Mark 5: 21-32
This story is entitled “The Bleeding Woman” or “The Hemorrhaging Woman.” Already, that gives us a little discomfort. This is one of those stories that makes me want to watch people. I have had a couple of opportunities to study how this story is received. As a lay servant, I took a course once with a class that was predominantly male. When we bumped up against this story, the discomfort in the room became palpable. When pushed, an older gentleman said, “My wife and I live by one agreement: I won’t clip my toe nails in the living room and she won’t talk about this stuff.” The ladies in our Monday Night Bible Study were quite different when confronted with this story. I leave to your imagination the bulk of the comments—I’ll just summarize that the consensus was that it was not likely that anyone ever tried taking that woman’s chocolate away during those twelve years. This is not one of those topics we talk about publicly so I find it extraordinary that this story ends up in three of the gospels.
So, twelve years. Twelve! Imagine that for a moment. Take a moment and put end caps around twelve years of your life. Perhaps you have been in your current position at work for twelve years or your eldest child is now twelve. Twelve years ago, we were just setting our foot into the new millennium. Think how long ago it was that we worried about the Y2K virus. We barely remember it. This is the expanse the women endured.
We are told that she suffered a great deal and that’s not hard to believe. She had been bleeding a long time. The illness had taken everything from her. Everything! What could her physical condition be? Such blood loss would have left her physically compromised. She would have been weak…frail…anemic. She had to have been frustrated, perhaps even on the brink of despair or bitterness. It says that she had gone to doctor after doctor. Don’t we all know someone who suffered ailments that took them from one doctor to the next—ailments that went undiagnosed for an extended time. That wears on a person; it wears on their spirit. Hope gives way to disillusionment and exhaustion. In that condition, it is easy to begin to believe, “What is wrong is me.” And not only did it likely corrode this woman’s hope, it also ate through her finances. We are told in Mark that she had spent all that she had and, instead of getting better, she got worse.
For this woman, a normal life would be nearly impossible, especially in the point in history this story is set. Aside from the physical effects, her plight had very severe social ramifications. Remember, this was a time when the Israelites were governed very strictly by an endless catalog of laws. The laws detailed in Leviticus make it very clear: (15:25-27)
“If a women has a discharge of blood for many days, she will be called unclean…every bed on which she lies and everything on which she sits will become unclean. Anyone who touches these items or anyone who touches or is touched by the women will become unclean and will so remain.”
The condition of this woman has left her robbed of strength and hope…broke and broken…ostracized and put down…stripped of any meaningful social contact…stripped of joy…stripped of worth…stripped of identity. In fact, in this story, the woman remains nameless.
Stepping outside of the gospel for a moment, I can’t help but think about the ways that we too are bleeding. Like the woman, we have physical conditions where one step forward yields two steps back. We have broken relationships. We are bled by the snares of addiction, temptation, and sin. We struggle against the cynical cage of materialism. Our energy is sapped by the uncertainty of work, by financial instability, and by dreams—whose flicker seems nearly spent. Weary and frustrated, we struggle upstream through the birthrights of a new generation or are weighted by the institutions of an aging one. Anxiety and uncertainty hide just behind our eyes. We are insecure in our effect, uncertain about our purpose, and tenuous about our value. We keep it well cloaked, but are we not bleeding with flaws, heartbreak, unforgiveness, bitterness, and shortcomings?
Like this women, there are times when we are devastated mentally, physically, socially, or financially. And just as she spent all of her time, money, and effort seeking a solution, so we too seek out remedies from a host of quick fixes and self-help books that crop up daily in our pop culture. But they, like her host of doctors, have left us wanting.
Given time enough, we become identified by our struggles. We are the one who drinks. We are the one with cancer. We are the one who had an affair. We are the one who uses food stamps. We are the dropout, the single mother, the one who went to jail. We are the one with piercings and tattoos. We are the momma’s boy, the racist, the homosexual. We find ourselves labeled. We are shut out, become invisible, are ostracized, and put aside. Perhaps the experience of this woman is not so unlike our own after all.
Now, in the story it says, “When she heard about Jesus…” Did you catch that—“When she heard about Jesus…” Somebody must have been talking about Jesus. Maybe there were two people talking on their way to the market or as they were leaving the synagogue. Maybe, they were talking over coffee. It is not likely that they were speaking directly to the woman for, as you remember, she was considered an outcast. Regardless, someone was talking and their words fell onto her ears and into her heart. If you ever questioned why it was important for you, as a Christian, to share your faith, here is your answer. You never know what seeds will take hold. I believe that God strategically casts us all over the place so that people can hear the Gospel and be changed.
So, when this certain woman heard about Jesus, she believed what she heard and was determined to move forward, to take a chance, to exercise her faith. A week ago, someone asked what I would be speaking about today. When shared that I was working with “The Bleeding Woman,” they said, “Ah…faith.” It’s true. I hear this story and I confirm it is about faith. But what, exactly, does that mean—faith?
There was a Jesuit priest who worked among the Native Americans in the mid 1600s and was known as the Apostle of the Mohawks. His name was Isaac Jogues. He said, “Faith is actually the light that comes from God’s grace and dawns in the soul and fortifies and illuminates the mind, granting it an undoubting assurance of hope.” (Repeat.)
That is what this woman had that so many in the crowd did not: she had a terrible, humbling affliction that brought her heart and soul to the place where it was ready to be filled with divine grace. She confirms her faith by saying it aloud. “If only I could touch even the edge of his garment, I will be made whole.” And then, she puts her faith into action and sets out to touch the garment of Jesus.
By the time we get to this part of the gospel, Jesus had gained some notoriety. Now, as he traveled from place to place, crowds formed. When I imagine that scene, it is not unlike the crowds that surround superstars of today. We know Jesus was surrounded by his inner circle and there were surely fans that followed his career and had traveled to this spot hoping for an opportunity to see him, to share his space, to witness a miracle. There would be those looking for favor from him and skeptics anxious to disprove the stories that were spreading throughout the land. There would be reporters and church leaders and guards to control the crowds. And there would be this outcast, unclean woman.
Certainly, if the crowd noticed her, they would object to her being there. If the crowd believed in the law, they would have protested her being so close to them in the event that they might be touched. Perhaps she traveled some distance so that no one would recognize her. Perhaps she had become so disposable that she was—for all intents and purposes—invisible. Perhaps their attention was so focused on the anticipated miracle at the house of Jairus, that they just didn’t see this woman crawling through the crowd.
I can picture her crawling that day. Hot, sweaty, dirty—dust clinging to her clammy skin as she struggled to keep sight of Jesus in the crowd. There would be a clamor of noise and chaos. People would be jostling one another, trying to keep up with the stream. I can see her through creeping through the roar of voices and the tangle of feet. And then—she reaches out to touch the hem of his robe.
What a risk she took. She risked exposing her weakness. She risked losing the last hope she had while being chastised for daring to seek it. She risked the bottomless grief that she would not receive the healing for which she sought. It is the desperation of her condition and the grace of her faith that provides her courage to push past the risk. And her reach out embodies her prayer: “Jesus, I need you.”
Haven’t we all been there? We all ache for healing and the reassurance that all will be made well. Whether our ache grows from physical, relational, mental, emotional, or spiritual pain, we long for a holistic renewal for our lives. All of life’s desires, wounds, and cries come together in that reach. To reach out is to acknowledge our vulnerability. We recognize that we cannot restore things on our own. Reaching out though, encompasses great possibility. Acknowledging our need can stir with a powerful gentleness the deepest healing waters in the depths of who we are.
Now, I don’t know what her exit strategy was. Did she intend to touch his robe and slink away unnoticed? Was she paralyzed by the realization of her healing? When she heard Jesus proclaim, “Somebody touched me,” did she freeze with fear?
When Jesus acknowledges that someone touched him, the crowd, the heat, the sun, the mission to Jairus’ home all pause. The woman, came trembling and dropped at his feet. Did she anticipate condemnation for breaking the law? Jesus rightly could have been very angry and could have condemned her. But Jesus does not seem to note that she is unclean. He does not seem to pay attention to judgment—a judgment which would determine that she had made him unclean. He only recognizes the draw on his power—a faith that caused him to come into her circumstances.
He listens to her story—to her whole truth—and then he says, “Daughter, your faith has healed you.” In my research for today, I found out that this is the only place in the Gospel where Jesus calls anyone daughter. In so doing, he pulls her into his family. Now notice this: In the beginning of the scripture, she is referred to as a certain woman—“A certain woman was there who had been bleeding for twelve years.” She could be anyone. She is quite anonymous. Then, she pressed toward Jesus and became “a somebody.” Jesus recognized, “Somebody touched me.” So, she went from being a certain woman to being “a somebody.” And then, Jesus uses his term of endearment and she goes from being a certain woman—to being “a somebody”—to being a daughter. He has brought her home. This had to be a Praise God moment.
Jesus says to the woman, “Go in peace and be freed of your suffering.” Scholars suggest that this blessing comes from a common saying of the period. The Greek blessing is literally translated as, “be healed of your disease.” Its intent, however, is more, “take care of yourself and remain healthy.” It is very possible, then, that Jesus is not bestowing some mystical healing verse on this woman. Rather, he is urging her to stay healthy and to be whole. And with that, the pause button is released and Jesus and the crowd move on to the house of Jairus.
Now, to call this a story of faith and to move on is to miss a vitally important message. In a recent conference of Christians, people were asked to determine with whom they identified. Of the six hundred participants, hundreds shared that they identified with the bleeding woman. A hundred or so more identified with Jairus, who sought help on someone else’s behalf. A fairly substantial number identified with the crowd. Only six from the six hundred identified with Jesus. Now maybe some kept their hands down fearing to seem arrogant. Still, there is something wrong here. Isn’t this exactly what we are supposed to do? Are we not supposed to identify with Jesus…act like Jesus…be like Jesus?
Jesus did not fear this woman. He did not label her. He did not endorse, condone, or recognize her isolation. He did not dismiss or shirk away. He embraced her and made her whole. Can’t we do that? Can’t we stop labeling and pushing away? Can’t we recognize those who are hiding in the crowd, those who are crawling through life, those who are downtrodden and seemingly untouchable? Can’t we reach out and include them in our greater family. We have the power to wash away all that separates us from them. We have the power to bless them with our love.
This is a lesson of faith. But it is also a lesson from Jesus on how to be the blessing. We have an opportunity here to be made healthy and whole ourselves—to let our hearts be touched and to touch others. We can, on the one hand, reach for of our Lord and be touched with a joy that fills our souls and, with the other hand, unshackle the burden of someone else and in so doing, be graced with a faith and a love that will change us forever.