The Widow of Nain
As part of her series on the women of the Gospels Rachel Held Evans recently posted this retelling I wrote of the story of the Widow of Nain. I’m reposting the story here and I encourage my readers to follow the series of posts at her blog!
“Soon afterwards he went to a town called Nain, and his disciples and a large crowd went with him. As he approached the gate of the town, a man who had died was being carried out. He was his mother’s only son, and she was a widow; and with her was a large crowd from the town. When the Lord saw her, he had compassion for her and said to her, ‘Do not weep.’ Then he came forward and touched the bier, and the bearers stood still. And he said, ‘Young man, I say to you, rise!’ The dead man sat up and began to speak, and Jesus gave him to his mother. Fear seized all of them; and they glorified God, saying, ‘A great prophet has risen among us!’ and ‘God has looked favorably on his people!’ This word about him spread throughout Judea and all the surrounding country.” – Luke 7:11-17
At first I thought it was strange that the town gathered to mourn my son. All these years later and I still feel like an outsider, not really one of them. Granted, I grew up just down the road from here in Endor. I saw the same solitary dome of Mount Tabor looming in the distance when I would go to fetch water from the well there as I do here in Nain, but still it is different.
It was a difference I felt sharply when my husband first brought me here as his young bride. What I had always thought was a short walk to the neighboring town when I would accompany my father on the journey, suddenly became the other side of the world. Not that my husband mistreated me or that I protested our marriage, just that I knew I was no longer home. The other women in town knew each other already. They would walk to the well together or spend the morning pleasantly chatting as they gathered to do the wash. I was the inept young bride who didn’t even know how to fashion a new needle when my old one splintered. Oh, the mending I had to do once I finally got a new one!
It wasn’t until my belly started to swell with child that I began to feel a part of the community. It’s hard for the women not to get involved when they see that one in their midst is expecting – especially when it is her first. At first it was casual – someone dropping by with a handful of herbs she had happened upon that were supposed to help with the incessant nausea or backaches. Soon it became long chats as each and every one of them felt it was her duty to tell me the gory details of her birthing experiences. Goodness knows why any woman would ever want to have children after hearing all those stories, but somewhere in the midst of hearing Miriam confessing that she thought she was giving birth to a demon instead of baby and Hannah warning me for the fourth or fifth time to make sure the child suckles on both sides if I didn’t want to be crippled with pain – I became one of them. In the camaraderie of women’s shared experience Nain finally accepted me as one of their own.
It was that acceptance that later allowed me to survive. My son was a healthy young lad, a blessing to our house, but the two daughters I bore since never made it through their first winters. It was that long winter that took our second daughter that claimed my husband as well. And once again I felt utterly alone. The horror stories of childbirth were nothing compared to this. The very act of putting food on the table became a near insurmountable task. As the bitter winter raged on and death surrounded us all, for the first time I understood why those women with the ragged clothes and hollow eyes would dare defile themselves with man after man. Yet somehow it never came to that for me. I don’t doubt that I would have done anything to feed my son, but the women of Nain wouldn’t let one of their own starve.
Granted, nothing was ever again the same. I wasn’t like them anymore. Instead I was the one to be pitied – but at least we survived. My son, young as he was, always found there was a stable to be cleaned for a coin. And the women who I once would laugh and share stories with were always willing to pass on their mending to me in exchange for the occasional jar of oil or loaf of bread. Once again I was an outsider of sorts, but it mattered far less that it had before. Making it through each day became my goal.
When my son was finally old enough to learn a trade, I began to breathe a little easier. Once he could earn a living, we wouldn’t have to live in constant fear wondering where our next meal would come from. I say I trust in the Lord to provide, but despite the generosity of Nain, the question always remained as to when that well too would dry up. It is hard to have faith when despite the pity and the charity, you feel so alone. So it wasn’t until my son was able to work that I dared have hope again. It was more than just knowing we would survive. With his support, I wouldn’t be just a widow anymore, but perhaps could spend time with the other women instead of just taking in their mending.
So when he too was taken from me my world came to an abrupt end. Now I was completely alone. I think I might have laughed when some of the women once again stopped by with herbs for his body and they told me to muster up the courage of Jael to face the difficult road ahead. If only survival was as easy as driving a tent peg through the head of the enemy commander fleeing down neighboring Mount Tabor. Perhaps the women who have never had to question if they belong here can find strength in the tales of old, but I doubted even faith could sustain me now.
So when the town gathered to help me bury my son it felt odd to be surrounded by those to whom I must now entrust my life. We had managed to survive before, but now without the boy to feed I wondered if they would be so eager to provide for me alone. The loss of my beloved son compounded by these fears consumed me with grief. As his body was carried out of town for burial, I could not help but wail in despair and angry. How could God forget me so? Was I as much of an outsider to God as I was in Nain?
Yet even as my faith crumbled in the face of my grief, something amazing happened.
We had just carried my son’s body outside of the town gate when we encountered a traveling teacher and his disciples. I doubt I would have noticed them, but this teacher came right up to us, halting our progress. And then he commented on my grief. Someone must have told him I was a widow who had just lost her only son, for he seemed to genuinely care about my plight. I half expected him to offer some hollow words of comfort or press a coin into my palm without quite looking me in the eye like a few others had done. Instead he looked at me and seemed to understand – not just my loss but it almost seemed like he knew how utterly alone I felt. And then with deep compassion that went far beyond awkward pity, he told me not to weep and he walked over to my son’s bier and touched it.
A few people gasped at how seemingly oblivious he was to the purity laws, but their concern was quickly dwarfed by what happened next: For the moment he touched the bier, my son sat up and started talking to him!
I was too stunned to speak, my sobs caught in my throat. One of the bearers nearly dropped his side of the bier breaking the tension of the moment. The teacher, laughing, then helped my son down and brought him over to me. All I could do was embrace my son, weeping all over again – this time with tears of relief and joy. Everyone was in awe of this teacher, calling him a prophet and proclaiming that he had brought God’s favor among us. But no one understood the magnitude of that favor more than I. My son and my ability to survive were restored to me – surely I had been blessed.
Like Hagar cast off into the wilderness, God saw me in my isolation and looked with favor on the lowliness of even one like me. I wasn’t forgotten or merely treated with pity, God accepted me even in my grief and despair. I finally felt like I belonged.