Have you heard the story of the “Sinful Woman?”
She knows the looks the people give to her as she walks through the marketplace every day, the sideways glances people pay her when they think she isn’t aware, the whispers that follow in her footsteps. In the middle of a crowded street where elbows are constantly thrust into sides and bodies bump together she knows nothing of it! Only that such a wide berth is given she never has to worry about making contact with anyone. Even the merchant sellers are careful never to brush fingers with her when exchanges are made. She is used to the stigma her reputation provides, but that doesn’t make it easy. She’s learned to make her trips out into the world as short as possible, but it’s never a cure. No matter when, no matter where, her humiliation is felt in every bone of her body as if the brand is burned onto her forehead for all the world to see. She goes to the market, she quickly does what she came to do, and retreats back to the safety of her home, away from the eyes that condemn.
But on one particular night things seem different. On her normal route to and from the marketplace she cannot help but notice how distracted the people are, so distracted they hardly bother to make eye contact with her, they forget to judge, to shrink away! And the whispers. The whispers are different. Instead of quiet hushed voices doing their best to keep her from realizing she is the topic of their conversations, the voices are hurried and charged with energy and wide eyes.
“Yes, yes, I saw him myself!” one says.
“Jesus of Nazareth, here, in our town can you believe it!” says another. “He’s dining with Simon the Pharisee tonight, I might go myself if I work up the courage.”
I’m sure they thought it would be a spectacle. After all the Pharisee’s are the holiest of the holiest and have not exactly been fans of Jesus, the man who has tried to teach them everything they are doing wrong.
It’s hard to put to words what must have gone through the mind of this woman, what led her to do what she did. Perhaps she saw the opportunity to beg for the forgiveness that no one on Earth seemed willing to give her. Perhaps she had no plan, just an urge to go and see. Perhaps she was hopeful, hopeful that if Jesus saw something less than pure in someone like a Pharisee he might see something more than sinful in her. No matter what she thought or expected, we know that she gathered up what she had of her money and purchased perfume, one of the most expensive kinds that was available at this time, its alabaster container was only proof of that.
It must have taken courage, to go to a dinner party she knew she wouldn’t be welcomed at, to touch a man who might shun her the way the rest of society had. But it was important to her not to turn away. The moment she stepped inside the house the conversation died, smiles vanished, and eyes once alive with life and entertainment went wide with fear and shock. She’s the last person they ever expected to see.
But she doesn’t notice their reaction, merely takes her alabaster flask and moves further into the room. She’s near tears the moment she reaches the one they call Jesus, the one who heals the sick, and dares to raise up the poor, the one who is said to dine with sinners… people like her. And she knows that it’s silly, but she can’t help but notice… his feet are dirty. Why are his feet dirty? She doesn’t understand! It’s a custom in times like this to clean the feet of your guests. Why has Simon, a Pharisee of all people not offered this, why are his feet dirty?!
She cleans them herself. Knowing that no one will offer her a basin of water or a towel, she stoops down. She cleans his feet with the only thing she has, her own tears. And in place of a towel, she uses the only thing she can think of, the hair on her own head.
Others move away from her, repulsed and frightened that they might be next. Jesus doesn’t flinch. His eyes are on her, just as everyone else’s eyes are, but there is something different to his gaze. It’s not the look the others have. In the distance she can hear a conversation between Jesus and another man, Simon perhaps, the host… but she does not hear it. Only takes her perfume and anoints the feet that Simon should have cleaned himself in front of everyone who wishes she wasn’t there.
It is then that the unthinkable, the unimaginable happens. Jesus reaches for her hand. This is the woman that people scatter from on the street for fear that they might bump into her and Jesus actually reaches out and draws her closer. “Your sins are forgiven,” he declared. Around her everyone bursts into debate about the validity of his statements. But she ignores them. As they fight she begins to weep again, this time tears of joy, before she takes her first steps out into the world… into freedom.
“Have you heard the story of the sinful woman?”
More than once this week I was asked about what I was preaching on this Sunday. “The Sinful Woman,” I answered at first. But each and every time I said the words something turned over in my stomach, something that made me feel almost guilty. Closer toward the end of the week I began to alter my answer in an effort to ease this feeling. “I’m preaching about forgiveness,” I said. And when pressed for details I simply answered: “The woman who anointed Jesus’ feet.” There was one natural reply from nearly everyone: “Oh, the sinful woman”.
There was something about these remarks that bothered me throughout the week, something that I couldn’t quite put my finger on until I sat in my office late Friday with my eyes closed and tried seeing life through her eyes. I found myself crying when I realized what it was.
Thousands of years ago a woman that no one liked or even respected was brave enough to come before a man that she knew only by reputation. She knew what the world thought she was. She knew who the world saw her as. Jesus didn’t see her the same. He saw what was on the inside. And yes, he saw her sin, but he also saw her guilt and repentance. He pronounced her forgiven of her sins, which were many. It was supposed to be something that no one could ever take away.
And yet two thousand years later we have. Two thousand years later we are still whispering, “The Sinful Woman” behind her back.
It’s not the outside that matters, it’s what is on the inside, don’t judge a book by its cover. At some point in their life everyone has either heard these words and perhaps even said them. Is there a better example of these words than this woman?
On the surface there is not much that we know about the woman who has simply been dubbed “the sinful woman”. We think we know more about her than we actually do. Over the years some have taken context clues and begun to build the smallest details of this woman’s life into what they think is an accurate portrayal. But the truth is our image is still hazy. We don’t know if she is old or if she is young. We do not know if she is wealthy or is poor. Her sin is never mentioned, though many have guessed over the years that she might have been a prostitute. It is a guess, an educated guess, but a guess all the same. We don’t know if this sin she’s guilty of is fresh and ongoing, or if it occurred years, maybe decades ago! She is a stranger, over time the color of her hair has faded into obscurity, and her very name has devolved into only: “the sinful woman.”
But it’s not the outside that matters, Jesus is quick to remind us of that. And it is not the fact that she was sinful that we should remember. Forgiveness of sins is supposed to be our trademark; it’s supposed to be what makes us different. It’s the fact that we admit that we are different, that we do things we shouldn’t, but the fact that in Jesus we are forgiven and it’s our duty to then turn and pass that forgiveness on to others who seek it out just as this woman sought Jesus out on this day. “Forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors” we say it every single week, if you are like me you might find yourself saying it more than once a week.
So how is it we’ve failed to see perhaps the most important lesson this woman’s story can offer us? “You are forgiven. We are forgiven.” Have you ever heard such beautiful words? Such a wonderful declaration?! Until that moment she hasn’t. And after this week I doubt she’s heard them since. And I wonder what that says about us, how we forgive people.
Wouldn’t it be lovely, if for all time true forgiveness, like the kind Jesus taught, was what we could actually be known for, remembered for. Not our flaws or our mistakes, but one people under God, forgiven and loved. Wouldn’t it be nice if we could pass that on to others the way we were meant to? Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we could start right here, right now by giving this woman the peace she wasn’t given in her lifetime?
“Have you heard the story of the sinful woman?” No. Because I hope by now you realize that all this time we’ve been hearing the story of the forgiven woman.