Turning water into wine will have been the story told in many churches today. Hiding within it are hints to John’s counter cultural bent that always surprises me when it shows up. I expect it from Luke, but not from John. In John, Jesus controls everything that happens, knows what’s in the minds of those around him, and defies the doctrine that he is as fully human as divine. As someone once said, it seems like the feet of John’s Jesus seldom touch the ground. So it’s a surprise to discover in John’s gospel a very earthy counter cultural human being challenging almost every social standard of his day.
Take the water into wine story. In a time when women and men would have celebrated a wedding in separate spaces, allowing no intermingling between sexes, how is it that Mary and Jesus were talking with each other in what appears to have been an extended conversation? Even stranger, how is it that Mary could talk to servants in somebody else’s house, and they obeyed her instructions? Such things were simply not allowed. I imagine John’s early readers were deeply disturbed by a narrative that violated so many social norms. How could the Son of God behave in such inappropriate ways? It must have made the water into wine episode extraordinarily challenging.
If that wasn’t enough, John’s next move was to have Jesus upset the temple market place, angrily driving out vendors with a whip. Religion is one thing, but messing around with business practices was none of his business then, and it certainly isn’t today.
Then John put Jesus into a long conversation with a Samaritan woman of ill repute that ended with him spending several days in her village. It was simply beyond the pale of possibility for a Jew, much less one known as rabbi. Such a thing could never happen, could never be tolerated. Barely four chapters into John, and everything deemed good, proper and decent had been thrown out the window. And it went on.
In John, Jesus healed on the sabbath, declared his flesh and blood to be holy food and drink, forgave a woman caught in adultery, insulted religious leaders, and proclaimed himself to be a shepherd of other sheep “not of this fold.” If that wasn’t blasphemous enough, he declared himself not simply from God, but one with God. No wonder they wanted to get rid of him.
The revolutionary nature of John’s text is hidden behind long rambling sentences leaving one in doubt about what’s being said, pithy sayings everyone remembers, the other worldliness of Jesus, and sadly, John’s unhelpful condemnation of his own people, the Jews. It has led to using John to justify anti Jewish violence, and, oddly enough, to buttressing acceptable social standards Jesus would no doubt have thrust aside. John has become the go to gospel for conservatives who desire preservation of a stable society according to the standards they grew up with. After all, it’s in John that Jesus says no one can come to the Father except through him. It’s the corner stone of the demand to accept Jesus as one’s personal savior or burn in hell. Lest there be any doubt, accepting Jesus as one’s personal savior includes accepting corollary social standards that define what good Christians believe.
On the other hand, believing in and following Jesus as John portrays him is to believe in and follow a counter cultural rebel who turned everything upside down to illuminate a better way, God’s way. What way would that be? Jesus said it was defined by loving God, loving neighbor, loving self, and loving others as Jesus loves us.
That’s all well and good in theory, but let’s face it: it’s not practical in today’s dog eat dog world. Better to go back to the Sadducees and Pharisees for advice on daily living, leaving Jesus for an hour or two on the weekend. Except, of course, Jesus in John’s gospel is always a useful resource for condemning others when the need arises.