“Woman, what do I have to do with you?” John 2:4
Woman – Have you noticed how much time women spend trying to keep the peace between people? Perhaps it is the built-in result of being mothers. Maybe it’s just genetic. But it seems that when conflict arises, women do their best to soothe the situation. Men, on the other hand, seem to be much more hardheaded. They have the flight or fight syndrome. Just get out or else prepare for battle. I don’t think this is a result of left-over Neanderthal aggression. A lot of this difference comes from childhood training processes. Most boys learn about life through games of competition. They are taught values through defeating others. But girls learn games of cooperation. Their early childhood play is inclusive. That training has a lot to do with worldview.
In this story, Jesus’ mother is trying to keep the peace. The first miracle in the gospel of John is about social expectations. After Jesus gathers a few of the disciples, he attends a wedding. Mary is also one of the guests. It becomes obvious to her that the wedding party will soon run out of wine. She wants to rescue the situation and prevent a conflict. So, she decides to take the issue to her oldest son.
We are apt to read our own cultural bias into this conversation between Jesus and his mother. At first glance, Jesus seems insensitive. He seems to be acting like a typical male. Why would Jesus address his own mother with such a cold expression? The Greek word gunai commonly means woman or wife. The surprising element of this verse is not the translation but the tone. We are a gender sensitive culture, so this translation seems to depict Jesus speaking harshly to his mother, questioning why she is bothering him about so insignificant a fact as no wine at a wedding. While the English wording is correct, we lose the real emotion in this translation.
In some respects, this verse seems like the one thing that every mother fears – rejection by one of her children. Mary is at the wedding. She is thrilled to have her oldest son there. She is proud, perhaps much more so than anyone can realize. The absence of her husband Joseph probably indicates that he has died. So, Jesus is the “man of the house” now. She relies on him. She knows that he can take care of things. When she realizes that there is a social embarrassment in the making, she goes to her reliable refuge – Jesus, the good son. But it looks as though Jesus says something that would unnerve any mother’s expectations.
Does Jesus really say, “Mother, please! What does bad wedding planning have to do with me?” as if to imply that this kind of problem is not really a problem that should be brought to the attention of the God-Man? If we read the verse like this, we will be greatly mistaken – and we will miss a very important lesson. In order to understand the real emotions here, we need to look at other uses of this word translated “woman”.
Jesus uses this same Greek word in moments of great tenderness, for example, when he transfers earthly responsibility for care of his mother to John as he is dying on the cross and when he speaks to Mary Magdalene at the tomb. It is not a cold and sterile rejection. Our modern translations remove the tone of voice. We are inclined to think that Jesus is separating himself from the concerns of his mother. That is a mistake. Jesus is actually being tender.
But it is not just the tone that is missing. The way that Jesus frames his response to Mary has been altered. It might not be good English grammar, but the chopped-up word order in the Greek text tells us something we need to know. This verse literally says:
“What to me and to you, woman?”
Do you see that Jesus is not isolating himself from Mary at all? He includes both of them in the situation. His expression is “to me and to you.” Jesus makes both of them a part of this problem, and part of the question about its solution. Jesus is not saying, “Why are you bothering me?” He is saying, “How are we related to this issue?” Jesus is inviting her into the solution. He seeks her cooperation.
Jesus is not playing the stern male. He is not correcting her or belittling her. He acknowledges her concern with tenderness. He asks Mary how this matter connects them. Jesus does not cast her aside. He invites her to join him in the solution. With tenderness, he salutes her role in his life – and then he asks if she understands his role in her life. What does this thing have to do with us? How will this issue bring us together?
No problem is too small to put before Jesus – not even wine at a wedding. But do not be surprised if the problem raises a different question – a question that includes you in the solution, a question that asks about your relationship to him before both of you decide what to do.
Jesus puts the same question before each of us. We come to him with some problem. It may not even be our problem. We may, like Mary, be looking for a solution for someone else. But when we place the problem before Jesus, he does not ask, “What do you want me to do?” He asks, “How does this thing bring us together?” The lesson is simple: the problem we see is only a window that opens a relationship with Him. It’s not about the wine. It’s about the willingness to enter into the problem together.
Expectation. Interruption. Surprise. Re-orientation. Are you watching for God in all the wrong places?
Topical Index: woman, gunai, together, Mary, John 2:4
This is excerpted from my book Jesus Said to Her which I hope to have out by the end of the year.
 A very insightful woman, Deborah Tannen, noted all this in You Just Don’t Understand (Quill, 2001).