When the woman crept into the synagogue, barely able to breathe because of the compression her torso, and the sheer effort of making it there – was it her wheezing and rasping that drew Jesus’ attention, and unintended obligato running its ragged rhythm beneath the chanting of the psalm? – when Jesus reached out his hand and spoke God’s mercy over her, it was not work, but a gift; not labour, but grace. It was a miracle, and miracles, by definition (as Amy-Jill Levine and others have noted) do not fit into the categories prescribed by creation and the laws of our physics.[i]
This was what made it so disturbing, perhaps: we pray for a miracle, but if one fell upon us, we would be both astonished and, let’s face it, a little afraid, to be singled out, that God would overturn the natural order for us. And yet, is that not what God has already done, in the person of Jesus?
The woman, this woman, in this moment, was so relieved to be able to stand, to stretch, to breathe, to sing. This was Sabbath to her – relief from the work of carrying her body like a burden, from labouring for every step and every breath; from shame, and sheer inconvenience. This, to her, was rest, this miracle, and she began to praise God, as is appropriate to Sabbath in the synagogue.
What had kept her all these years – eighteen years, as long as it takes a human in our society to grow from birth to adulthood – what had bound her and burdened her? Jesus implicates Satan, but what does that mean?
Frederick Buechner rightly observes that Jesus, like Job before him, “specifically rejected the theory that sickness was God’s way of getting even with sinners (John 9:1-3).” Nevertheless, he recognized some kind of a connection between sin and sickness, telling those with ears to hear that just as the healthy do not need a doctor, but the sick, neither will he turn away sinners who need him (Mark 2:17).[ii]
Tom Wright speculates that, “maybe someone had persistently abused her, verbally or physically, when she was smaller, until her twisted up emotions communicated themselves to her body, and she found she couldn’t get straight.”[iii]
In other words, if her burdened body and crumpled spirit was the result of sin, it need not even have been her own sin that bound her, but the sin of those who surrounded her with the burden of their own pride and bitterness.
And there’s the rub. If Satan, if sin are at large among us, the damage is diffuse. It extends far beyond the one bent-over woman: it is the fallen state of our world, in which the poor are easy to oppress and healing, far from being given as a joyful gift, becomes the source of further crippling debt to many. We would like to set the captive free, raise the dead, preach good news to the poor, we say, but our hands are tied.
Our hands are tied because we bind one another with our rules and expectations, because we continue to resist radical, revolutionary grace.
I can’t help thinking of the children’s hospital and its staff who had to call in extra security this week because of threats they have received because some angry people have heard that they offer care to trans and questioning children. Hear this: they have been threatened because they care for the health and welfare of children.
There has been wild disinformation about what kind of care is offered to children and teens, and you can imagine the chilling effect it has had on all kinds of families, parents, and children seeking life-saving care for all kinds of ailments at this facility, the constriction of throats and spirits as already-anxious people wonder whether they will be greeted with healing or violence at the door. Eighteen years: birth to adulthood.
I mention this particularly because, as part of the discourse, it has come to the attention of some news and other media that our Episcopal Church, at its General Convention last month, passed a resolution to affirm the care offered to trans children and adults. So, in case it comes up, you might want to know that it is true that we voted to commend the provision of care to support the bodies and spirits of those whom God knows best, and who know themselves better than we do. In the Explanation section of that resolution, we are told that,
As a Church we celebrate the diversity and glory of God as reflected in every human being. We have also embraced access to necessary healthcare without restriction on gender. The time has come for us to unite these views to advocate for acess to healthcare for our trans and nonbinary Siblings in Christ.
We are also a Church guided by science and, in this case, the science is clear. Access to gender affirming care substantially reduces suicidality amongst trans and nonbinary youth (Tordoff et al 2022) and adults (Seelman et al 2017). The compassionate Christian stance is to embrace our trans and nonbinary siblings, advocating for their access to all health care needs.[iv]
It’s ok, too, if this feels to some a little confusing, bewildering. It does break many of the social rules and norms with which many of us were raised. But that is the anatomy of a miracle: God breaking our rules and remaking God’s creation in the way that God chooses and intends it to be. Into this context Jesus comes and works a miracle, and some rejoice, and others tell him to stay in his lane, and wait for a better time. But for the one in pain, in sorrow, burdened with grief and constricted in her breathing, there is no better time than now to receive the miracle of God’s healing grace and mercy, liberating love.
And if God were to break into our service with a miracle, with a fresh understanding of what is possible or permissible as worship on a Sunday morning, would we rejoice or tell Them to kindly sit down?
Fortunately, Jesus is not bound by our expectations and God’s mercy is not constrained by our imaginations. Jesus breaks, not the holy laws of the Sabbath but our imagined laws of cause and effect, sin and sickness, the very cords which bind us in order to set the woman free, in a miracle.
And this is Sabbath for her, and for us: that God is indiscriminate in mercy, unstinting in grace. That God refuses to stay in God’s lane, but comes to live among us, to heal us, to love us, to free us: no exceptions.
[i] Amy-Jill Levine, The Misunderstood Jew (HarperOne, 2006), 203
[ii] Frederick Buechner, Wishful Thinking, 41
[iii] Tom Wright, Luke for Everyone (SPCK, 2001), 166