Friday, May 29, 2015

The Bleeding Woman

*This is the transcript of my teaching for the LifeSprings Retreat, based on Mark 5: 21-34*

Twelve. Years. The woman in this story had suffered for twelve years. I want you to think about where you were and what you were doing twelve years ago. That would have been the Spring of 2003. Now imagine that since that time you had been suffering from a uterine hemorrhage. Not just once a month, but every single day. The gravity of the situation actually doesn’t translate well into our context, because while this would have been a grave physical condition (can you imagine the anemia?) it would have also been a socially isolating condition. 

A bleeding woman was an unclean woman, and unclean women could not leave their houses and they could not be touched. Imagine not being touched for 12 years. Not one hug, not one pat on the back, not one handshake, not a simple kiss on the cheek. Children die from such neglect. And then no hope of marriage or children. No chance of those desires being fulfilled because the bleeding would have made them impossible.

But that still does not give us the full picture. Imagine twelve years of failed medical treatments, treatments that are described in some ancient Jewish history books—and let me assure you, they were invasive and humiliating. Twelve years. Mark says she “suffered a great deal under the care of many doctors.” The treatments did not ease her suffering, in fact they made it worse.

And there’s more. These ineffective treatments were expensive, and in hopes of being healed, this woman had spent herself into utter poverty. She invested every penny in these treatments, to the point where she had nothing left.

The woman in our story was desperate. She was suffering physically, emotionally, mentally, financially. She was at the end of her rope.

There are some in this room that are thinking, “Yes. That’s me. I’m at the end of my rope. And I have nothing left to give.” There are others who are thinking, “Sounds awful. But I can’t even imagine it. My life is pretty good.” Listen to me carefully, and hear my heart, whichever person you are. We are all every bit as desperate as the woman in this story. The only difference is whether or not we are aware of the desperateness of our own condition.

In the book of Revelation Jesus addresses the 7 churches, and to the church in Laodicea he says, “You say ‘I am rich; I have acquired wealth and do not need a thing!’ But you do not realize that you are wretched, pitiful, poor, blind, and naked. I counsel you to buy from me gold refined in the fire, so you can become rich; and white clothes to wear, so you can cover your shameful nakedness; and salve to put on your eyes so you can see.”

Jesus says to this church—not unbelievers outside of the church—believers insider of the church! This church which, by the way was in a city known for, get this, financial wealth, an extensive textile business, and a famous eye salve. Jesus tells those who have put their confidence in earthly riches, clothing, and medical resources, that they are poor, naked, and blind, and that to have the things which they really need, they must come to Jesus. He is the only source of true wealth, the only one who can take away our shame, and the only source of healing. And the problem with the church at Laodicea is that they didn’t think they had a problem.

Those of us who say, “I do not need a thing” are perhaps the neediest of all. Because we do not know or we fail to acknowledge the depth of our own need. And so we push through on our own strength, believing in our own abilities, blind to the reality of how desperate we really are. Friends, we’re bleeding to death, every one of us. We are broken in every way, and we cannot save ourselves.

Sometimes, when we get glimpses of our weakness, hints of our own depravity, we seek solutions that leave us worse off than before. Like the many doctors the bleeding woman went to visit, we, too, will spend everything we have in hopes of being healed, only to be more wounded. Some go to the doctor of achievement, thinking that working hard and accomplishing great things will remove our shame and give us meaning. Some go to the doctor of drugs, soothing our pain with chemicals so that we can make it one more day. Some go to the doctor of complaining, whining and pouting about how hard we have it, begging for sympathy to validate our suffering. Some go to the doctor of self-righteousness, believing that being good and living purely will earn us the right to be healed. And while we know that Jesus has saved us from our sins, we keep seeking out other means to be healed from our brokenness, all the while denying that we are, indeed, broken.

And so in reading this passage, I think that the first step in connecting to God’s power is coming to terms with our own powerlessness. Can we get to the place where we admit that we are not rich? Indeed, do you agree with Jesus’ assessment—you are wretched, pitiful, poor, blind, and naked?

The woman in our story knew she was desperate. She had heard talk of a man named Jesus, perhaps she had heard how he had healed people in other towns. And so with whatever hope she had, faith perhaps as small as a mustard seed, she headed out into the city. Throngs of people were crowding around Jesus, and Jesus himself was, at that moment, a man on a mission. An important mission! He had been called to the home of one of the synagogue rulers to heal the daughter of Jairus. It wasn’t like Jesus was hanging around with nothing to do. He and his disciples are walking with a purpose, but the woman in our story was determined. She shoves her way through the crowd, thinking “If I just touch his clothes, I will be healed.”

Up until this point in the Gospels, Jesus had performed miracles with his words. He healed the paralytic, calmed the sea, and cast out demons with a spoken command. Jairus asks for Jesus to come and touch his daughter, so there is indication that that Jesus was also known to heal by touch. But this woman—she doesn’t want to be seen, she just wants to be healed. She doesn’t ask for a word or a touch from Jesus. Instead she says to herself, “If I could just touch his clothes….”

Not only is the woman aware of the depths of her desperateness, she is also aware of the heights of Jesus power. Twelve years of constant suffering, and she has a faith that compels her to simply reach out and touch his cloak, just the edge of his cloak! And so she risks public humiliation, she uses up the very last vestiges of her physical strength, she musters all the bits of her shattered faith, and she stretches out her hand to touch his cloak. She does it because she knows that he is her only hope.

The bleeding woman grasps for Jesus. 

What are you grasping for? Because we are all grasping for something. 

Where will you spend the last bits of your energy, your time, and your faith? Do you run to FaceBook to see if anyone “likes” your status? Do you fish for complements from your husband? Do you look for approval from your colleagues? Do you run to your bank to see if anyone has made a donation to your account? Do you reach out after comfort foods, do you lose yourself in novels, do you go for a run? Do you call a friend? Do you watch a movie? Do you check your email? What are your grasping for? And can it really give you what you need? Do any of these things have the power to heal you?

Or do you reach out for Jesus? Will you do whatever it takes to find him, to see him, to reach out and touch him? Do you believe that a brush with the Savior can change the direction of your life? Or do you think that while Jesus is a nice guy and that his work on the cross was nifty, he really doesn’t have much to offer you in the here and now? Do you sit in your pools of blood and watch him pass you by because you know he has more important things to do, and you just don’t think that making a spectacle of yourself is worth the effort?

If the first step in connecting to God’s power is recognizing our own powerlessness, perhaps the second step is grasping for Jesus. If a touch of his cloak can fully heal the effects of a 12-year disease, what is possible by in the indwelling of his very Spirit? Do you get it? The Bible tells us that the same power that raised Jesus from the dead is available to you and me. And we say we believe it. And then we live powerless lives.

You see the bleeding woman did not sit in her house, close her eyes real tight, and say, “I believe.” She acted on her belief. She took her faith to the streets. Perhaps this is why we are constantly reminded that faith without works is dead. I’m betting that if she had simply sat at home with her faith, she would not have been healed. Nor could she have sent a friend. How often do we ask a friend to pray for us, when we ourselves haven’t even talked to Jesus about our situation?

On the other hand, the key is not simply faith in action, but the object of our faith.

When she touched the edge of his cloak, she was healed. The power of Jesus healed her, and Jesus felt the power leave him, and he sought her out. He asks, “Who touched me?” and the disciples look at him like he’s crazy because the crowd was all around him and people were pressing against him in every direction. In other words, everyone was touching him. Everyone was touching him, but only one received his power. One touch was different. It was a touch of faith.

So finally the woman reveals herself and tells her story. The whole truth. And then Jesus calls her, “daughter.” This is the only time recorded in scripture where Jesus calls a person, “daughter.” It is a tender moment, filled with compassion for her truth. Jesus, stops in the midst of his important errand to help the dearly-loved daughter of an important religious leader to comfort and to bless a nameless woman, and he calls her daughter, as if to say, “You, too, are dearly loved.” 

Then he tells her about what she just experienced. You see, he wants to make sure that she understands what has just happened. He doesn’t want anyone starting to believe crazy things like that his cloak was magic. He wants her to know that her faith in action is what gave her access to his power. And that was why she was healed.

The Christian faith is full of paradoxes, and this is just one of them. We are completely dependent on the power of Christ AND we are called to seek him out with all of our strength.

In his book Conversations, Brian Rice writes about this paradox. He writes, and I quote, “The Christian life always involves the dynamic tension of God’s gracious activity in your life that empowers and enables you with resources, gifts, and energy you do not possess on your own, AND, your personal responsibility to do everything that God has commanded you to do.”

Apart from Jesus we can do nothing, he is the one with the power. We can’t control his power, steal his power, earn his power, manipulate his power, or demand his power. But we can access his power. We access his power when, recognizing our own desperate condition, we put whatever measure of faith that we have into action and grasp for Jesus.

This, my friends, is how I have come to understand spiritual disciplines. For years I saw spiritual disciplines as daily to-dos. Boxes I needed to check off. Tasks that I “should” accomplish to be right with God. I even had the wrong idea that if I practiced spiritual disciplines, it was like putting money in a vending machine. Put in the right combination of change and goodies would pop out. So I did my “duty.”

But now I know that spiritual disciplines are not chores. The bleeding woman did not venture out into the crowds because she was obligated. She was not trying to impress Jesus. She just wanted to be healed and whole, and she had finally realized that Jesus was the only source for true healing and wholeness. So she gave everything she had left to connect to him.

Spiritual disciplines are our means of grasping at the cloak of Jesus so that we can be healed. They’re hard, but we don’t do them to earn goodies or to achieve some level of righteousness on our own. We do them because we know that we are desperate and that these disciplines will bring us into contact with the healer. They’re hard, but not too hard for those who are desperate.

After the break, we are going to get practical. We’re going to move into “how to” mode by exploring the idea of a Rule of Life, which is a way of engaging in spiritual disciplines that encompasses all of who we are. But as we begin to look at practical application, I want us to keep in mind the image of the bleeding woman reaching for the cloak of Jesus. Be moved to action by your faith in the goodness and grace of Jesus and your desire to be whole in every way. Do not be moved to action by a faith in your own abilities or a desire to look good in every way. The bleeding woman did not grasp to win the approval and applause of others. She was not looking to impress anyone. She would have preferred to be invisible. This is how we engage in spiritual disciplines. We don’t do them publically, and if done well, no one will know that we are doing them. No one will know, except that you will be changed by the process. Healed. Whole.

Before the break, I want to give you a few moments to reflect on your own desperateness.

Where are you feeling weary and discouraged?
How are you poor?
What is broken in you and desperately in need of healing?
Where are you isolated and alone?
How are you wounded?
What have you suffered?

And what are you grasping for?

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