Martha the Worker

Martha icon
Martha: a traditional icon

Inspired by the Gospel of John, chapters 13-17

We were all there, you know. When John told the story, he spoke about Peter and Andrew, Thomas and Philip and all the others – even Judas was in the story – but he didn’t mention us. (Not that we expected to hear our names, that wasn’t the way it was done. The women were always there, but our names were never included.)

But I ask you to think about it: who do you think cooked the supper? Yes, Jesus sent Peter and John into the city, telling them, A man carrying a jar of water will meet you; follow him, and whatever house he enters, say to the owner, “The Teacher says, `Where is a guest room where I may eat the Passover with my disciples?” He will show you a large room upstairs, furnished and ready. Make preparations for us there.

And yes, Peter and John did what Jesus told them, and they found the man with the jar of water – pretty unusual, a man carrying a water jar – and he did show them the room, and supper was prepared. But you don’t think Peter and John cooked it, do you? They knew how to fish, but they weren’t very good even at cooking fish, and lamb – well, that was beyond them.

So they called us – Mary Magdalene, and Joanna, and Mary the mother of James, and my sister Mary, and me – and we did all the work. (We even had to go out and get the water – the man with the water jar had disappeared by then.)

So they all came to supper, and they gathered around the table and we served them. It was a good meal – John didn’t mention the food because he didn’t often notice the practical things – but the lamb was delicious, the bread was just right, and the wine was the best.  And when supper was finished and we had taken away the dishes, we all came back into the room to listen to Jesus. Most of us sat in the shadows, in the back of the room, but Mary my sister and Mary Magdalene sat right at his feet. Back in those days, the Marys already knew that he wanted them there with the other disciples when he was teaching.

Then Jesus began to teach us, and this is what he did first: He got up from the table, he took off his outer robe, and he tied a towel around his waist, and he poured water into a basin, and he began washing our feet.   John told about it – how Peter didn’t want to have his feet washed –  but he didn’t say that Jesus washed our feet, too. The Teacher washing the women’s feet? It was so shocking, no wonder he didn’t write it down.

And when Jesus was done, he put his robe back on and sat down again, and he said to us,  Do you know what I have done to you? If I, your Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet – for I’ve given you this as an example.

Now I have to admit that I didn’t listen very carefully for a few minutes after that, because I started to think about the dishes that were still in the back, waiting to be washed, and all the mess we women were going to have to pick up when Jesus was done teaching.

You’re thinking that I spend a lot of time making sure that things get done, and that they get done right – and that’s true about me, but that night was a little different.  I wasn’t just worrying about the work, I was realizing that the work was important.  Jesus was saying that serving – taking care of people – was the most important thing we could do. It made me realize that everything we did – cooking the lamb, and fixing the vegetables, and baking the bread, and hauling the water, and setting up the room, and passing the plates – everything we did was serving – and we were doing it not because we had to do it, but because we loved him, and we wanted to serve him.

Well, I thought about that. I thought so hard that I stopped giving orders to the other women, and I just kept scrubbing the pots. In fact, all of us were quiet. We did our jobs, and we thought about Jesus and the men – climbing the hill, going into the olive grove, settling down to pray, knowing that the authorities were looking for him, knowing that he would be arrested any minute.

But because I wasn’t listening very carefully during the supper, I missed some of his most important words, and afterwards – after they all went out to climb the Mount of Olives and we women were washing up the dishes – I had to ask my sister Mary what he had said. And she told me: “He said, My beloved ones, I will be with you only a little longer – and where I am going, you cannot come. So I give you a new commandment: Love one another as I have loved you.”

And then I remembered: right before he went out to the Mount of Olives, he said: Love one another as I have loved you.  How can I  love like that, in the face of such danger?

I remembered that when why brother Lazarus was dying – and Jesus finally came to see us – I believed with all my heart that he was the Messiah.  But I never thought that God’s Messiah would be facing death!  How could God let that happen?  I always thought the Messiah would be in charge, not arrested and killed!

And so I asked myself again, How can I  love like that?  I don’t have love that’s that strong!  Where am I going to get that kind of strength?  Is anyone that strong?  So how are we going to love each other as he loves us?

It’s been many years since that night, and in those years we have learned to love. Or maybe I should say we have learned, again and again, how hard it is to love.  But because we love him, and because his Spirit is still with us, we try to keep on loving.

When Mary Magdalene and the other women took the message to the men – that the tomb was empty and that the angels had said he was alive – and when the men laughed at them because they were just women, we had to learn to love each other.  And that didn’t mean shutting up and loving the men anyway – we had an important message, we had to speak up – and they had to learn that they needed to listen to us, too.  And that’s hard in a  community – some people always think they’re more important than others, they think they’re the ones people should listen to.

When the Gentiles wanted to join the community – and their men didn’t want to be  circumcised and their women didn’t want to learn to cook in the Jewish way (my Lord, they took the pots that we had used to cook lamb and made yogurt in them!), and Peter came and told us that no food was unclean anymore, that we could eat anything, and that the Gentiles didn’t have to learn our way of doing things as long as they loved Jesus – well, we had to learn to love each other.

So when the women wouldn’t listen to me – and I’ve been cooking kosher all my life – I had to learn to love them anyway – and they had to learn to love me. And that’s hard in a community – having to learn that people are more important than rules.

And that was the hardest thing of all: the changes! Everything changed that night we were at supper together. It wasn’t just the Teacher washing the disciples’ feet. It wasn’t even his  washing the women’s feet, shocking as that was. It was everything:  Jesus getting arrested – and being killed on the cross, and then shocking us again by coming back in his Risen Spirit, and constantly, constantly telling us through his Spirit to do things differently, to do things a new way, to bring new people in, on and on and on…. So many changes, my head hurts thinking about them.

My sister Mary told me something else Jesus said that night:  If you love me, you will keep my commandments. And I will ask my Father, and he will give you another Helper, to be with you forever. That Helper is the Spirit of Truth, and you will know her [*] because she lives with you, and she will be in you. When the Spirit of Truth comes to you, she will guide you into all the truth; for she will not speak on her own, but will speak whatever she hears.

[* In Aramaic, the language Jesus and Martha spoke, spirit (rucha, ruach) is feminine.]

So the Spirit came, and after that everything kept on changing. And every time we were led to another change, we argued with each other. And after we  argued, we had to learn to love again, to listen to one  another, to pray together, to ask his Spirit for help.

So far, I haven’t had to die, as he did – as Peter did, as James did. So many are gone, but I’m still alive, still scrubbing the pots, still getting the work done. But, you know, a part of me has had to die – the part that’s always right, the part that knows how things have always been done – that part of me has had to die. And that’s the worst thing of all:   Have you ever noticed that in every community there’s always someone who knows best, someone who knows Jesus’ way, someone who even tries to speak for Jesus? Someone who thinks that Jesus thinks the same way he does – or she does? That was me. When I knew the right thing, then I just knew that Jesus must agree with me.  And I was wrong so many times.

Now I finally understand – I  have to pray for help, just like all the others.  I  have to listen, like all the others.  have to change, like all the others. It’s hard, trying to love people the way Jesus loved us. But when you love like that – that’s when you know he’s with you. And there’s nothing, nothing better in all the world than knowing he’s with you.

So let’s get to work – the food is ready to put on the tables.  But before we get to the food, let’s get to work. And the work before us is learning how to love – as he loves us.

For more about Martha, go to

Martha and her sister Mary:  Luke 10:38-42
Martha at home with Mary and Lazarus: John 11:1 – John 12:2
Martha the practical one: Luke 10:38, John 11:39, John 12:2
Martha’s confession of faith:  John 11:17-27


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *