Imagine, if you can, a woman denied the benefits of health care with background questions about the place of religion in society’s rules of power.
That’s a reasonable summary of the Bible reading today, and you may observe it’s controversial. Controversy is intended to be part of this story, so it is fitting that we hear it. And with this overview of our story, we hardly even need to hear that this hemorrhage, the flow of blood that is at stake for this woman’s health, has been traditionally viewed as a menstrual issue, a matter of gynecological health, to recognize a setting that is around us still. But so we don’t only impose our own current views, let’s start slowly and learn what the story actually says.
First, it says the woman had spent all she had on physicians, but it had accomplished nothing. She was still suffering. That illustrates a direct fact of illnesses and diseases: in spite of our best efforts and grandest expenses and most knowledge, sometimes the problem is not cured or remedied. Some sickness stubbornly persists.
It also indirectly reveals a fact about medical care in Jesus’ time: not a lot of attention was given to caring for women’s bodies. A woman may have spent most of her short life impregnated, from 15 to death around 35. Physicians weren’t always helpful or available for treatment. That left sick women to the many miracle workers and magicians who roamed the countryside.
To some degree, this view of what we might call a medicine man or shaman fits Jesus. Jesus was certainly seen as having special powers for relieving whatever scourge was the trouble. It later says King Herod wanted to see Jesus perform some sign (Lk23:8), so even those who disagreed with him still expected Jesus to do phenomenal miracles. Maybe there’s a pop edge, like contemporary TV’s hysteria around a popular Dr. Oz or a Dr. Phil.
But that leads to another part of our passage today, that it may not exactly be a story of beautiful devotion and deep faithfulness. In a way, we may wonder if it fits the long-standing trusting relationship of you who are sitting in the pews, people who have come to rely on Jesus weekly.
This woman, rather, heard about Jesus and turned to him in a last-ditch go-for-broke effort. She was hoping-against-hope, trying a solution that she hadn’t before, going to the last resort. And for that, she snuck up for just a touch of Jesus’ clothes, hoping that that relic, that magical contact with a holy object would rub off on her.
It’s a bit like my friend who got his teeth kicked out trying to break up a fight, and then showed up in church the next Sunday. He didn’t even really know what he was expecting from the experience. But with nowhere else to turn, he kind of needed some sort of proximity to something right and holy. Maybe that does still describe your hopeful presence here, that God’s blessing will rub off on you in some special way.
Fitting with that, we might unusually notice the desperate woman takes the initiative, not Jesus. He didn’t seek her out; she found him. In fact, he wasn’t even trying to cure her hemorrhage. Her disease was already gone just as he was apparently oblivious and wondered who touched him, realizing that power had gone out from him.
That’s also a surprising statement: Jesus loses power when he heals. We might ask it wears him out or speculate if there was only so much he could do. Perhaps more faithfully, we should say that he is sharing his energy. All that he is capable of is being turned to affect our lives.
So although it began unintentionally from Jesus, though it was not his initiative to heal, we should not call Jesus careless. He proceeded to seek out this woman who’d been ill. And when he found her, when she came to him in fear and trembling, he assured her and offered her something still more. He called her “daughter,” the only time Jesus addresses somebody that way, and told her, “your faith has made you well; go in peace.”
In that is the fullness of healing. See, even though the flow of blood stopped when she secretly touched him, still she was not healed until Jesus spoke in blessing. This is a difference in terms. The earlier term for a medical cure contrasts with a second term, the Greek word (sozo), which means to be both healed and saved, salvation. It reminds us that God’s saving work is not limited by whether or not you have an infirmity. More, like our own word “healing,” it relates to wholeness, to complete wellbeing. It isn’t the absence of germs, but the fullness of body, emotions, and relationships—especially relationship with God—that Jesus is striving for. He doesn’t come for some magical touch that eliminates an illness, but for wholeness and salvation that sets everything right, in our lives and throughout our world.
With that, we should notice the what had been the woman’s place in this story. She was an outcast, untouchable. Those who control society had categorized her as unclean, impure, as substandard. Legally, she was not supposed to be amid that crowd, was supposed to stay away. It meant she was allowed no contact, with other people or with God.
But with Jesus—reversing our expectations still—she proves that one good apple can save the whole bunch. Exactly the opposite of standard beliefs, his holiness rubs off on her. His purity is more contagious than her uncleanness. In her illness, she catches a dose of his health.
Clearly, Jesus does not represent a god who is restricted or off-limits or unavailable or who plays favoritism. By her stealthy touch, and by Jesus’ subsequent blessing, we have revealed for us a God whose saving power and compassion is good not only for those who are already holy enough or strong enough or right enough. It is for those who are left out and those whom society has kicked out and those who are vulnerable and powerless and can’t afford it. And a woman in need of health care.
There was news this week of the Supreme Court decision on Hobby Lobby’s case against wanting to provide contraceptive coverage for female employees. Before any legal answers about the place of power and religion, just to start it is ironically disappointing or even blasphemous that somebody claiming to be Christian would in the first place turn away from helping and explicitly seek to deny health care to a woman in need, especially as she is in the more vulnerable place. That is exactly the image of God Jesus came to undo.
But that can’t be our only conclusion from this. Merely to be self-satisfied in finding my own opinion to make me (quote) “better” than the “wrong” Christians makes me fall just as short. This needs more of an upshot than that.
Partly, we may hear in this a calling to help those in need. When somebody reaches out, seeking a healing touch, we should respond. Even if it drains us, we could say that our energy should be shared in compassion, in seeking understanding, in striving not only to stop suffering, but to heal relationships and find wholeness.
But this requires still larger meaning than that. After all, I can’t touch your clothes and be healed. It’s good to be together, but not fully true that our simple presence cures each other. We can only be like Jesus to a point.
But Jesus is Jesus always. And that means for your desperate pleas, for your longing reach—even when help seems out of touch—his compassion and saving help will find you. It has no bearing with how qualified you feel, how deserving. There is no limit when you feel excluded and society has told you you don’t belong. There is no barrier, no separation by sin, no illness as a sign of curse. There is no money required, no dream deferred, no justice denied. In your need, in vulnerability, in your straining and suffering, and even in the regular tedium of uncertain existence and a wish you could make a difference, hear and cling to these words from Jesus, words from God, words of salvation and blessing for you: Daughter, son, go in peace. Your faith has healed you, saved you, made you well.
Hymn: O Christ, the Healer, We Have Come (ELW #610)