THE GOOD STUFFJohn and the Touch-and-Feel Gospel
My one year old daughters do not share my affinity for Ta-Nehisi Coates.
This past Christmas, I sat back and read We Were Eight Years in Power, those uncultured neophytes were consumed by their stacks of That’s Not My… touch-and-feel books. While I learned more about the depth of which our country has been built on the the relentless systematic oppression of people of color, those monsters were busy biting bindings and petting pages imbued with faux animal hair.
This is, of course, not surprising. While books serve as tools for learning and growth for both my young children and me, we are neither in the same stage of cognitive, physical, emotional, moral, nor spiritual development as my young children.
Even so, as I read these touch-and-feel books to Bria and Madelyn, I cannot help but join them in touching the pages. The physical sensation that accompanies engaging with texture is good for babies, but it is also good for adults. Texture brings life and depth of understanding. Texture is good for our brains, and it is good for our hearts.
Our church is in the process of reading together through the book of John, one of the Bible’s four stories about the life of Jesus. John, I would argue, is the touch-and-feel Gospel account. It might seem like I’m saying that in a pejorative or condescending tone. I promise I’m not. Art is at its best when you can see the texture, and John is — even more than the other Gospel accounts — a work of art.
Tradition suggests that John was written by — you guessed it — a man named John, one of Jesus’ earliest and closest followers. The first three Gospel accounts (Matthew, Mark, and Luke) are known as the Synoptics, from the same root as the word synopsis. Each written around 70 BCE, all three share a lot in common and even seem to be relying on one another for their storytelling.
And then there’s the Gospel According to John. John is written between 20-30 years later than the others, omits large sections that the others includes, and includes large sections that the others omit. While Matthew, Mark, and Luke focus heavily on Jesus’ humanity, John pushes hard to emphasize Jesus’ divinity. And at the points where there is overlap, John’s telling of the story of Jesus often straight up contradicts all the others.
If we have certain ideas about the need for the Bible to be “without error” and “historically accurate,” these discrepancies can be huge problems. We might even ask if John had lost his mind, if he had drank too much, or maybe just if his story is the worst of the four.
But the Bible doesn’t work that way. And John doesn’t work that way.
The Gospel According to John has long been my least favorite of the the stories about Jesus, and one of my frustrations with John has continued to be that I’m asking something of it that is not interested in addressing. I want a straightforward, down-to-earth look at the humanity of Jesus like that found in the Synoptics. John, by contrast, engages in more creative storytelling with a more “heavenly” perspective.
I too often ask for words when John wants to deliver texture.
But what if we looked at the Gospel of John as art and John as a poet? How might that change the way John told his story and how we embrace it?
Matthew was a tax collector and begins his story with a Jewish genealogy.
Mark was a follower of one of Jesus’ followers and just jumps in with “the beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ.”
Luke was a physician who laid out his plans to tell “an orderly account.”
But John, a poet who paints with emotion, texture, and even made up words? His story about Jesus begins like this: “The Word became flesh and took up residence among us. The λόγος — the reason that orders of the universe — became σάρξ —an enfleshed, material reality — and ἐσκήνωσεν — tabernacled, made God’s presence immediately known.
It’s texture that provides a different dimension to the stories that John shares with the other Gospels. It’s also texture that leads John to tell completely unique stories. Like this one.
Now on the third day there was a wedding at Cana in Galilee. Jesus’ mother was there, and Jesus and his disciples were also invited to the wedding. When the wine ran out, Jesus’ mother said to him, “They have no wine left.” Jesus replied, “Woman, why are you saying this to me? My time has not yet come.” His mother told the servants, “Whatever he tells you, do it.” Now there were six stone water jars there for Jewish ceremonial washing, each holding twenty or thirty gallons. Jesus told the servants, “Fill the water jars with water.” So they filled them up to the very top. Then he told them, “Now draw some out and take it to the head steward,” and they did. When the head steward tasted the water that had been turned to wine, not knowing where it came from (though the servants who had drawn the water knew), he called the bridegroom and said to him, “Everyone serves the good wine first, and then the cheaper wine when the guests are drunk. You have kept the good wine until now!” Jesus did this as the first of his miraculous signs, in Cana of Galilee. In this way he revealed his glory, and his disciples believed in him.
So Jesus, his mother, and his disciples are at a wedding when the wine runs out. This isn’t a great thing for the party, but it’s also a bit of a bad omen for the wedding. As I’ve mentioned in the past, wine was a symbol in the ancient world of God’s blessing. What’s more, weddings were seen as celebrations of the joy of God’s reign. Thus to run out of wine was to witness the drying up of God’s blessing.
But have no fear for Jesus is here! Nevermind that he probably wouldn’t have done anything if it weren’t for his mom hanging out by his side. Notice that Mary never actually asks Jesus do anything. She just turns and says to him, “Hmmmm. All the wine is gone. Interesting. If only there were something we could do about that…”
Jesus, without sass but at least some frustration, says, “Not yet, woman.”
So, she backs down? No! She just tells the servants to do whatever Jesus asks them to do. Now he’s locked in. He has to do something. So he enlists the servants to help him in transforming the six jars of water into wine. But it’s not any water. John days this was water for ceremonial washing, for making oneself clean before God according to the law. This tangible symbol of the law and human unworthiness is not done away with, but is transformed into something that symbolizes God’s blessing and provides human enjoyment.
Ritual water becomes wine. Not only wine, but really good wine. The best wine.
John wraps up this section by telling us that “Jesus did this as the first of his miraculous signs, in Cana of Galilee. In this way he revealed his glory, and his disciples believed in him.” This is the first of Jesus’ miracles. But only a few people even know what happened? Why?
To grasp what’s happening, you need to know a little about how John understood and referred to miracles differently than the other Gospel writers.
It’s the difference between δυνάμεις and σημεῖα.
When Matthew, Mark, and John write about Jesus’ miracles, they use the word δυνάμεις. δυνάμεις is where we get the word dynamite. δυνάμεις is about power and the the impact that is caused. Here the ends are the most important for understanding the implications. The person for whom this powerful act is done receives the most benefit of the miracle. Thus a miracle that heals a person with leprosy illustrates liberation for people in bondage.
In contrast, John primarily uses the word σημεῖα when he talks about Jesus’ miracles. σημεῖα is where we get the word symbol. σημεῖα is a sign, an authentication which points to something else. Here the means are most important for understanding implications. The person who is witnessing this symbolic act receives the most benefit of the miracle. Thus a miracle that brings a person back to life illustrates something about the person performing the sign.
Back to the wedding and Cana, John says this is the first σημεῖα — the first sign that not only pragmatically provides wine for the party but points his disciples and us as readers to who Jesus is and what he’s about. But the fact that these miracles are symbolic does NOT mean they are merely spiritual. In fact, John makes them tangible and textured. They are Word made flesh that can be seen and touched. They are water made wine that can be tasted and enjoyed.
They are signs of the arrival of Jesus and his kingdom.
Signs that God is near and that God is good.
Signs that when the jar full of God’s blessing and care seem to dry up, the best wine on the parched palate of life is yet to come.
Life is hard. It comes at you fast and often relentlessly. There are problems that weigh heavily on our minds and hearts. There are things that take our breath away and leave our mouths feeling dry. There are circumstances that seem to dry up all semblances of joy and blessing in our lives. There is grief, anxiety, uncertainty, anger, and fear.
AND, as John conveys in texture and depth, there is a king and a kingdom that has come and is yet coming. One that provides not only refreshment in our thirsting, but also a new level of joy to our celebrations. One which hangs onto the good stuff for last and yet is so good that you can almost taste it now.
So wherever you find yourself today, I offer you a sincere “Cheers!” The wine of God’s blessing has not dried up, but instead the good stuff — indeed, the best stuff — is still on reserve.