I like the way Johnny Cash said it at the beginning of the video we watched. He turned the water into wine, of all things. Johnny was impressed by the Jesus story, and by being in the very place, as the tour guide told him, where Jesus performed his first very public miracle.
In John’s Gospel, that’s the Gospel writer, not Johnny Cash, the first thing Jesus did, after getting baptized, and gathering a few disciples, was turn water into wine while attending a wedding with his mother. Why would that be his first public miracle?
John’s Gospel is a bit different from Matthew, Mark and Luke. Those three are often called the Synoptic Gospels, which is a technical way of saying that Matthew, Mark and Luke present a similar view.
The optic part of the word means viewpoint or lens. The first part of the word, Syn, means the same, as in synonym, a word that means roughly the same as another. So, synoptic means basically the same view.
The Gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke cover much of the same material when they tell the Jesus stories. The authors, or compilers of these Gospels seem to present stories of Jesus that were cherished and passed on in their local communities of Jesus followers. Where they diverge, it may be that particular communities remembered another version of the story, or only passed on the stories they liked, in the way that was meaningful for them.
For example, Mark does not say anything about the birth of Jesus. Mark’s Gospel starts with Jesus all grown up. His community either did not have the nativity story, or did not consider it necessary.
Matthew and Luke each tell stories about Jesus being born, but not they are not the same stories. Luke has shepherds and angels and a baby born in a stable. Matthew has magi and a star and the visit happens in a house.
John takes another approach. John’s Gospel replaces the story of a little baby with “In the beginning there was the Word”. John goes on to say, “And the Word became flesh and stayed for a little while among us; we saw the Word’s glory—the favour and position a parent gives an only child— filled with grace, filled with truth.” Those lines take the place of a nativity story in John. It’s less about what happened, and more about what it means.
Scholars think John’s Gospel was written at least a generation after the first three. More than Matthew, Mark and Luke, who seem to just tell the particular stories, John’s Gospel does more interpretation of the big story- choosing and arranging which stories about Jesus to preserve, and what to leave out. Thought has also gone into what order to present the events in Jesus’ life. The writer, or compiler of John’s Gospel has been compared to a mural painter, carefully selecting, and arranging the images in a big painting, to build a bigger picture, that guides how they want us to think about Jesus.
There’s a saying from the world of creative writing. Any story told twice is fiction.
The first time someone tells a story, they repeat events back as they remember them. What comes out of their mouth may sounded jumbled, fragmented, disorganized.
The next time, the story-teller is already editing, re-arranging, fixing the story, to make it a better tale told, and to support, consciously, or unconsciously, their own biases. You can learn about a person by observing what kind of stories they like to tell.
When you sit down over a cold drink or warm beverage with an old friend, and they share a story, you can probably also tell if they’ve told it before. There will be a noticeable rhythm, and style, and appropriate dramatic pauses.
Professional interrogators and counselors can recognize when a story has been rehearsed- formed and shaped to have a beginning, middle and end, and a point, or punch line, or moral. That doesn’t necessarily mean the story has been fabricated, but it has at least been distilled.
Usually, by the time a person has told their story a few times, they have also reached their own conclusions about what it means.
When Johnny Cash told the inmates about his visit to Cana, and how it inspired him to write a whole song during a short car ride, it sounded to me like a set-piece, a bit of dramatic monologue he hauled out and used every time he introduced his song. By the time he performed that song at Folsom Prison, he had the story down pat. It came out smooth and set up the song perfectly. That doesn’t mean the story was a fake, but it had definitely been polished, and practiced.
I was also thinking John’s Gospel could be compared to a best of, or greatest hits collection, a retrospective for which the producers carefully select songs that are memorable, and reflect the progress of the singer, and perhaps the messages or themes that mattered most.
The first part presents stories about Jesus’ public ministry, his growing notoriety and following, leading up to his arrival in Jerusalem for the Passover festival. Before the clash with the Jewish and Roman officials that results in Jesus being arrested, put on trial, and crucified, there are 7 big moments- Jesus’ greatest hits, so to speak. Scholars call them “signs” that Jesus is the long-awaited Messiah, sent by God to fulfill ancient promises to the people of Israel.
The seven signs include:
(1) Turning water into wine at the wedding in Cana (2:1–11)
(2) Healing a royal official’s son at Capernaum (4:46–54)
(3) Healing a lame man at the Bethesda gate in Jerusalem(5:1–15)
(4) Feeding a multitude on the shores of the Sea of Galilee (6:1–15)
(5) Walking on the water (6:16–21) as his disciples crossed a stormy sea in a boat.
(6) Giving sight to a man who’d been born blind (chap. 9)
(7) Raising Lazarus from the tomb (chap. 11)
When I mention Johnny Cash, what do you think of as his greatest hit? I would think of “Ring of Fire” or “I Walk the Line”, or even “A Boy named Sue” long before I got around to “He turned the water into wine”.
When I look at the signs in John’s Gospel that Jesus was the long-promised Messiah, turning water into wine seems pretty small, almost ordinary when compared with feeding thousands, healing sick people, or raising Lazarus from the grave.
Even so, there are things about this first sign that capture my imagination. The first is that Jesus did not seem to want to get involved. It was his mother’s idea. She points out the problem and he says something like “What’s that got to do with me?”, and he sounds exactly like a son talking to his mom.
Scholars note John’s Gospel records only two moments when Jesus spoke to his mother. There is this time at the Wedding of Cana, when she seems to nudge him into action, as moms sometimes do. The other is near the end of the Gospel, when he speaks to her from the cross about the beloved disciple and says, “Here is your son,” and to the Beloved Disciple he says, “Here is your mother.”
In the first conversation, Jesus’ quiet private life ends, and he does his first public sign, that kickstarts his career. It’s like mom hands him a microphone and says, get on stage, and sing your heart out. In the last conversation, Jesus commends the Beloved Disciple into his mother’s care, and effectively says goodbye to them both, and hands the mike to the Beloved, often thought to be John, to carry on, keep the song going on.
There is wine in both these scenes. The soldiers soaked a sponge in cheap wine and held it up to Jesus’ lips. That’s a nice artistic touch, to have wine present at the beginning, and at the end. But it’s also not surprising.
Far more than is true for us, in our part of the world, wine was ubiquitous, almost always present, in the time and place in which Jesus lived. Water could rarely be trusted to be fresh, or clean, or safely drinkable. The relatively low alcohol content would act to preserve and make the drink hygienic, whether it was stored in pottery jugs or sewn animal skins.
The ordinariness of wine in Jesus’ world may go a long way to explain why it was central to the first story, the first sign, the first of Jesus’ greatest hits, on the album according to John.
Scholars point to the magical nature of wine- that it’s the result of a mysterious fermentation process. The ancients had no idea how it worked, and that’s a good working definition of magic- when something happens that we can’t actually understand or control. Parallels are drawn between the spirited drink and the presence of God’s spirit, the spirit of love.
Preachers talk about how the alcohol adds a vibe, a buzz, an element of joy to the wedding celebration. I like that, but I think it takes us away from the daily reality of life in the ancient Middle East, and how clean water was scarce, and wine and beer took its place in many situations, as the only safe things to drink.
The production of wine for the wedding was two things at once- quite magical and also very ordinary. The guests needed something to drink. That it was good wine was an added bonus.
This suggests to me that this first sign, of the coming Messiah, pointed to God being at work, not in big, dramatic, spectacular events, but in ordinary, daily life. This brings me back to a line from the beginning of John’s Gospel, “the Word became flesh and stayed for a little while among us”.
This introduces a way of thinking about the meaning of Jesus’ life and work. Jesus came to show us and teach us that God is with us, in the everyday, here and now, ordinary things of life. If we pay attention, we can see that because of God’s presence, even the most ordinary moments are actually very special, and that love, and spirit, and magic are always mixed in with the ordinary. Amen