Sixth Sunday after Pentecost
Last week we heard a story from Mark’s Gospel about the disciples and Jesus in a boat heading “to the other side”—meaning Gentile territory—when a storm came up. It’s hard to know whether the disciples were more frightened by heading into the unknown or by the weather. (I’m very disappointed that the lectionary skips over the next part of Mark’s Gospel because it includes a really great story about Jesus casting demons into a herd of pigs, so I invite you to go home and read it.) Meanwhile, today’s reading picks up with Jesus and the disciples coming BACK to Galilee from “the other side.”
Mark’s Gospel includes many such journeys of Jesus crisscrossing back and forth over a variety of borders, making the point that Jesus was no respecter of the boundary walls that humans erect. Jesus did not respect the social class structure of his society. Instead of following the norm, Jesus created his own path, entirely new and unexpected, always leading from the heart of God directly to the needs of the people.
In first century Palestine, a person’s place on the social scale dictated who could interact with whom and how. A person’s importance and options were determined by things like power, wealth, sexual status, and race. (You know, totally different from how it works today!) It was an elaborate, multi-faceted web, and I don’t know all the rules, but I want to list four that are pertinent to today’s reading.
- Females and children (and particularly female children) were at the bottom of the social ladder;
- Females in public were prohibited from approaching, talking to, or touching males to whom they were not related;
- Menstruating women had to segregate themselves from the rest of society during their period; and
- Never, ever, ever touch a dead body, because doing so defiles a person.
Trespassing across any of these boundaries made a person “unclean” and required an elaborate series of purification rituals in order to be restored to one’s place on the honor scale again. That’s why Jesus often concluded a healing by telling the person he’s cured, “Go and show yourselves to the priests.” Being made well involved not only a physical improvement, but also being restored to one’s place in society. All of this is backstory to today’s Gospel reading in which Jesus rapidly and dramatically crossing over “to the other side” again and again until, frankly, it’s challenging to determine where “this side” ends and “that side” begins.
The story starts by the lakeshore, where a huge crowd has gathered to greet Jesus as he disembarks from his trip to “the other side.” The crowd makes way, however, for a top-tier religious leader who comes into their midst. This leader, Jairus, is the first in this story to cross the line, by showing extraordinary respect to this wandering prophet Jesus. Jairus kneels at Jesus’ feet, begging Jesus to come and heal his daughter who is so sick she’s about to “cross over to the other side.” And, of course, Jesus goes with him.
On the way, however, Jesus encounters a person who’s so far down the social ladder that she’s even beneath the bottom rung. In society’s terms she was always on “the other side” from good, Temple-going, Bible-believing people. Since bleeding for one week made a woman unclean, part of the problem is obvious right away: she’s been bleeding for twelve straight years. Meanwhile, she’s also financially broke because she’s spent all her money on healthcare, but her chronic illness seems to be getting worse, not better. In every way she could be impure by that day’s standards, this anonymous woman was impure. She shouldn’t have been in public at all, much less touching Jesus.
After 12 years, though, she’s had enough. She’s hanging on the very last thread of hope, about to fall over into despair, so what has she got left to lose? So she reaches out across all the boundaries, journeying through illegal territory, to touch the hem of the robe of the healer who’s on the other side.
And then everything happens at once. She feels an immediate relief of her symptoms, even as Jesus feels power go out from him. Against all the rulebooks, Jesus is NOT made unclean by the woman’s touch; instead she is made clean by his touch! But, as is so often the case, she is not made completely well until she is able to tell her story. She violates more social rules by speaking to Jesus, a man she doesn’t know. Jesus doesn’t withdraw from her. Instead, his reaction explodes the whole map of social conventions.
Instead of reprimanding the woman for touching him or speaking to him, Jesus calls her “daughter,” immediately conveying upon her family membership—which would have made their interaction safe. Then he tells her that her faith has made her well—higher praise than he has ever given any of his male disciples in Mark’s Gospel. (Remember how last week we heard Jesus refer to his disciples as people of “little faith”?).
In his acknowledgement of her, Jesus restores this woman to her community, and makes her socially acceptable again even without any rituals. Jesus crosses over to the other side, bringing her with him from sickness into health, from shame into honor, from being outside the human family to being inside the very family of God.
The whole scene brings to mind a sermon preached by Dr. Martin Luther King at the National Cathedral in Washington just four days before he was assassinated in 1968. King claimed that whatever our differences, our mutual vulnerability and humanity unites us deeply:
“We are tied together in the single garment of destiny, caught in an inescapable network of mutuality. And whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly. For some strange reason I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be. And you can never be what you ought to be until I am what I ought to be. This is the way God’s universe is made; this is the way it is structured.”
But let’s not forget that all of this amazing boundary-crossing and miraculous healing has interrupted Jesus’ intended mission—going to Jairus’ house to heal his daughter. While Jesus is still speaking to the unnamed woman, a servant arrives to tell Jairus that his daughter has died, crossed over to the other side. Everything has been tried; everything has failed. Don’t trouble the teacher any further. But Jesus seems unfazed by this news, and has the gall to admonish the grieving father, saying, “Do not fear! Only believe!” Jairus, who had just witnessed first-hand what Jesus could do, leads Jesus to his home.
When they get there, the mourners have determined that the family’s situation is beyond hope. They laugh at Jesus when he doesn’t agree. But Jesus just crosses over their skepticism, bringing his dearest disciples and the girls’ parents with him. He goes into the little girl’s room, and—seeing her dead body—Jesus crosses over to the other side again. Instead of honoring the rule that, in order to remain free from contamination he should refrain from touching a dead person—Jesus reaches out and takes her hand. “Talitha, cum,” he instructs. “Little Girl, get up.”And once again, the natural order of things is reversed. Jesus is not made unclean by touching death; instead, the little girl is made alive again. Then Jesus restores the family structure by asking the parents to take care of their child again, to get her something to eat.
Imagine the mourners watching this and whispering to each other, “We were so certain that she was beyond hope. Maybe we’re not so good at telling the difference between a life with possibilities and a hopeless case. Or maybe she really was dead, just as we thought, in which case Jesus brought her back to life? Either way, we have to pay attention to this Jesus.” Who knows? Maybe some of them crossed over to Jesus’ side after this day.
I wonder how many of you came to worship this morning feeling like the hemorrhaging woman—struggling with debt, loneliness, pain, grief, or depression. Maybe you’re wondering if, finally, you are out of options, beaten at last. But you have heard that Jesus heals. And even if you aren’t sure Jesus would be willing to heal you, you figure you might as well try to grab Jesus’ shirttail in one last ditch effort, hoping against hope that there is still a possibility for new life for you.
Or perhaps you’ve arrived today feeling like Jairus, someone for whom the crowds typically part, someone with privileges you never earned, but have anyway. Yet your heart breaks for someone who is facing a crisis beyond your control. Maybe, like Jairus, you expect Jesus to want to help you, even if you aren’t sure there’s anything Jesus can do. But what could it hurt to ask? Why not advocate for someone who cannot come on their own?
No matter why you walked in the door this morning, I have Good News for you: Jesus is ready and willing to meet you. Jesus is eager to hear your story, to touch your hand, to look into your eyes, to heal what hurts. As Paul says in the reading from 2 Corinthians, “For you know the generous act of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that by his poverty you might become rich.”
Jesus is here in Bibles and hymnals, in the water in the baptismal font. Jesus is here in the bread and wine, and in the people around us. Jesus doesn’t need you to be clean or important by any social measure in order to come near you. Jesus has crossed and will cross every border to be with you. Jesus breaks every written or unwritten law to bring you wholeness, creating a place for you at the family table, and offering you unconditional, unlimited forgiveness and grace.
And since we benefit so greatly from God’s generosity and embrace, let’s make every effort to place the hem of Jesus’ garments within reach of others who need those same blessings. Instead of keeping healing and hope to ourselves, let’s take it out to the crossroads, venture across all boundaries and borders to share it with people who are in pain, who are lost, who feel like they have no worth, no place in the universe. Let’s freely, joyfully, and loudly share the truth that Jesus has exploded the old systems of determining someone’s value. He has blazed a new trail toward dignity, healing, inclusion, and hope for all: his very self, given for you.
Thanks be to God!
~Pastor Susan Schneider