Our pastor has been teaching from Genesis. This past Sunday, he told the story of the Fall. And it once again jumped out at me exactly where everything went off track.
The woman said to the serpent, “We may eat of the fruit of the trees in the garden; but God said, ‘You shall not eat of the fruit of the tree that is in the middle of the garden, nor shall you touch it, or you shall die.’”
~Genesis 3:2-3 (emphasis added)
Except that’s not what God said.
Sure, yes, God told them not to eat the fruit. But touching it?
Nope. Not there.
Go ahead, check. I’ll wait.
Friends, we have been making up new rules and putting them in God’s mouth from the beginning.
Which brings us to Mark, and a story within a story.
A woman in the crowd had suffered for twelve years with constant bleeding. She had suffered a great deal from many doctors, and over the years she had spent everything she had to pay them, but she had gotten no better. In fact, she had gotten worse.
~ Mark 5:25-26
This woman’s illness is pretty clearly some sort of ongoing menstrual discharge, of which there are many possible causes. Uterine tumors and polyps, anovulation, maybe a fistula. All of which are very treatable with modern medicine. Which, of course, this first century woman did not have access to.
(And which, quite frankly, lots of modern women don’t have access to. But that’s maybe another post for another day…)
What she did have access to were “doctors” who didn’t actually understand her condition, and whose every treatment only made matters worse.
Because it wasn’t bad enough that she was the bleeding. It wasn’t bad enough that she was likely infertile in a culture where a woman’s only worth came from having children. It wasn’t bad enough that any husband she once had wouldn’t touch her now. It wasn’t bad enough that she was ostracized from her community.
Insult was added to injury and suffering to suffering at the hands of the very people whose purpose it was to “fix” her. Instead, they took her money and left her a worse state than she was to begin with.
“She had suffered a great deal from many doctors.”
Does that queer little turn of a phrase sound familiar? Can you think of any particular group of “uncleans” the church has spent a lot of time and energy trying to fix, yet has only managed to inflict further suffering upon?
That is, when we aren’t just excluding them from the assembly altogether?
Come on. I bet you can.
The truth is, the Church has a long history of excluding undesirables, sometimes altogether, sometimes from leadership, and sometimes relegating them to second class status. People whose skin color is the wrong shade. People who are the wrong gender. People who love wrong.
We are not nearly as evolved from these first century Jews as we’d like to think.
This is why I think it’s interesting that this story is nested within another story. The Bible storytellers usually do that for as reason. In this case, it is in the middle of the story of Jarius, a powerful man, and one of the synagogue rulers.
Jarius’s daughter is dying, and he is desperate. He is probably not a man used to begging, but desperate times call for desperate measures. So he goes to Jesus. He begs Jesus to come put those precious healing hands on his daughter. And Jesus, being Jesus, agrees to come.
Along the way, the crowd presses in, and this unnamed woman sneaks in to where she doesn’t belong.
Now, it was Jarius’s job as ruler of the synagogue to keep people like this woman out. To keep his people safe and clean from those people. It was in everyone’s best interests, really. I mean, she was unclean; the rules couldn’t be more clear about this. What else was he supposed to do?
We don’t know if Jarius saw her in the crowd. But if he did, there was probably some panic in his heart, because Jarius would have known exactly who she was. After all, she would had been on the no-worship list for over a decade.
Because it wasn’t just the synagogue from which she would have been excluded. Anyone she touches will also become unclean. This would have required elaborate purification ritual. Ain’t nobody got time for that.
This is probably what really quarantined these “uncleaned” people.
It was just a huge hassle to care.
It was easier to isolate, to ignore, to ostracize.
None of this was Jarius’s fault, mind you. He was just following the rules.
But she was still very likely the last person Jarius wanted to see at that point. There is no one in a hurry like a powerful man in a hurry. And his daughter is dying. There is nothing he can do about it unless he gets Jesus there now.
But suddenly, here is this impertinent, unclean woman, inserting herself into his story.
Her entire life for the last twelve years would have been constructed around the reality that came from managing some kind of life around this curse. She would have been painfully aware of the shame that comes not just from her condition, but from her very existence.
Imagine what living like that does to a person.
But she hears the healer is coming near, and she is desperate. And desperate times call for desperate measures. So this tormented, presumptuous woman takes matters into her own hands as much as she is able. She risks the shame of exposure, she subjects herself to the hazards of the crowd — a crowd of people that she is acutely aware of exactly what they think of her — and she reaches out to Jesus.
She had heard about Jesus, and came up behind him in the crowd and touched his cloak, for she said, “If I but touch his clothes, I will be made well.” Immediately her hemorrhage stopped; and she felt in her body that she was healed of her disease. Immediately aware that power had gone forth from him, Jesus turned about in the crowd and said, “Who touched my clothes?”
~ Mark 5: 28-30
It’s a ridiculous question that Jesus asks, and his disciples respond as people do to ridiculous questions. But Jesus continues to press.
She panics. She knows she’s been found out, and she is humiliated. Again. Even in her moment of healing, she is filled with shame. Because this is what she has been taught to believe about herself.
But the woman, knowing what had happened to her, came in fear and trembling, fell down before him, and told him the whole truth.
Wait. Wait. Back up a second. Because in our rush to get to the payoff, I feel like we’re missing something.
Look here: Why did Jesus even stop? And why was he so insistent on finding out who touched him?
I mean, the woman was already healed. The power had already “gone out of him.”
And wasn’t Jesus always the guy telling people not to tell after he healed them?
So what’s his point? What are you getting at, Jesus?
Are you trying to embarrass her?
Hold on here…
Jesus didn’t stop to heal her. She was already healed.
Jesus stopped to notice her.
He said to her, “Daughter, your faith has made you well; go in peace, and be healed of your disease.”
Jesus wasn’t calling her out. Embarrassing her further was the last thing on his mind. No, he stopped to notice her to free her. To heal her a second time.
To “go and peace” and “be healed.”
Go and live.
Jesus looked for her to tell her she had nothing to be ashamed of anymore. To maybe tell her that she never had anything to be ashamed of in the first place.
And maybe, just maybe, Jesus looked for her because he had a larger audience in mind too. Maybe the reason Jesus breaks character isn’t just for her. Maybe it’s for the crowd.
Maybe he wants to make a point to the community that has spent over a decade excluding this woman, telling her how dirty and disgusting she was, that there was nothing wrong her.
Jesus stopped so he could tell this woman that she mattered.
Jesus stopped so he could tell the community that this woman mattered.
And, maybe, just maybe, Jesus stopped to tell Jarius that this woman, whom he had spent so much time keeping out of God’s presence and away from God’s people, this woman mattered.
Mattered as much as Jarius’s own daughter.
Because, again, this is a story inside another story.
Jarius has a decision to make. He may not have seen her before, but he sure sees her now; everybody does.
I know this woman.
Sure, maybe she’s healed now. But she’s still unclean.
And worse, now Jesus is unclean. Because this woman touched him.
How can I bring him to my house?
And actually, I’m probably unclean as well for that matter.
But my daughter is dying…
While he was still speaking, some people came from the leader’s house to say, “Your daughter is dead. Why trouble the teacher any further?” But overhearing what they said, Jesus said to the leader of the synagogue, “Do not fear, only believe.” He allowed no one to follow him except Peter, James, and John, the brother of James. When they came to the house of the leader of the synagogue, he saw a commotion, people weeping and wailing loudly. When he had entered, he said to them, “Why do you make a commotion and weep? The child is not dead but sleeping.” And they laughed at him. Then he put them all outside, and took the child’s father and mother and those who were with him, and went in where the child was. He took her by the hand and said to her, “Talitha cum,” which means, “Little girl, get up!” And immediately the girl got up and began to walk about (she was twelve years of age). At this they were overcome with amazement.
~ Mark 5: 35-43
There’s a whole lot to unpack here, and this post is already too long. But it’s interesting how our decisions get justified and rationalized when they involve people we care about.
Jarius didn’t give a second thought to the purity laws. It doesn’t even come up in the text. Because, really, it’s obvious what he would do. He loved his daughter. He would do anything to save her. Even at the risk of contaminating his entire household. Because his daughter mattered more to him more than a purity law.
It’s just too bad that kind of compassion only rears its head when “circumstances” hit close to home.
The Church has never been good at handling controversies. When we aren’t ignoring them altogether, we talk about them as “issues” to be solved.
Except people are not issues. People are people. People are not solved; people are loved.
Unless they aren’t.
40 percent of homeless youth are LGBT, despite being a tiny fraction of the population. And most of these kids didn’t leave on their own; they were kicked out by people who were supposed to love and care for them. The suicide statistics for LGBT kids are scary.
Hurting people don’t need more platitudes. They’ve heard them all. They’ve probably been telling them to themselves for years. What they need is to know that they are seen and that they matter.
Because “the gays” you’ve been talking about as abstract “issues” that are “out there somewhere”? They aren’t issues; they are people. And they aren’t out there; they are here.
They are the sweet little queer kid in your children’s choir who likes both trucks and sparkles and just doesn’t quite fit in with the rest of the kids.
They are the teenage boy in your youth group who fell in love with Jesus at summer camp the same year fell in love with another boy, and he’s now trying to figure out how to make sense of that.
They are the lesbian woman who has spent her life in a loveless straight marriage because that’s what you told her God wanted.
They are people who need to know that God loves them and cares for them, just as they are, no strings attached.
They are people who need to know that you love them and care about them, just as they are, no strings attached.
So, do you? Or are you more interested in keeping your assembly clean?
There’s a great scene in the movie Hidden Figures. The character played by Octavia Spencer has an exchange with Kirsten Dunst, who plays her boss. It is smart and subtle and captures so much of American racism in a nutshell, but it really applies to all those who benevolently exclude because “really, we’re all better off this way.”
“Despite what you may think,” Dunst says, “I have nothing against y’all.”
Spencer looks at her not angrily, but sadly. “I know. I know you probably believe that.”