Every Nook and Cranny: How Smell Reveals Jesus

Six days before the Passover Jesus came to Bethany, the home of Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead. There they gave a dinner for him. Martha served, and Lazarus was one of those at the table with him. Mary took a pound of costly perfume made of pure nard, anointed Jesus’ feet, and wiped them with her hair. The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume. But Judas Iscariot, one of his disciples (the one who was about to betray him), said, “Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii and the money given to the poor?” (He said this not because he cared about the poor, but because he was a thief; he kept the common purse and used to steal what was put into it.) Jesus said, “Leave her alone. She bought it so that she might keep it for the day of my burial. You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.”

John 12:1-8

My sermon from the Fifth Sunday in Lent (April 3, 2022) on John 12:1-8.


A couple weeks ago, the Paris Review of Books, published a conversation between three scholars about how to choose a perfume. They talked about the power of gimmicks, how weird perfume commercials actually are, and how not everyone gets to choose their smells. Our sense of smell is the most sensitive of our senses and its one we process almost spontaneously. When we smell, the odor enters into our bodies which we then respond to in a very embodied way. Smells do more than just tell us if something is sweet or stinky. They also remind us we don’t live in a void or a vacuum. In the words of Jude Stewart even, “air’s existence… becomes palpable because smells ride on air.” Smells extend our environment, connecting us to a world that’s much bigger than what’s in front of us. Smells also have the power to collapse time, transporting us into the past while keeping us rooted in the present. A sniff of a cherry pie, the scent of an ocean breeze, and even the fragrance of a flower in bloom can connect us to those moments and the people that changed us. Smells can announce our arrival before we enter the room and they grow, change, and evolve depending on what other smells they run into. And overtime the intensity of a smell drops off unless it was cause by a 3 year old who emptied an entire bottle of perfume in her room one spray at a time. We know how powerful our sense of smell can be because when we lose it, either through age or accident or an illness like COVID-19, our engagement with our lives fundamentally changes. It’s difficult to put into words the totality of smells and our sense of smell. Yet we know how smells soak into every nook and cranny around us. Smells have their own potent kind of power which might be why the gospel of John was very specific in our reading today about the kind of smell that interrupted a dinner party for Jesus. 

Now the story about Jesus being anointed with perfume appears in all four gospels. Jesus, while at a dinner, ends up being interrupted by a woman with a jar of expensive perfume. After she pours it on him, the disciples and other guests in the room tend to get a bit ornery. Jesus, in response, simply says to leave her alone. Jesus, while very much alive, experienced a ritual typically reserved for a person after death. This general outline fits every version of this story. Yet I’ve often found that it’s in the difference where we discover a bit of what this story might mean. Three of the gospels place this story in the village of Bethany, 2 miles outside of Jerusalem. The dinner party was held in either the home of an unnamed Pharisee, a leper named Simon, or in the home of Lazarus and his sisters. The perfume, typically identified as nard, is always described as expensive but only John says it was worth nearly a year’s worth of wages. Both Matthew and Mark describe the woman pouring the perfume over Jesus’ head, soaking his entire body, while Luke and John limit the action to only his feet. In the other three gospels, the woman is never named. But John, however, chose to give us a name. With that name, he also gave us an entire story. And so the Mary we meet is a sister who just a chapter before sent word to Jesus that her brother was ill. 

By the time Jesus arrived at their home, Lazarus had already died. He stood outside the tomb and cried. He wept for his friend, showing us that grief, tears, and sadness aren’t things unknown to God. And after expressing with his body just how much Lazarus meant to him, Jesus then told him to come out. Jesus didn’t stick around very long with Lazarus’ family and soon headed towards a village far away. But when the holiday of Passover drew near, Jesus turned and returned to Jerusalem. When he neared the city, Mary, Martha, and Lazarus invited him over for dinner to do all the things we do when we share a meal with a beloved family friend. As the meal stretched on, Mary left the table to retrieve a very expensive bottle of nard. And when she returned, she did for Jesus that one thing she had actually done for her brother just mere weeks before. 

Now imagine what that moment must have felt like for everyone in that room. The smell would have reminded them of one of those most awful experiences they had lived through. The grief and sorrow that filled their soul while they watched their brother grow ill would have been mimicked by how that scent seemed to fill every nook and cranny in the room. Martha and Mary would have remembered pouring the perfume over their brother’s body and how its smell changed as it gradually soaked into his skin. Once Lazarus was sealed in this tomb, the smells had nowhere else to go. Everything would have lingered in the air with the expectation no one would sniff that specific combination of smells ever again. But when Jesus told Lazarus to come out, the first thing Lazarus’ body would have processed was the smell. From that point on, the smell of nard would have been permanently connected to that moment in his story. Lazarus knew what that smell was used for. Yet he also experienced a new promise where, in the words of Rev. Karoline Lewis, “the life that God provides will be present even in the reality of death.” Later, while gathered around a shared table, that promise sat with them too. The smell of nard still represented what it was typically used for. Yet because Jesus was there, it reaffirmed their connection to love that would never end. 

We might not have a story like Mary, Martha, and Lazarus where the promise given by God was made palpable in a way others could see. We might feel as if our life exists in its own kind of void – one empty of connection, healing, wholeness, and a sense that all of this has meaning. I’ll admit that I sometimes feel lost, especially when the horrors of war, violence, anger, and fear reveal how talented we are at being as unloving and hurtful as possible. I wish we all had the opportunity to sit at a table with Jesus to let his presence soak into every nook and cranny in our world. We need his love and grace to be more than something hanging in the air. We need it to be palpable, tangible, and real – like a smell reminding us what’s always around us. And that’s one reason why we have baptism and faith. It’s why we were given the ability to pray; to worship; and to belong to the community that God knows can’t be what it’s supposed to be without us. We need reminders, especially when we doubt, or question, or find ourselves overwhelmed by what’s around us, how God’s love is what truly holds us through. It’s why we have a table – the Lord’s table – where we are welcomed and fed not because we are perfect or because we know everything the Lord’s supper is about. We are included because we are loved. It’s a love we haven’t earned or one we’re entitled to. It is, instead, a love freely given because that’s who God is. At this table – one that extends to wherever and whenever you are – you are gifted a promise that makes you brand new as it soaks into every nook and cranny of your imperfect, but fully known, life.