The Fourth Woman: Susannah's Story
My name is Susannah. I grew up in Caeserea Maritima right on the coast. Our villa looked out over the sea – the blue green stretching as far as the eye could see. As a child, I had no idea how lucky I was. As a family we had more than enough money; I had a Mother and Father who loved me; we lived in an elegant spacious house; I had beautiful clothes. I wanted for nothing.
On the day of my betrothal my father gave me an alabaster jar. It was the most beautiful thing I had ever seen. White with ripples of a sandy colour that ran over its smooth surface. It was cool and heavy in my hand. My father put his hand affectionately on my cheek. Something precious for the
most precious person I know – open it for a special occasion, dear one.
Not long afterwards I went to live in my husband’s equally elegant house in Tiberias. And very soon I learnt how lucky I had been as I grew up. My husband, Alexander, was rich, very rich, a courtier of Herod Antipas. On the surface he was charming, underneath he was nasty. Cruelty was a sport for him. He used to boast of his love of tormenting people. He would find their weak spot and press it and press until they broke. There was particular gleam that would shine in his eye then, as though his act of destruction thrilled him. Soon after, he would seek out a new victim and begin again.
And so the special occasion for opening my father’s precious gift never really came. On days when the spite and the cruelty had worn me down, I would hold its cool smoothness in my hand and remember the time when I had known myself to be loved and cherished and then I would place it carefully back on the shelf a memento of a life, long gone.
Eventually, as I knew it always would, my husband’s cruel gaze landed on me. He was bored one day and looking for a victim. I think he was probably bored of me too. Antipas had just divorced his first wife to marry his half-brother’s wife, Herodias. So divorce was all the rage at Antipas’ court. He could just have cast me off but that wasn’t Alexander’s style.
My weak spot wasn’t hard to find. My love for my home and my parents shone through me with every breath, and so he set about making sure that after he’d done with me I could never go back. He started rumours about me, claiming that I was an adulteress three times, four times over. People love to believe the worst of someone, and in no time at all my reputation was in tatters. Branded a sinner I was cast into the street unable to go home lest I bring shame down on my father.
What Alexander hadn’t counted on in all his cruelty, however, was that others were different. My father, couldn’t receive me – a sinner – back into his house but he could still take care of me. He sent money via Joanna, the wife of Herod’s steward, so I was comfortable – a famous, despised but wealthy sinner.
One day, Joanna and her friend Mary from Magdala, came to find me. They had met a man, a Rabbi, they said, I had to meet him. I flinched. ‘I can’t meet a Rabbi, I’m a sinner, he’ll know. I can’t even meet my own father; how can I meet a Rabbi?’
‘You’ll see’ said Mary.
So I went with them, reluctantly, every nerve in my body ready to flee at the merest hint that I’d been recognized. Mary and Joanna sensing this, kept a firm grip on my arms almost dragging me along. When we reached the house where Jesus was, there was a group outside, Priests and Levites and Pharisees, muttering and gesticulating their outrage.
I tensed. It wouldn’t be long before they worked out who I was and drove me away. But they were so intent on their horror that I passed right by without them even noticing. Inside the house, in the gloom, I glanced around in astonishment. This was not what I expected.
Gathered there were ordinary people, traders and farmers, daily laborers and, wait, surely not, some tax collectors? The crowd willingly moved up to let us in. At that moment Jesus looked straight at me ‘Dear child, he said, your sins are forgiven’. I opened my mouth to tell him that it wasn’t my fault, that Alexander had made it all up. I wanted to tell him all my hurt and my anger and my loneliness but, instead, found myself looking into his eyes and knowing myself to be complicit in it all and at the same time deeply and utterly loved. Just as I am. I didn’t need to explain. I didn’t need to be caught in Alexander’s web of accusation and cruelty any more. In an instant it was gone. I was free.
That day I began following him, with the twelve and a number of others, Mary and Joanna included. We used the money we had to help out, pay for food and lodging when he needed it. Then a few days ago we came to Jerusalem. Jesus and the twelve slept out on the sloping banks of the olive groves just below Bethany. Mary and Joanna and a few other women, including Jesus’ mother Mary, found rooms in the city. This morning, as I left the room, for some reason I felt in the bottom of my bag and pulled out my most precious possession – the alabaster jar. I stood there looking at it for a few moments.
Just then, two women came out of the next door room, laughing as they went. I’d met them when we first arrived. One was called Sarah and like us had come down from Jerusalem for the festival and the other was Anna. Her face told a tragic tale of loss and grief and loneliness, but today her eyes danced. She touched my hand briefly and gently, ‘love extravagantly, dear’ she said ‘with your whole heart, and soul and mind and strength’.
All of a sudden I knew the special day had come. I ran up the hill to Bethany, arriving sweaty and out of breath. I had to push my way into the room where they were all dining. Jesus was in the place of honour so I had to walk past them all to get to him. Before I’d have been crippled by the shame of it. But not now. Not today.
All those years I’d held onto the bottle, I’d never asked myself how to open it. You were meant to use it a few drops at a time so it must have a lid. Oh what did matter? I was going to pour it all out anyway. So I smashed the top off, a sense of joyful elation bubbling around me as I did, and I poured it. I poured it all over his head. I poured out my love and my gratitude, I poured out my joy and my freedom. I poured out my very self all over his head. It was an act of insanity but I knew that he would understand.
As the oil ran down his hair and his cheeks, down his beard and his neck, getting in his eyes and his ears as it went so he had to rub it away with his sleeve and then his other sleeve, the pungent smell filled the air.
You could hear the muttering swirl around the room as one by one they realized that the jar contained pure nard. Is she mad? That’s a year’s wages wasted. Just think of all the poor she could have helped. Someone should do something.
Jesus looked right at me, and winked. His enjoyment of what I’d just done written all over his face. ‘Oh leave her alone’ he said ‘Today, she has anointed my body for burial. I tell you wherever good news is proclaimed in all the world, what she has done will be told in memory of her’.
I skirted the outside of the room as I headed to the door, a warm glow in my heart. Jesus had received my ridiculous extravagant gift exactly as I had hoped that he might, better even he’d said it would be remembered and talked about forever. I didn’t understand what he meant about burial – I’ve never seen someone look more alive – but he often said things I didn’t understand. I stored it away.
I could hear them talking about me as I left, 'what's her name again?' asked one of them.
'Don't know, Mary, I think; said another.