A story based on Luke 7:36-50
Everyone knew Mary. Not to talk to of course; no one did that except the children who taunted her at every opportunity—and her customers I suppose, but they only came out at night.
No one knew where she had come from; probably chased out of her previous village. She had a one-roomed house on the edge of town where she had lived for the past few years. Few people knew her name. Whenever the women discussed her around the well she was ‘that woman’.
“Why she had to come here; it’s a disgrace.”
“Why the men at the synagogue don’t do something about it.”
“Probably because they’re men.”
“Yes, my husband thinks it’s a joke”
“I told my husband that if I catch him so much as glancing in her direction….”
A woman of ill repute she certainly was. Of course there had to be men of ill repute too, but one never spoke about them.
The only person who ever engaged in conversation with Mary was Hannah. Poor old Hannah. She’d been ill for twelve years. Bleeding, you know. No one ever talked about it of course, or talked to her much. Her illness made her unclean so she couldn’t go to synagogue, which pretty well cut her out of polite society. No one would visit her or invite her over. She and Mary would go to the well around mid-afternoon when no one else was there. Mary would draw the water for Hannah of course—Hannah wasn’t allowed; couldn’t have someone unclean polluting the village water supply.
They made a sad pair: two outcasts reaching out to each other, passing the time of day.
Then Jesus came to the village—along with crowds of people. Where they all came from I don’t know. It turned out that Jesus was on his way to Jairus’s house. Jairus’s daughter was very ill; some say she died and that Jesus resurrected her, but I don’t know about that.
Hannah and Mary were at the well when they heard Jesus was coming. Hannah made up her mind. “I’m going to speak to Jesus,” she said to Mary.
“He won’t talk to you in your state,” Mary said.
“I’ve heard differently,” Hannah replied. “I’ve heard that he cares about outcasts like us.”
“This I’ve got to see,” said Mary.
When they saw the crowds, Mary thought Hannah would give up. She wasn’t very strong at the best of times, but she was determined.
“Maybe I won’t be able to talk to him,” she said. “But if I can just touch his cloak, I’m sure that will be enough. There is something very special about him. They say God is really blessing him.”
“Well,” said Mary. “Any decent man who’ll give you and me the time of day has to be pretty special.”
They made their way through the crowd, ignoring the jibes and the sideways glances. Mary was surprised. Usually people would crowd her out if she tried this on her own but they didn’t like to touch Hannah, so they tended to made way for her, and Mary slipped along in her wake as it were. At one point some kid shoved Mary and she stumbled—his friends laughed, but the two women pushed on.
When they were right behind Jesus Hannah hesitated, then she reached out and touched the edge of his robe. Hannah pulled back quickly as if she had been burned. Mary saw that something significant had happened but, before she could say anything, Jesus turned round. “Who touched me?” he asked.
Of course everyone thought that was a pretty silly question, given the crowd, but Hannah and Mary knew exactly what he meant.
Then Jesus looked at Mary; she caught her breath; the world seemed to stand still as he held her in his gaze. Then he turned to Hannah.
She heard Hannah telling Jesus what she had done and heard Jesus saying that it was OK. “Your faith has made you well,” he said. “Go in peace.” Hannah was overwhelmed; she turned and stumbled through the crowd.
Then Jesus looked back at Mary and smiled. Mary didn’t know when someone had last smiled at her. Leered, yes, smirked; but a genuine, warm, caring smile? She was transported back to when she was a little girl, and her father came home from the fields. He would smile lovingly at her when she ran out to greet him, just as Jesus was smiling now. Tears filled her eyes. He seemed about to speak. But just then some men came from Jarius’s house and the crowd closed in around Jesus to hear what was going on. Mary was jostled back to the present and fought her way out of the crowd, tears streaming down her cheeks.
Mary couldn’t sleep that night. That smile; those eyes. She felt as if Jesus knew everything about her: her childhood, her lousy choices, her miserable existence. He could see it all but instead of turning away in disgust, as most good people would do, he welcomed her with a smile. His eyes seemed to say, “It’s OK.”
She had to see him again, but where? How?
She saw Hannah the next day. Hannah was so excited. She had been to the priest; in seven days she’d be clean. She had also heard news that Simon had invited Jesus to supper that night.
Simon was a Pharisee, an important man in the village, always pointing out where others were breaking the law. He always made a point of crossing the road or turning his back whenever Mary was around. If anyone was to throw Mary out of town, it would be Simon.
Simon’s dinner parties were well known. Naturally, only the most important people in the village were invited to sit around the table—usually when some dignitary was passing through. Of course, according to our custom, anyone and everyone could wander in and listen quietly to the conversation. Only invited guests could speak and interact, but it was always worthwhile listening to the discussions around Simon’s table.
“I’m going,” Mary said to Hannah.
Hannah was horrified. “You can’t go there. They’ll, they’ll…. I don’t know what they’ll do. It’ll be the last straw. Simon will have an excuse to throw you out of the village.”
“I don’t care,” said Mary. “I have to see him again.”
There was no persuading her otherwise. Mary spent the afternoon trying to work out what she was going to say or do. She wanted to take a gift but she had nothing of value. Her most precious possession was an alabaster jar of perfume; it was all she had that had belonged to her mother. She decided to take it with her. Whatever happened she mustn’t cry. Tears had hardly left her eyes since Jesus had first looked at her on the road. Was that only yesterday? It seemed like a lifetime ago. But if an opportunity arose to talk with Jesus that night there would be no time for tears.
Mary arrived just as Jesus and the other guests were being welcomed and shown their places. No one noticed her at first, and when the stares and the whispers started Mary was already ensconced in a corner of the room. Mary had eyes only for Jesus, and she noticed that Simon was not as welcoming of Jesus as he was of other guests. He didn’t kiss him on the cheek or even offer him water to wash his feet. Simon wanted to meet this Jesus but, it seemed, he didn’t want Jesus or anyone else to think they were equals.
When the food was being served Jesus turned, saw Mary, and smiled at her. Mary was overwhelmed; all her resolve went out the window. All the pain and rejection of a lifetime, all the sin and failure, poured out in tears that rolled down her cheeks. She fell at Jesus feet, weeping silently, her tears forming rivulets in the dust on his feet. Soon the dust was washed away; she loosened her hair and used it to wipe his feet dry. There were gasps from around the room as her hair cascaded down, and more as people saw what she was doing. But she was beyond caring, or even noticing. She remembered her mother’s perfume and she poured it out over Jesus’ feet.
Simon was horrified. The other guests were silent, waiting to see what Simon would do. Everyone knew Mary’s reputation, except Jesus, it seemed. How could Jesus not know? If his prophetic powers couldn’t help him then surely basic social skills, and the reaction of the crowd, would tell him that something was badly wrong. Simon was about to speak but Jesus broke into his thoughts.
“Simon,” he said. “Imagine two men owed vastly different amounts to a moneylender. Neither could pay him back, so the moneylender cancelled the debts of both.”
There were chuckles from the guests around the table, and from others around the room; no one could imagine a generous moneylender.
“Now Simon,” Jesus said. “Who would love the moneylender more?”
Well, no one loved a moneylender, but a moneylender who forgave debt? The answer was obvious.
“The one who owed him more, I suppose.” Simon answered warily, irritated that Jesus was taking this disgraceful situation so lightly.
“You are right,” Jesus said. Then he looked at Mary. “Do you see this woman here?”
Well of course he did. Simon wished he couldn’t, of course, and he certainly didn’t want any more attention drawn to her.
Jesus went on, “When I arrived you didn’t give me any water to wash my feet, or olive oil to anoint my head, and you didn’t greet me with a kiss; but this woman has washed my feet and dried them with her hair; she has not stopped kissing my feet and she has anointed them with perfume. The great love she has shown, proves that her many sins have been forgiven. On the other hand, those who have been forgiven little, show little love.”
Mary hardly heard any of this exchange. All she knew was that here was a man who accepted her as she was. For the first time in her adult life she was being treated with respect and love.
Then Jesus turned to her and she heard him say, “Your sins are forgiven.”
Of course, that caused another scandal around the room, but Jesus ignored it and said to Mary what he said to Hannah the day before, “Your faith has saved you. Go in peace.”
“Peace?” Mary thought to herself. She hadn’t known any peace since she was a little child, but there was peace here. In spite of all the rejection, irritation and hostility around the room, she could sense a peace she had never experienced before. Mary knew where she fitted in the story Jesus had told Simon. She was the one who owed the most; probably more than anyone in the room. But, perhaps unlike anyone else there, Mary didn’t take her position for granted, not even her place on the floor at Jesus feet. She knew she was there by grace alone. Jesus had reached out to her. He had accepted her gift, the little she had to offer, and had welcomed her into his space.
Mary didn’t know what the future would hold, but she knew there and then, on the floor of Simon’s house, that whatever happened she would follow Jesus.
She glanced up and saw Simon’s face; a shiver of foreboding travelled down her spine. She didn’t know whether the hatred she read into his features was directed at her or at Jesus, but she had made up her mind. She would follow Jesus whatever the cost, wherever it led.
The above story (based on Luke 7:36-50) was inspired by a friend who suggested that this woman must have seen or met Jesus before. Somehow that story just had to be told. First told at Prestbury Methodist Church, 29 January 2012. Tomorrow I’ll post the prayer that goes with it.
- Rescue from Sinners (wonderingpreacher.wordpress.com)
- Alabaster Box – Cece Winans (eunicekinjo.wordpress.com)
- The Alabaster Box (godswordforwomen.wordpress.com)