God Moves Us To Pour Out Ourselves

Steve Lindsley
(John 12: 1-8)

There are only a handful of stories that appear in all four gospels: Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.  Our story today is one of them – this story of a woman washing Jesus’ feet.  Thing is, they are not really the same story.  I mean, anytime a story is recounted in more than one gospel, there are going to be differences, diverging details.  That’s expected.  But here, the differences are big enough that, while there are some similarities, they’re not really the same story.  So as we begin the sermon today, it’s probably a good idea to pay attention to which story we are in.

We are not, for instance, in the home of Simon the leper, which is where Matthew and Mark have us.  Nor are we in a Pharisee’s house like in Luke.  Here in John, we are in the home of Lazarus – yes, the same Lazarus who just a chapter before had been raised from the dead by Jesus.  It also happens to be the home of Mary and Martha.  We’re in their home because a meal is taking place.  And while no reason is given for this meal, it’s probably not much of a stretch to imagine that it’s a bit of a celebration – after all, if you had been raised from the dead, you’d want to have some friends over, right?

So that’s where we are in this story of a woman washing Jesus’ feet.  And speaking of that woman, we probably ought to clarify which woman we’re talking about. We are not in the story where the woman is unnamed, nor are we in the story where the woman is described as having a sinful past.  It is interesting how we tend to associate “woman washing Jesus’ feet” with “sinner,” even though the only time this gets mentioned is the gospel of Luke.  One gospel out of four.  Our story today says nothing about the woman’s past.  On top of that, the woman in our story has a name: Mary.  And we know Mary; she’s a friend of Jesus. 

So while the other three woman-washing-Jesus’-feet stories are fine stories, they are not our story.  Our story is of Mary and Martha and Lazarus and Jesus and some other folks enjoying a celebratory meal.

And that’s where the fun begins!  Because if there’s one thing we know about Jesus and meals, about Jesus and other folks gathering around the table, it is that something is going to happen.  Something’s always afoot when people eat with Jesus.  In our story, it starts with Mary anointing Jesus’ feet.  We might assume, since all four gospels mention it, that a woman anointing a man’s feet was a common sort of thing.  It was not.  In fact, it was extremely rare, as in never, that a woman anointed anyone.  Samuel anointed Saul and David.  Countless priests, all men, anointed countless kings.   But here, it is a woman who anoints Jesus, and that is worthy of note.

But what is really notable is the amount of perfume Mary anoints Jesus with.  It is a ridiculous amount of perfume.  A pound of perfume, we are told.  16 ounces.  16 ounces of perfume.  There’s a reason perfume comes in tiny bottles that spray a quick burst of droplets on the skin – because perfume is powerful.  Think of what two or three sprays will do to the people around you.  I mean, you know when you walk in a room and you’re like, “Alright, someone did one spray too many!”  Now picture 16 ounces dumped onto someone’s feet.  Can you imagine the odor that created?  To say, as our passage does, that “the house was filled with the perfume’s fragrance” has to be the understatement of the year.  Forget the house – they had to be smelling that stuff clear on the other side of town!

It’s too much perfume.  Way too much.

And if you don’t believe me, just ask Judas.  We may never know what others at the meal felt about this onslaught on the senses.  But boy, do we know how Judas felt!  And what he tells us is that he thinks it is a terrible, terrible waste of money.  And he would know.  It was his job to think about these things – Judas, we are told, “held the common purse,” which is a fancy way of saying he served as a sort of treasurer for the work of Jesus’ mission.  He paid attention to the dollars and cents of things, and for him the 300 denarii the perfume cost, roughly a year’s salary, could’ve been put to much better use than dumping on a man’s feet.

Judas tells Jesus it’s a terrible waste of money.  And Jesus responds to him with what might be the most misquoted and misunderstood verse in the entire Bible.  Jesus tells Judas, You will always have the poor with you, but you will not always have me. 

So much harm has been done by this verse, y’all.  It’s fostered the kind of mentality that says, “Jesus told us there would always be poor people, so why do we need to give money to those lazy bums who can’t get a job?  Let’s just hang out with Jesus!”  So let’s be clear here: that is not what Jesus meant.  Jesus is actually quoting from a passage in Deuteronomy, which reads, “Since there will never cease to be those in need, I command you, open your hand to the poor and needy neighbor.”[1] How about that – it’s not a skirting of responsibility, but a calling to it.

And I love what my friend and fellow By The Vine preacher group member Sarah Wiles says in response to this.  She says: Just because we cannot see the end of the problem of poverty does not mean we get to give up.  In fact, in the face of unending need, we need to make a habit of unending generosity.[2]

I love that last line!  I almost want to imagine that that’s how Jesus responded to Judas.  So Judas complains that the perfume could’ve been sold and money given to the poor.  And Jesus says: Judas, in the face of unending need, we need to make a habit of unending generosity.

I mean, it almost makes me wonder if that is what ticks Judas off so much.  Not the perfume.  I mean, even the gospel writer himself seems a little skeptical of Judas’ intentions – notice that editorial comment in parenthesis?  Judas claims he’s offended by the wasted extravagance of expensive perfume poured over a man’s feet.  He’s offended by extravagance, that much is certain; but I’m not buying that it’s the perfume.  No, I think the extravagance that bothers Judas so much is the extravagance of Mary’s unending generosity.  Mary throwing caution to the wind and pouring her entire soul out before Jesus.  It has nothing to do with what’s in a jar.  It has everything to do with what’s in her heart.

And that offends Judas, deeply.  For whatever reason, Judas is not able to pour out himself before Jesus with that kind of extravagance.  Who knows why – maybe he feels he’s too far down the road of betrayal to turn back around.  Maybe to allow himself to love Jesus that much means first having to love himself, and he just cannot bring himself to do that.

What is it about someone else’s extravagant and unending generosity that can so anger us? Is it shame, that we didn’t think of it first, or that we cannot give as much, or that we can but choose not to? Is it anxiety about violating social norms? If you care too much, you’re not cool – is that it?  What is it about extravagant and unending generosity – is it fear of how we would be changed if we dared to live with such freedom?  Is that the reason Judas reacts the way he does?  Is it the reason we might too?

Wherever those questions lead us, this is what we know from our story today: there is a meal taking place, and Jesus is at that meal, and something’s always afoot when it’s mealtime with Jesus.  And we also know that there is room at the table for both Mary and Judas. Right?  Both extravagant generous giver and secret thief; one who pours out themselves and one who holds back, they both have a place at the table. 

Perhaps you have sat at tables like this before; tables with a wide assortment of people who view the world in all kinds of ways, half-full and half-empty and everything in between.  Tables populated by people who lift up the spirits of others and people who bring everyone down.  People who exude grace and gratitude and people who never cease complaining.  It strikes me, and perhaps you, that there is room for both at the table with Jesus.  The fragrance of extravagant love mixed with the odor of certain betrayal.  There is room for both.

Now granted, that’s a tough table to sit at.  Which is why it’s a good thing that Jesus is there, being present to both, and through his presence calling everyone to join him in his hope and dream that one day we all might be just a little more like Mary.  Pouring out ourselves in unending generosity.  And not just at Jesus’ feet, but at the feet of whole world.

In November of 2014, a 41-year old Charlotte woman died after a brutal battle with cancer.  Her husband was devastated by the loss of his wife.  He sought the comfort and care of family and friends; he shared memories of her in Facebook posts.  He wanted to keep the memory of his wife alive so he could keep on loving her.

So when November 2015 rolled around, marking the one-year anniversary of his beloved’s death, Hyong Yi felt compelled to enlarge the circle of his heart-felt tribute to his late wife Catherine.  More than Facebook posts and occasional conversations, he longed to share his ever-growing love to a wider audience in a way that would impact lives.

So he wrote a bunch of short, simple love notes – one hundred, to be exact.  He wrote them on colored paper and sealed them in colored envelopes.  These notes chronicled their courtship, their marriage, and yes, even the struggle of her journey with cancer.  They were simple and profound, funny and mysterious, full of universal truths and inside jokes. One note read: “Beloved, follow me to the top of the mountain. Hold my hand; I’m afraid of falling. Don’t let me go.”  Another: “We ate strange foods together and watched an even stranger Russian play. Would it be weird to kiss you now?”  And this: “I don’t need a test to tell me who to love. I believe in you and me. I do until death do us part.”

And then on a brisk Friday morning, the Friday before Thanksgiving, he carried those one hundred love notes to the corner of Trade and Tryon.  And he passed them out to people as they walked by.  He and their children, 7 and 10 at the time, they passed these notes out.  Passed them out to business women and men on their lunch break, passed them out to uptown shoppers and window gazers, passed them out to out-of-towners visiting for the day.  Young and old alike, a hundred of them got a sealed love note.

People were curious, of course, and asked what it was about.  Which gave him an opportunity to tell of his wife and the loved they shared – which was the whole point.  People opened the love notes and read them, knowing now who they were written for.  Tears were shed, hugs given and received, love was poured out all over the place.  And as they walked away, they clutched the notes as if they were a sacred artifact, because they were.  They were so much more than just pen and paper.  They were this man’s very heart. 

This story, as you may know, has been told all over the world, chronicled in many languages.  A book was published.  The hashtag #100LoveNotes was created and continues to this day.  And many have been inspired since to consider ways that they, too, might pour themselves out to others.[3]

Mary poured out herself to Jesus and everyone around that dinner table.  The fragrance of her unending generosity engulfed that house.  It convicted some, but it also inspired others.  It should not be lost on us that, in the very next chapter, on his last night with them, Jesus decides to wash his disciples feet.  Not with extravagant perfume, but certainly with extravagant love.  Where, do we wonder, might Jesus have gotten that idea?

One biblical commentator says this: God does not count the number of pies we bake for the church picnic. Nor does God audit the size of our donations. But God does measure and does value the love we bring to every gift, to every task, to every prayer.[4]

The house was filled with the perfume’s fragrance.  Tell me, sisters and brothers, the story of how extravagant love will fill your life today; and more importantly, how you pour that love out onto love-starved people and a fragrant-deprived world.  I can see your jar is full, my friends.  I can smell it from here.

In the name of God the Creator, Redeemer and Sustainer, thanks be to God – and may all of God’s people say, AMEN!


* Because sermons are meant to be preached and are therefore prepared with the emphasis on verbal presentation, the written accounts occasionally stray from proper grammar and punctuation.

[1] Deuteronomy 15:11, to exact.
[2] From Sarah’s 2018 paper on John 12:1-8.  Self-published, so it’s not something you can actually look up and read, but I at least wanted you to know where it came from.
[3] https://www.charlotteobserver.com/news/local/article45620532.html and http://www.charlottemagazine.com/Charlotte-Magazine/November-2016/100-Love-Notes-1-Year-Later/
[4] https://us6.campaign-archive.com/?u=dbffd2070718c7bb6a1b9b7e0&id=061f7183ea&e=9d753c1a09.