by David Baer, July 1, 2018
Text: Mark 5:21-43
Last week we heard about Jesus crossing over the sea, setting out for Gentile country on the other side. This week we skip forward to his return, which is too bad… While he was on the other side, across the border, Jesus brought healing to a man possessed by demons, and this man went on to testify to anyone who would listen about what Jesus had done for him. You see, grace multiplies grace, generosity multiplies generosity, and Jesus’ act of healing someone outside the fold of the chosen people ripples outward in blessing. It’s too bad our lectionary skips over this story about a life transformed. But after we heard last week about Jesus being a Savior who crosses over to the other side, after we remembered why this is a good thing, after we remembered that, oh yes, that’s right—Jesus is God, and so the only way we have a relationship with him is that he has crossed over to us—it’s important to know that when he does this, amazing things happen.
But now we find him back on the western shore of the lake, in his home country of Galilee. And immediately he’s met by a crowd, and among them an important man, a benefactor and leader of the synagogue named Jairus. Jairus is someone everybody knows and loves. I think of someone like Chris Kunisch at the Allendale Bar and Grill—someone who has done a lot of good for his town, universally respected and well spoken of. Jairus is desperate, because his daughter is sick and dying. Everyone in town is heartsick with him and for him. There’s a swell of love and sympathy, and they propel him down to the lakeshore where Jesus, the powerful teacher and healer, has appeared after… I don’t know… some quixotic adventure on the other side of the lake with those dirty Gentile dogs—Lord knows what that starry-eyed do-gooder Jesus sees in them. But now he’s back where he belongs, and he’s sure to help you, Jairus. Be quick, though, there’s no time to waste!
In this crowd is a woman with a flow of blood. Ancient medicine was a hit-or-miss discipline, and in her case it had been mostly miss. The gynecological problem she had doesn’t seem to be one that responded to treatment with herbal folk wisdom and blood-letting, which only made her feel worse. First century medical billing practices, however, appear to have been extremely efficient, and so her doctors succeeded in drying up her savings, if not her blood flow. She approaches Jesus with the thought, “If I just brush up against his clothing, I will be made well,” although the literal meaning of what she says to herself is “I will be saved.” Because Jesus is a Savior who promises us more than just forgiveness for our sins and eternal life after we die. To be saved is to be made well in our spirits, in our bodies, and in our relationships with others. This woman knows that contact with Jesus is the way she will be saved.
But for her, contact with anyone is forbidden by religious law. The Law of Moses said, “If a woman has a discharge of blood for many days, … all the days of the discharge she shall continue in uncleanness” (Leviticus 15:25). Anything she touched, any furniture she lay down on or sat on was considered unclean, any anybody who touched these things would be made unclean themselves. Like the lepers who lived outside the city, her life would have been controlled by rules limiting her contact with other people. So this wasn’t just a medical problem. It also broke her relationship with her community, where so long as she had this disease, she would always be an outsider.
So she shouldn’t have been there. She shouldn’t have been in the crowd, pressing up against all those people. She shouldn’t have reached out to touch Jesus’ robe. She didn’t belong there. Law and tradition dictated against it. But she was so desperate, her need so great, that she reached out to touch him anyway.
In this woman’s story we recognize the story of so many families coming across the borders of our country. When they cross between ports of entry, they break the law—a first-offense unlawful entry is a misdemeanor. But sometimes the fear of what lies behind—the threat of violent criminal gangs, and a government in their home countries too weak to protect their children—is so much greater than any obstacle they might face here, that they take the risk and break the law, so they can make a claim for asylum, which you can only do on U.S. soil.
This woman too was a law-breaker, and what’s worse, people might have accused her of stealing the benefits that belonged to someone else. After all, Jesus felt power go out of him, when she touched him and was healed. What if that power couldn’t be replenished in time? And in that moment when he was searching her out, maybe it crossed her mind that she had stolen a healing that was meant for Jairus’s daughter. Rabbi Jesus had been on his way, after all, to bless the family of someone everybody loved. What would happen when they found out that she was unclean—still unclean, according to the law, for eight days after the blood stopped flowing? What would happen when they found that she broke the law, and took a blessing that didn’t belong to her?
Now, Jesus could have spared her all of this. He could have pretended nothing happened. He could have kept going and said nothing. Maybe he would have made it to Jairus’s house before the girl died. But he didn’t do that. Jesus stopped in his tracks, turned around, and invited the woman who touched him to come forward, where everyone could see her, where she would be subjected to gasps of astonishment and derision: “Who does she think she is?” “How dare she?”
And Jesus doesn’t hurry her along, either, as she tells her story. I’ve read this text before, but this time I noticed that it says she told him “the whole truth.” And I imagine the “whole truth” includes not just the fact that she touched him, not just the fact that she was healed, but the story of her pain over these twelve years, the doctors who had taken advantage of her, the isolation from her community and the people she loved, and her fierce hope and trust that Jesus could save her. And Jesus listens to this woman’s story, to her “whole truth,” and the first word out of his mouth is “daughter.”
Imagine! Just imagine how you would have felt! To come before Jesus trembling and in fear of judgment, of condemnation… You’re someone who has lived on the outside for twelve years. And the first word out of his mouth is, “Daughter.” “Daughter” means you belong. “Daughter” means you deserve to be here, to be healed and whole. “Daughter” means “you are part of my family.” She was desperate. She broke the law. She took a chance. And Jesus calls her, “Daughter,” and he says that this faith—trusting in Jesus and his power to bless, law or no law—is what has healed her, what has saved her.
But then the community’s worst fears come true. Jesus has taken too long. It’s too late. Jairus’s daughter has died. Maybe those gathered in the crowd start saying under their breath, “We were afraid of this. That woman stole what belonged to you, Jairus. Because she was healed, your daughter wasn’t.”
We’re so accustomed to this sort of zero-sum game, where if somebody gets something, it has to be at somebody else’s expense. If we welcome the outsider, we think, their gain must be our loss. If the church recognizes and blesses the marriages of same-sex couples, as we Presbyterians do, then opposite-sex couples must somehow lose out. If we say that these lives in particular matter, that they have value, it must mean that other lives don’t. If we set a place at the table for these outsiders, it must mean there’s less to eat for everybody who’s already here. It doesn’t make sense to me, but you see this kind of zero-sum thinking everywhere. And it’s particularly odd for Christians to think this way. We ought to know better. Jesus fed thousands with one little boy’s breakfast of loaves and fishes. When we offer up our goods to him in faith, he blesses and multiplies them far beyond our imagining, so that there is more than enough to share.
And that’s what he does here too. “Do not fear, only believe,” he tells Jairus. The antidote to fear of loss is faith. It’s trust that when Jesus comes into our homes and our hearts, we are whole, we are saved. Sometimes that trust looks like an unclean woman stretching out her hand to claim a blessing no one thought she was entitled to. Sometimes that trust looks like Jairus believing that with Jesus, it’s never too late. And Jesus vindicated Jairus’s faith when he took his daughter by the hand and raised her from her deathbed and told the astonished family, “Get this child something to eat, already!” His faith, his sticking it out with Jesus after the worst had already come to pass, saved his daughter.
There’s a lot of fear out there today, a lot of you-have-to-lose-so-I-can-win rhetoric going around. What we see in today’s gospel story is that in the economy of salvation, in God’s allocation of care and healing, the outsiders are served first. The sick, the hungry, the stranger and refugee—these are the people for whom Jesus will interrupt his agenda, turn around, and offer his whole attention, for as long as it takes to offer healing and belonging. But we’re also taught that this takes nothing away from the insiders, that when Jesus gives priority to the poor and sick and outcast, it costs the insiders nothing but faith. Faith that with Jesus, there is enough for everyone. Faith that with Jesus, it’s never too late. For those who worry that a blessing for people on the outside will diminish them, Jesus says, “Do not fear, only believe!”
What does it look like for us, for people who follow Jesus, to greet the outsider, the rule-breaker, the broken and desperate people reaching out for a blessing as he does, with extravagant hospitality and generosity? It means listening to their stories, to the “whole truth.” It means that sometimes, when desperate need leads people to transgress boundaries or break rules, you let it go. It means recognizing that Jesus claims just this sort of person as a member of his family: “Daughter,” he says, or just as easily, “Son.” What if Christians were to treat undocumented immigrants, in our own communities and at the border, the way Jesus treats this woman?
Because ultimately this is what allows us to have faith in Jesus, to trust that his grace is sufficient for us too. If Jesus’ arms are long enough to embrace her, then they surely enfold us too. No matter our fears, our guilt, our physical and spiritual brokenness, when we see Jesus again and again showing us that no one is beyond mercy, no one outside the orbit of his grace, when we see him reaching across all the human barriers that divide us, then we know that there is a wideness in God’s mercy, there is a kindness in God’s justice, and that faith means trusting God’s promise, faith means giving thanks when God’s blessings fall on the least and the lost, faith means waiting for and finally receiving from the bottomless depths of God’s ever-flowing goodness. Amen.