March 22, 2020
by Christian Collins Winn
21 When Jesus had crossed again in the boat to the other side, a great crowd gathered around him; and he was by the sea. 22 Then one of the leaders of the synagogue named Jairus came and, when he saw him, fell at his feet 23 and begged him repeatedly, “My little daughter is at the point of death. Come and lay your hands on her, so that she may be made well, and live.” 24 So he went with him.
And a large crowd followed him and pressed in on him. 25 Now there was a woman who had been suffering from hemorrhages for twelve years. 26 She had endured much under many physicians, and had spent all that she had; and she was no better, but rather grew worse. 27 She had heard about Jesus, and came up behind him in the crowd and touched his cloak, 28 for she said, “If I but touch his clothes, I will be made well.” 29 Immediately her hemorrhage stopped; and she felt in her body that she was healed of her disease. 30 Immediately aware that power had gone forth from him, Jesus turned about in the crowd and said, “Who touched my clothes?” 31 And his disciples said to him, “You see the crowd pressing in on you; how can you say, ‘Who touched me?’ ” 32 He looked all around to see who had done it. 33 But the woman, knowing what had happened to her, came in fear and trembling, fell down before him, and told him the whole truth. 34 He said to her, “Daughter, your faith has made you well; go in peace, and be healed of your disease.”
35 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?” 36 But overhearing what they said, Jesus said to the leader of the synagogue, “Do not fear, only believe.” 37 He allowed no one to follow him except Peter, James, and John, the brother of James. 38 When they came to the house of the leader of the synagogue, he saw a commotion, people weeping and wailing loudly. 39 When he had entered, he said to them, “Why do you make a commotion and weep? The child is not dead but sleeping.” 40 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. 41 He took her by the hand and said to her, “Talitha cum,” which means, “Little girl, get up!” 42 And immediately the girl got up and began to walk about (she was twelve years of age). At this they were overcome with amazement. 43 He strictly ordered them that no one should know this, and told them to give her something to eat.
“Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable to you, Oh Lord, my Rock and my Redeemer.” Spirit of the living who blows where you will, blow here and everywhere so that we might be enlivened by your word and sustained by your loving presence. In Jesus Name we pray, Amen.
Greetings brothers and sisters! I would feel that I was being less than honest with you if I didn’t start this sermon by simply saying: My goodness, what a week! What an extraordinary series of events that we have seen unfolded around us, events which have brought with them uncertainty, and even understandable fear. But I would also be remiss if I didn’t remind us all that though these are extraordinary times, they are not without precedent for humanity or the church. Over the course of some two thousand years, the church has indeed lived through events like we are seeing today, and has often found creative ways to be the people of God, to be people who are with and for each other and indeed for the whole world, just as Jesus called us to do.
One other thing that I want to say to those watching and listening, is that the whole staff here at Colonial is deeply grateful that we have the ability to be with you, even if it is primarily in a virtual format. We are all deeply grateful for each one of you, grateful to be able to pray with you, to study scripture with you, and to think creatively about how we might not only grow deeper in our love for God during this time, but also how we might follow Jesus into the world to love and serve our neighbor.
Now as some of you may know, we have been travelling through Lent with a sermon series titled “Hope Interruptions.” And, as has been our practice, I tried to come up with the text and some vague sense about what my title was about three or so weeks ago, and I wound up with the title “hope interrupts isolation.” Little did I know! I had even contemplated changing the title a couple of times, but I stayed with it, and I cannot tell you how many times this theme has spoken to me as I have wrestled with today’s story.
Our text today comes from the Gospel of Mark. One of the unique features of Mark’s Gospel shows up in our text today. It’s what is sometimes called the “Markan Sandwich.” That is, Mark’s ability to begin one story or episode, and then take another episode and lodge it in the middle disrupting the flow of the narrative, and then only later returning to finish the original story. This way of telling stories is unique to Mark and happens four or five different times in the Gospel, and what becomes clear in most of these cases is that the interlocked stories are positioned together so that they will throw light on one another, and that the interrupting story in the middle of the sandwich is usually the key to understanding the outer story as well.
Our episode obviously has the same structure since we hear about Jarius and his daughter, only to have Jarius’ request interrupted by other events. And it is on the other events that I will focus my comments today.
Our story occurs in a section of Mark which relates a series of episodes that highlight Jesus’ divine power. Jesus stills a storm while in a boat on the Sea of Galilee, and in so doing displays his authority over the forces of nature and chaos; and then he encounters a man who basically lives in a graveyard who is possessed by not one, but by an entire army or legion of demons. That encounter ends with Jesus’ overthrow of the demonic entity, whom he expels, setting the man free and sending the demons to their demise.
Just prior to our passage then, we hear stories about the unmitigated power of Jesus. But we now turn to a pair of episodes that feel far more intimate. After the earlier events with the demon possessed man Jesus travels across the Sea of Galilee to the other side. Upon landing, the text tells us that he is immediately encountered by a crowd and by Jarius, an official in a local synagogue who having “seen” or “perceived” Jesus, throws himself before him to implore him to come and “lay hands on my daughter” so that she will be healed. Jesus complies, turns and begins to move towards Jarius’ home, when suddenly . . . hope interrupts.
Suddenly we hear about a second figure. This one is nameless, and to some extent faceless; but she too seems to have “perceived” who Jesus is. She marks a contrast with Jarius—without a name, a woman in a patriarchal society, who is not wealthy, and certainly not welcome in the Synagogue because of her condition (a fact to which we shall return). She is a woman who suffered from a hemorrhage for twelve years; whom the doctors had impoverished with their ineffectual cures; who had “endured many things” and had not gotten better, but only worse. But, like Jarius, she too “perceives” Jesus—and as Mark tells us in his sparse literary style, she reaches forth out of the crowd—out of the nameless and faceless rabble and throng—and touches Jesus.
What a profoundly intimate episode in the life of Jesus this is! A moment where the longing for human touch is on the surface—Jarius begging Jesus to come and “lay hands” on his daughter that she may be well; a nameless woman who touches Jesus’ garment in hope for release from her ailment; and Jesus who takes Jarius’ daughter by the hand, before he speaks words of resurrection over her.
And of course, the intimacy doesn’t end there—it is palpable in the condition of the woman. Her ailment can really only be described as one that is profoundly intimate. Almost all scholars are agreed based on both the context of the story and the Greek words used here, that what is being referred to here is some form of gynecological abnormality.
What waylays this woman, does so in a most intimate way—touching on one of the most basic aspects of female biology. And for a Jewish woman living in the late antique era in Palestine, this would have been an ailment almost too much to bear—for it would have meant childlessness. For twelve long years she has had to endure this betrayal within her own body. And though she may have made some modicum of peace with it over time, her community most certainly would not have.
Her condition, according to Leviticus 12 and 15, would have rendered her perpetually, ritually unclean. Someone to be shunned, to be quarantined, set outside the community, barred from full participation; someone who was in a position where even the smallest kindness of human touch —the caress of the face, the hug of a relative, or the squeeze of the hand— would have been difficult to come by.
And if this were not enough, the text tells us that she was bled dry by the doctors.
If her ailment were gynecological, ancient texts tell us that doctors might have prescribed that she carry around with her the ash of an ostrich egg in a cloth; or that she drink wine mixed with rubber, alum (a type of potassium), and garden crocuses. No wonder we hear that she only got worse over time!
And yet. And yet; hope interrupts. Hope in this woman wells up and pushes her out of her isolation. She stretches forth her hand and touches Jesus. The text gives us insight into her own inner-monologue: “If I but touch his clothes, I will be made well.” Knowing that she is ritually “unclean,” she nevertheless is willing to risk passing her contagion to Jesus the wonderworker. Perhaps, if I just touch his clothing, that will be enough? Though as a parenthetical remark, even touching his garment would have made him unclean according the legal code.
Now we can and we should interrogate why women in the ancient world were treated as “unclean” for a biological process over which they had no control, and which, we should remember, is closely connected to the command to be fruitful and multiply. And I am quite certain we would come up with some disturbing answers to that question. But what I want to draw our attention to today is not so much what renders her “unclean,” but how she and especially how Jesus responds to it.
Who is this woman? Jesus himself wants to know. One of the remarkable things about this story is the way in which Jesus himself becomes passive. Power flows out from him, without him initiating it. In many ways, he mirrors the woman who was herself subject to other forces which caused blood to flow from her body.
When she does reach out, the text tells us that immediately she knows she has been made well. And just as she had perceived and hoped in Jesus, so now Jesus wants to “know” who touched him, wants to “perceive” who reached forth in hope. He presses past the facile comments of his disciples regarding the crowd which had been pressing upon him, and just as he resembled the woman in his passivity, now his intensity to know matches and even surpasses hers.
The text tells us that she became afraid and in “fear and trembling” came forward and told Jesus “the whole truth.” That phrase, “the whole truth” is generally used in judicial proceedings, and it conveys to us that the woman is now offering up a testimony to Jesus. And again, Jesus mirrors the woman, becomes like the woman: he becomes a witness to the hope and faith that is in her. And though there are many things happening in this story, so many that we cannot hope to do justice to it in a single sermon, there is one more detail that I would be remiss not to call attention to: Jesus’ address to the woman.
What does he say to her in full? He says “Daughter, your faith has made you well; go in peace, and be healed of your disease.” He calls her daughter. Daughter—a term of endearment; a term of respect; a term of belonging; a term that identifies this formerly nameless woman; a term that restores her to her people and to her community. Like the daughter of Jarius, this woman too is a daughter of Zion—rather than her supposed “uncleanness” soiling Jesus, the power of the Spirit of hope has dried up and removed what formerly created exclusion, isolation, and loneness.
As the story moves forward, Jesus will travel on to Jarius’ house where he will grasp the hand of the corpse of Jarius’ daughter (and for those keeping tabs, to touch a corpse was also an act that made one impure or unclean); and he will utter words of resurrection, restoration, and care as he instructs that this little girl be given food to eat after her ordeal.
What does a story filled with touching and hope have to say to us now, when we have been told to practice “social distancing” as an act of compassion and kindness? Quite a bit actually. First is the fact that hope has many faces: it can move us out of ourselves in ways that defy the status quo, or it can break into our lives in ways unexpected and unforeseen. Such a fact reminds us that though we are all in this thing together, we will not all experience our new situation in the same way.
Many of us are fortunate to be in situations of relative stability and plenty. Perhaps we like those with whom we live, and our most difficult challenge is to deal with our boredom. Perhaps we have a Jarius who will advocate for us. But, many, many more of us are in difficult situations —some of us may have physical challenges, others mental health challenges; still others will be in economic distress; for others it will be the challenge of caring for our children, family members, friends, or others who are especially vulnerable. And still others of us are not necessarily in safe relationships. And of course, there are also all those who are on the front lines, who will face special challenges. The list could go on. The point is that we all need hope to break us out of our isolation and challenges.
And this is brings us to the second thing of which our story reminds us: don’t believe the lie. Don’t listen to whatever or whoever it is that tells you that you don’t deserve love or support; that you don’t deserve or need companionship; that you don’t deserve touch—because you do. You are a child of God. You are a daughter or a son of God, a brother or a sister of Jesus. Reach out! Reach out to those in your community of faith, or others in your circles. Reach out in hope and speak about your burdens! This is no time to allow what might be our inclination to not let know others what our needs are to keep silent—we need to reach out to let others know where we are and especially if we need help.
And for those of us who feel relatively stable and safe, the imperative is the same—reach out! Reach out to those whom you know are isolated, to those whom you think may be struggling. Whether it be economic or emotional, spiritual or relational struggle—everyone can use a friend. Share what you have, whether it is time lending an ear, or perhaps volunteering with one of our ministry partners, or sharing your resources—even your toilet paper!
The last thing is to remember is that human touch doesn’t always have to be physical; and in this time of social distancing, perhaps there won’t be as much of that. But we can call one another, we can connect through virtual means, and we should especially be reminded of the powerful connection that comes through prayer.
Sisters and brothers, prayer binds us together in God’s presence; it allows us to lay down our burdens, and to bring before God the burdens of others. Therefore, let us keep in mind those most vulnerable among us, let us lift them up, and let us reach out in hope to one another and to God that we might be bonded together as one during the days ahead. Amen.
Heavenly Father, we pray that you stir within us the Spirit of Hope, that each of us may reach out both to you and to one another in ways that bring us together. Turn us in our thoughts and hopes towards the world which needs and longs for your love and help us to know how to love our neighbor as ourselves in this new and challenging season. In Jesus Name we pray, Amen!