Bitter Tears

36 Then one of the Pharisees invited Him to eat with him. He entered the Pharisee’s house and reclined at the table. 37 And a woman in the town who was a sinner found out that Jesus was reclining at the table in the Pharisee’s house. She brought an alabaster jar of fragrant oil 38 and stood behind Him at His feet, weeping, and began to wash His feet with her tears. She wiped His feet with the hair of her head, kissing them and anointing them with the fragrant oil. — Luke 7

Have you ever tried to wipe up a spill with your hair? Me neither. I usually opt for something more effective in sopping up the mess. Maybe that’s why I never identified much with the woman who wept on Jesus’ feet and wiped it with her hair. Until last night, when I found myself crying bitter tears in the bathroom at Applebee’s.

We’d come in for dinner, land the place was packed. As we waded through the mess of people to get to our table, I passed by my former boss. I barely noticed him; I don’t think he saw me. This is the second time I’ve seen him since I resigned last spring. We sat down to look at menus, and I told my husband that I felt really disturbed and I didn’t know why. Then it struck me: The last time this man saw me, I was at my worst.

On my last day, I came to his office to turn in keys. He said, “Because you sent your resignation letter by email, I still need you to sign it in ink.” I had emailed the letter from home because I was seriously sick.

I took the pen from him, set it to paper, and began to sign. My hand was like molasses. Huge, ploppy tears suddenly fell all over the paper, bleeding my signature. I was shocked by the size and number of them. The realization that I was leaving, not with a bang but a whimper, was striking me hard. All the work I’d done seemed like a waste, since I wouldn’t be able to see it through. It was like my purpose in life was miscarrying.

I handed him that paper. We made small talk for a few minutes. I left. I discovered on entering my car that my mascara, which I hardly ever wear, and which was supposed to be waterproof, had streaked down my cheeks, like makeup on a clown from one of those horror movies. The smallness and defeat I felt inside was quite visible.

As I stared at the Applebee’s menu, I realized that it was a moment of great shame for me. It’s one thing to be vulnerable with your spouse or parent or good friend, because they’ve shared their vulnerability with you as well. But with this man, there was no such reciprocation, no cathartic moment to cleanse the shame and restore the self.

A moment later found me in the bathroom, leaning against a cold tile wall, crying the same bitter year-old tears into a scratchy brown paper towel. Suddenly I understood, at least a little, why that woman cried as she did on Jesus’ feet. Scripture tells us she was a harlot, which was not only disgraceful, but stonable.

If you were anything but a married woman with children, you weren’t worth anything. How great was the shame and vulnerability of having only your vagina to sell? I don’t know, but I know what’s it like to have a moment in time feel like it seals shame, and there’s nothing you can do to redeem it. In Jesus, she saw redemption. He wasn’t there to be another man reminding her of her shame and vulnerability and emptiness. He was there to share that pain, not to reflect it back to her.

I used to think, “Why didn’t that woman bring a rag with her, if she knew she was going to cry all over Jesus and pour some oil on him?” But now I get it, I think. We don’t control shame — it controls us. Like me, sobbing in the Applebee’s bathroom. It just came over me, which is probably what happened to her as well, standing in the presence of Jesus. And she didn’t have to stuff it down, hide it, any longer. Somehow, she knew that He would take that pain from her and give her that which she needed, but was powerless to give herself.

If I run into my boss a third time, what will happen? I’m not sure, but it will be different. I suppose that’s appropriate, since the number 3 was frequently symbolic in the Bible at times where wholeness, redemption, resurrection were required. Sometimes it’s gaining an understanding of the forces which drive us that bring healing.

Jesus taught nearly everything in illustrations and parables. Leaning against that tile wall last night, I prayed, “Lord, why is this affecting me so much??” He did not give me a scientific answer. Instead, He showed me a story of a woman in shame — a story that has become part of my own story.

But the Counselor, the Holy Spirit—the Father will send Him in My name—will teach you all things and remind you of everything I have told you. — John 14:26

When the Spirit of truth comes, He will guide you into all the truth. — John 16:13a

You will know the truth, and the truth will set you free. — John 8:32