I’ve been watching the television series on the O.J. Simpson trial. Many of us probably remember that chapter in American history, albeit vaguely – it happened 20 years ago. But the tv series quickly brings much of it back to the surface: the terrible murders; the famous running back; the white bronco; the female prosecutor, Marcia Clark; and the theatrical African-American defense lawyer, Johnny Cochran. It’s as if they are right back in our living rooms, on the evening news night after night.
On last Tuesday night’s episode, prosecutor Marcia Clark, pushing open the doors to the courtroom one morning, filled with the confidence that comes from exacting preparation, says, “I can tell you every single thing that is going to happen in this courtroom today, and I am ready for all of it.” Famous last words.
The early readers of the Gospel of John could be forgiven – we can be forgiven -- for perhaps having had a similar thought upon first reading, or hearing, today’s gospel story. We know this place and these people. We know Jesus, of course, and that he is on the road to Jerusalem. Since we, 2000 years after the events depicted, know that Holy Week is nigh, we also know that he must be getting close to his destination.
We know the little family with whom he is having dinner: sisters Mary and Martha and their brother Lazarus. Some of us today may recall them from the Gospel of Luke, which John may or may not have known – we may remember another dinner party, an evening when Mary sat at the feet of the Lord, transfixed by his presence and teaching, and her sister Martha, bustling about the house with the meal preparations, complains to Jesus that her sister is no help at all. If we remember that story, then we know that Jesus complimented Mary for her quiet attentiveness, but we also know that most of us are a blend of both of the sisters, sometimes focused on Jesus and his presence in our lives, sometimes distracted by the demands of the day.
Whether or not we recall that story, however, if we are following the Gospel of John, then we know another one. Only a few days earlier, Jesus was summoned to this home, where Lazarus had died and Mary and Martha were beside themselves with grief. Jesus himself was heartbroken, and wept openly. But then – then he ordered that that the stone blocking Lazarus’ tomb be pushed away. In an interesting connection to today’s story – and hold this thought! – Martha warns him away, for Lazarus has been dead in there for four days, and the stench is likely to be overpowering. But Jesus disregards her, and in an act of love, and power, and authority, demands that Lazarus come out – which Lazarus does.
So we know that this little family of siblings have not merely been witnesses, but been participants, in a powerful act of Jesus’ – an act not merely of healing, but of restoring the dead to life. And we know that Jesus, in doing something so unexpected and outrageous, has both found new followers and created new enemies.
We also know Judas, and if we don’t know him well, we learn a bit more about him quickly – keeper of the community purse, and embezzler of community funds. Not an attractive character, Judas. And we know the other disciples, who seem to be there as well, since Judas is mentioned is his role as one of them, and we know them to be a motley crew – sometimes utterly devoted to Jesus, sometimes bickering among themselves, sometimes impulsive and quickly overwhelmed.
We also know the time – it’s only six days before Passover, a major feast in the Jewish calendar, and reason enough on its own for Jesus to be headed for Jerusalem. Most Jews would try to make it to Jerusalem for major feasts and festivals. Jesus himself is headed toward his destiny -- but his friends, unclear about what exactly the future holds, but aware that there are rumblings among the powers that be about his behavior, might be wishing that he would skip the public celebrations this year.
Perhaps a quiet dinner, Jesus with his disciples in the household of friends, is just the thing. Perhaps everyone present thinks, like Marcia Clark, that they know exactly what will happen, at least for the next couple of hours, and that they are prepared for it. A meal, some conversation, universal rejoicing in Lazarus’ restoration to them. Talk about Passover, and about whether to go to Jerusalem or whether to stay home.
And then – and then the unthinkable happens. It sound so simple – Mary anoints Jesus’ feet with fragrant oil, and then wipes his feet with her hair.
Let’s imagine how unthinkable this act of hers is. A woman touching a man not her husband or family member – doesn’t happen. A woman shaking out her hair, perhaps usually hidden from sight, and definitely not permitted to tumble down in a sensuous, intimate manner – doesn’t happen. A woman with a bottle of perfume worth a year’s income – doesn’t happen.
This woman is reckless. Heedless. Maybe she has taken a cue from Jesus, who so recklessly brought her brother back to life, heedless of the possible consequences for his own life.
Let’s imagine how complex this act of Mary’s is. In Old Testament times, prophets anointed other men – as kings. Is Mary a prophet here, speaking truth to power? -- this man, not the Roman emperor, is king. Oil is used to anoint people as part of a healing ritual – something we ourselves will do here this Wednesday night. Does Mary, with her deeply reverent attentiveness and devotion to Jesus, offer a healing balm to him as he begins to anticipate, perhaps with anxiety and agitation, the days ahead? Oil rubbed into the feet is used for burial anointing – is Mary, remembering the stench of death, preparing Jesus with sweet perfume for, as he himself explains, the burial which lies before him?
This woman is a prophet, a healer, a priest. Again, perhaps she takes her cues from Jesus, who has been all of those things to those who know him and love him -- and to those who do not.
Let’s imagine how generous this act of Mary’s is. It isn’t just the money – the sum that could have gone to the poor, as the surly and devious Judas remarks. It isn’t just the whole situation – so unexpected, so unconventional, so unpredictable.
This woman is wildly extravagant. She throws her whole self: her money, her reputation, her body, her love – into this expansive act. Has she indeed taken her cue from Jesus, from the Jesus she knows and the Jesus she is about to know, the one who will throw his entire self into the obliteration of death and the salvation of humankind?
The other people at the table – they’re doing what’s expected. Martha is taking care of the meal, organizing and serving and offering a bit more, here and there. Jesus and the disciples are talking; Judas is probably grumbling. No reason for this dinner to go down in history –
Except for Mary – with her confidence and her generosity and her oil and her hair, mirroring the words and actions of the man she has come to call Lord:
Extravagant. Passionate. Lavish. Wild.
I think that Jesus makes Mary want to be more than who she has been, better than she has been. Jesus is always about love where there might be indifference, always about generosity where there might be greed, always about abundance where there might be scarcity. Mary is now all about those things as well: love, and generosity, and abundance.
How are we doing, my friends? We are moving ever closer to the cross. We are treading ever further down the path into the shadow of death that will seem to overtake us on Good Friday. Are we, a tomb about to be slammed closed in front id us, are we like Mary, willing to throw caution to the wind and anoint the world with the love of Christ?
 Rev. Eugene Nelson, “Questions for Jesus: What Matters Most?” http://www.uccseb.org/Sermons/2013-March-17.pdf.