My first reflection on what will be a very slow walk through John came during the Easter season, which is the time of year when the Church uses John as the gospel at mass. I had said then, at the beginning of this, that I don’t much like John’s gospel. So it surprised me a little when, walking into Church that Sunday, the priest joked about how we were stuck with this gospel that I’m not so crazy about. A good reminder that, even though I assume nobody has the patience to read this stuff, I am sometimes wrong.
But John’s gospel is a lot weirder than it gets credit for. Because 3:16 gets put on posters at ballgames, I think it gets a benign pass by people, when a closer look shows some, well, quirks.
Take the Wedding at Cana. This is John 2:1-12, the first miracle (or Sign, as John calls them) that Jesus performs in John’s gospel. It doesn’t appear in the other gospels at all, but we have all heard the “water into wine” thing a zillion times. (Digressive shoutout to All Saints Cafe in Tallahassee, which has a t-shirt with White Jesus on it saying “All Saints Cafe: Turning Water Into Coffee”).
But look closer. This story has some real quirks.
John doesn’t name Mary IN A STORY ABOUT MARY. She is only “the mother of Jesus.” And before you start, John has no problem naming names; he’s the only one who names Malchus, the guy Peter de-ears in the garden of Gethsemane, for example. And Jesus just calls his mom, “woman.” She’s your mom. She has a name.
Then there is the awkwardness of it all. The story starts with “on the third day there was a marriage at Cana in Galilee, and the mother of Jesus was there. Jesus also was invited to the marriage, with his disciples.” First, John starts his “days” with Jesus’ baptism, but 1:29, 35, and 43 all start “the next day,” which makes 2:1 the fourth day, not the third. But far be it from me to cast aspersions on someone bad at counting.
But what was Jesus’ relationship to his mother like? Mary was invited to the wedding…and so was Jesus, separately, with his disciples, who have only been with him for 3 (or 4) days. It seems a little off that their invites were separate, and his +1s were actually an assortment of basically strangers.
When the wine runs out, Mary doesn’t ask Jesus to do anything. She just says to him “they have no wine.” To which Jesus basically eye-rolls back “O woman, what have you to do with me? My hour has not yet come.” The shorter and more familiar version of which is “Mommmmmm!”
So John’s 30-ish Jesus is apparently a teenage boy when his mom is around. Actually, that may be the most relatable moment of all four gospels for me. I have definitely lived that moment, even in adulthood.
You know (or can read) the rest of the story, but the bridge verse in 2:12 is also interesting: he leaves Cana for Capernaum “with his mother and his brothers and his disciples, and there they stayed for a few days.”
Christians put a lot of weight on this wedding story. In some traditions, the reason weddings are a sacrament at all rests on the fact that Jesus performed his first miracle at one. Again, for John, this is the start of Jesus’ wonder-working career. It is a big deal.
But the story isn’t ABOUT the wedding. It’s about a party running out of wine. There’s no mention of an actual ceremony, religious or otherwise, and the couple doesn’t actually appear. And as miracles go, water-to-wine seems very…parlor tricky. Nobody gets raised from the dead or healed or exorcised, and those are all really serious. Here, the party gets to continue.
I’ll say this, though. It’s a miracle that casts light on the little things that are more important than the SERIOUS things, maybe. Whatever comes of it, a wedding is a celebration of joy and hope, and in a world that is short on both, those things can be written off as extras, grace notes, bonuses.
Joy is important. Hope is important. Letting a celebration run its full course is undervalued, now, and maybe then. We need to do the hard work of love and justice, but it’s better work when it starts and ends with joy and hope. So, yeah, 150 more gallons of wine all around. (Digression #2: what did the Footloose pastor/father say about this one? I mean, this was not that big a town.)
I heard a great homily on this passage recently about how Jesus, through this parlor trick, turned the moment a couple would always be dogged by in shame (running out of booze at your own wedding) into the moment that couple would always be remembered as legend by (who saves such great wine for last?) in wonder. This little trick might have changed the trajectory of that couple’s life for the better. That’s kind of sweet, and replicable in other graceful ways.
But as someone who rolled his eyes, figuratively and literally, at his mom’s entreaties well into alleged adulthood, maybe the miracle is in that bridge verse. If our relationship with our kid is so strained that we don’t show up on the wedding invite list together, if they show up with fishy-smelling randos that we’ve never met, if they call us, not “mom/dad” but “woman/man”, and if they react to our request for help by (metaphorically) giving us the finger, would it not be a miracle of a strange but treasured sort if we got to leave together with them, and he let us join his rando friends for a few days down by the coast?
John’s gospel is quirky and abstract and poetic. But if you look close enough, it’s also beautiful and real.
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