About five years ago the movie Crash crashed onto the screen and took the Best Picture award at the Oscars. The film deals with the pain and complexity of racism – blatant and unconscious – that persists in our time. In this case, the city of LA is the chosen setting to watch it unfold. One of the powerful aspects of the film is that we are allowed to witness the experiences of seemingly unconnected lives – among them a wealthy housewife, her district attorney husband, a Persian shopkeeper, two cops, a pair of carjackers and a Korean couple. Over the course of the film these lives crash together in unpredictable ways. Common to each encounter is this reality of cultural/racial/ethnic stereotype, misunderstanding, animosity – an underlying pain that comes to the surface in these scenes. It’s a powerful commentary on the human condition, each life being more interconnected than what first meets the eye, while also being more distinct and unique than we often care to explore. When I checked this week, it is still the all time number one movie rented from Netflix. Something about it has resonated with us and people are watching it.
Living lives that are often disconnected from one another but which share a common pain is a fairly accurate portrayal of modern life in general, congregational life being no exception. Sometimes that pain is our own, sometimes we carry other’s pain. We inherit generational pain from our family systems, we also bear in our bodies and psyches the failings of our culture that cause us dis-ease and reduce our humanity. Sometimes we crash into each other in unpredictable ways.
From time to time we have a worship service where there is the opportunity to receive an anointing for healing. There will be that opportunity today. Because we all live with pain, we all seek healing and restoration. Our claim by faith is that in the midst of pain and dis-ease we are caught up in a greater web of healing and restoration that God is working in our world. Grace, justice, mercy, boundless love, the gift of the Holy Spirit – these are the underlying energies that hold us up and give us life. Anointing is a sign of God’s healing presence among us.
As a way of meditating on these things, we will be looking at the Gospel story from Luke, a first century Crash scene. Luke is no Hollywood producer, but he knows how to tell the Gospel in a compelling way that draws us to look below the surface, to see in a new way. Today’s reading includes two seemingly unconnected lives, a young girl and her father, and an anonymous woman. But the lives, we learn, have a point of intersection on a certain day in their encounter with Jesus. They share a common need for healing, and receive this in surprising ways from the rabbi from Nazareth.
We’ll be walking through Luke 8:40-56.
The scene starts innocently enough. Jesus has been on the other side of the lake, the Sea of Galilee, in Gentile territory, and is now returning to Jewish territory, home turf. There is a crowd waiting for him when he reaches the shore. He is a popular figure; a controversial, but beloved teacher and healer. But while Jesus has been away, his inbox has been filling up, so to speak. He is met very quickly with the demands of ministry and the needs of the people.
He steps out of the boat and almost immediately a man emerges from the crowd and falls at Jesus’ feet, desperate and begging. The man is a synagogue leader, a respected member of the community. Luke tells us that his name is Jairus, someone most likely known by name in the region and so known by name in this story. Jairus comes not on his own behalf, but because his daughter, his only daughter, who is twelve years old, is dying, and he wants Jesus to come to his house where she is.
When one’s child is near death, one would do everything one can to save her. You seek out the best doctors, you learn all you can about the disease, you call on family members for emotional and maybe financial support. You’re willing to lose sleep, lose personal productivity, almost lose your mind. The normal routines of life undergo a massive shift and this single life becomes the center of everything. Everything else is on hold, on the periphery, rotating around the only thing that matters, the health and well-being of this beloved child. Falling on his knees and begging in public, in front of a large crowd, is a small price of lost dignity for Jairus to pay for the chance that Jesus might be able to help his daughter.
That’s one life, one household.
We get no record of Jesus speaking any words at this point. He just went, and as the story says, “as he went, the crowds pressed in on him.” But here comes a crash. Jairus’ daughter is not the only person around in need of healing.
Next we are introduced to a woman in the crowd. We are not given a name, not given any information about her family or position in society. Only that she has been suffering from hemorrhages for twelve years, and the anecdote that though she had spent all she had on physicians, no one could cure her. An interesting comment from Luke, who is believed to have been a physician himself. His colleagues had been unsuccessful in helping this woman with her continual bleeding.
This woman and Jairus’ daughter have no apparent connections to each other, just two separate people in need in the same town who happen to be seeking out Jesus on the same day. But we are meant to notice more than this, recognize more connections, see the commonalities, and the uniqueness of each of them. The story makes this connection most explicitly by letting us know that this woman has been hemorrhaging for twelve years, the same as the age of the daughter.
The young daughter is twelve, just at the age when her womanhood is about to come into bloom. The thrill and the unknown of the first menstrual blood – the body undergoing the miraculous transformation of becoming a woman. The possibility of bearing children now very real and, in that culture, soon being available for marriage. This young life, just as she is about to burst into the first stages of adult maturity, is on the verge of death.
What is experienced as a right of passage and a cause of celebration for young girls has become, for this other woman, a curse. She hasn’t stopped bleeding since the day that twelve year old girl was born. What initially presented itself as an opening up of a whole new world has instead cut her off from the world. Continual bleeding meant that she was continually unclean, not fit for social interaction, even a threat to other’s status of cleanliness should they make contact with her. So she wouldn’t have touched anyone, and those who she did touch, or who touched her, would have been ritually unclean.
After a while, it seems, you would start to resign to your fate as a defiled person. If you think about how long it takes to form a habit – maybe a couple weeks, maybe a couple months – we can imagine that after twelve years there would be some deep seated mental habits at work. After the first 30-40 times of having to pull back from contact with people, one would start to develop almost an unconscious reflex of keeping one’s distance. Keeping separate. Not even putting oneself in social situations in which one would have to reveal one’s uncleanness.
After a while that protective shell would be so solid that it would be hard to break out. It would be easier to not even try. Safer to not hope for healing. Much less complicated and mentally agonizing to simply accept one’s fate as defiled, sick, broken. “I am my wound,” one might think. There is no separation between me, my true self, and my wound. The wound defines, limits, hinders the person, even as it provides that strange protection. I don’t have to reach out anymore. I’ll remain separate where it’s predictable and where I can at least control the pain level. This can actually be a pretty important coping mechanism at different points in our lives. But it’s not where we’re created to stay. This woman is not her wound. She’s more than that. And she hasn’t forgotten. She still has faith.
Jairus made a rather public display of his request of Jesus, but this unnamed woman wishes to remain anonymous. Mark’s version of this story even gives us a glimpse into the internal dialogue in the woman’s mind. Mark says, she came up behind Jesus and touched his cloak, and said to herself, “If I but touch his clothes, I will be made well.” Luke just reports that “she came up behind him and touched the fringe of his clothes.” Kind of a hit and run attempt at healing.
The reference to the fringe of Jesus’ clothes is not just a random piece of Jesus’ robe, but the legally required part of a Jewish male’s clothing. Numbers 15:37-39 says, “The Lord said to Moses: Speak to the Israelites and tell them to makes fringes on the corners of their garments throughout their generations and to put a blue cord on the fringe at each corner. You have the fringe so that, when you see it, you will remember all the commandments of the Lord and do them.” The fringe was a continual reminder to delight in all the laws of the Lord, kind of a permanent sticky note or rubber band on the finger to remember all the commandments.
This is the part of Jesus’ clothes that the woman touches. The part that was to be the reminder of the law. A law that could be used as a hammer against the woman just as much as a healing balm. Because the law commanded in Leviticus 15:25-27 “If a woman has a discharge of blood for many days, not at the time of her impurity, or if she has a discharge beyond the time of her impurity, all the days of the discharge she shall continue in uncleanness; as in the days of her impurity, she shall be unclean. 26 Every bed on which she lies during all the days of her discharge shall be treated as the bed of her impurity; and everything on which she sits shall be unclean, as in the uncleanness of her impurity. 27 Whoever touches these things shall be unclean, and shall wash his clothes, and bathe in water, and be unclean until the evening.” But the law also carried a liberating message, also in Leviticus, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” For twelve years the woman had most likely been hammered by those whose zeal for the religious law caused them to treat her as an unclean person to be avoided rather than a neighbor to be loved. What does delighting in the religious law mean to Jesus?
She has just touched the fringes of Jesus’ clothes, just made him unclean, actually. And immediately her hemorrhage stopped. And just as immediately her hit and run plan is foiled when Jesus asks, “who touched me?” And the disciples, in their brilliance, state the painfully obvious fact that all sorts of people are touching Jesus. But Jesus felt power go out from him and the woman realizes she can’t remain hidden anymore. After twelve years of isolation, years of failed doctor visits, and this one instance of healing, she has to go public. The text says, “When the woman saw that she could not remain hidden, she came trembling; and, falling down before him, she declared in the presence of all the people why she had touched him, and how she had been immediately healed.”
If this were a movie scene, there would no doubt be a dramatic pause at this point. Maybe a close up of the woman’s trembling hands, another shot of the fringes on Jesus’ robe, maybe a shot panning across the crowd that would capture people’s varied responses: surprise, disgust…..or expectant, waiting to hear how Jesus will respond. Jesus, the religious man, the one who wore the fringes and delighted in the law, could have said anything. Could have sent her packing, could have cursed her for making him unclean, could have belittled her verbally or simply turned and walked away. He is, after all, on his way to an emergency, going to the house of a young girl near death, the daughter of an important community leader. Jesus had been riding shotgun in the ambulance on a clear mission to save a life. But the ambulance hits the brakes, Jesus pauses at this intersection, this small crash scene of his life intersecting with that of this woman. And when Jesus does speak, he says to her some beautiful words. “Daughter, your faith has made you well; go in peace.” Another connection. Daughter. Like the child of the synagogue leader, she too is “daughter.” Not just anonymous woman. Her name is not hemoragging woman, not needy woman. Not dirty, unclean, isolated woman. She is more than her wound. Jesus gives her, reminds her of, her true name. She too is a daughter of Israel, fully loved and embraced under the holy covenant with God’s people. Daughter of the Most High God.
Just as the ambulance is about to pull away from the scene, get back to the original mission of going to Jairus’ house, word comes that the daughter has died. Maybe she was going to die anyway, maybe this encounter with this woman slowed Jesus down so that he didn’t get there in time. Too late. You can’t save everyone. But Jesus says another startling and beautiful thing. “Do not fear.” He goes to the house, goes past the mourners who have started gathering and says what apparently was a pretty funny line, because it says that everybody laughed after he said it: “Do not weep; for she is not dead, but sleeping.”
We have been trained to look for the Hollywood ending. All tensions are resolved, problems solved and relationships reconciled. Everybody gets healed. On one level, this is indeed a happy ending. The young daughter is lifted from the bed and is restored to life and health. Practical miracle worker that he is, Jesus even tells the people in the house to get the girl some food so she can eat. But like all gospel stories, the path ahead is wide open, undetermined, unknown. The parents are left astounded, and Jesus tells them not to tell anyone about what just happened. The other woman, presumably, returns back to her life, as Jesus commanded her to do, given the task of forming some new habits of being in community with people and no longer needing to apologize for her presence to anyone.
Like all healing stories, or all stories where a miracle has happened, I feel compelled to put some kind of disclaimer on it for those of us who read it as a story that relates to our own desire for healing. The disclaimer would read something like: Warning: Results May Vary. Not all hemorrhages instantly cease and not all dead are raised. This we know well.
But we do keep reaching out. We don’t shrink back. We do risk to hope that healing will come our way in whatever form it would take. And we do have faith that, even if our wounds persist, that we are always more than our wounds. That we have been called sons and daughters of God, and that is who we are. No sickness, no family burden, no cultural dis-ease can ever take that away from us.
During the singing you are welcome to come forward for an anointing, if you wish. You are welcome to come forward for yourself, or on behalf of another person. If you wish to speak your concern that is welcome, and you can simply come in silence. I will anoint your forehead with the sign of the cross, or, if you prefer, hold out your palm to receive the anointing. Let’s sing together ….