This is the first of the seven-article series on signs in The Fourth Gospel. It attempts to do a contextual-theological reading of John 2:1-11 with implications for the tribal-indigenous communities/churches in Northeast India (NEI).
The turning of water into wine at a wedding in Cana is the first recorded sign in The Fourth Gospel. Jesus and his disciples were invited to the wedding (v2). When they arrived, Jesus’ mother was already there. This was likely a relative’s wedding. As weddings last for the whole week, the day that Jesus and his disciples arrived was probably not the first day (Kostenberger 2004).
The wine ran out in the middle of the wedding event, a key ingredient of such social events. Within the tribal-indigenous communities in NEI, this would be like meat getting over in the middle of the wedding feast. It calls for great social concern. Wedding events invite scrutiny from the guests and other attendants. Hence, the idea of wine running out in a wedding can cause social embarrassment; it would show that the groom’s family lacks economic and social resources (Malina and Rohrbaugh 1992).
Like in the first century, wedding events amongst indigenous communities are a time of great pressure because of such social expectations. Recognizing this urgency, Jesus’s mother approached him, saying, “They have no wine” (v3). There are some confusions about whether this was a call for a miracle or Jesus’ resourcefulness (Toussaint 1977; Carson 1991). However, as the text’s social context would suggest, Jesus’ mother was pointing him to a possible social disaster (Ramsey 2010).
If Jesus does not do something about it, it can result in a social disaster. If such events become common knowledge, the community would talk about them in the days to come. Hence, Jesus’ mother referring to wine running out was an implicit request for his intervention.
On the surface, Jesus’ response to his mother, “Woman, what concern is that to you and me?” seems like an indifferent attitude or dissociation (v4). Its surface value would be considered rude or discourteous in the contemporary tribal-indigenous context. While there are several interpretations of this conversation, when seen from the context of the text, it indicates that Jesus was also aware of the whole situation (Williams 1997).
He was asked to intervene in a possible occurrence of the social embarrassment of their relative; he is asked to get embroiled in the social system of honour and shame while aware that he still needs to follow what God has called him to do (i.e., though his hour has not yet come). Though he must deal with God’s business, Jesus chooses to comply with the temporal-social needs of the common people.
Jesus’ mother told the servants to do as they were told. As his mother, she was very much aware of what he could do. Jesus turned the water in the six stone-jars, used for the Jewish purification rites into wine. When the servants gave the water-turned-into-wine to the chief steward, the person in charge of the wedding event, he was impressed by its quality (vv7-8). In terms of theological significance, some have interpreted this as a sign of replacement, i.e., Jesus supersedes Judaism (Brown 2007).
At the social level, without the guests’ awareness, the chief steward and the groom, Jesus intervened and retained the honour of a poor family. While helping a family in need, Jesus did not only save the family’s face but identified them as those who have economic and social resources. This social reality is very important for any communitarian society, including the tribal-indigenous communities of NEI. When marriage arrangements are made, people look for families with economic stability and social resources connections.
In this case, while the concerned family lacked economic or material resources, the intervention of Jesus displayed richness in social resources. He also showed himself as “the Son of God” (cf., 1:19; 2:11). In doing so, his disciples saw the glory of Jesus. And they believed in him. This was the first “greater things” promised to Nathaniel (cf. 1:50b). This was also the purpose of the signs, i.e., making people believe in him.
In the later text, it will be shown that the purpose of the signs is to convince people that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God (cf. 20:30-31). For a context that tends to be slow or hesitates to engage with social issues, the first sign confronts the tribal-indigenous communities to do differently. If what Jesus did is adapted, then, contemporary disciples are encouraged to engage with social issues and reveal the glory of God in public spaces. In other words, what is considered Christian work or spiritual should not be limited within the church or the premises of the church compound.
Photo by Ac apam on Wikimedia Commons