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“Take the Oil Jar Challenge” (Mark 14:3-9), 3/26/23

Do you remember the Ice Bucket Challenge? Did anybody do it? Two people named Pat and Pete came up with the idea in the summer of 2014 and it spread quickly on Facebook and other social media platforms. The idea was to fill a bucket up with ice water and either dump it on your own head or have someone else dump it on your head, to raise money and awareness for ALS, also called Lou Gehrig’s disease. So many people participated that summer that funding for research almost tripled and about $115M was raised. That’s because after you dumped the bucket on your own head, you then nominated someone else to take the challenge next within 24 hours.

The Ice Bucket Challenge is what came to my mind after I read the story of the woman who broke open a jar of ointment and poured it on Jesus’ head. This story is in all four of the gospels. In three of them it takes place during Holy Week at Simon’s house in Bethany. In John’s gospel, the woman is Mary of Bethany, Martha and Lazarus’ sister. But here in Mark’s version of the story, we don’t know the woman’s name. But I’m sure Jesus remembered her. How could you forget someone who poured all of that very expensive ointment on your head?

She wanted to anoint Jesus, just like the kings of old were anointed. To be anointed is to be blessed by God. The Israelite people believed that their kings were chosen and blessed by God. They were God’s representatives on earth. But when they were anointed, they were just beginning their time as king. Jesus is at the end of his life on earth. This is a different kind of anointing. Jesus said she is anointing his body for burial. Yet I imagine that every king who came before Jesus, all the way back to King David, lived with the reality that any day his life could be over. Israel had so many enemies. It was a dangerous world. Maybe that’s what prompted King David to write those words of Psalm 23: you prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies; you anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows.

There’s a connection between being anointed and having your cup overflow. To anoint someone is to bless them. And when we feel blessed, life feels more full, more abundant. Anointings were of course done with oil. The only oil I have in my house is cooking oil. But every time I open that jug of oil, I know something good is coming. Something like stir fry chicken, or spaghetti, which needs a little oil in the pot so it won’t stick, or old-fashioned popcorn, or even brussels sprouts tossed in a teaspoon of oil with some salt, pepper and garlic powder. Yum! I haven’t yet used my oil for anointing, but here it is. It’s our Lenten object for today, as we remember that God comes to us through ordinary things like ashes, bread, shoes, and now oil.

The woman who poured it on Jesus’ head used nard. Nard was a fragrant oil used to make perfume and also used in medical treatments back in Bible times. So let’s imagine this scene. Mark’s version is very different from the picture on the front of your bulletin. It’s Wednesday of Holy Week. The next day, Jesus will have his last supper with his disciples and then be arrested. But for today, he’s spending time with his friends, having a meal together, when the woman comes in, breaks open the jar and pours the whole lot of it on Jesus’ head. Did she plan to do it this way? There was really no reason to break the jar. I think it was spontaneous, maybe a bit impulsive. What’s Jesus’ reaction? Is he surprised? Did he see it coming? Did he feel tender towards her? Did he want to take care of her?

The first and strongest emotion mentioned in the story is anger, but not Jesus’ anger. This is wasteful, some people said. We don’t know where she got the money for the ointment. Was it her money? Or did it come from some kind of a common purse that the disciples kept for emergencies, like maybe a rainy-day fund? We don’t know. We just know that some people were angry. Usually when people, like kings, or people who were sick, were anointed, just a little bit of oil was used. But not this time. This anointing points to abundance, excess, an overflowing of love. Remember King David’s words, my cup overflows. All the precious ointment in the world could not have expressed what that woman wanted to do for Jesus. Jesus is drenched in oil.

Have you ever been drenched? Maybe you took that ice bucket challenge and got drenched. I’ve never done the ice bucket challenge, but I do remember the day David and I and a friend of ours were in Jerusalem. This was about 1992. We were part of a tour group, but when we had some free time, we decided to go back to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre because when we had been there earlier in the day, it was so packed with people that we could hardly move or see anything. This church contains the earliest known sites of both the crucifixion and Jesus’ tomb and it’s an absolutely amazing experience to be there. But it was pouring rain and so we learned first-hand how the gutter and sewer systems in Jerusalem don’t work at all like they do in this country. Rain was pouring down on our heads as we waded through rivers of water gushing down the street. Yet we felt so blessed to even be there at all, in Jerusalem, and when we finally got to the church, we heaved a sigh of relief to get a break from all that water but more importantly to be in such an amazing and holy place where we could wander around on our own, our shoes still filled with water, squish, squishing on the stone floor. Our hair soaked, dripping down our faces. We were anointed that day- not with oil, but with that rainwater. And I won’t ever forget it. My cup overflowed that day, and I still savor those moments in that church and on the streets of Jerusalem.

Think of someone you love so much that you want to savor every moment with them. Grandchildren or great grandchildren might come to mind. I remember when my son was young, we would get ice cream cones and then we’d go to the park with the dog on a hot summer day. And sure enough, that ice cream would melt and overflow the cone, dripping onto our hands and face and arms and making a big, sticky mess. But I wouldn’t trade it for the world. How do you show love to a child? Buy them an ice cream cone. And if the ice cream falls off the cone, buy them another one! Yes, you could use that money to buy practical stuff like meat and potatoes, but ice cream shows love so much more clearly, especially when it’s all sticky and running down your face.

Three hundred denarii was a lot of money back in Jesus’ day, about a year’s wages, so buying all of that precious oil was quite an extravagance. Jesus tells the angry people to leave the woman alone because, he says, “you will always have the poor with you, but you will not always have me.” Isn’t that true of a lot of things? People are precious. This moment is precious. Life is precious. That’s why it’s okay to be a bit extravagant once in a while.

Do you remember Dorothy Day? She founded the Catholic Worker Movement in the 1930s and she has been called an American saint. She worked with the poor in New York City and established the first Catholic Worker House, which was described as “a place of radical Christian discipleship.” It became a place of hospitality for the down and out, for men women and children. And it was there that this story happened. One day a wealthy woman pulled up to the house in a big car. Dorothy Day gave her a tour of the mission and then when she was about to leave, the woman impulsively pulled a diamond ring off her finger and handed it to Dorothy. When the staff at the house heard about the ring, they were really happy because they knew how much money it was worth if they sold it. All that money would help a lot with the expenses of running the house.

A couple of days later, though, one of them noticed the diamond ring on the finger of a homeless woman who was leaving the mission. So the staff members confronted Dorothy. Why would she just give away a valuable piece of jewelry like that? And to that Dorothy Day said, “That woman was admiring the ring. She thought it was so beautiful. So I gave it to her. Do you think God made diamonds just for the rich?”

We may not have diamonds to give away, but we do have some overflow to celebrate. How about all the food the Scouts collected last Saturday? It was overflowing all those boxes and bags until Mary and Jan took some of it to St. Peter’s. And the rest went to Fish and one other place. And the purple bin for the clothing collection for St. Vincent de Paul shelter is doing a pretty good job of overflowing too. So here’s our question for the week. Are you and I ready and willing to take the oil jar challenge? That’s what we’ll call our own ice bucket challenge. In other words, let’s look for ways to be a little extravagant. Be creative! How could you and I lavish our love on someone, just like that woman did for Jesus? How could we be a part of someone’s cup overflowing? Sometimes it doesn’t take much. A phone call, a card, a date for ice cream. How about a walk in the rain?

So I took this as a sign. My husband gave me a page-a-day Spanish calendar for Christmas so I could learn Spanish to get ready for my trip to Spain to walk part of the pilgrimage route called El Camino de Santiago, the Road of St. James. I am still going, but not until June 2024. I’m still going through the calendar though. Today’s page says “It takes a village. Se necesita un pueblo.” It takes a village to fill up those boxes with food and clothing. It takes a village to do a lot of things, but all of us can take the oil jar challenge. Pick one person and lavish them with God’s blessings this week. Amen.

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