One Woman's Journey

by Scott Grant


In our study together we have found that God has created us with spiritual thirst, with souls of desire that can only be satisfied by his love. We have seen that we are prone to forsake the Lord, the spring of living water, and seek satisfaction elsewhere, building "broken cisterns" that can hold no water (Jeremiah 2:9-13). We have heard Jesus, proclaiming himself in so many words to be the spring of living water, cry out for us to come and drink from his love. If we do so, he told us, there will be an overflow of love in us that will spill out and touch the lives of others (John 7:37-39).

Today we sill see what all this looks like in the life of one woman: Mary of Bethany. She drank from Jesus, and there was an overflow of love coming from her life. But it wasn't quite that simple. Like many of us, she suffered devastating loss and began to wonder whether Jesus really did care for her. Mary appears in three different scenes in the gospels (Luke 10:38-42, John 11:1-46, and John 12:1-8). We will consider all three scenes this morning.

There used to be a sign along Highway 17 in Scotts Valley. Perhaps some of you remember it. It advertised the presence of Bethany Bible College and a denominational office. It also conveyed spiritual messages of encouragement to passing motorists. One day the message was "Dog races." You may ask, "What's spiritual about that?" The answer, of course, is nothing. "Dog races" was not the original message. College students, even those well-behaved young men and women at Bible colleges, are always up to some kind of mischief. It seems that in the middle of the night, some of them rearranged the letters in the original message so that it read "Dog races." The original message was "God cares." The message changed from "God cares" to "Dog races." The message comes to us: "God cares." But for some of us, because of the circumstances of our lives, it makes little sense. Perhaps it made sense at one point, but now it seems more like "Dog races." "God cares" makes about as much sense as "Dog races."

Mary of Bethany believed that Jesus cared. But as she continued on her journey, she began to question that belief.

Sitting at Jesus' feet (Luke 10:38-42)

Mary sits at the feet of Jesus, listening to his word. Jesus is revealing his thoughts to Mary, and Mary is absorbing them. She has come to Jesus, the spring of living water, and she is drinking from him.

Disciples would sit at the feet of their rabbis. (In Acts 22:3, Paul says, literally, that he was educated "at the feet" of a rabbi.) There is nothing unusual about this position. What's unusual is that the one seated at the feet of the rabbi is a woman. (In John 4:27, Jesus' disciples were surprised to find him talking with a woman.) Rabbis had male disciples, and only men sat at their feet. What's happening here is a rabbi-disciple relationship, but a completely unconventional one.
We don't know what Jesus was saying, but we know that he didn't say this: "Mary, what are you doing at my feet? Don't you know this is where disciples sit, and that only men can be disciples of a rabbi? Go help your sister with the food." That's what Mary's sister, Martha, expected Jesus to say. Martha, like everyone else except Jesus, thinks that a woman's place is in the kitchen and not at the feet of a rabbi. Jesus tells Martha that Mary has chosen, literally, "the good part," the part of a disciple, and that he will not let anyone take that part away from her.

Think what this would have meant to Mary. She's probably a former-day Yentil. She probably grew up loving the scriptures and longing to learn the things of God but being reminded at every turn what good girls do and don't do. If ever she began listening too intently to any of the other rabbis, she was probably told to get back to work. If you've ever been denied something because of your sex, race, age or something else beyond your control, you can identify with Mary. Jesus, the great rabbi, invites Mary to be one of his disciples and to take her position at his feet. Jesus says that her desire to be a disciple is not bad, as she has been told throughout her life, but good. And when it is suggested that Mary is in the wrong place, he defends her right to be there and says that he won't let anyone take her place from her. He has now become not only her rabbi but her champion. At this point, Mary is drinking deeply from the spring of living water, and it is bringing refreshment to her soul.

Perhaps you too at one point in your life were drawn to Jesus and were touched deeply by his love for you. No one seemed to love you the way he did. He filled your life with faith, hope and love.
For Mary, all is well in this new world she has entered. But that world is about to be shaken.

Weeping at Jesus' feet (John 11:28-35)

When Mary's brother, Lazarus, became sick, she and Martha sent word to Jesus, hoping that he would come to heal him, as he had healed others (John 11:3). Yet after hearing the news, Jesus stayed where he was two more days (John 11:6). Look carefully at John's description of Jesus' actions: "Now Jesus loved Martha, and her sister, and Lazarus. When therefore he heard that he was sick, he stayed then two days longer in the place where he was" (John 11:5-6, New American Standard Bible). By use of the word "therefore," John is telling us that Jesus delayed coming to Bethany precisely because he loved Mary and her family. Mary, of course, doesn't know this.
When the sisters hear that Jesus is finally coming to Bethany, Martha goes to meet him, but Mary stays at home (John 11:20). Martha, as demonstrated by her ensuing interaction with Jesus, has not been deeply affected by his tardiness. Mary, as demonstrated by her ensuing interaction with Jesus, has been deeply affected by his tardiness. Martha goes out to meet Jesus without being asked, but it will take a special request on the part of Jesus to get Mary to come to him.

Jesus had opened a new world for Mary by becoming her rabbi. When her brother became sick, she sent word for him to come and help. She and her sister told him through the messenger,

"Lord, the one you love is sick" (John 11:3). Yet after receiving this urgent message, Jesus stayed put for another two days.

Mary's world has been rocked. Not only has she lost her brother, but the only one who might have been able to save her brother, the one she opened her heart to, took his own sweet time about responding. She must be thinking: "Is this how he responds to those he loves? Is this how he responds to what I really care about? Was I a fool to ever think that the great rabbi would make me one of his disciples? Does he really care about me? Now he's coming to Bethany? He couldn't possibly be coming for me."

Grief, questions and doubts rumble through the caverns of her soul. Her heart was opened; then it was broken. Jesus stayed where he was; now Mary stays where she is. He moves toward her, but she holds her ground. She has determined that it is best to keep a safe distance between herself and Jesus, lest she get burned again.

What kind of loss have you suffered? Have you, like Mary, lost a loved one long before you ever thought you would? Have you lost a marriage? Have you lost whatever passion you once had in your marriage? Have you lost some other cherished relationship? Have you lost your health? Have you lost a job? Have you lost an opportunity that now, in hindsight, you wished you'd grabbed -- the job you didn't take, the call you didn't make; the trip that you missed, the lips you didn't kiss. Have you lost hope?

Like Mary, all of us have lost something or someone important to us. And for many of us, it's not just one loss. It's one loss after another after another. As the losses pile up, so do the questions: "Where was Jesus when I was suffering? Why didn't he intervene to keep me from losing what was precious to me? Was I a fool to give my heart to him? Does he really care about me?"

Suffering is devastating enough; but what may be even more devastating is the thought that perhaps Jesus, who did nothing to prevent the suffering, doesn't really care after all. God cares? Dog races!

We keep our distance from Jesus, making sure that he doesn't get too close to what's important to us, because we're concerned that he can't be trusted with what's important to us. He moves toward us, but we hold our ground. We keep our distance from the spring of living water, but the thirst doesn't go away. Solution? Dig a cistern. Find another way to satisfy the thirst. Mary, in her distance from Jesus, may already be looking for a shovel.

Before Mary has a chance to start digging, Martha returns from her encounter with Jesus and calls Mary aside. Martha delivers a short, simple message that changes the course of Mary's life. Martha tells Mary, "The teacher is here, and is asking for you." At this point, Mary, literally, "was raised." The message raised her. It's as if she couldn't help getting up. She gets up "quickly" and goes to Jesus. Earlier, she stayed away from Jesus. Now she moves toward him quickly.
What is it about this message that causes the change in Mary? There are greater titles for Jesus than "teacher," but for Mary this is the most meaningful. Martha probably used the Hebrew word "rabbi" here, translated by John into Greek (didaskalos) and by English translators into "teacher." Jesus was the teacher who endorsed and defended her desire to be a disciple.

John says that when Mary Magdalane, a different woman, saw the resurrected Jesus, she said to him in Hebrew, "Rabboni," which means teacher (John 20:16) -- not "Lord" but "teacher." It was the only word John records her as saying in reaction to the resurrection of Jesus. The title meant everything to women who had the door of discipleship opened to them by Jesus.

Now, Martha tells Mary that the "teacher" is here. The mere word in connection with Jesus grabs Mary's attention like no other. But what does the teacher want? The teacher is "asking" for her. Imagine how this must have affected Mary. She probably had begun to question whether Jesus really cared for her. Yes, he was coming to Bethany, but she doubted whether it had anything to do with her. Now Mary hears that Jesus, the rabbi who opened up for her a whole new world, is coming specifically to meet with her, and wants her to know that he is coming specifically to meet with her. The message addresses Mary's deepest questions, and answers them in so many words, "Yes, he cares." No wonder she gets up quickly and runs to meet him. It seems that Mary, even in her doubt, is waiting for the slightest indication that Jesus cares for her. Jesus said, "If any one is thirsty, let him come to me and drink." Now he calls for Mary, whose thirst is intense, and she comes to him.

When she reaches Jesus and sees him, she falls at his feet. No doubt she has been comforted by Jesus' desire to be with her, but she is still grief-stricken over the loss of her brother and still confused about Jesus' actions. She says, "Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died." The words come from a deep place within Mary, for she is weeping at Jesus' feet.

Earlier, when she was at the feet of Jesus, he spoke and she listened. Now, once again at the feet of Jesus, she speaks and he listens. There is a time for listening to the heart of Jesus, and there is a time for pouring out your heart to him. He speaks, and he listens, and he knows the right time for each.

When Jesus sees Mary, he is deeply moved in spirit and troubled. Then he asks as to the whereabouts of the body of Lazarus. When the Jews say, "Come and see, Lord," he weeps. He wants to go to the tomb. He wants to feel Mary's loss. When he arrives at the tomb, he is once more "deeply moved." Mary's grief and doubt trigger an eruption in the heart of Jesus, and the volcano erupts three times in the space of a few minutes.

Jesus has plans to give Mary a larger faith. He really did delay his departure for Bethany because he loved Mary. When he heard about Lazarus' illness, he said, "This sickness will not end in death. No, it is for God's glory so that God's Son may be glorified through it" (John 11:4). The illness, death and raising of Lazarus give all those in the story the opportunity to see Jesus in a different light (John 11:15, 25-27, 40, 42). Mary's faith in Jesus would be expanded. He delayed his departure so that Lazarus would be certifiably dead by the time he arrived in Bethany, because he loved Mary. Mary believes Jesus can heal the sick. Jesus lets her go through the trauma of losing her brother to show her he can raise the dead.

Her trauma, then, is not the end of the story. Your trauma is not the end of the story. The Author isn't finished yet.

David Wilcox sings:

Look, if someone wrote a play just to glorify
What's stronger than hate, would they not arrange the stage
To look as if the hero came too late he's almost in defeat
It's looking like the Evil side will sin, so on the Edge
Of every seat, from the moment that the whole thing begins
It is ...
Love who makes the mortar
And it's love who stacked these stones
And it's love who made the stage here
Although it looks like we're alone
In this scene set in shadows
Like the night is here to stay
There is evil cast around us
But it's love that wrote the play
For in this darkness love can show the way.

The raising of Mary's brother will expand her faith, but this meeting with Jesus just outside Bethany has already restored her faith. All she needed to hear was that Jesus came for her. All she needed to see was a tear in his eye. When she heard that Jesus was coming for her, she was "raised." Once again, she is drinking deeply from the spring of living water.

When you suffer loss, don't start digging a cistern to satisfy your thirst. Don't lose yourself in indulgence or performance. Those cisterns will leak, and they will leave you parched. Maybe you're like Mary. Yes, you've been hurt, but you're waiting for the slightest indication that Jesus cares. Instead of digging a broken cistern, listen to the message coming from Jesus. He is coming for you; he wants you to know that he's coming for you; he wants to be with you; he wants you to come to him. He enjoys the pleasure of your company. Get up quickly. Go out to him. Fall at his feet. Pour out your heart to him. Weep. Now look up. What do you see? You see that he is deeply moved in spirit and troubled. You see that he is weeping. You see that your suffering triggers a volcanic eruption in the heart of Jesus. You see that he loves you very much.

Several years ago I attended a retreat with 20 others. Over the course of our weekend together, each of us shared his spiritual journey with the group. I was emotionally exhausted after sharing mine. After I finished, I stood up. As I arose, I didn't notice that another man in the group had walked across the room, but by the time I was standing, I saw him. He had moved in front of me. His face was about a foot away from me, and he was looking into my eyes. He didn't say a word. His eyes were red and moist, and tears were crawling down his face. He had been moved by the difficult parts of my story. My friend's reactions showed me that he cared, and at that point it was comforting to know that someone cared. When you weep, Jesus weeps. He cares.

Jesus has plans for your loss that you don't know about. He doesn't intervene the way you want him to precisely because he loves you. He has a plan to enlarge your faith. If you could see it now, it wouldn't make sense. When you see it later, it will take your breath away. Know that he has that plan, but before you see it unfold, hear him calling for you, go out to him, pour out your heart, see his tears. Drink deeply from the spring of living water.

What happens when someone drinks from Jesus? Streams of living water will flow from within him. Those streams flow from within Mary in the final scene.

Worshiping at Jesus' feet (John 12:1-8)

It was customary hospitality to anoint a guest's head with oil and provide him with water to wash his feet. If anyone in the house washed the feet of a guest, it would be a Gentile slave. Jewish slaves were not expected to carry out such a lowly task. Mary, in her devotion to Jesus, carries these hospitality customs to extremes. She anoints not the head of Jesus but his feet. She uses not oil but perfume -- perfume that is worth a year's wages. She unbinds her hair, which in itself would have raised eyebrows in that culture. And then, shockingly, she wipes his feet with her hair.
She becomes like a slave, and humbles herself to the extreme. She is worshiping at the feet of Jesus. The fragrance of her devotion to Jesus, probably unbeknownst to her, fills the house. She is somehow preparing Jesus for his burial, and she doesn't even know it. She is so focused on loving Jesus that she doesn't notice the effect that she is having. She is marvelously self-unaware. Mary has drunk from the spring of living water. The water of his love has dissolved her fears. It has poured into her and now overflows so that others, including Jesus, are blessed by her devotion to the Lord.

Judas, however, does not count himself among the blessed. He protests that the perfume could have been sold and the proceeds given to the poor. After all, it's the reasonable thing to do. Of course, what he really wanted was for the proceeds to fill his own pockets. Jesus says, "Leave her alone."

This is what happens when you drink from Jesus. Something changes within you. Streams of life-giving water flow from you. Love pours forth from you. It is unavoidable and irrepressible. Like Mary, you can't help yourself. You forget about duty and reason, expectations and decorum. The water of his love dissolves your fears, ambitions and ambiguities. Like Mary, perhaps you're so focused on loving Jesus that you don't even know what effect you're having. Your love for Jesus spills over and touches others. You become like Jesus, a spring of living water. You love what he loves, the people who God leads you to. Streams of living water flow from you.

Three scenes, one position

Mary appears in three scenes in the gospels, and each scene places her at the feet of Jesus. In Scene 1, she listens to his word; she hears his heart. In Scene 2, she speaks to him; she opens her heart. In Scene 3, she worships Jesus; she gives him her heart. In Scene 1, Jesus talks and Mary listens. In Scene 2, Mary talks and Jesus listens. In Scene 3, no one talks; the intimacy is beyond words.

In each scene, there is something or someone trying to keep her from the feet of Jesus. In Scene 1, it's Martha, who appeals to the expectations of the day. In Scene 2, it's Mary's own disappointment. In Scene 3, it's Judas, who appeals to reason. Jesus, however, shows Mary that his feet is where she belongs. When it is suggested that his feet is the wrong place for Mary to be, Jesus says the place will not be taken from her. When she is immobilized by disappointment, Jesus calls to her. When she is questioned for her extravagant worship at his feet, Jesus says, "Leave her alone."

Be advised that something or someone will always try to keep you from the feet of Jesus. Duty, disappointment, reason and a host of other values will bombard you from without and rise up from within to keep you from moving toward Jesus. But if the feet of Jesus is where you really want to be, Jesus is telling you that his feet is where you belong. Go to him. Place yourself at his feet. Listen to his heart. Open your heart. Give him your heart.

Mary extends extraordinary hospitality to Jesus because she recognizes that Jesus has extended extraordinary hospitality to her. She could easily find herself responding to Jesus as David responded to the divine host in Psalm 23. In fact, there are such strong connections between that psalm and Mary's life that it is not a stretch to think that it may have inspired her extraordinary act of devotion in the final scene.

"The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want." After all Mary has been through, what more could she want but Jesus, her shephard?

"He makes me lie down in green pastures; he leads me beside quiet waters." Jesus has drawn Mary to himself, where she has been nourished.

"He restores my soul." Mary, who came to Jesus but was disappointed by Jesus, has been restored.

"He guides me in the paths of righteousness for his name's sake." Even when Jesus didn't come to Bethany when Mary wanted him to, she now knows that he was guiding her even then.

"Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I fear no evil; for you are with me. Your rod and your staff, they comfort me." Jesus has walked with Mary through the valley of the shadow of death, her brother's death, and offered her comfort by weeping with her.

"You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies; you have anointed my head with oil." Jesus has flown in the face of custom to welcome Mary to his table as a disciple. Truly he has anointed her head with oil.

"My cup overflows." Jesus has anointed her head, and she has anointed his feet. Her cup has overflowed and filled the room with the perfume of her devotion to Jesus.

"Surely goodness and lovingkindness will follow me all the days of my life, and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever." Mary is extending hospitality to Jesus, but she knows whose house she's dwelling in.

If you follow your heart, your journey will take you back again and again to the feet of Jesus, where you listen to his heart, where you open your heart and where you give him your heart. "If anyone is thirsty, let him come to me and drink. Whoever believes in me, as the Scripture has said, streams of living water will flow from within him."

Like Mary of Bethany, the love of Jesus fills us beyond capacity and spills out of us. As N.T. Wright says, "the hand that dries our tears passes the cloth on to us, and bids us to follow him, to go and dry another's tears." We become like Jesus, seeking out those places of need. We go to Bethany, we comfort the weeping sister, we enter the tomb of the brother. We go to the orphans of Tijuana, the villagers of Belize and the refugees of Kosovo. We go upstairs to the teen-ager trying to find her way. We go downstairs to the little boy who needs a hug. We go to the down-and-outers and the up-and-outers. We go to the parched places of this earth where people are thirsting for a few drops of living water. But we don't go alone. We bring with us the Spirit of Jesus, who groans with us and inspires us and leads us to pour out our lives as Mary poured out that vial of perfume. May the fragrance of our love for Jesus fill this house today. May it fill this world.

The teacher is here and is asking for you!

-- SCG, 5-23-99

Catalog No. 4579
Luke 10:38-42; John 11:28-35, 12:1-8
Third Message
Scott Grant
May 16, 1999