Reflections for the Sixth Sunday after Pentecost
I want to meditate with you on the middle part of today’s reading from Mark: the interruption in the healing of Jairus’s daughter, when a woman breaks into Jesus’ attention and into the story.
First, I want to talk about a way we often think about this story that, is, I think, a problem for the church. Then, I want to point to a way that I think this story goes right to our experience of suffering and hope. And last, I want to look hard at the way we see Jesus in this story.
Its common for this passage to be preached and understood as an example of Jesus crossing religious boundaries to redeem the dignity of a outcast woman.
It goes like this: because the woman had a flow of blood, she was perpetually ritually unclean, and probably marginalized by her community.
By touching Jesus, she committed a significant offense, transmitting her ritual impurity to him, making him unclean. Jesus apparently couldn’t care less about this
and has therefore, yet again, dismissed the ritual life of religious Judaism.
But here’s the thing: ritual impurity never gets mentioned in the passage.
There’s not much evidence to suggest that women were, in any meaningful way, isolated or shamed or shunned because of bleeding. And, really, that stands to reason. People just about couldn’t avoid ritual impurity in the normal course of everyday life.
If you were touched by a person with her kind of ritual unclean-ness, you became unclean only until sunset—not the end of the world. And if she has washed her hands in water, she wouldn’t have transmitted impurity at all. Being ritually clean mattered to Jews—it just doesn’t seem to matter very much in this story. And we can see the profound way in which Jesus affirms the dignity of this woman—God enfleshed calls her daughter!—without throwing her culture under the bus.
So, lets put that aside.
Its also common for this passage to be understood as a teaching about the power of faith. In this way of reading, the woman is the center of the story. And, in some ways, she is the center of the story—the person we connect with. The woman who has been loosing blood; loosing station—Mark tells us she had given all she had to physicians, which means this illness has slowly devoured her prosperity;
loosing hope—she has suffered much under physician after physician, trying remedy after course of remedy, and had only gotten worse. She’s is dying in slow motion
and she is desperate. And as the crowd moves with Jesus on his way to Jairus’ house,
she seizes her moment to reach out and touch him, because she has seen enough of Jesus to believe—in spite of everything that has happened to her, every dashed hope—
that even a touch will heal her.
But what about the part of the story that, maybe, we least know how to make sense of:
the picture of Jesus himself. The crowd moves together, and the woman wends her way toward Jesus from behind. She touches his cloak, and knows immediately that she is healed; the bleeding ceases. And here is what Mark writes:
“Immediately aware that power had gone forth from him,
Jesus turned about in the crowd and said,
“Who touched my clothes?”
Jesus didn’t decide to heal her. She didn’t winningly plead for mercy, or convince him of her faith. A woman who has, in a real way, lost control of her own body—a body that bleeds and will not stop—touches Jesus and discovers he is not exactly in control of his body either. She touches him, and power goes forth from him.
In the same way that the woman was immediately aware that something had happened in her body—that the flow of blood had stopped—Jesus was immediately aware that power had left him.
All he knows is that someone, among all the people pressed and jostling alongside him, has touched him in a way that has claimed something from him.
“Who touched my clothes?”
He doesn’t know. He looks and he waits until the woman, awestruck and trembling, falls before him. She tells him the truth, and he tells her the truth: your faith has made you well. Then he tells her to go and be healed of your disease, which isn’t him deciding to heal her— that already happened. Jesus probably telling her “go, now that the bleeding has ceased; begin the seven days wait that Leviticus demands,
and then be washed and give a sacrifice of thanksgiving. Then live your life, healed.”
But she was made well when the power went out of him. And there seems to have been no boundary in, or around Jesus to limit or control how he received her when she came to him. But he was no less God in that moment.
Its never been easy for the Church to be at peace with the plain and concrete sense of this story. Because Jesus is so vulnerable here–things are taken from him.
But what if that’s the point for us.
Imagine—really, imagine now—how it would feel to learn that people who knew you thought about you, and spoke about you, as weak. Some of us would rather almost anything. Many of us would be debased rather than be thought of as weak. We want to be strong. We want to be masters of ourselves and of circumstances; we think about strength as the capacity to exert control—to dominate—rather than be controlled. We are drawn to that kind of strength, and we long to see it reflected in ourselves.
If we let it, I think this story opens up our eyes to see that even as Jesus was been going about astonishing with power, he is crowded, and claimed ceaselessly;
he can stop the storm on the sea, and he is almost defenseless. Jesus is not his own possession; and he is completely free to love.