The Fifth Woman: Joanna’s Story
My name is Joanna. I live with my husband, Chuza, in Tiberias. Chuza is Herod Antipas’ steward. He loves the life. He loves the court intrigue and the power. He loves being at the centre of Herod’s web: pulling strings, controlling everything that happens, plotting and winning, he especially loves winning. He’s not a bad man – or at least he didn’t used to be. Not like Susannah’s husband who was cruel from the start, my Chuza used to be kind and loving and thoughtful. But I barely see him these days. He loves court life; I hate it – there’s not much more to say than that.
A few years ago I met Jesus, Jesus of Nazareth. Court life had been suffocating me so I paid a fisherman to let me ride in his boat across the sea of Galilee to Capernaum – and there he was. In a boat on the edge of the lake, talking to a massive crowd. He told a story about a sower, sowing seeds and some growing others not. It felt in that moment as though something was sown in me, I just had to know more. So I began to follow him, me and a number of women. First Mary from Magdala, then Susannah – after her husband threw her out – then Salome, and Mary Clopas’ wife and Mary, James and Joses’ mother, and Mary and Martha not to forget the other Mary, Jesus’ mother and her sister. Most people didn’t notice we were there – in years to come I don’t imagine they will even remember we were there – but we were and we are. Following just as much as Peter and Andrew, James and John and the others.
This year we all came to Jerusalem for the Passover. We don’t normally all come together but this year feels different, somehow. It feels as though there’s some kind of shadow hanging over us all, just out of sight but hanging there nevertheless. Sometimes he says the strangest things about the Son of Man needing to suffer and be rejected and die and rise again, none of us had any idea what he meant, but when he said it there would be a look of such devastating sadness in his eyes I thought my heart would break. One time I told him we didn’t understand and he looked at me with such love in his eyes and said, ‘You will, one day you will’.
I’ve been worrying for days about Passover. Once the pilgrims flood into the city you can’t get a decent sized room for love nor money, and there were so many of us. Jesus and the twelve, and us women and a few others besides. I kept on asking the other disciples but they didn’t that bothered about it. I even tried talking to Judas but he was distracted – had been for days – getting two words out of him together was nigh on impossible. At last I broke down, I couldn’t bear it a moment longer and I asked Jesus direct.
‘Where do you want us to go and make the preparations for you to eat the Passover?’
I realized it sounded unnecessarily aggressive but by then I was so frustrated I didn’t know where to
He laughed – in that way that he had – throwing his head back and shaking with mirth.
‘You could just have asked.’ He said.
He told me to go with Susannah, we’d find a man with a water jar he said. He’s take us to a house where we were to say the Teacher was asking for the guest room.’
So we did. And it worked exactly like he’d said. The master took us up the outside stairs to the roof, where tables and reclining couches were set up already. All around us on rooves across the city, others were preparing themselves for the feast and in the distance the Temple stood proudly against the skyline.
Throughout the day, one by one the other women arrived and soon our preparations were in full swing. As night fell, Jesus arrived with the twelve and we settled down together to eat and drink and remember our story, a story of freedom and of a God who hears our cry. Towards the end of the meal, Jesus picked up a loaf of bread – just like he always did at the start of every meal. He raised his eyes to heaven and blessed it and passed it round. ‘This is my body’ he said. We looked at each other flummoxed, it was one of those many moments of late, where we had to admit we didn’t really know what was going on. It was bread – what on earth did he mean? ‘Take, eat’ he said ‘this is my body, given for you’. Then he took a cup, ‘This is my blood of the new covenant, poured out for many’. ‘Drink it’ he prompted. So we did. Not understanding but feeling, somehow, as though this moment would define me for the rest of my life.
Jesus was like that, I’d found over the years, he would let you grow into the truth that he brought in your own time. There was no judgement; no condemnation if you didn’t understand. When you were ready was fine with him.
I couldn’t shake the feeling though, that this time - time was short. That I needed to work it out urgently. I knew this Jesus had changed the world forever. I knew he was our long awaited Messiah. I knew, even, that long expected though he had been he had – so far – defied every expectation that we had. All this I knew. But there was something, something I didn’t know. It lurked just out of reach at the edges of mind. I reached for it desperately but it slipped further away.
Just then, Jesus and the twelve got up to go. No I was wrong, someone was missing. Where on earth was Judas? I’m sure he was here before. The feeling of unease I’d had all evening lurched into a feeling of dread. Something was wrong. Something was very wrong.
I asked Peter about it. But he wasn’t the most perceptive of people even at the best of times. ‘It’s fine’ he said ‘we’ve had a busy few days and we’re tired. We’ll have a nap when we get to Gethsemane and everything will look better tomorrow.’
I tried to explain to him my sense of looming disaster but I didn’t even understand it myself so how could I begin to put it into words? ‘Get some sleep’, he said ‘you worry too much’.
It’s true I do but this time I feared I wasn’t worrying enough.
Jesus turned at the top of the stairs and looked at each of us in turn. He raised his hand in greeting and turned to go.
A low moan next to me, made me turn in just enough time to catch Jesus’ mother as she dropped to her knees. We sat there, together, we women grieving for the disaster, whatever it was, that was coming. ‘That’s the problem with extravagant love’ whispered Susannah ‘it brings with it interminable heart break’.
We huddled together on the rooftop, the temple outline stark on the horizon.
It was going to be a long night.