From the Back of the Crowd

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Ginny Tobiassen, Wake Forest University Baptist Medical Center
Winston-Salem, North Carolina
June 28, 2009

Text: Mark 5:25-34

Copyright 2009 by Ginny Hege Tobiassen.  All rights reserved.

“Now, there was a woman.”

Right away, these few words tell us that today’s gospel story is going to be about someone among society’s second class—or lower.  Women in first-century Jewish society were of subordinate status.  So it is clear from the start that we are looking here at a story about someone already somewhat marginalized simply by being born female.  We might say: “Now, there was a woman: Strike one.

But let’s look further at this woman’s story.  The text tells us: “There was a woman who had been suffering from hemorrhages for twelve years.”

To understand what this meant to her life requires a little more history.  The life of the ancient Israelites came to be defined by a series of sharply drawn boundaries designating basic categories of clean and unclean.  “Unclean” did not necessarily mean “bad” or “evil”; some things that were “unclean” were also entirely natural and necessary. Corpses, for example, were unclean, but that didn’t mean family members shouldn’t wash the bodies of their loved ones and prepare them for burial.  When they did so, however, through contact with the unclean they became contaminated themselves and were ritually impure.  A person who was ritually impure could not worship in the Temple until he or she was made pure again, usually by the passage of a prescribed period of time along with a ritual bath.

Like contact with a corpse, contact with blood, or bleeding itself, made a person ritually impure.  Now imagine: Here in our story is a woman who has been bleeding for 12 years.  For 12 years she has been cut off from community worship, because she cannot enter the Temple.  What’s more, impurity was contagious; if this woman touched another person, that person became impure as well.  What does this mean for a woman who has been bleeding for 12 years? Twelve years without human touch.  Twelve years in a lonely prison of ritual impurity.  She “had been suffering from hemorrhages for twelve years”: Strike two.

Next verse: “She had endured much under many physicians, and had spent all that she had.”

Let’s realize first that this is not the language of healing.  The text does not say, “She had sought the help of many physicians.” It does not say, “She had been cared for by many physicians.”  Let me read it again: She had endured much under many physicians.  Medicine, such as it was, was highly primitive; even those with good intentions had only folk cures to offer. The treatment was often worse than the disease and usually didn’t work. Many charlatans no doubt knew perfectly well that their cures didn’t work but stood ready to take advantage of the sick by charging outrageous prices for their phony, sometimes painful, sometimes downright harmful treatments.

And what had this woman gained through her contact with many physicians? What was the reward for her endurance? She had spent all that she had.  Whatever income she might have made before she fell ill; whatever possessions she might once have had to provide comfort for herself; everything was gone.  The wording of this verse—“She had spent all that she had”—suggests that what little had formerly belonged to her, had been her own; that is, she was a single woman, with no family, probably because of the long impurity that kept her isolated.  She was alone, with no means of supporting herself.  Her illness had reduced her to the most dire poverty imaginable.  “She had spent all that she had”: Strike three.

It is remarkable that the story of this character is even being told.  Here is a human being with three strikes against her.  She is a woman.  She is sick.  She is poor.  She is out.  Out on the margins of society, even beyond the margins of society.  We talk a lot in divinity school about people who are “marginalized,” meaning that because of some characteristic—often one over which they have no control, something they were born with, such as skin color, sex, or sexual orientation—they are gradually pushed to the far edge of the social circles in which policies are determined, decisions get made, and people have a voice. Far away from the centers of those circles, a person on the margins is practically voiceless.

But there is a space even farther to the outside, beyond the margins.  It is a space into which people are pushed as one thing after another goes wrong in their lives.  This is what has happened to the character in our story.  Born a woman—strike one—she begins at some point in her life to suffer from ill health.  Ill health drives her into poverty.  I can’t say for sure what it was like in Jesus’ time, but in our own time it seems to me that the only person more invisible than a sick person is a poor person.  This woman was so far beyond the margins that not only could people not hear her voice; they couldn’t even see her.

And so at first almost no one noticed when this woman committed an act of breathtaking boldness. “She came up behind him in the crowd and touched his cloak.”  This was a serious breach of social and ritual boundaries. Recall that because of her impurity, anyone she touched was also contaminated.  The Mercer Bible Commentary says, “She has no right to jeopardize Jesus’ ritual status by touching him.”

Also, the woman’s belief that touching Jesus’ cloak will heal her suggests that her society included magical healers who charged for their services.  If Jesus was a healer for hire, then any power that might rub off from his clothing was his property; to access that power without permission might be seen as stealing.  Once again: She had no right. And yet she threw herself forward and seized Jesus’ cloak. What nerve!  What was she thinking?

Significantly, we know what she is thinking, because the narrator tells us.  This woman is not invisible to the author of the book of Mark. Nor is she voiceless. Far from it: she is a central character in the story, and the author affirms her action by giving voice to her expression of faith, allowing us to hear her thoughts.  We know why she is trying to touch Jesus’ cloak.  “She had heard about Jesus, and she came up behind him in the crowd and touched his cloak, for she said, ‘If I but touch his clothes, I will be made well.’”

The book of Mark—what a wonderful book!  Scholars believe it is the earliest of the gospels, and it boils with action, unedited, unfiltered.  It’s a noisy book; the heavens are torn open, demons scream at Jesus, and the crowd is everywhere, uncontrollable.

I used to like a musical treatment of this story called “I Quietly Turned to You.”  But I don’t like it so much anymore, because frankly, reading this story again, I cannot envision this as a quiet moment.  Imagine it:  Jesus has been summoned by a synagogue official to come and lay his hands on a dying child.  Responding to the summons, he and the disciples are surrounded by many people: “a large crowd followed him and pressed in on him.”  You can feel the press of bodies all around, the mass of people hurrying forward, leaning in, wanting to see Jesus, to watch what he does, to hear whether he says anything.  The dust must be terrible as their feet kick up the dirt from the road.  The noise must be tremendous.  And from the back of this pressing, hurrying, boiling crowd comes this poor, dying woman.  It’s hard to imagine how she had the strength to press through dozens of bodies.  It doesn’t feel like something she would have done quietly.  It is a desperate summoning of all her remaining strength, a plunging forward.  It feels like a shout.

It feels that way to Jesus, too; because suddenly, he stops.  “Immediately aware that power had gone forth from him, Jesus turned about in the crowd and said, ‘Who touched my clothes?’”

It’s worth noting that throughout most of Mark, Jesus seems unable to control the motion of the crowd; in this wild, raw book, Jesus seems practically yanked from place to place by heavenly forces.  Yet in this moment he chooses to show that he is very much in control.  He stops.  He turns. The crowd stops.  The dust begins to settle as everyone falls still.  Now things do get quiet—very quiet.  The disciples protest: “You see the crowd pressing in on you; how can you say, ‘Who touched me?’”  Jesus, ignoring them, continues to simply scan the faces, the bodies in the crowd: “He looked all around to see who had done it.”

Only two people in this story know what is going on: Jesus, and the woman.  The text reveals the interior experience of each: The woman “felt in her body that she was healed of her disease.” Jesus is “aware that power had gone forth from him.”  In the middle of the middle of this story, here at the absolute climax, there are really only two characters: Jesus, and the woman; and they are the only ones who know; and they both know.  This invisible woman from beyond the margins of society, this woman who according to the rules of that society had no right to reach out for healing, has reached out anyway; and now she is the only person besides Jesus who knows what’s going on.  Not only is she healed, she is brought into the center of the story, where she shares the space of knowledge with Christ himself.  It is a powerful, incontrovertible affirmation of her right to act as she did; her right to seek healing; her God-given right to be visible.

She “fell down before him, and told him the whole truth.  He said to her, ‘Daughter, your faith has made you well; go in peace, and be healed of your disease.’”

What just happened here?  What does Jesus mean: “Your faith has made you well”? We often assume a simplistic cause and effect: the depth of this woman’s faith caused her touch of the cloak to heal her. But perhaps Jesus referred to the way this woman’s faith motivated her to take a chance on broaching so many social and ritual boundaries; to the way her faith empowered her, despite her illness, to hurl herself forward in hope; to the way her faith helped her shut her ears to the voices of the naysayers, the proper ones, the visible members of society, who would likely have told her she had no right.

What, after all, if her touch had contaminated him, made him ritually impure?  What would this have meant for his ministry? Of course we know that not only did this not happen; the opposite happened, the impossible.  By healing her of her disease, Jesus’ purity made her clean.  She will be able to rejoin the community; to worship in the Temple; to be touched, even embraced, by others.

But still—she had no right.  What a terrible risk she took!  When this story takes place, after all, Jesus is on his way to heal the daughter of the leader of a synagogue, an important man—no strikes against him!—someone important enough to approach Jesus from the front and boldly ask for his help; not a woman who has to hurl herself into his wake to touch his cloak and perhaps steal his power.  What if it really had been a theft? What if there was only so much power to go around? In that case, shouldn’t healing have been saved for the people who could pay for it?

We listen to this story rather often.  Let us write ourselves now into the text, and ask ourselves: What would we have done? Who are we in the story?

Let’s say we’re the disciples.  In other stories, the disciples often seem to imagine themselves as Jesus’ security detail, keeping the crowd back, making sure he wasn’t troubled by annoying, unimportant people like children and women. Evidence of the text suggests that if we were disciples, we might have been angry at this woman’s impertinence—had we seen her coming; we likely would have scolded her, pushed her away.

Or let us imagine ourselves as the crowd.  Why did Jesus always draw such a crowd?  Because he was a sensation.  The crowd is everywhere in Mark, constantly surrounding Jesus, exclaiming things like, “We have never seen anything like this!” Jesus is so new, so exciting; the crowd has to follow him to see what he will do.  But I guarantee you: if things started to go badly for him; if something went wrong; if people felt he had made a fool of himself, become a laughingstock; the same crowd would still follow him, but this time they would follow him to watch him go down.  We know that this is true, because we read the covers of People magazine at the grocery store.  And we know that this is true, because we have read the book of Mark.  Our evidence of crowd behavior comes not only from our own experience, but from the gospel text.  So, if we were the crowd in this story, what does the text suggest we would do about the woman throwing herself forward to touch Jesus’ cloak?

Well, probably nothing; we wouldn’t notice her.  She wasn’t new or exciting, or in any way important. Presumably when we realized that Jesus was looking for someone, we would have looked around as well—but if we were like the typical crowd in the gospels, we would have been just as happy to see her punished as to see her healed.  All the crowd wants is some entertainment.

But—sticking with scriptural evidence, here—we know that we are not the disciples. We know that we are not the crowd.  1 Corinthians 12:27: “Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it.”  We are the body of Christ.  We don’t need to write ourselves into this story; Saint Paul has done it for us.  We are not the disciples keeping people away from Jesus, or the crowd pressing around Jesus to see some entertainment.  We, the church, are the body of Christ, and this poor, dying, invisible woman has just hurled herself from the back of the crowd and seized the edge of our cloak, hoping to be healed.

What do we do?

If we are the body of Christ, do we not feel our connection with the one who hurled herself into our wake, calling for healing? Do we not turn and say, “Who touched me?” And as the body of Christ here on earth, do we not respond to her faith by doing everything we can to promote her well-being?  Granted that we do not have the divine power to heal by touch, do we not have a responsibility to help the sick, poor, and invisible by using what we have been given?

In American society, we are not the marginalized.  We are not the invisible.  Most of us here must acknowledge that our race, our education levels, and our income place us among the visible ones in society: the ones who participate in decision-making, the ones with the power to effect change.  Will we disappoint the faith of the invisible who look to us for help? Or will we use our visibility as a tool to help us do the work of Christ?

We have a moral crisis in our nation:  People grow sick, and they endure much, and they are spending all that they have.  In our gospel story today, Jesus’ affirmation of the woman’s action should be a lesson to us that human beings have a right to ask for healing.  How does the body of Christ respond?

This is the question we leave with today.  We may each answer in a different way; but it is vital that all of us think hard and prayerfully about the question, and contribute our thoughts so that the body of Christ has a voice in this debate.  The body of Christ, who believes that no child of God should go unseen, unheard or unhelped.  The body of Christ, who shares a space of connection with those in need. The body of Christ our Lord, who turns and says, “Who touched me?” Jesus seeks out the invisible and affirms their faith, their hope, their right to be healed.  As the body of Christ, we cannot do otherwise.  Pray that the church may be faithful to its calling; that one day this nation will no longer say, “Your sickness has made you poor, and your poverty has made you invisible,” but only, “Your faith has made you well.”

This sermon is part of a new series compiled by the NC Council of Churches in conjunction with our lectionary-based worship resource Acts of Faith.  We believe that issues of peace and justice can be expressed in the worship life of congregations, and we remain committed to providing accessible and relevant resources to make this a reality.  This sermon was used with the permission of the author, and the views expressed in it are solely the author’s. Please contact us if you are interested in submitting one of your sermons for consideration.

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