I realize that I am dating myself with the description, but I am old enough to remember spinning my favorite album without a trace of irony, and with no notions of superior sound quality. I had an early 80s standard issue Fisher Price record player, about the size and shape of a small briefcase, a rough textured brown plastic cover that hinged open. 2 speeds. I wore that thing out.
My favorite record was a full size LP embedded with color photographs, real vintage stuff. I knew all the words to all the songs, listening faithfully to each track in order and flipping the record at the end of the side to get the full experience. I would sit up in my room and sing along, most of the songs real belters and moderately ranged, perfect for my not-really-soprano voice, even as a child.
The record was the soundtrack to Mary Poppins.
I maintain to this day that it is a great film. The song lyrics are catchy, inherently singable, and quirky enough to capture the spirit of author P.L. Travers’s original story: funny, straight-forward and (mostly) unsentimental, a little odd. If you do not know Mary Poppins, I commend it to you, the book and the musical. And for more than “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious.” (cultural marker: spell check recognizes this word.)
It occurred to me when I recently rewatched and read Mary Poppins that the main character is more than a wacky, singing governess. Or she could be, if we let her.
For the last couple weeks I have been pondering Mary Poppins as a Christ figure. You might have to forgive me what follows, if it ranges into blasphemy (no, Jesus is not your magical nanny) or if you generally eye-roll at extended analogies. I hope you can trust me for the next few minutes when I tell you: Mary Poppins and Christ have some things in common. She helps me believe in Jesus.
A summary if you are not familiar with the story: Mary Poppins is a quirky British nanny in a series of books from the 1930s and the 1964 film based on them. She, literally, lands in the lives of Jane and Michael Banks, children of a stern bank executive and a patient, though flustered, Suffragette. Mary Poppins takes the children on series of small adventures, and strange, miraculous things happen everywhere she goes. Among other things, together they jump into chalk drawings, talk to dogs, and fly.
“But how is she like Jesus?” you ask. Well…
Mary Poppins comes with the changing of the wind, with whom she sometimes speaks; she and the wind understand one another, even when others don’t hear. Animals, fools, and children are unaccountably drawn to her, while adults and “well behaved, steady-going” people find her and the things that happen when she’s around to be distasteful, “undignified.” Mary Poppins is honest and sharp-tongued. She is loathe to acknowledge her powers, and reluctant to use them when others make requests. Yet she often acquiesces to persistence for the sake of mercy and delight.
Jane and Michael, the children in her charge, remind me of the disciples. They follow her around, generally obedient, occasionally reluctant, rarely understanding. They learn quickly not to argue, “no matter how odd anything seem[s].” They come to accept her lack of answers (“she knows everything, but she never tells”) and still draw close to her when they are very tired, lean up against her side and fall asleep, “still wondering…”
There are banquet scenes: Uncle Albert, who laughs so much that he floats and gets stuck on the ceiling, lays out a lavish airborne tea for the children with “crumpets, coconut cakes, and a large plum cake with pink icing,” enough to make you think you are at a CHMF potluck where Katie and Janna are both testing out new recipes. Another spread in the book is downright apocalyptic. Mary Poppins’s birthday celebration at the zoo includes all the animals released from captivity (and, with appropriate reversal, some humans trapped in cages). They feast and dance together, paw to wing, lions and birds, tigers and little animals, snakes and geese. “Tonight the small are free from the great and the great protect the small,” announces the glittering cobra King, full of grace, echoing Mary’s Magnificat (cf Luke 1:50-53).
And relevant, of course, to our water-to-wine gospel passage tonight, when Mary Poppins pours ordinary medicine from a bottle, it comes out transformed: lime-juice cordial for Jane, strawberry ice for Michael, and, for herself, rum punch which she enjoys with abandon, smacking her lips.
Mary Poppins performs signs and wonders. She taps into some “other” reality, and draws in those who follow her. Mary Poppins awakens faith, belief arising from a world disrupted of previous assumptions.
Like Jesus in the gospel of John.
Tonight we hear about the wedding at Cana. In his gospel John punctuates Jesus’ life with miracles, acts which Jesus performs to “reveal his glory” (2:11). John calls them “signs.” In chapter 2 John relates Jesus’ first sign, the “beginning of the signs,” (2:11) as John calls it, echoing his famous opening in chapter one, “in the beginning…” (1:1). In the beginning, Jesus turns water into wine.
The story is simple and straightforward, if full of holes. Its dialogue is sparse and disjointed, and it is difficult to reconstruct the flow of the scene. We get the main points and cast, and John is rather obvious about the climax, but when we start to ask what really happened and why, we come up short. “The Cana narrative teases the imagination,” painting a sensory picture that provokes thought and emotion, all without necessarily making a whole lot of sense.
Jesus goes to a wedding. His mother is there, listed first as though she is the guest and Jesus is her “plus one,” like he and his disciples are invited as an afterthought? “If you want you can bring your kid and his friends from out of town…”
We learn little about the wedding itself, who’s getting married, how Mary knows them. Nothing about the ceremony or decorations or other guests, no moving speeches from the father of the bride. Nothing but the fact that the wine ran out.
For a first century wedding feast it’s an awkward if not disastrous situation. John downplays it a little, relegating his one bit of social gossip to a participle, a side statement, but it is clear what happened: no more wine.
Mary, blessed Mary, she not only notices but moves to do something about it. She immediately goes to Jesus, starkly repeating the news, heightening the importance of our slim narrative knowledge. “They have no wine” (2:3).
Mary expects Jesus to do something about it. She makes no direct request, no statement about what she may or may not know about his miraculous abilities. Mary simply draws Jesus in, connects him to the wine.
Jesus resists. “What is it to me and to you, woman?” he responds. Jesus is polite, there is no hint of rejection or rudeness as he addresses his mother. But he is clear, “my hour has not yet come” (2:4).
Mary persists. If she responds or argues or persuades, we are not told. In perfect, unambiguous faith we simply see her glide over to the servants. “Do whatever he tells you” (2:5).
Jesus relents. Again, we’re not told why or how, and the action skips ahead. Jesus instructs the servants to fill six stone water jars, the kind used by the Jews for ceremonial washing. The water jars are huge, about thirty gallons each. No small task, but the servants comply with Mary’s instructions to follow her Jesus and they fill them to the brim. Then Jesus tells them to draw some out and take it to the headwaiter.
The headwaiter takes a sip and is amazed! Not because Jesus has turned water into wine, the headwaiter doesn’t know anything about all that. He just knows the wine is delicious, even better than the wine served in the early part of the feast. “You have saved the best,” he marvels later with a chuckle to the bridegroom (2:10).
The only ones who know about the miracle are the servants (who lugged the water) and, presumably, Jesus, Mary, and the disciples. John is surprisingly understated about the miracle itself—we don’t actually see Jesus change the water. He doesn’t touch anything, mutters no magical words or prayers. And yet the created order is changed, transformed into a quiet, glorious abundance for unwitting people to enjoy. Which does sound a bit like God…
John does get explicit, though. (John isn’t one for subtlety.) He doesn’t leave us in the dark about what has transpired; he spells it all out in verse eleven: “What Jesus did here in Cana of Galilee was the beginning of the signs through which he revealed his glory; and his disciples believed in him” (2:11).
If the details of the story are muddled (and much debated by commentators: what is Mary’s role? Did Jesus get people drunk? Are there sacramental undertones?), its meaning is clear: Jesus’ signs reveal his glory. Jesus’ signs evoke belief.
David Herrstorm, a poet, reflects on John’s gospel and the power of Jesus’ signs, from turning water into wine, to feeding the 5,000, to raising Lazarus. He says Jesus “appropriates [power] to make the world we all know conform to the world we all desire. No one is hungry here, no one is sick. In this world the lame walk, the blind see, and the dead rise up.” Jesus’ performance of signs “taps into another world that calls into question the ‘real’ world.” Jesus, positioned “at the moment of creation,” re-creates the world around him, and draws others to believe in his world, absurd though it may seem.
And the belief Jesus creates is not amorphous, detached “faith” or “wonder;” it is belief “in him,” (2:11) in Jesus, the person who creates and transforms, who heals and raises. Who ultimately dies. Who ultimately lives.
As opposed to our modern and desired notions of “shock and awe”—blasting our way through problems and injustice, through conflict and disease, through war and life-as-war—Jesus offers signs: matter-of fact acts of wonder. His dead friend Lazarus lives. A blind man sees. A crowd eats. And here, at the beginning, wedding guests feast on water-turned-to-wine.
His miracles are no less revolutionary for being matter-of-fact—make no mistake, Jesus is overthrowing the establishment here. Filling those ceremonial washing jars with wine was nothing short of a non-violent religious coup. Jesus was replacing the whole Temple system, and with nothing less than himself, his body and word. His miracles are messianic signs, signals that everything has and will change. For all their apparent gentleness, Jesus’ signs disrupt life in the world as-we-know-it. Jesus’ signs call for reorientation and belief.
Which brings us back to Mary Poppins. She too performed signs and wonders, to the delight and dismay of all around her. She too hinted at a world encompassing but also more than the “real” world of life on the ground. She too disrupted everything normal and expected.
Mr. Banks, the children’s father, says it best near the movie’s end, trying to wrap his head around the disruptive, wondrous force of a person who has entered (and made a wreck of) his life. Mr. Banks, once a model of profit-focused discipline, a pillar of society, a successful banker of all things, is preparing to face his superiors, knowing he will be fired and disgraced. “A man has dreams of walking with giants…” He sighs, hanging his head.
“From the moment she stepped into this house, things began to happen to me,” he goes on.
“My world was calm, well ordered, exemplary
Then came this person, with chaos in her wake
And now my life’s ambitions go with one fell blow
It’s quite a bitter pill to take.”
“It’s that Poppins woman!” he shouts, waving his finger in the air.
“It’s that Jesus!” I find myself tempted to shout, some days when life is not unfolding as I had planned.
And then, hopefully, I remember.
That for all his chaos and confusion, for all his overturning of tables and challenging of all that I once held dear, Jesus has offered me some wonderful visions of life. Life more-than the “real” world I cling to. Glimpses, often absurd. Signs.
On the days when Jesus feels a little confusing, or aloof, or scary, when I am not so sure about “laying down my life” and all that business, when I forget that life comes from the death of which I am all too aware…I will remember Jesus’ signs of life, full of glory. Water turning to wine, the beginning of miracle.
And some days it even helps to picture Mary Poppins: mirthful, enigmatic twinkle in her eye, floating up into the sky, riding the wind of Spirit beneath a black umbrella.
One who changed everything with absurd, ridiculous, miraculous joy.
 Travers, P.L., Mary Poppins (San Diego: Harcourt, Inc., 1931),137, 195.
 Ibid., 43.
 Ibid., 45, 149, 47.
 Ibid., 32.
 Ibid., 168.
 Lee, Dorothy, Flesh and Glory: Symbolism, Gender, and Theology in the Gospel of John (New York: Crossroad Publishing Co., 2002), 147.
 Herrstorm, David Sten. The Book of Unknowing: A Poet’s Response to the Gospel of John (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2012), 74.
 Ibid., 79.
 Sherman, Robert and Richard Sherman, “A Man Has Dreams,” Mary Poppins (Walt Disney, 1964).