16C Healing of woman bent over. Teaching moment
August 25, 2019. Jeremiah 1:4-10, Luke 13: 1-17 Holy Spirit
We are making rounds with Dr. Gregory House and his select group of fellows at Princeton-Plainsboro Teaching Hospital. House is unquestionably unconventional,/ but he is an expert teacher and healer. He is trying to explain basics of diagnosing and healing disease. Suddenly he becomes interested in another physician’s patient who has had a disease for 18 years that no one has been able to cure. The patient is bent over, almost in a fetal position, making eye contact only with her feet. The nurses whisper, “No one has visited her in the three months she has been in this hospital.” House seizes the “teaching moment”, diagnoses the condition, shows his fellows how to restore this woman to new life. In walks the patient’s real doctor who is furious that Dr. House has interfered with the workup and diagnosis of “his” patient. ///
But today we learn that Jesus is the real master of seizing the “teaching” moment. He is teaching in the synagogue in the south, not on his home territory, half way between Galilee and Jerusalem. This is one of two Sabbath stories occurring during this journey and Jesus’ last appearance in a synagogue.1 Which Hebrew scripture is he discussing? Is it today’s reading from Jeremiah? “The Lord touched my mouth; and said to me, ‘I have put my words in your mouth. Today I appoint you to overthrow, to build and to plant.”/ As he is teaching, out of the corner of his eye, Jesus sees on the periphery of the synagogue the bent over woman. He calls her to the center, does the unthinkable,/ talks to her, touches her, and cures her on the Sabbath no less. The leader of the synagogue is furious!/ Jesus then seizes that moment with that woman/ ignored for years in order to teach us, his disciples, his lay leaders, his vestry, what the scriptures say/ what should be our mission statement.. building up, planting new life/ especially for those that the world ignores and rejects. /
Now, certainly Jesus heals out of compassion for the sick, but notice that each of his healing miracles is unique. Some healings require faith, but not this one. The unnamed bent over woman never speaks. Some people are asked if they want to be healed, but not this woman. Sometimes Jesus heals by touching, at other times he is not even present with the ill person. Each healing is a “teaching moment,” giving us a specific lesson about how we are healed and how we are to heal others today, 2000 years later,// but all too often the teaching moment of the miracle is passed over because we do not get past the “miraculous” packaging of the healing and the endless issue of “did it really happen.” Each of Jesus’ healings and the reactions to them are lessons for change in our lives today. We must get inside the miracle, let the miracle get inside of us so that our eyes will be opened, our ears unstopped, and our bodies raised up.2
Jesus’ healing of the bent over woman is reminiscent of two other stories of Jesus healing on the sabbath which were opposed by the religious leaders: the healing a man with a withered hand (Luke 6:6-11) and the healing the man with dropsy (Luke 14:1-6). This story also points to a series of Jesus’ healings of every category of people whom society’s purity laws specifically exclude, label unclean, distance at varying degrees from worship: menstruating women, lepers, Samaritans, Gentiles, tax collectors, prostitutes, adulteresses, women in general, children, people with physical and mental disease, the dead./ Jesus’ healing of today’s bent over woman is also one of many stories of Jesus’ liberating and startling attitude towards women. This woman’s ailment may be symbolic of a society that literally has bent over the spirit of women. That this woman finally stands erect in a male religious space represents not just a cure, but a healing. It reveals the dawn of a new world order.2
Unfortunately, in many countries our religious institutions still disallow equal status for women even if it is granted in the rest of the society. But the living Word can not be stifled even if it takes our church one century to include Gentiles, eighteen centuries to include slaves, or twenty-one centuries to include women. 2/
The teaching moment in each miracle stories remind us that the way things are is not the way they will always be, and that there is a greater power caring for all of us. We can all see miracles happening every day if we only are open to God at work continually in our lives. The most obvious miracles I see daily are people recovering from addiction to alcohol and drugs whose lives and the lives of those they love were destroyed by their disease. These miracles are living proof that God’s will for us is not chaos, but wholeness. /
The major problem, however, with miracles is that it is difficult to witness a miracle in someone else without wanting one for ourselves or our loved ones.1 Not everyone who prays for a miracle seems to get one, and some people get one without asking, like our bent over woman. Religious people spend much time looking for a formula for a miracle. Is it two parts prayer, three parts faith, one part good works?3 Instead of looking for the teaching moment in the miracle, we study the healing stories to find out who does what right, hoping we will become irresistible to God. Only this does not work. A major teaching moment in the healing stories is that God rarely does anything the same way twice.
One of the most frequent pastoral questions is, “why did the miracle not happen to me or my loved one”? One of the meanest things religious people do is blame the absence of a miracle on a lack of faith. Barbara Brown Taylor 3 writes that we tend to believe that miracles work along the same lines as those strength tests at the state fair, the ones with a big thermometer and red ringer at the top. It is all a matter of how hard we can hit the thing with a sledgehammer. If we are really strong, we can ring the bell and win the prize. In other words, miracles are something we control. Only this is idolatry, one more attempt to be in charge of our lives, instead of owning up to the truth that every single breath we take is a free surprise and miracle from God. To concentrate on the strength of our own belief is to practice magic. To concentrate on the strength of God is to practice faith.
I remember visiting Federal Judge Richard Arnold shortly before he died. Previously he had been on a short list for the Supreme Court. Clinton appointed RBG instead! A St. Vincent’s hospital chaplain visits Richard asking him what to pray for. The judge says he is hoping for containment of his cancer. The chaplain responds, “Let’s pray for containment.” No,” retorts Richard Arnold, “let’s pray for a cure.” At that same visit Judge Arnold is writing his obituary as a gift to his family. Here is a man, not giving up on the miracle, but turning the results over to God./
It also helps to remember that Jesus prays for a miracle on the night before he dies.3 “For you all things are possible,” he prays to his Abba. “ Remove this cup from me.” Only when he opens his eyes the cup is still there. Does Jesus lack faith? The miracle is that he drinks the cup, believing in the power of God more than he believes in his own. Living that kind of life is always a miracle, living constantly in a teaching moment, knowing that every miracle is a resurrection and believing that in every Good Friday experience where the miracle does not seem to materialize, God still promises a resurrection. We must be open to it. It is there in front of us./ One person’s illness brings the whole family together. A doctor whose mother dies of cancer spends the rest of his life working on a cure. A person who is ill as well as his whole family learn what is really important in life. A patient with cancer spends every afternoon sharing strength and hope with others recently diagnosed with cancer. A man who is dying is moved by the people he sees in the hospital waiting room who do not have the support system he has had. He tells his church who begins ministering to patients in that oncology waiting area to honor him after he dies. A mother whose son commits suicide starts an organization to alert people to the signs of depression and suicide. These stories go on and on.. This is the miracle…Every one of these healings, every one of these miracles is like a hole poked in the opaque fabric of time and space. The kingdom breaks through and for a moment or two we see how things will be,/ or how they really are right now in God’s mind. These are the miracles many people miss. Keep looking for them. And keep sharing your stories about them/… especially if those miracles occur on the Sabbath!./ /
1 Richard Swanson, in Provoking the Gospel of Luke, A Storyteller’s Commentary, Year C, p. 183.
2Jeffrey John, in The Meaning in the Miracles, pp. 1-33, 203-213.
3Barbara Brown Taylor, “The Problem with Miracles,” in Bread for Angels, pp. 136-140.