You have probably heard this story before. A version of it appears in each of the four Gospels. They agree on a couple of things. First – that the woman in it is not Mary Magdalene! Second that it’s a shocking and unsettling story. But since most of you don’t look shocked and unsettled, I’m going to retell it –
It is the chili cook off here at church. The tables in Ames Hall are full of people eating chili. Rev Sandra has been very busy helping to make this event happen. She has finally found a place to sit down and eat. Suddenly in bursts a man who isn’t a member of the church. He is well known by most people – well known for the bad things he has done. Let’s not specify what exactly. Maybe he is known for drinking and driving or abandoning his family for his secretary or his stereotyping of others. Maybe his misdeeds are even bigger – like raising the prices of life-saving drugs or business practices that have killed or injured people or robbery or murder or terrorism or – use your imagination. This man bursts in bringing a whole bunch of people hauling an entire pedicure set up – the comfy massage chair, the tub for warm water, the oven to warm the hot stones, and the rolling carts of scrubs, lotions, tools, and nail polish. They stop in front of Sandra. The man helps her into the chair, opens a chilled champagne bottle, pours a large glass for her, and then kneels down and gently removes Sandra’s shoes and socks. He begins giving her a luxurious pedicure: scrubbing, soaking, coating in scented lotions, and massaging her feet and legs. He runs the hot rocks up and down her legs. At one point he takes off his shirt and uses it to gently dry her feet before beginning to apply the nail polish. Everyone else just sits there in shock. Sandra leans back, sipping her drink, and enjoying her pampering. Finally someone says, “Sandra, this is disgusting and inappropriate! And don’t you know who this man is? I am shocked that you haven’t stopped him!” And Sandra says “Yes, this man’s sins are many, but I have forgiven him.”
So were you shocked, appalled, and outraged? Did you squirm a little bit? What part got to you?
Was it the outsider bursting in completely hijacking our chili cook off for his own purposes? Was it that he was known to have done bad things, yet Sandra willingly accepts his touch? Was it all the sensual physical parts – the massaging, the taking off of his shirt? Was it the fuss and extravagance? Was it Sandra ignoring the rest of us and just sitting back and enjoying it? Or was it the blanket forgiveness of someone who had done bad things?
But maybe there were parts of this story that you experienced positively. Could you imagine how good the pedicure part felt? The taste of the cool glass of bubbly? The relief of extravagant and life changing forgiveness?
This story is supposed to really get under our skin. This is an outrageous pedicure used to illustrate God’s lavish, caring, and generous love. Now some of you may never have experienced a pedicure, and I’m sorry for that. But many of you – I know you know how good your feet feel after a pedicure – how cared for, smooth, tingly, clean, and relaxed you feel? That is how God’s love is supposed to feel. Really! God’s love feels like the best possible pedicure!
On the other side of the story is that radical act of forgiveness of a misbehaving outsider. There is no promise to never do anything wrong again or even an apology for what has already been done. And Jesus actually says both that the woman did this loving act because she was forgiven and that she was forgiven because of her loving act. What’s the message there?
Here is the deal with this story – it is like an algebra equation. On the one side you have an extravagant and outrageous pedicure. On the other side you have an outrageous and extravagant act of forgiveness that wipes away in an instant a series of wrong actions. Poof, gone! And Jesus says these are equal; they are the same thing. Both are equally radical and shocking, both equally soothing, generous, transforming, and wonderful. And both make up the equation of God’s relationship with us. Lavish care that we can feel in our body and the reality that to God we aren’t defined by our past misdeeds and mistakes but by the love and grace of the present.
This equation, this story, it is God’s dream for us. We are called and claimed by a God who is unapologetically, extravagantly, and outrageously loving and forgiving. And God’s dream is that this sort of love will be the core of our stories too. That we will live in God’s equation, live in God’s Kingdom. That we will both experience the freedom and privilege of its exquisite joy and the responsibilities. For there are unsettling costs to living in God’s equation, to living in God’s Kingdom.
See, we are the Pharisees and the Chili Cook Off participants. And the story ends with an implied question – what happens next, what does Jesus want to happen next. Think of our contemporary version. Do the grumbles continue? Maybe we call the police. Maybe we decide to complain to Tom when he returns. Do we turn our backs on the outrageous pedicure and forgiving? Do we close ourselves off to God’s love and forgiveness because they feel too radical, too unsettling, too rule breaking? Or do we say to Sandra and the pedicure givers – “thank you for helping us appreciate how wonderful God’s love is?” And move over and make room saying – “welcome, please come join us for chili?” Do we embrace the love and forgiveness and become part of God’s equation even if that requires some discomfort and effort?
When we accept God’s extravagant love and forgiveness for ourselves, we begin living in God’s Kingdom, living in God’s radical equation where love and forgiveness become the core of our story too. And God’s story isn’t about being practical and careful in what we do to show love. Its model is the outsider woman who becomes vulnerable and throws off cultural norms and expectations to lavishly give. It isn’t about being cautious but about taking risks. And it is appreciating how many times God has forgiven us for our past misdeeds even knowing that we will do it all over again. And so acting as though God does that for others and expects us to do it also.
What might that look like? Maybe it means extravagantly, not cautiously, giving of money and time to grow efforts that matter – here at church and in other places in society, especially efforts that provide love, care, and welcome. Or perhaps supporting policies that provide for transformation instead of punishment. Or coming together with, sitting down at the table with, listening to and learning from those we identify with as having different beliefs or doing wrong things. Or making lavish and costly gestures of love and welcome that reach out and cross boundaries: standing outside a Mosque with a sign of support, teaching our children what a swastika means even if it means talking to them about death, flying rainbow and transgender flags, finding time in our busy lives to visit someone who is lonely or help someone, making decisions that are caring even though they cost us, learning about race …or singing about it. Maybe it means feeling deep in our bodies God’s oh so extravagant love and forgiveness and then working for change so that more of our world looks like and lives like God’s equation is real, like God’s Kingdom is here among us with no insiders and outsiders just full of love and care for all.
This is a shocking and unsettling story. It reminds us that God’s love can make us as smooth, cared for, new, and beautiful as a good pedicure. And that once we begin living in God’s Kingdom, living inside God’s radical equation of love and forgiveness, then God wants that to become the core of our story too. Then God calls us to transform the world one extravagantly loving act at a time. What extravagant act will you do this week?
– Rev. Gail Wright