When she walked into the party, they were sizing her up like a piece of meat. She was that girl: the one with a reputation.
They had all kinds of ideas about her. Who knows if any of the rumors were actually true? It didn’t matter. Somebody had to occupy the bottom rung of the social ladder and it might as well be her.
Those religious folks, the upstanding citizens, made a good show of cutting her down in public. They said people like her were the problem with society these days: no morals and values, no respect for the law.
They said this world would be a better place without people like her. But secretly, she knew: they needed people like her to exist. Without the scumbags and lowlifes, who would they have to look down upon? Their self-righteousness was built on appearances and comparisons. They only seemed high and holy next to people like her because they did a better job of hiding their faults. They put on a fancier show, that was all.
The problem was that everyone else in town accepted the reality of their show. Heck, she almost accepted it herself. That’s the problem with labels: when you hear them enough, you eventually start to believe them yourself.
Maybe I am worthless, she thought. Maybe no one will ever love me. Maybe this world would be better off without me in it.
That’s a pretty thick mental fog to get lost in. It can lead to some pretty severe and irreversible rash decisions. For all we know, she might have been on the verge of one such decision herself.
But then she met Jesus.
No, I don’t mean to say that she found religion, saw the light, or got born again. That’s too easy. Too cut and dry. Besides, those folks in the “upright citizens’ brigade” love that stuff. They eat it up like candy: the wayward sinner reforms her ways and comes back home where she belongs. Classic redemption story. Good propaganda. It reinforces their assumptions about the world and makes them look like loving and gracious heroes to welcome someone so despicable as her.
But this Jesus guy was different.
They didn’t seem to like him very much either. At first, he seemed like one of them: he was a religious teacher, people called him Rabbi, and he had a lot to say about God. He knew the Bible pretty well too. He was always quoting from it, but every time he did, all the religious folks in the crowd would get real red in the face and start clenching their jaws, like he had just said something to annoy them. Didn’t they love that stuff? Wasn’t the Bible kind of their “thing” after all? Then why would they get so mad when Jesus recited parts of it in their presence? I guess they didn’t like what he had to say about it.
Maybe he was making them uncomfortable. After all, he was a rabbi, but he didn’t act like other rabbis. For one thing, he hardly ever went to synagogue. Most of the time, he was hanging out in the streets with folks who wouldn’t be caught dead in a synagogue on the Sabbath… people like her.
Nobody knows how it happened. They just seemed to come from everywhere. Jesus said it was God drawing them, but that didn’t even make any sense. What would God have to do with people like them? Still, something inside of her made her stick around on that first day. She couldn’t quite put her finger on what it was. That same feeling kept her coming back around for as long as he was in town.
The things he had to say made sense to her. He certainly knew the Bible but he didn’t throw it in her face. He knew all about the Temple and its elaborate rituals, but he didn’t seem to care much about it. He kept saying the day would come when “not one stone would be left on top of another” in that place. He seemed pretty irreligious for a religious teacher.
He said, “The place where God lives is within you and around you.” He spoke from the heart and didn’t bother with all of that fancy philosophy and theology that the other rabbis used. When people asked Jesus about God, he usually pointed to whatever happened to be in his line of sight at the time:
“Do you see that woman baking bread? That’s what God is like. Do you see those crops growing in that field over there? God is like that. Do you see that farmer sowing seed, that woman sweeping out her house, or those merchants in the market? God is like all of those.”
He even saw signs of God’s presence in the lilies of the field and the sparrows of the air. That didn’t sound like any rabbi she had ever heard before. What’s even weirder is that he didn’t seem to be bothered by all the freaks and misfits who kept gravitating toward him. In fact, whenever zealous devotees came up to pledge their allegiance to him, Jesus kept turning them back to those very same freaks and misfits. “These people are my family,” he would say, “Whatever you do for them, you do for me.”
Family? Did he mean her? Nobody had ever talked to her like that before. People called her a lot of things, but never “family.” She hadn’t even spoken to her own family in years…
Why would anyone want her of all people in his family?
All the same, she kept coming back, drawn by that inexplicable something. Who knows? Maybe Jesus was right and it really was God that was drawing her?
She loved listening to him. She loved the way he stuck it to those religious hypocrites, using their own Bibles against them. She loved his stories and the way he looked at the world: finding God everywhere in it. But most of all, she loved the way he looked at her.
Men often looked at her, but not like that. They usually looked at her with some perverted combination of disgust and desire. Regardless of whether or not the rumors about her were true (some were and some weren’t), they believed them all and treated her accordingly. But Jesus called her family. He saw what she was capable of, not just what she was (or what she represented to everyone else). When he taught, his eyes would sometimes momentarily lock with hers, as if he was speaking directly to her. She would swell with pride and sit up a little straighter, imagining that he really was talking to her.
He wasn’t of course. She was just a woman, and a bad one at that. Women weren’t allowed to study under rabbis in that day. Even socially respectable women would only be allowed to sit in and listen to his lectures. But then why did he keep looking at her? Why did his words make so much sense? She was getting it! Could it be possible that maybe (just maybe) he really was speaking to her? I don’t know… but she kept coming back.
And something was happening inside of her. She was looking at the world in a whole new way. It was as if she had been blind all along and was really starting to see things clearly for the first time ever. It was almost as if she had been some lame beggar by the roadside and Jesus was taking her hand, lifting her up onto her own two feet, and teaching her how to walk her own path. For the first time in a long time, she felt like a person again, a real human being. It felt like those cold, numb, dead spaces inside of her were coming alive again when she was around Jesus. Who knew that was even possible?
Earlier that afternoon, she was hanging around town as usual and she heard some folks talking. They said Jesus would be moving on tomorrow, headed to another town. She felt her stomach jump with fright. Leaving? He was leaving? To where? Would he be back? Was this the last chance she would ever have to see him and feel that amazing feeling?
She had lost track of time those last few days. They seemed like an eternity to her. She was so caught up in everything he was saying, everything that was going on, it didn’t occur to her that Jesus wouldn’t be staying there forever. What was she supposed to do?
Something inside her heart told her she should do something, but she didn’t know what. Shouldn’t there be some kind of religious ritual for thanking or blessing a rabbi who was leaving? It seemed like there should be. After all, those religious folks had prayers, and blessings, and rituals for just about every other occasion, why not this one? But what would it be? She wished there was someone she could ask, but certainly no other rabbi would ever give her the time of day, much less let her ask a question. Besides, most of those blessings and rituals could only be performed by men. She would only get to sit out and watch, if she was lucky.
But that didn’t sit right with her. That didn’t do justice to the kind of person Jesus was. She might not know the correct thing to do, but she had to do something. It was getting late. The sun was almost down. There wasn’t time to plan anything elaborate. Besides, she heard that Jesus already had plans. He was invited to dinner at some big shot Pharisee’s house. They would have all kinds of fancy food and entertainment there. Nothing she could do would measure up to that. They would never even let her in the door, anyway. It was a hopeless cause… unless…
Nah, that’s too crazy… it would never work… but then again…
She had this jar. It had been with her a long time. Nobody knows how she got it. It was the only thing she had that was worth anything. It was filled with a very rare and expensive perfume, worth about as much as a full year’s salary for a working man. Once upon a time, that jar of perfume was worth more than her life, but not anymore. Jesus had showed her that she was worth so much more than that. The dignity she had discovered through him made that jar seem cheap and worthless by comparison.
It was right then that she knew what she had to do. Maybe she didn’t know the proper ritual for blessing a rabbi, but she would make one up to demonstrate to Jesus and everyone else what it was that he meant to her.
She went home, grabbed that jar, and made a bee-line for the house where Jesus was having dinner. Her heart was pounding and her adrenaline was pumping as she got closer. Right up to the front door she walked. And right through. The bouncer happened to look the other way for a second and so he didn’t notice her until she was already inside. He shouted and tried to grab her, but it was too late. She had already made it to the place where Jesus was sitting: reclining actually, with his feet stretched out behind him.
She looked down at those feet. Just like everyone else’s, they were disgusting. Without paved roads or organized sanitation, city streets in the ancient world were cesspools of filth. A person’s feet would get caked with mud and excrement just from walking around. Nobody liked to touch feet or wash them. It was the worst job, even for a slave. Feet were gross.
The woman looked down at Jesus’ feet. Then she looked back at the jar in her hand. After pausing for a second, she broke the jar open and dumped its precious contents onto Jesus’ feet. The pungent smell of lavender filled the room. She had never opened the jar before. She always wondered what its contents might smell like. Now she knew. It was beautiful. It reminded her of the way that Jesus made her feel inside. Through him, she had come to be aware of her own inner beauty for the first time ever. She was like that jar of perfume: broken open, poured out, precious, and beautiful.
As the weight of this truth hit home for her, she began to cry for joy. Her tears dripped down off her cheeks, chin, and nose and onto Jesus’ feet. Looking down, she realized the tears mixed with the jar’s contents were washing away the layer of filth left from the long, hard road. She could see his beautiful, soft, brown skin showing through. Bending down even further, she took each foot in her hands, undid her long, dark hair, and used it like a towel to wipe away those last remnants of slime, continuing to weep as she did it. This felt right. It was all she had: the only thing she could think of to do.
The host of the party was, predictably, indignant. He pulled out all those nasty names and labels that people called her. But somehow, those names didn’t phase her as she ran her fingers over Jesus’ smooth, clean, sweet-smelling feet. In that moment, she was prepared to let him talk and say whatever he wanted, but Jesus wasn’t. Jesus interrupted the Pharisee’s tirade with a single word: Simon. That was his name, the Pharisee that is. Jesus called him by name, not by his status or position. “Simon,” he said, “I have something to say to you.”
You better believe that shut him up quick. Jesus then told another story about debts being forgiven. “Do you see this woman?” Obviously, Simon didn’t. All Simon saw was another sinner, another woman who didn’t know her place, another scumbag lowlife. Simon didn’t really see her but Jesus saw her, so he asked Simon, “Do you see this woman? I tell you, her sins, which were many, have been forgiven; hence she has shown great love.” Did she just hear him right? Did he just say forgiven?
Seeing the shock and confusion on her face, he said it again just to drive the point home. He spoke her name… she didn’t even realize that he knew her name, but he called her by it. She looked up and their eyes met again. He repeated, “Your sins are forgiven.”
Forgiven. She never thought she would hear that word spoken to her, but somehow she knew he was right. That was what she had been feeling all along. Forgiven. Restored. The shame and stigma washed away.
And Jesus wasn’t just making it happen for the first time either. He was announcing a reality that had already come true. She was already loved, forgiven, and clean. Jesus’ words were only sealing the deal and making it real to her. She was a person with a name and dignity, no matter how hard society might try to take that away from her.
Almost as soon as Jesus had said this, the room erupted into theological debate over who has the authority to announce such forgiveness. The religious machinery was hard at work, already pumping out Bible verses and quoting rabbinical commentaries on the matter.
Jesus just rolled his eyes, shook his head, and looked back at her smiling. And then, leaning down to whisper in her ear while the debate raged on around them, Jesus spoke her name again and said, “Your faith has saved you; go in peace.”
This woman, whose name has been lost to history but was known to Jesus, was not the only one who experienced such wholeness at the feet of Jesus. There were other women among his disciples as well. We read about some of them this morning: Mary Magdalene, Joanna, and Susanna. They were an integral part of his ministry, contributing a vital part. There were men too, of course.
And the amazing thing is that all of them together… all of us… from first century Palestine to twenty-first century New York, are still hearing in our hearts and proclaiming with our lives that same message of forgiveness that continues to resound through the halls of history:
“I love you, God loves you, and there’s nothing you can do about it.”
Be blessed and be a blessing!