Sermon for September 16th, 2018
43 Now there was a woman who had been suffering from hemorrhages for twelve years; and though she had spent all she had on physicians, no one could cure her. 44 She came up behind him and touched the fringe of his clothes, and immediately her hemorrhage stopped. 45 Then Jesus asked, “Who touched me?” When all denied it, Peter said, “Master, the crowds surround you and press in on you.” 46 But Jesus said, “Someone touched me; for I noticed that power had gone out from me.” 47 When the woman saw that she could not remain hidden, she came trembling; and falling down before him, she declared in the presence of all the people why she had touched him, and how she had been immediately healed. 48 He said to her, “Daughter, your faith has made you well; go in peace.”
Miracles: Who Touched Me?
Football season is now upon us, and for some people that means a difficult choice on Sunday mornings. By the time Bobby arrived at his friend's house to watch the game, the first quarter was more than halfway over. “Why are you so late?” asked his friend. “Because I couldn’t decide between going to church and going to the football game," said Bobby. "So I tossed a coin and asked God to help me decide.” His friend looked puzzled: “That shouldn’t have taken too long.” “Well," said Bobby, "I had to toss it 35 times.”
My thanks to those of you who only flipped the coin once this morning, and are here as a result! While the rest of the world focuses on touch-downs, this morning our scripture passage focuses on an entirely different kind of touch: the woman who touches the fringe of Jesus' clothes, and is miraculously healed by her faith.
We have been exploring for several weeks now the "miracles of Jesus," but just like other miracles we have discussed, this one might more accurately be labeled a miracle *near* Jesus, or through Jesus...since Jesus himself doesn't actually DO anything to initiate the miracle, and he makes it clear to the woman in question that her faith is what has made her well.
And also as usual, I'm less interested the "miracle" than I am in other things this story points us to, like "What does a miraculous faith look like?" and "Who are we in this story?" More on those questions later.
First, some necessary background: Turn with me in your Bibles to the 3rd book of the Hebrew Scriptures, the Book of Leviticus, chapter 15. The chapter is subtitled "concerning bodily discharges." These are rules about who is allowed or not allowed to enter into the temple for worship in ancient Israel. Although I won't even pretend that ancient Israel was a model of gender equality, please do notice that in this case, the first half of the chapter pertains to men, and the second half to women, and the rules are pretty much the same. We'll start reading at verse 19 (women).
"When a woman has a discharge of blood that is her regular discharge from her body, she shall be in her impurity for seven days, and whoever touches her shall be unclean until the evening. Everything upon which she lies during her impurity shall be unclean; everything also upon which she sits shall be unclean. Whoever touches her bed shall wash his clothes, and bathe in water, and be unclean until the evening. Whoever touches anything upon which she sits shall wash his clothes, and bathe in water, and..." so on and so forth. You get the idea.
This may sound a bit excessive to us in the 21st century, but in a positive light, I think you can also look at it as the very beginning of a social concern with health and sanitation. Wash your hands (or other parts) before you go to a public place with lots of people. And do your laundry. Hospitals today take bodily discharges of any kind, from any gender or any age, very, very seriously. But in ancient Israel, people were still figuring things out--what's safe, what's dangerous, what's normal, and how to balance care and concern for society with care and concern for the individual. Where there was any doubt, they tended to favor the good of society over the good of the individual.
Skip down to verse 25:
"If a woman has a discharge of blood for many days, not at the time of her impurity, or if she has a discharge beyond the time of her impurity, all the days of the discharge she shall continue in uncleanness; as in the days of her impurity, she shall be unclean. 26 Every bed on which she lies during all the days of her discharge shall be treated as the bed of her impurity" ... and so on and so forth.
Menorrhagia is the clinical term for uterine bleeding that is abnormally frequent, irregular, or profuse. Today, it affects 53 out of 1,000 women, so it's not rare, but through a variety of medical treatments and modern conveniences, those affected are able to live normal, healthy, sanitary lives.
In first century Israel, however, that wasn't the case. The woman in today's scripture passage, according to those rules from Leviticus, would have been deemed perpetually unclean. She would have been required to live outside the city, away from family, away from safety, protection, and all human touch. When going into the city, she would have been required to announce herself loudly and constantly, so that people would know to stay away from her, because anyone she touched would also become unclean. After 12 years of this, we read that she had exhausted all of her resources. I imagine she was pretty lonely, pretty desperate, too.
And yet, what Jesus saw in her, and what all future generations would remember her for, was none of these things. It was her faith.
So what does faith look like?
I think we have this notion in our minds that faith equals piety. It means being a good person and doing the right thing. Going to church, being a good neighbor, not cheating on your income taxes, following the rules.
But this woman breaks all the rules. She's supposed to announce herself, and yet she sneaks up behind Jesus so quietly he doesn't even notice. She's not supposed to touch anyone, and yet she probably touches *everyone* forcing her way through the crowd. She takes something from Jesus (in this case, power) without even asking, and when he asks who did it, at first she denies it along with everyone in the crowd.
What does faith look like? For some Christians, faith means believing certain things about Jesus--like that he is the son of God, born of the virgin Mary, who died for our sins and was raised again on the third day. Faith means acknowledging Jesus as your personal lord and savior and inviting him into your heart.
At the precise moment when the woman's faith heals her, she could not possibly have known some of these things about Jesus. Some of them haven't even happened yet. After she is healed, she expresses no desire to become his follower or disciple--she only comes forward when it is no longer possible for her to hide. The only thing she clearly believes at the start of this story is that somehow, in some way that she probably couldn't even express, something about Jesus (whoever he might be) could change her life.
What does faith look like? For some people (especially intellectual Presbyterians) faith is some hazy, abstract theological concept that is hard to define and even harder to demonstrate evidence of in our day-to-day lives. We like to think about it, we like to talk about it, but we have no idea what it really is.
For the woman in this story, faith is real, tangible, concrete and it boils down to just one simple thing: Reaching out and touching the fabric of Jesus' robe. That's all she wants to do, that's all she needs to do, that's all she believes in. Incidentally, tangible literally means touchable.
So what does faith look like? Sometimes it looks desperate, willing to break the rules and sacred traditions. Sometimes faith just looks like need--the need for a changed life, the need for something or someone to touch.
Ernest Campbell was a Presbyterian minister and the pastor of the historic Riverside Church in New York. Someone once asked him to explain the crisis in our churches, the decline of faith in the 20th century. He responded, "The reason we seem to lack faith in our time is that we are not doing anything that requires it.
To put that another way: If you want to be like the woman in this story, if you want your faith to make you well...then ask yourself, what are you doing that requires faith? Are you desperate enough to break some rules, some traditions, and social conventions in order to get close enough to touch Jesus?
It's also possible that we are not the woman in this story. We might be the crowd or the disciples--when Jesus asked who touched him, the crowd "all denied it." The truth is (as Peter points out) there were probably many people who touched Jesus, and they knew they were touching him...but when asked they still denied it. Sometimes we press in close to Jesus, we come to church, we read the Bible, we do all the things that Christians are supposed to do...except allow our lives to be transformed by that touch. Maybe we're afraid of that kind of power. Our perhaps, once again, we just don't realize the depth of our need.
Who are we in this story?
There's one more possibility, of course. I think that more often than not, in this story we, as Christians, are actually supposed to be Jesus. We are the ones who carry his name (Christ-ians) in this world. And people come to us, broken, desperate, in great need.
We know that allowing them to touch us...would cost us. It would drain us of power, energy, resources that we'd rather use elsewhere.
We could turn them away, because chances are they broke the law, or broke our rules, or violated our traditions to get to us.
We could make them consent to all of our doctrines and creeds and statements of belief in order to prove to us that they really come in good faith.
We could just ignore them after they touch us...after all, they've already taken what they came for and would probably be content just to stay hidden in the crowd.
Or. Or... we could stop and freeze everything the second we felt that touch.
We could seek out the lost the broken, the desperate, hiding in our midst.
We could welcome them into our family (that's what it means when you call someone "daughter" or "son").
And rather than pointing their attention to what they took from us (power, energy, resources)...we could point their attention to what is beautiful, valuable, and worthy in them.
My daughter...my son...YOUR faith has made YOU well. Go in peace.