“May the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart be acceptable to you, O God, my rock and my redeemer.“
- Psalm 19:14
Delivered by Rev. Colleen Fay
July 1, 2018
This is an odd kind of a gospel story to be talking about in a Universalist Church, or is it? It’s odd because Jesus says almost nothing: doesn’t expound on some point of doctrine, doesn’t even tell a parable. It seems that everybody else has something to say and Jesus has just a few lines “in the script.”
There’s no lengthy dialogue that you might find somewhere else – no sermon on the mount. Why then is this, or rather are these two stories as compelling as they are and why would I think that Universalists would find them so? If you will allow me, I’d like just to let the stories tell themselves and then see if there’s something we might find important, or better yet, something that speaks to us as liberal Christians.
I think we can all admit it, we like miracles, don’t we? Wouldn’t it be lovely to be like Harry Potter and have one of those magic wands? Wouldn’t you like to pronounce a spell and poof! Something special would happen? I’m sure that’s the reason why those books and movies have been so phenomenally successful. I think, though, that they point to something else that we heard about in the Gospel story about Jesus being touched.
Here is Jesus in a crowd of people all jostling around, pushing and shoving in a more or less friendly way trying to get close to this very special person that they sensed that Jesus was, and see where he was going.
In the midst of all this, Jesus stops dead in his tracks and says, “Who touched me?” Well, his followers frankly think he must be joking. I mean there’s a whole crowd of people who’ve been walking along with him and several of them must have bumped into him as they walked along. How could Jesus ask such a stupid question, they wonder? Probably five or six different people would have touched him at some point.
But Jesus knows the difference between being bumped into and being “touched.” He’s Jesus after all. His disciples certainly don’t know that about him at this point in his ministry, but Jesus is already very much aware that his ministry, his mission here on earth has a special purpose, and what has just happened is very much connected to that divine purpose.
As we heard in the Gospel, the woman who reached out to touch the cloak of Jesus had been suffering for a very long time. God knows, it must have been difficult enough for any woman in the Palestine of the time of Jesus, but it must have been horrendous for this poor woman. A hemorrhage for twelve years? Think of what that meant. She would have had to bind herself up with layers of rags to catch the blood just to be able to go to the market each day to buy food for her family. It would have been a less-than-perfect solution since the rags would have quickly become soaked and she would have been exposed in pubic to ridicule or worse if she didn’t get home quickly enough. Can you imagine having to face that each day, every day for twelve years?
But this woman wasn’t desperate. She’d heard about Jesus – he was gaining something of a reputation as a healer and a spiritual man, perhaps even a prophet. She prayed and thought to herself, “I won’t even try to talk to this man. God must be with him. If I could just touch the edge, the hem of his cloak, Jesus would heal me of this misery.”
Somehow she managed to work her way close enough to Jesus – through that jostling crowd – to reach out her hand, behind Jesus’s back no less, and touched his cloak. At that instant, the hemorrhage stopped.
Jesus knew, although nobody else did, that she had tapped into his healing power. So Jesus turns around and asks that question, already knowing that he has connected to a person’s faith.
Finally, sheepishly, the woman comes forward and admits that she was the one who had touched him and why, Jesus doesn’t do some sort of Harry Potter thing though. Quite to the contrary – he tells her, “daughter, it is your faith that has made you well; go in peace; you are healed of this terrible suffering.
It’s a little moment, but a telling one. Jesus connects to the faith of a person. The woman isn’t going to Jesus to engage in a philosophical discourse or some Talmudic disputation. It’s faith in its purest form and Jesus – and she – both know it.
There are several important things about this brief encounter. The first is that the followers of Jesus thought that it was important enough that it is recorded in two of the Gospel accounts Mark and Luke, second, it involves an ordinary woman – we don’t even know her name — who demonstrates this pure faith in Jesus at a time when even some of his followers hadn’t made up their minds about him.
The third thing that I think is important is the focus of Jesus – it is totally on this poor, suffering woman. For those few moments, she’s the only person who matters to him. He doesn’t stop to use the opportunity to make some religious point, teach a lesson, underscore a point of doctrine. It’s all about her. To him, she’s the only thing that matters. How wonderful is that?
The Gospel writers of Mark and Luke’s Gospels got that essential point.
What’s also kind of amazing about this brief encounter is that it’s sandwiched in the middle of another miracle story. The crowd that was around Jesus was there for another reason. Jesus had been approached by an official of the local synagogue, Jairus, whose daughter was deathly ill. Jairus, falling to his knees, had begged Jesus to come to his house to cure his daughter. Perhaps because Jairus was a well-known local figure, Jesus had drawn a crowd. “Let’s see what this guy can do,” I’m sure some of them were saying – as many doubting Jesus’s abilities as there were people who believed.
It was that jostling crowd , looking for that “Harry Potter-type” miracle, I’m sure, who were on their way to the house of Jairus when this healing encounter unfolded. Both Bible stories, however, are more than they seem. They tell us a lot about Jesus and yet they must have left his followers scratching their heads.
Let’s go back to the story of Jairus and his very sick daughter. It must have taken quite a lot for an important person like Jairus to approach Jesus. You see, in those days there were itinerant preachers all over Palestine. I’m sure that some were serious and well-intentioned, but there were just as many, if not more, who were charlatans – in it for the money and whatever local notoriety they could get. So this man Jairus was betting that Jesus was the real thing. He was desperate – his daughter was at death’s door and now he’d gotten Jesus to agree to come to his house to cure her.
After the encounter with the woman with the hemorrhage, they continued on and were met by a servant from the house with the terrible news that the girl had died. Now there was no point in continuing.
Jesus contradicts the servant, “She is not dead; she is merely asleep.” Well, his comment produces howls of protest. These people may have been simple, country folk, but they knew the difference between somebody who was sleeping and somebody who was dead.
Jesus continues with Jairus back to the poor father’s house. I can’t begin to imagine what was going through that poor man’s mind. By the time they get to the house, people in the crowd are openly laughing at Jesus. They think he must be some kind of an idiot and is taking advantage of Jairus in his grief.
Jesus takes the girl’s parents and his closest disciples and they enter the girl’s bedroom. There she is laid out; to all the world she looks like she is dead, but Jesus knows different. He takes the girl’s hand in his and says very gently to her, “Child, you can get up now.” The girl wakes from the coma or whatever it was that she had fallen into. Jesus then does the most practical thing in the world. He tells her parents to get her something to eat.
Whenever I hear this story, it practically brings tears to my eyes. Jesus is so focused on that poor, anguished father and his little girl. Nothing else matters. What kind of Messiah is this? A gentle, tender, kind and loving person, filled with compassion who couldn’t care less what the world thinks. He only cares for the suffering people – the woman who’d been suffering for more than a decade with a horrible, bleeding discharge and this distraught family with a very, very sick child, Jesus comes to heal, Jesus comes to save them and each one of us, one by one. He calls us each by our own name. He never forgets a face or a name.
You know, you hear people say that Jesus knew what it felt like to be human. I think that doesn’t get to the heart of it. Jesus didn’t just know what it felt like – he felt it. In these two encounters, he’s feeling what the suffering people are feeling. In another story, when his friend Lazarus has died. Jesus weeps openly. He doesn’t care that it’s not a “manly” thing to do.
He’s not afraid to feel and to let the people around him know that he does. Jesus – truly God and truly human – is not dealing in abstractions. He’s right there – flesh and blood..
It was confusing to the people at that time because they wondered – and even his disciples wondered – if this very real person Jesus could feel just the way we feel, how could he also be “one with the Father,” be God. But he was – and is.
That’s just the point of these two encounters. By being so close, by feeling, by being touched and by touching, Jesus is showing us just how close God is to us. No, we don’t get to bump into God or touch his cloak or have God take us by the hand like Jesus did to that little girl, but God is that close to us just the same.
The very fact that Jesus felt what we felt and hurt the same way we hurt was a graphic, a concrete demonstration that God is intimately connected to us – every step of the way, with every breath we take.
Sometimes, with all the pomp of liturgy and ceremony, the beauty and formality of the Church’s great cycles of prayer, we can feel removed from our intimately loving Jesus. Oh, the beauty of all that ceremony is wonderful and God deserves every bit of praise that we can give to God, that’s true, but somewhere in one of his letters, Saint Paul writes that “the Spirit knows us in our weakness…”
As we would say today, “the take-away,” is that we are beloved by a God who loves us as we are – beautiful and strong, weak, stupid and foolish, certain we know what we’re doing one minute, and lost and frightened the next. These two small, but very important stories remind us of the intimate love that Jesus has for us and that he wants us to love each other just as he loves each one of us. We are to love not because someone has to “prove” herself or himself in order to earn that love. God certainly doesn’t ask that of us.
To me, as a liberal Christian, I would say “love first, ask questions later,” and “love, especially when it goes against the grain of what society’s expectations are of you.” In other words, “never give up on love.”
Remember, the one who is love will never give up on you.