As the recent news headlines about bird flu have proved, illness makes people afraid. In France and Germany some people have even stopped feeding garden birds and have taken down their nest boxes. This may be daft but it's just an ordinary human reaction.
When we hear that someone else is poorly, the first thing we usually ask ourselves is, 'Can I catch it?' And even if the answer is, 'No, ' still some of us feel uncomfortable about visiting sick people. Perhaps that's because illness reminds us how fragile we are. It shakes the illusion that health and fitness can be taken for granted.
Leprosy is a serious illness and in Jesus' day there was no cure for it. Although, like bird flu, it isn't particularly contagious – people took no chances. They were afraid of leprosy and they stayed well away from anyone who had it. The fact that Jesus went to the house of Simon the Leper is interesting in itself. 
Had Jesus healed Simon's leprosy? Was this a celebration or a thank-you party? Or was this the house where Simon used to live, until he had to leave because he was ill? It's even possible that, when Jesus went to share this meal, Simon was the host and he still had leprosy. Most people would have refused to visit him, let alone eat with him, but Jesus was never afraid of being with people who were ill. He touched them, ate with them, talked with them and gave them comfort.
While they were eating, along came the unnamed woman. In another story – or is it a different version of the same story – a woman pours perfume on his dusty feet and wipes them clean with her hair. Here, the woman seems a bit more restrained, but only just!
Little stone jars made from alabaster were a favourite way of carrying perfumes and ointments in the ancient world. Once they were filled, the lid was sealed with wax to stop the jar from leaking. Although alabaster is fairly brittle, and she could easily have broken the jar itself, it's probably the seal which the woman broke open when she poured the oil over Jesus' head.
And what about the contents – the costly ointment of nard? Nard is a plant which grows naturally in India. From its roots perfumers extracted an oil which they mixed with various other ingredients to create twelve highly sought-after fragrances.
In the Song of Songs we are told that a bride would dab herself with a few drops of nard on her wedding night. We also know that Horace, a famous Roman poet, was so keen to get his own little alabaster jar of nard that he offered to give a whole cask of his most expensive wine in exchange for it. (A cask, in case you're wondering, is a barrel which holds the equivalent of 304 bottles of wine.) St Mark says the ointment of nard was worth even more than this – about the same as a year's wages for an elite Roman soldier.
Consider for a moment how bold it was for a woman to walk into someone's house, in the middle of a meal, and empty a jar of ointment – any ointment – all over the head of a rabbi. And then consider the sheer extravagance of using so much costly perfume when a few drops would have filled the room with its fragrance. And finally, imagine the stir it would cause if people realised that this was a perfume usually associated with romance. No wonder the onlookers scolded her.
I guess they expected Jesus to agree with them. Of course, he would never have upbraided her, or bullied or tried to humiliate her, but a gentle ticking off might have seemed in character. After all, he had told the woman caught in the act of committing adultery that she must not sin again. He had condemned all kinds of attention seeking behaviour. And, on many occasions, he had encouraged people to give generously to the poor.
Imagine everyone's amazement, then, when Jesus affirmed and encouraged the woman. Yet, perhaps this wasn't entirely unpredictable. She may have been wealthy, but her unconventional behaviour had made her very vulnerable, and Jesus naturally sides with the underdog and with anyone honest enough to reveal their true feelings.
The way he responds also uncovers something much deeper. It is evident that Jesus felt she was not simply meeting her own need to show affection. Probably without even knowing it, she was also responding to his sense of vulnerability and need.
As we approach any frightening or troubling event, we all need comfort, reassurance and support. Jesus seems to have had a premonition that he would die alone – abandoned by his friends and feeling abandoned by God. By her flamboyant act of generosity and love, the unknown woman helps him to feel that he will not die unmourned. Even if it does not feel like it when the time comes, her kindness to him will remind Jesus that some people care very deeply about what is happening to him.
On this occasion, the poor went hungry, but there is more to helping other people than simply spending money on them. We also need to help them tell their story. This unknown woman, who was scolded for wasting money which could have been given to the poor, was the first person to recognise what Jesus was about to go through, and the only person to get alongside him and help him tell his story. It was a story of sorrow and suffering which his other friends and followers did not want to hear. But it was also a story about sharing and sacrifice – a story about good coming out of evil and triumphing over it. This is why what she did is told in remembrance of her, wherever the good news about Jesus is proclaimed.
 Mark 14.1-9