“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” The majestic poetry of its opening lines right away sets the gospel of John apart from the other three gospels. The author of Mark seems to have been in too big a hurry to bother with an account of Jesus’ birth at all, jumping right in at his baptism. But in Matthew we quickly find ourselves in the story of an unwed mother and her worried fiancé. And in Luke we get an amazing human interest story that involves everything from a quiet meeting between a couple of women who didn’t expect to be pregnant, to details of the Roman taxation system, to descriptions of the manger scene and the bands of cloth in which Mary wrapped the baby Jesus.
Compared to these other gospel accounts, the opening chapter of the gospel of John certainly uses loftier words and images to describe the birth of Christ. No smelly animals in a stable, no embarrassing questions about Mary’s marital status, simply: “the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have beheld his glory, glory as of the Father’s only son.”
Yet it’s in this same gospel, where in some places Jesus seems so very distant with all his talk of divine glory and unity with God the Father, it’s here in John that we also find some of the most intimately human portraits of Jesus with his family and friends.
The first is this wonderfully down-to-earth story about Jesus in the role of wedding guest, at the marriage of an anonymous couple in Cana. A story all the more delightful (especially on Mother’s Day) because Jesus’ mom gets in on the action.
The story places us in the middle of the wedding banquet, actually – by the time we tune in, the wine has already given out. We know that weddings in the ancient world were large-scale celebrations – they often went on for several days, and it would not have been uncommon for a whole town to be invited to join the party. Plenty of hard-earned cash was spent to ensure that in addition to tables loaded down with food, wine would flow in abundance. And if the wine were actually to give out partway through, it would have been nothing short of “social disaster.”
It’s at precisely at the brink of such a social disaster that the narrator allows us to listen in on the conversation between two of the wedding guests, Jesus and his mom. It’s classic, isn’t it? “Son, they’ve just run out of wine.” No answer. “Jesus, did you hear me say they’d just run out of wine? Out of wine, of all things. And this a wedding feast. What a shame. . . A shame, I said, Jesus. . . Isn’t it a shame, I said.” “What was that, Mom? I couldn’t hear you. But these folks sure know how to throw a party, don’t they?” “Son!” “Yeah?” “I said, THEY HAVE NO MORE WINE.”
You could argue that Mary wasn’t making a request exactly. At least no more than I am when I mention to my husband over the phone that we’re out of bread at home… We can also tell from Jesus’ response that he knew what she meant. Her words said “they have no more wine” but something in her tone of voice or the way she looked at him must have said “take care of it, would you, sweetheart?”
So then what’s with Jesus’ reply? In the version we heard this morning he says “Woman, what concern is that to you and to me?” He seems to have been using a common Hebrew expression, “ma li leka” – literally ‘what to me to you?’ And as you might imagine, biblical commentators love to weigh in on stuff like this – Was Jesus being rude to his mother, as it first appears in the English? Was he just trying not to draw attention to himself and away from the happy couple? Was he simply having too good a time at the wedding to be bothered, (as I suppose I’ve implied in my somewhat irreverent paraphrase)? Eugene Peterson has fun with this line too in his rewording of John 2 in The Message: “Is that any of our business, Mother?”
But of course whatever explanation we choose also has to account for the second part of what Jesus says: “my hour has not yet come.” This is loaded theological language in the gospel of John. Among other things, it implies here that Jesus is free from all human controls, even from the directions of his own mother. His actions, he seems to be explaining, are to be governed by God’s timing alone.
Now interestingly enough, Jesus’ mother doesn’t seem particularly put off by either part of his response – the apparent rudeness or the profound theological truth – she just turns to the servants and says “Do whatever he tells you.” Much as I love her chutzpah here – it’s another one of those terribly human elements of the story—I imagine the author would also have us note the tremendous faith this woman has in her son. Her son who, as she knows, but few others do at this point in the story, is also God’s Son. You see, mom knows that if her Jesus takes this on, the problem will somehow be resolved. And so she acts as a catalyst for the very first of Jesus’ miracles in the gospel of John.
My own mother wondered aloud, when I told her I was preaching on this text today: “What do you suppose Mary had seen in Jesus up to that point? What might she have witnessed in his young life that we’re not told about in the gospels, that gave her the confidence he could solve this problem?” For what we find here in a sense is a story of mother-as-“model disciple: she trusts that Jesus will act and [then] allows him to act in freedom.” And what he does, of course, knocks the socks off servants, wine steward, bridegroom and disciples alike. Turning water into wine, “turning scarcity into abundance,” and kicking off an earthly ministry which will be all about defying expectations and bestowing “grace upon grace” (John 1:16).
The only other place in John’s gospel where the mother of Jesus is mentioned is at his death. And there too, at the foot of the cross, we find an intimately human portrait of Jesus. With his dying breath he takes pains to make sure his mom is well cared-for after he is gone, saying to her: “Woman, here is your son,” and to the disciple whom he loved, “Here is your mother.” A single act that emphasizes his humanity and at the same time makes clear that his visit here on earth, in an ordinary human family, has now come to an end. The Word had indeed become flesh and dwelt among us, but now it was time for the Word to return from whence he came. Jesus’ mother is present in that final scene of his life, just as she is present when the curtain first rises on his earthly ministry here in Cana.
One final note about the stories of Cana and the cross – I like to play around with little linguistic details in the text sometimes, and I love the fact that John introduces the wedding scene at Cana as one that takes place “on the third day.” I realize it may be a throw-away line. This may have all just happened to take place a few days after the first disciples were called. But “on the third day” is such a rich phrase for those who know the full story of Mary’s son. That it would be “the third day” on which this beautifully extravagant wedding feast takes place reminds me of other biblical texts that talk about the kingdom of God itself as a great wedding banquet, a feast of abundance to which all are invited.
So we can remember the divine gift we were given on that day Jesus’ own mother had to watch him hanging on the cross. The Word-become-flesh allowed death, which ultimately claims all human life, to claim him as well.
But remember, too, Easter people, that on the third day after Jesus spoke those parting words to his mother, the stone was rolled away from the tomb. And then this mother’s son, who always enjoyed a good party, knocked the socks off death itself, inviting us to join him in the most extravagant celebration the world has ever known. Alleluia!
 Frances Taylor Gench, “Women and the Word: Studies in the Gospel of John” 2000-2001 Horizons Bible Study, Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), p. 11
 O’Day, p. 295.
 O’Day, p. 295.