Unity Lutheran Church + Cross of Life Campus
7 April 2019 + Fifth Sunday in Lent
Rev. Josh Evans, preaching
This is a tale of two women.
First: She’s at this big party, a wedding feast to be exact. Everything’s going great, and everyone’s having a great time… until: They run out of wine. With an awareness that something is up and a keen sense of hospitality, she does what any mother in her place would do: she meddles. And she tells her son to do something about it. When he’s reluctant, she won’t take no for an answer. And we know what happens next: the six giant jugs of water suddenly become six giant jugs of wine. It’s a miracle of abundance — the first of many signs Jesus will perform throughout the pages of John’s gospel, all instigated, in this one moment, by his mother.
But there’s more: This is a tale of two women.
Second: Her house is filled with guests. There’s Jesus and at least twelve of his followers, probably more. And her sister, who’s busy cooking and serving, not to mention her brother Lazarus who had literally just been raised from the dead. Needless to say, it was a hectic, exciting, confusing time. She had been trying to process everything she had been feeling, everything she had been thinking about: What could she say? What could she do? And then, suddenly, she gets an idea: In the middle of dinner, she reaches for the jar she had been saving — literally saving and scrimping three hundred denarii, an entire year’s wages. It’s time, she thinks. And in an instant, she pours out the perfume, the pungent aroma swirling around the room matched only by her own extravagant love poured out for Jesus, her dearest of friends. This, too, is a sign of abundance.
This is a tale of two women.
Two women — the mother of Jesus and Mary the sister of Lazarus — who stand at pivotal moments in Jesus’s ministry in John’s gospel. From the wedding in chapter 2 to the anointing in chapter 12, there’s even a sense that these two women “bookend” the first phase of Jesus’s ministry. Jesus’s mother is the catalyst that sets it all into motion. Without her urging, who’s to say everything that followed would’ve even happened?
And then there’s Mary, Jesus’s friend and one of his closest and most faithful disciples, who herself performs a sign of abundance and is the only person besides Jesus to do so in all of John’s gospel. Her act of abundance, of lavish extravagance, is in the details: a pound of costly perfume, pure nard, costing a whole year’s wages, and filling the entire house with its fragrance. (Any other essential oil fans out there? You know that even one drop is enough to fill a room. Imagine spilling out a whole vial!) And this couldn’t come at a more poignant time: standing at the culmination of Jesus’s public ministry and on the cusp of his final journey to Jerusalem and his last days.
This is a tale of two women. Two women who love Jesus into his future, as biblical scholar Karoline Lewis writes. Because of his mother’s love and encouragement, Jesus has the strength to begin his work. And because of his friend Mary’s extravagant love, Jesus receives what he needs as he comes to his “hour” — his suffering, dying, and rising.
These two women get it. They understand what it means to love Jesus into his future, to love him with the kind of extravagant love he needs to get him through two of the hardest and most pivotal moments of his life: the beginning of his career and his turning toward the cross.
To lesser extents, we’ve all had those moments: moments where what we need to get us through is that extra word of encouragement or act of love from someone who cares for us. Whether it’s a note a mom packs in her kid’s lunch box, or a home-cooked meal prepared by one spouse for another at the end of a long day, or a text message to a friend just to check in, we’ve all had moments of being loved and loving each other into the future, of giving and receiving strength for what lies ahead.
Those moments emphasize, above all else, the relationship, and that’s what John’s gospel is all about. It’s about relationship and mutuality and reciprocity. It’s about God abiding in us and us in God and us with each other. This is a tale of two women who get it. They get that being a follower of Jesus is to be in relationship with him. They get what it means to be a disciple — to abide in love and to live in love and to be in love with the One who loves them.
At Unity, we emphasize this kind of relationship in our servant ministry partnerships. Our work with all our partners emphasizes ministry with, not for. It’s not about what we can give and do for them, but what we can give and do for each other. It was a beautiful thing this past month to see so many of our friends from Hephatha Lutheran Church in Milwaukee join us at Christ the King for our food pack. And just this past Sunday, when several of us from Unity went to Hephatha to worship and serve a meal, I was struck by the comment of one man, as I was scooping up a ladleful of fruit onto his plate: “Let us know when we can come serve a meal to you!” Together, in the everyday moments of our lives, we love each other into future, in our work with our ministry partners and in our relationships with our families and friends.
It’s also appropriate that we read this gospel text of extravagant, abundant love on this fifth and final “regular” Sunday in Lent. With Mary, we stand on the cusp of Holy Week. The very next verses in John move us to “Palm Sunday,” but today, before all that,Mary prepares us to walk with Jesus through it all. Where Judas betrays Jesus and Peter denies him, abandoning the relationship, Mary pours out an abiding extravagance of love that will remain with Jesus, even when his journey to Jerusalem doesn’t end quite as triumphantly as it began — through the betrayal, through the trial, through the suffering, through his death, and ultimately into his resurrection…
…where we’ll encounter yet another woman, another Mary, at the tomb, early in the morning, while it was still dark, amid clouded eyes weighed down with tears, hearing her risen rabbi’s voice call her name, and in turn clinging to him, physically — an act of extravagant love from a disciple and a friend.
So this is a tale, really, of three women, and it’s tale of us… a tale that invites us into the kind of love that makes a disciple, the kind of abundance that loves us all, together, into the future, whatever it holds — its tender abundance lasting as even one drop of a jar of costly perfume fills the house with its lasting aroma. Can you smell that love? Can you feel that love?