TGIS. Thank God it’s Sunday. Thank God it’s Sunday and not Friday. It used to be that everything -- well, almost everything -- of a disastrous medical nature happened at our house on Fridays.
Thirty-two years ago on Good Friday my son who was 10 at the time was playing on our neighbor’s rope swing. It broke. So did Ole’s arm. He came into the house and said, “Mom, I think I hurt myself.” It looked rather as if he had grown a new joint above his wrist. We immobilized it with a rolled-up newspaper splint, and I calmly called for an aid car, telling the dispatcher that we had a child with a broken arm. I carefully and clearly gave the address, reminding the dispatcher that our street didn’t go through to Fowler – that the ambulance would have to make a sort of detour coming up McKinley. Since we didn’t have the house number on the front of our house, I went outside to wait. I could hear the siren coming – and going – and coming again. Apparently, my directions weren’t as clear as I had thought they were. Later one of the attendants, a kid I had had in school, told me “If you had just said ‘Ole broke his arm, we’d have been right there.’” Small towns are nice that way. And, by the way, a police car followed the ambulance. A child with a broken arm? Child abuse?
Our daughter Gina’s broken wrist? A Friday night trip to the skating rink, of course.
My leukemia diagnosis came on a Friday. And nine years ago – on a Friday – our granddaughter Abby stepped on some gravel on the driveway and fell – with apparently all of her nine-year-old weight concentrated on her right elbow. There was almost no blood. No swelling. No discoloration. No bone sticking through the skin. But the pain (and the screaming) were real, and she was rapidly losing the feeling in her fingers. So, to the emergency room we went.
I think the x-ray technician there never made Friday plans because he knew we’d interrupt them. The good news was – no break. But that arm ended up in a sling, and she was put on a regimen of ibuprofen.
Now all Abby did was crash, land on her elbow, and probably damage a nerve. But we rounded up the cavalry and rushed to the hospital.
Imagine Jairus. His daughter, not sobbing from pain from a crunched elbow but instead lying in bed, apparently comatose, from an illness the doctor can’t seem to cure. Where does he turn? To whom?
Well, this Jesus guy has been in town, forgiving sin, casting out demons, healing. . . . He’s an offering of hope to sufferers. He’s relief to the burdened. Sickness and death exist, but Jesus brings, in opposition to them, light and life. So Jairus, terrified that he is losing his daughter, turns to Jesus.
We hate to see suffering, especially in youngsters. We certainly don’t like to suffer ourselves! And who of us here, in the wakeful hours of an uncomfortable, perhaps pain-filled night, has not wondered, “Why do we suffer? Why are some healed and not others? How do some people bear pain with grace?”
Are there easy answers to those questions? I don’t know. I don’t have any. We do know from experience that not all who suffer are cured. But we also know that God’s companionship and presence and power and love stay with us.
I felt that very strongly during my leukemic hospital stays on the oncology floor at St. Pete’s. I spent a total of almost three months in that ward, and of one thing I was quite sure: God’s love absolutely surrounded me.
I was so sure of God’s power and love that frankly whether I lived or died wasn’t an issue. (At least for me. My husband and kids and siblings weren’t so sure.) I certainly wanted to stay alive because I had things I still wanted to do – but I wasn’t afraid of dying. My faith in God was as strong as those odd-colored bags of chemotherapy drugs that decorated my IV poles. The red was lovely, though the yellow looked like pee.
Mark’s Gospel today tells us clearly that there is a relationship between faith and healing. Faith, Mark tells us, approaches Jesus in hope and expectation. Faith is confident of blessing. Faith reaches out to touch Jesus. Faith expects to be cradled in the arms of God just as an infant is lovingly cradled in its mother’s arms. Or its grandmother’s. Or its great-grandmother’s.
And faith sustains those who suffer. Faith is a means of grace, whether or not a cure happens.
Many sufferers become better even if their underlying disease or injury isn’t cured. By the Grace of God they grow stronger and can offer their gifts to the wounded of the world. One of the great mysteries – or strengths -- of our faith is that we best help others heal in the places where we ourselves have been wounded. Through Jesus, we become healers.
I’m thinking of children who have been abused. Of abused women. Members of AA and other similar groups. I think of Carol, a leukemia survivor who used to visit me at St. Pete’s. She knew all about the painful backache, the yukky drugs, the mouth sores – about NOTHING tasting good. She’d assure me that this, too, would pass. Ten years later we still correspond.
Jesus generously shares the power to heal, a power he’s certainly not stingy with. There is no power shortage, not of the power to heal socially, mentally, psychologically, physically, emotionally, or spiritually.
When the woman in the crowd touches Jesus’ robe and is healed, he knows healing power has gone forth – but he doesn’t complain. The never-ending power of God is upon him/within him/given through him -- even if the victim touches him rather than the other way around.
The victim herself is mortified. In fact, she’s scared to death. She knows she doesn’t belong in this crowd to begin with. And she’s been forced to jostle with lots of folks in order to jockey for position to get near enough to touch Jesus. She’s doing an incredibly daring thing.
What the other people in the crowd don’t know is that she is ritually unclean. According to Jewish law, every person she comes in contact with has been made ceremonially unclean. She has, to put it delicately, a female problem, and is therefore an outcast.
For the good of all, like a leper, she needs to remain far away from other people because as long as her problem persists, she carries the contagion of unholiness. Touch this woman, or be touched by her, and you can’t go to God’s Temple for a week. If it becomes known that she is putting the community at risk, she could be – she should be -- stoned to death. She’s been socially dead for a dozen years now anyway, and although people might feel bad about that, there isn’t anything they can do about it. But if she refuses to accept her socially outcast status, the community would have no choice but to remove her forcibly – fatally – before she did any more damage.
So, when Jesus singles her out as having touched him with a purpose, her joy at having been healed turns instantly to dread. Just as her life was about to begin anew, it looks as if it is about to end. That’s why she appears before Jesus with fear and trembling. She isn’t afraid Jesus will rebuke her mildly by saying, “Next time, ask first, OK?” The trouble she is in is far more grave than having been a tad presumptuous.
But to her credit, she tells what Mark describes as “the whole truth.” She could lie, claiming she has sought healing for a bad cold or a sore back. But no, she admits the nature of her ailment and you can be assured that the whole crowd has a collective sharp intake of breath. Suddenly every person there is wondering if he’d rubbed shoulders with this woman. People no doubt begin to murmur to one another, “Oh no! I think I felt her touch me! Who knows how many people she has made unclean in the last few minutes alone!”
But before the imminent panic can get rolling, Jesus does an amazing thing: he accepts this woman, he calls her “daughter,” and sends her away with a benediction. Jesus has restored her to the community and so conveys to everyone there that the contagion of holiness that Jesus bears is more powerful and more important than any potential contagion of unholiness that anyone else could possibly bear. And apparently, it’s enough to cleanse the whole crowd of people who had technically been ceremonially contaminated by her since in their jostling, she had touched them.
Touching. Touching is a repeated theme in today’s story. God uses the physical as a means of grace. Through the act of touching, faith is demonstrated and healing power is released. [Tom Holbrook, when I was ensconced at St. Pete’s with the leukemia, came to visit one day. We shared communion, and he asked if he could rub my hand. He had this little jar of some pink cream, and while we prayed together he massaged my hands. I’ll never forget that.]
Another feature in today’s stories is hurdle-leaping. Jesus twice leaps barriers put up by society and tradition.
At the house of Jairus, Jesus encounters a corpse – something devastatingly, ritually unclean. But he disregards the taboo; he reaches across the barrier, across the boundary of death, across the hurdle society places in his path, and restores the child to life. And to her family. And to her community.
What I want us to remember is what the woman who touches Jesus’ cloak in search of healing, and the daughter of Jairus – and all of us -- share. It’s a rare human being who does not at some time experience sickness, discomfort, pain, and suffering – all of which take us to a place of need. When we are really sick or in a lot of pain or very lonely or frightened, we recognize our weakness and our inability to restore ourselves on our own.
And so we pray – either formal, focused prayer or that more formless but heartfelt wordless plea to God to be present – like we did when we were little – “Look at my knee, Daddy. Look at my owie.” Even if Daddy didn’t magically heal the owie, the attention he paid it made it hurt a lot less.
Wholeness and health arise from contact with Jesus. From touching Jesus. From being touched by Jesus. And, there’s a response required. Jairus’ daughter is to get up and walk. And she eats. The people Jesus heals in the Bible stories get up and do something.
Doing doesn’t necessarily mean dancing a jig or running a marathon. It could be, as it were, cliché-ish-ly blooming in the place where we’ve been planted. The “doing” could be simply the act of listening. Or of giving. Or of smiling at someone. Regardless, the stories make it obvious that we are expected to do something when we are healed. That’s why, I think, I fully expected to beat the odds, which were frankly dismal for a woman with leukemia at age 63, and walk out of St. Peter’s alive and hearty. I had a strong sense that God still had things for me to do. I just hope that what God has in mind is more than mopping and vacuuming.