with the life of charity (which is the heavenly life itself) that with those who are being reformed and regenerated it is continually being born and growing up and receiving increments, and this by means of truths therefore the more of truth there is insinuated, the more is the life of charity perfected; wherefore according to the quality and quantity of truth, so is the charity with a man.

[3] From all this it may in some measure be evident how the case is with man's rational. In truth, however, there is no life, but in good. Truth is only a recipient of life, that is, of good. Truth is as the clothing or garment of good; therefore also truths are called in the Word "clothing," and also "garments." But when good constitutes the rational, truth disappears and becomes as if it were good. Good then shines through the truth, in the same way as takes place with the angels, for when they appear clothed, it is a brightness inducing the appearance of raiment, as was the case also when angels appeared before the prophets. AMEN

Here end the lessons. Blessed are they who hear the Word of God and keep it. Amen.


1 See SD 5992, AC 2574:2, 2649:2, AE 205:e, Lord 35, TCR 102

2 See AR 610:2

3 See AC 2189:2