This is Easter weekend, the holiest of the Christian year. Joanna was present at the crucifixion and resurrection but is often overlooked. Here is her story in her own words from More Conversations on the Porch.
I realized that I had a guest on my porch. I looked over toward the other rocking chair and said, “Hi, who are you?”
I replied, “I’m sorry, I’m not sure that I remember you.”
The woman nodded gently and said, “Maybe not. I’m only mentioned a few times in the New Testament and always with someone else.”
“Oh.” I still looked puzzled.
She began: “I guess I need to introduce myself better. My name is Joanna, which means ‘Yahweh’s gift.’ I was married to Chuza who was a steward in Herod’s palace. I’ll tell you more about that in a bit. I was healed by Jesus and became one of the women who traveled with him and helped to provide support for his ministry and our journey. I was also with Mary of Magdala and a few other women who found the tomb empty after that horrible time. I later moved to Rome with my new husband, Andronicus, but changed my name from its Hebrew version, Joanna, to its Latin form, Junia.”
I exclaimed, “Wow. You must have some wisdom and insights to share.”
She nodded and said, “Yes, I suppose I do.
“As I mentioned, I was married to Chuza. We lived in Tiberias as part of the household of Herod. The tetrarch was the son of Herod the Great who ordered all those dear baby boys killed when the star appeared in the East. He knew that the star was a sign of something that might ultimately threaten his kingdom. When he died, his three sons split up his kingdom and Herod Antipas got Judah.
“Life in the palace was…what shall I say…interesting? Chuza and I are Jewish, but being in the palace meant that we were privileged beyond the simple means of most of our fellow countrymen. In fact, most of our relatives and childhood friends hated us because Chuza, being responsible for household affairs of Herod, had to oversee the taxation of all citizens. While we lived in luxury, our neighbors lived a day-to-day existence.
“Herod was a stupid man. He fell prey to the wiles of his brother’s wife, Herodias, and so he married her. She, in turn, hated John, who baptized people, because he had criticized her so-called marriage with Herod, her brother-in-law. She plotted along with her daughter to have John killed. When I heard the chatter in the palace about what had happened, I was horrified. I think that was a wake-up call for me. If a fellow Jew could be beheaded right in the palace where I’d been living so complacently, then how safe, really, were Chuza and I?
“I worried and worried about our future so much that I began to lose my mind, I guess you’d say today. Chuza was not as concerned as I was. He liked his power and authority that he wielded as chief steward. I, on the other hand, began to fall apart, not caring for my appearance, crying uncontrollably, and not eating.
“The wife of one of the common people who delivered fruits to the household saw me one day sitting on a wall in the courtyard, pulling at my hair and weeping uncontrollably. Even though it was dangerous for her to do so, she approached me and asked if she could do something for me? I sobbed even more and said, ‘No. My life is over.’
“She continued to look at me. I finally raised my eyes and looked into hers. They were so kind and full of compassion. I must have looked puzzled as I regarded her through my tears.
“She whispered, ‘My lady, your life is not over. Maybe I should not speak of this, but there is a rabbi who is wandering the countryside, healing people and preaching the love of our Holy God. I have heard him speak. Since my encounter with him, I have been filled with joy and peace. Maybe he could heal you? ‘
“That gentle woman who risked her life to talk with me became the catalyst for the next chapter in my life. I began to listen more closely to the Jewish tradespeople who were in and out of the palace. I learned that the name of this rabbi was Jesus. Still I cried and my hair was matted and my clothes were unkempt.
“One day, I slipped out of the palace and walked with some of the peasants to the area where Jesus was reported to be preaching. Without going into detail, that connection with Jesus healed my spirit, and I began to believe that my life was not over and could have meaning beyond living in the palace of Herod.
“I spoke with Chuza about what I had experienced. He was understandably distressed. After all, he was a respected and responsible member of Herod’s household. Herod had killed John the Baptist. What would he to do to his chief steward when he found out that his steward’s wife was now becoming a follower of Jesus, who was connected with the man he had beheaded?
“Chuza loved me, but he loved his position more. He divorced me. However, he gave me my dowry, which was sizable. He was not required by law to do this, but he wanted to take care of me even while protecting himself. I understood his position and thanked him for giving me my freedom. Nevertheless, I was scared beyond any fear I’d ever experienced and yet was amazingly at peace with what was happening.
“So I left the palace with all its security and grandeur and found Jesus and his disciples. I joined the women who followed him and offered my dowry to help provide for all of us.
“I don’t know what I expected. I guess I thought that the disciples would embrace me with grateful joy because I was able to lighten their burden through my care and resources. I was wrong, however. They looked on me with suspicion. After all, I came from the political system that had beheaded John the Baptist. I belonged to the world of Herod, who made their lives miserable with his excessive taxation and resentment of their religious practices. They thought I was a spy or worse. Some probably thought I was a bored, wealthy woman who was trying to find some excitement in her life.
“The women in the group, though, understood my passion and commitment. Some of them also provided for the care of our little band. We talked as we cooked and cleaned. We each had left our former lives and cast our lot with this man, Jesus. It was highly unusual for women to leave their homes and families to follow an itinerant preacher like we were doing. Those of us with resources were considered even more suspect. Nevertheless, we knew that we were where we belonged. We knew that even though our world seemed upside down from the way we were all raised, we were doing exactly what Jesus needed and wanted us to do. That was all that mattered.
“I tell you this part of my story to encourage to you to move beyond cultural expectations when you are serving our Lord. No matter what the etiquette books say or what your family members tell you is the right thing for you, when you know and love Jesus, all those things are no longer important. You do what your heart leads you to do because of the love you feel for Jesus and because of his love for you.
“Does that make sense? Some may answer no, but for me that question deserves a resounding yes—yes to Jesus, yes to yourself, and yes to meaning and life.
“We traveled the countryside with Jesus. His teachings and healings continued to excite and challenge us. We were not sure what our futures held. It really didn’t matter, because we were with him. Life was hard, but we did not mind. We felt we were part of something bigger than ourselves. We talked in the evenings when Jesus went away from us to pray. We tried to discern what was going to happen. Mostly the women listened while the men argued about this and that. Some thought that Jesus was going to overthrow the Romans. Others thought that the crowds would raise him up as their leader, because everywhere we went multitudes followed. Some of us puzzled about the things that Jesus said to us, things that now, as we look back, were his way of trying to prepare us for what was coming. But we were thickheaded and caught up in the travels, the crowds, the teachings, and healings.
“Then we went to Jerusalem. Because we women were not allowed into certain areas of the Temple, we depended on what the men told us. I suppose you’ve heard about his interaction with the moneychangers when he overturned their tables in the Temple. At first, that did not seem like the Jesus we knew but then when we learned that he’d said, ‘It is written, “My house shall be called a house of prayer; but you are making it a den of robbers” (Matthew 12:21:1), we began to understand that this man was more than a teacher. He was also a prophet who needed to do dramatic things for us to hear God’s message to us.
“When he was crucified, I was one of the women who stood by the cross. Most of the men were not there. But we women were—as always—there to do whatever we could to relieve his sufferings. This time, we were helpless to comfort him or help him rest. After that gruesome death, we wondered what was going to happen next. We were not sure that the men would allow us to continue to travel with them. We were not even sure if the men would continue in the Jesus way. Maybe they would go back to their jobs as fishermen or tax collectors or the other worlds that Jesus had plucked them from.
“I had my own special grief to bear when I heard of Herod’s role in the murder of Jesus. I wondered what was going on with Chuza in all of this. Did he even know what had happened? Was he there? Was he safe? Was he afraid? Of course, I never found out the answers to these questions. Our lives were no longer linked, but because of my time in the palace, I felt shame with what had happened—as if I were in some way responsible. I know that’s probably crazy, but I had not been out of that life for very long and… I can’t go on. “
Joanna sighed and rocked while she composed herself again.
“We women were especially concerned about what was going to happen to us after Jesus’s death. In following him, we had cut ourselves off from being able to return to our former lives. We were truly on our own, not a comfortable place to be. Before we could deal with what was next for us, we had one more task to do for our Lord. We had to wrap his broken body in spices and ointments.
“We went to the tomb—Mary of Magdala, James’s mother Mary, some other women, and me. We found the tomb empty of his body, but these dazzling creatures of light told us that Jesus had risen from the dead. They reminded us of Jesus’s teaching about his being handed over to sinners to be crucified and that he would rise on the third day. We remembered then.
“We hurried back to the disciples to tell them the good news, but they looked at us as if we were suffering from heat stroke. You would have thought we were speaking gibberish from the way they reacted to us. Of course, eventually, they too came to believe.”
Joanna once again became silent as she remembered that time. Then she continued.
“I was part of the group who helped choose the replacement for Judas, the traitor. We were all in Jerusalem, praying on Mount Olivet. Peter said that we had to choose another, someone who had been with us from the day of Jesus’s baptism. The new apostle had to have seen Jesus after the resurrection. The names of two different men were put forth, and the apostles cast lots. Matthias was chosen.
“I began to share what I knew about Jesus to whoever would listen. Life was different, of course, than when Jesus was with us. We all were changed, each in our own way.
“Because I was comfortable being around Romans, having lived in Herod’s temple, I was at ease meeting people who were educated, had political responsibilities, or were not Jewish. When I met Andronicus, I knew that we connected in a way that was special. Andronicus, too, was a follower of Jesus. We shared our lives and our love because of who Jesus was in our lives. After we became husband and wife, we met Paul and decided to travel with him to help spread Jesus’s gospel throughout the gentile world. This made sense to us because both of us had life experiences that made us uniquely ready to talk with people who were not Jews but whose hearts had been prepared by the Holy Spirit to accept the teachings of our Lord. We traveled around the region and even went to Rome with Paul. He embraced us as fellow workers for our Lord because we had been with Christ even before he had met our Savior on that road to Damascus.
“So what can I offer to you from my life story? Be willing to leave your comfort and security when Jesus calls. I left Herod’s palace when I knew that following Jesus was the only thing that made sense to me. Also, even when you are not accepted in your role of sharing your faith because of your background—remember the disciples thought I might be a spy—do it anyway. I urge you, when the future seems unknown to you as it did to me after Jesus’s murder, trust in the Lord that your path will unfold according to God’s plan. Who could have predicted that I would meet Andronicus and we would marry and become missionaries with Paul? And finally, remember that whatever your life journey and circumstances are, those particular experiences are exactly what make you unique in God’s plan for the world. Embrace your history as you live into God’s future.”
“Dear Joanna, I’m so glad that you came for a visit. Thank you for sharing your very special and unique story with me. I’ll remember your encouragements to me.”
With that, she was gone.
Luke 8:3, Luke 24:1–12. Acts 1:12–26