“And after she had said this, she [Martha] went back and called her sister aside. “The Teacher is here,” she said, “and is asking for you.” When Mary heard this she got up quickly and went to him.” John 11:28-29 (NIV)
My sister is the best. You might have a sister as good as mine but I’d be willing to bet you won’t find a better one. She’s sweet, beautiful and smart. She’s a naturopathic doctor, a classically trained singer, and a massage therapist. She is also an outstanding cook and baker. Her only flaw is she lives too far away. She definitely the best sister for ME. Every year on her birthday I thank my Mom for having her.
There isn’t much emphasis on sisterhood in the Bible. You have Leah and Rachel, who were literally sister wives. (Probably not much love lost between those two.) And you have Mary and Martha, maybe they didn’t have the same definition of hospitality, but at least they were both agreed on Jesus being awesome, so they have some common ground. There’s Ruth, who had a sister-in-law, but Orpah bailed when things got tough. There are definitely a few verse where it is indicated that a sister is a good thing, but if a girl is looking for positive examples to follow she will be hardpressed.
My experience of having a sister goes like this: I remember the night/morning my sister was born. I wasn’t even four yet. I was staying the night with my Grandma while Mom and Dad were at the hospital. Sunce it was a Saturday night Grandma didn’t have to work the next day so the timing of her arrival was pretty good. There was a phone call, I don’t remember the time it was but it was still dark. I am sure it was my Dad calling to say that the baby was a girl and both she and my Mom were okay.
( Me holding my baby sister at my Grandma’s house. )
The next day Grandma and I went to the hospital to meet her. I vaguely remember holding her. I don’t remember feeling any strong emotions. I also don’t remember much of her early days. What I do remember is when she got old enough to be annoying. I really thought she was a brat. She broke my crayons and flattened the tips of my markers. She wanted whatever I had and wanted to go everywhere I went.
She cried and screamed when she didn’t get her way. (Those screams were LEGENDARY. My ears are still ringing a little I think.) She was a bit of drama queen. I am talking full out throwing herself to the floor and screaming. She was really amazing at it.
( Me and my sister, about the time she would have been smashing the tips on my markers. )
We did play together sometimes. I remember pretending that the floor was lava or shark infested waters and jumping from furniture island to cushion island. I remember teaching her to roller skate. I remember styling her hair into a outrageous creation of a pony tail that stood about eight inches straight up from her head. I used every pony tail holder we owned.
I also remember times when I refused to play. I remember slapping her in anger and then begging and bribing her not to tell on me. (I don’t think she ever did tell.) We had a reoccurring fight at my door whenever I wanted to be in my bedroom by myself. It usually ended with her fingers getting shut in the door when I won the pushing contest from my side. My mom finally informed me that if I shut my sister’s fingers in the door one more time, she would shut my fingers in the door. (Looking back, I am not sure how she would have accomplished that without my willing cooperation, but I believed her.) So I just took to shoving my sister as far down the hallway as I could before I slammed my door in her face. This method worked well. No more smashed fingers and I still got to be alone in my room. I thought I was pretty smart for coming up with it.
I certainly was not a very good big sister in the beginning. I was especially mean when it came to protecting my alone time or my markers. When I look back, I feel sorry for my sister as a kid. She wasn’t really a brat, she was just a toddler. I couldn’t understand what that meant. For the first ten years of her life she was “just my sister”.
I did love her. I would have hated the guts of anyone who hurt her. (Except me, of course.) I hung out with her when it suited me or when there was no one else to play with and we had fun. Or at least I did. I used my company as a trump card to make her play the way I wanted to play. After all, I could easily go do any number of things rather than play with her. I am ashamed of my younger self now. Younger me needs to slapped.
Almost magically, when she was in fifth grade and I was about fourteen, she became a person to me. She also become a person I liked. Of course, she was always a person, but I couldn’t see her that way. One day she made an observant and funny remark at the right moment. I don’t even remember what she said or what it was about. But I remember laughing and thinking, “Hey, she’s pretty cool.” (By no means was this the end of all our conflicts but it was a big turning point for me.)
She was no longer “just my sister”. She had become “MY sister”. I liked her (most of the time) and I was always proud of her. She was popular, funny, talented and smart. I started noticing strengths she had that I didn’t and admiring her for them. For example: She seemed to fit in anywhere you put her and she made friends quickly; She had big dreams, like becoming a doctor; and she didn’t waste time on homesickness when we went to camp.
We grew up a little at a time. I grew up first. I left her behind. First I left for college. A couple of years later I moved out, against my parents wishes and without their knowledge of my plan. I gathered my friends, a box of trash bags, and a truck. I let myself in my parent’s basement door (my room was down there) and started removing my possessions from the house as quickly as I could. I was expecting a confrontation and I wanted to get my stuff or as much of it as possible out before that happened. It took longer than I expected for the confrontation to happen. I actually ended up going upstairs to tell them that I was leaving. They had no idea what was happening below them. I didn’t know at the time, but when we began moving me out they were not even at home.
Sadly my sister was. I hadn’t told her anything about what I was going to do. She was 16. She watched through a window as my friends and I made trips back and forth to the truck with trash bags of my stuff. I had no idea. I was so eager to get away from my parents that I didn’t even stop to think how it would make my sister feel when I left.
And that, Ladies and Gentlemen, is a really good example of how I, as an adult, was a crappy sister. But guess what? My sister didn’t repay me for the hurt I caused her. She loved me as hard as ever. She was kind to me even when my mother and I could barely have a conversation. She came to my place when I was still afraid to go home to visit. She talked to me. She brushed my hair. She didn’t tell me for years how I hurt her heart when I moved out.
She was a good sister. She was loyal, kind, and as supportive as she knew how to be. I loved her before, I liked her before; now she had my heart. I made up my mind I wanted to be closer to her and to spend more time with her. It would be easier now that I wasn’t out of town at college.
I succeeded for a while in my plan and it was good. We hung out more. We even jogged together for a while. I wasn’t perfect. I wasn’t always as kind as I could have been. But I loved her and I tried to be a good sister. I made her important in my life. I was enjoying her so much that I even started to look forward to my brothers getting old enough that I could be friends with them too. Then, only about a year and a half after I moved out, my family moved to another state, about a nine hours drive away.
And just like that my sister was swept away from me. There would be no more casually hanging out and certainly no more chance of “Let’s get coffee,” or “I’ll meet you at the movie theater.” This time it was her turn to leave me behind. I was was sad. I missed her. Mercifully, I didn’t have the foresight to comprehend the actual magnitude of my loss and when I finally did I was used to her being far away.
So we talked on the phone sometimes and I saw her when my family came back to visit me a few times a year. I drove up to stay with them a few times. Life went on for both of us. My sister went to college and earned two bachelor’s degrees concurrently, while also participating in a sorority and working two (sometimes three) jobs while she did it. I admired her stamina. I never could have done it all.
As the years passed, I tried to stay as close to her as I could. We both had our own lives. I listened jealously to her mentions of her friends at school and then at work, those lucky people who could see her and be with her all the time. It took me a while to grow up enough to realize that I was not anymore replaceable for her than she was for me. Our visits became precious, precious times. I tried to squeeze as much sister love as I could into a day or two.
Eventually I got married. (She she was a bridesmaid and she sang beautifully during the lighting of the unity candle.) A few years later my husband and I bought a house and my sister went back to school to study Naturopathic Medicine. We were both busy, she more than me. When she was at Med School she was geographically closer to me, but much less available to me, even just to talk on the phone. It was not her fault, my availability was small also, as I worked third shift and was asleep most of the day. I visited her maybe two or three times, and one of those times was for her graduation. It was definitely a sister drought for both of us.
At her graduation I was about seven weeks pregnant and afterward my life became crazy busy with appointments. She jumped right back into classes to get her massage therapy license. We were far apart and out of touch much of the time. After my son was born, she came to stay with us for a while. It was nice. I just wanted to stare at her all the time, it was hard to believe she was really right there with me in my house. I watched her knitting nearby while I nursed; I watched her cooking me food; I watched her holding my baby. It was more than nice. It was incredibly good.
Most people know the story of Mary and Martha where Jesus came to their house and Martha ran around like a chicken trying to be a perfect hostess while Mary planted herself at Jesus’s feet. Then Martha complains to Jesus about her sister not helping and Jesus straightens out her priorities. Almost everyone has also heard the story of Jesus raising Lazurus from the dead. But you won’t often hear a sermon mention Mary’s and Martha’s relationship in that story. But I when I was looking for sisterhood in the scriptures, I noticed there is a little story about Mary and Martha in the Lazurus story.
The story goes that Lazarus was seriously ill. The sisters sent for Jesus but He delayed His arrival. Lazarus dies four days before Jesus ever makes it to Bethany. When Martha hears Jesus has finally shown up, she heads out to see Him. When she reaches Him, she makes two statements:
- Lord,if you had been here,my brother would not have died.
- But I know that even now God will give you whatever you ask. John 11:21-22 (NIV).
Jesus tells her that her brother will be resurrected but she’s underwhelmed. Of course, Lazarus will rise again, “at the last day.” Then Jesus lays the gospel on Martha, saying, “I am the resurrection and the life. He Who believes in me will live, even though he dies; and whoever lives and believes in me will never die.” (John 11:25-26) (NIV). And then He asks her a question, perhaps the most important question ever, “Do you believe this?”. She answers that she absolutely does.
Now here’s the part I love to notice: After she talks to Jesus, Martha goes straight home and gets her sister, Mary. Martha goes to Mary, pulls her aside from the other mourners, and tells her that Jesus is asking for her. Mary who had decided she would rather not go to Jesus when He arrived. This is the same Mary who had devotedly planted herself at His feet and refused to get up. That same woman had decided she would rather stay home than go to see Jesus.
We don’t know a lot about this family outside of these two stories. I wonder why Mary, Martha and Lazurus live together as adults. I wonder where their parents are and why none of them seem to be married. I wonder also how old they were when they know Jesus. I have always imagined them a close to Jesus’s age, but they could easily have been younger or even much older. Obviously both sisters loved their brother very much, they wouldn’t have been so upset over his death if they didn’t. I wonder what kind of position it was leaving them in, as Jewish women in that time in history, losing their brother. Probably not a good one.
Imagine being best friends with Jesus during his ministry, but when your brother gets sick, Jesus doesn’t show up to heal him. You know He knew about it and you know He easily could have come in time. Instead, He shows up four days after your brother is dead. Can you see why Mary felt like staying home?
It seems like Martha spoke with Jesus and after that she knew that more than anything Mary needed to see Him too. Mary needed a little push. She needed to hear, “Hey, Sis, Jesus is here and He is asking for you.” Just hearing that was enough to move Mary to go to Him. John said she went quickly. She left so suddenly that the other mourners ran after her. They thought she must be heading for her brother’s tomb.
When Mary got to Jesus, she fell weeping at His feet. She cried out to Him, saying, “Lord if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” (John 11:32) (NIV) Not a pretty scene perhaps, but now that Mary had come to Him, Jesus could help her.
Remember when Martha talked to Jesus before Lazarus died? Jesus told her that she was worried about many things, but “only one thing is needed.” That one thing was simply being with Him. She must have been listening. You can bet that the worries she had in her mind were much worse having lost her brother than when she didn’t have help hosting company. This time when Jesus came to town, she left a house full of mourners and she made a bee line straight for Him. She had learned what was needed.
I think what we see Martha do here is the best example of how to be a good sister that we have in the Bible. First get yourself right with the Lord and then go back for your hurting sister and do what is needed to get her to Him. Give her a little push. Remind her that He is there and wants to see her.
Nudging each other toward Jesus is certainly not just for blood sisters. It is something all women believers should do for each other as sisters in Christ. There are so many ways to serve each other and show our love: Speaking a kind word, giving a sincere complement, really listening, bringing food, giving a shoulder rub, babysitting for an afternoon–the possibilities are endless.
But first we need to love each other enough that we are paying attention to our sisters so that we notice–when they are down, hurting, isolating themselves, or maybe even angry with God–when they need us. This can be difficult, the paying of attention. You have to keep in touch because social media and Sunday mornings never tell the whole story. Certainly we must also be listening for that unexpected tug on your heart or the seemingly random turn of thought to a sister that comes from the Spirit of God.
Sometimes a call is in order, sometimes a visit. Sometimes the right love applied at the right time and you can nudge a sister toward Christ without even mentioning His name. Sometimes you need to go to your sister and have a “come to Jesus” conversation. (But please note, Martha didn’t command Mary to go Jesus. She just told Mary the Master asked to see her.) Listen to the Spirit, then use your intuition, use your strength, and use your empathy; the work of sistering requires a woman’s touch.
My sister and I have been able to see each other more often since the baby came. There has been more actual talking in person and lots of hugging. She cooks for us and stocks my freezer with delicious food when she comes to stay AND she even gives me massages. (Be jealous, she’s amazing). But most of our sistering is still done over the phone. She doesn’t call me much unless she’s calling me back. But that makes sense since I’m the one juggling more balls at the moment. I need support more often and I’m less available to answer an incoming call. She’s still a good sister–definitely the best sister for me. She always shows up for me and reminds me what is needed. I try to do the same for her.