We are in the beginning of a sermon series exploring where we’re headed as a church, but we’re also making a point to ask where we are going as individuals, because our personal faith journeys and our communal faith journey can’t be separated.
In order to explore this idea of where God is leading us, we’ll look at different stories of journeying within Scripture. We’ll look at people who have travelled to God, or with God, or are sent out on a new mission by God. We’ll try, by looking at these stories, to learn something of our own journeys, collectively and individually.
For this reason I’ve decided to call this series “Journeying Together” (though Alison’s suggestion, “Trippin’ with God,” was taken into consideration).
However, looking at the Scripture I chose for today, it would seem that I’ve already failed at my task. How is this story of a woman in a crowd who simply reaches out and touches Jesus cloak a story about journeying? The passage doesn’t even say where she came from. Maybe she only came from a few blocks away. Maybe Jesus passed right by her house and she simply reached out and touched him. How do we know she was on a journey?
Well, there are many kinds of journeys, not all spatial or geographic, and if we look closely, we’ll see that this woman has been on a journey for 12 years, and indeed she had to have set out on an extremely risky voyage in order to reach out and touch the fringe of Jesus’ cloak. But we’ll get to that in a minute.
First, before we can jump into the story of this woman, we must acknowledge the other journeys that are also present in this text. Just as our story as a church is the confluence of our many stories, so our reading this morning consists not of only one journey but at least three – the woman’s and two others.
The first journey, which is the most important – the one that makes all these others possible – is God’s journey to us. This woman could never reach out and touch the fringe of Jesus’ cloak if Jesus wasn’t there, on a dusty road in 1st century Palestine, to be touched. This is what we just got done celebrating on Christmas – the unthinkable reality that the transcendent God took on flesh and became one of us, the Creator became the creature, the unknowable became knowable, the limitless took on limits, the intangible became tangible.
A core Christian tenant is that God has acted first. We love because God first loved us, 1 John 4:19 says. All of our praise, all of our worship, all of our prayer, any action we take toward God is always a response to the God who has first reached out to us in love. During the course of this sermon series we’ll pray the same congregational prayer, which starts out, “Journeying God…” This is more than a nice phrase. God is the one who drew near to us in the person of Jesus Christ. God’s journey to us has made our journey to God possible.
The second journey that’s taking place in this story is the one that Jesus is on when the woman touches him. I didn’t include the whole story, because I didn’t want it to get to complex, but the story of this unnamed woman with the hemorrhage takes place within another story – the story of a synagogue official name Jairus, who comes and asks Jesus to heal his daughter who is dying. It’s on the way to Jairus’ house that this woman reaches out and touches the fringe of Jesus’ cloak. And Jesus isn’t travelling alone, there’s a large crowd travelling with him. But we’ll get to the crowd a little bit later.
So Jesus, and the large crowd that is with him are walking together – they are on a voyage of their own. This woman must also be walking with them. She’s part of a larger body of people moving forward and yet, within this larger journey, she is on a mission of her own.
Now let’s turn to the primary journey in our passage for today: the woman’s. This woman, who we unfortunately don’t have a name for, doesn’t come to Jesus out of nowhere. She comes, like us, with a story of her own, and her story is one of suffering. She has had a hemorrhage for 12 years. While this has probably caused her physical pain, the social and cultural implications have been far worse. This woman’s bleeding would have made her ritually unclean, causing her to live, in the words of one commentator, “in a perpetual state of impurity.”[i] As one who was unclean, she would “infect” others with her uncleanliness simply by touching them. To prevent this from happening, she would have lived in isolation for the past 12 years, unable to go out in public, shunned by friends and family alike.
There’s no way that she would have simply been hanging around when Jesus came by. She wasn’t supposed to be there! She had to set out on a journey in order to meet Jesus along the way. And in doing so she risked being caught where she wasn’t supposed to be.
If people are bumping into Jesus left and right without him knowing who touched him, surely they’re bumping into her as well, and while they don’t know it, she knows that she is making each and every one of them unclean. If they had found out, she would’ve been in big trouble. This is why, when Jesus realizes that someone has touched him and power has gone out from him, she doesn’t happily come forward but waits until she can’t escape notice. She’s afraid of what Jesus (and the crowd) will do when they finds out this unclean woman has touched them and “infected” them. Despite all this risk, despite everything that could go wrong, she sets out to find Jesus.
She has tried everything. In addition to her physical and societal suffering, she has become destitute, spending everything she has on physicians who were unable to heal her. If she were alive today we would say that she experiences intersectional oppression. As a woman, she would have already been marginalized in the world of 1st century Palestine, add to that her ritual uncleanliness which would have excluded her from her community (including her religious community, meaning she would have believed herself to be estranged from God), and her physical suffering and poverty, and we can see that this woman experienced in her body and in her soul layer upon layer of pain, shame, loneliness, and humiliation. Jesus’ words of affirmation to her must have been as powerful as her physical healing.
She is, like so many in our society, one who has been pushed to the edges, forgotten. Or at least, she is someone those on the inside want to forget, but she refuses to give up. She continues to hope. Like immigrants along our border who continue to hope for a better future for themselves and their children. While those on the inside try to ignore them, to push them to the margins so that they can be forgotten, they continue to push against the societal boundaries that designate some as clean and some as unclean, some as citizens and some as “illegal” – a word God has never used for God’s children, made in God’s image.
This woman is desperate, she’s tried everything and nothing has worked, and finally, in one last ditch effort, she risks it all to find this Jesus, the miracle worker who everyone is talking about. Maybe some of us can relate. Maybe it isn’t a physical ailment, but we’ve tried many different things to find fulfillment and meaning. Maybe we’ve suffered physical or emotional abuse and we can’t seem to heal. Maybe, like this woman, we feel isolated and alone, like no one really knows us and no one cares. Maybe we’re unsure of what the future holds, and we’re scared. Maybe we’ve succeeded in many parts of life – we have a good job, a wonderful family, great friends – and yet our spiritual life is parched and dry. Maybe we are struggling with greed, anger, lust, or cynicism and try as we might, we can’t seem to master our character flaws.
Or maybe some of us, like this woman, have been pushed to the margins by our faith communities because of who we are. I’m thinking especially of those of you here who are LGBTQ+ and have been pushed out of your churches, told you don’t belong, told you are impure. And yet, like this woman, your faith is strong. You have refused to believe this lie about yourselves. You’ve continue to pushed on, pushed through the crowds to find Jesus and hear him call you daughter, son, child. To hear him say that your faith is valid and beautiful and acceptable. To hear him speak a word of peace over you.
Whatever it might be, I would guess that most of us (probably all of us?) can relate on some level to the way this woman feels. Like her, and like the Wise Men from the sermon last week, perhaps we are drawn to Jesus out of need – a need to reach out and touch the Divine, even if it’s just the hem of God’s cloak.
This woman’s actions stand in stark contrast to the crowd that surrounds Jesus. It probably isn’t so clear to us, but the crowd is not cast in a good light in this passage. The story we’re exploring this morning comes shortly after the parable of the sower and the seeds. In this parable Jesus says the Gospel is like seeds that a sower throws out on the ground. Some of the seeds fall on bad soil – and there are multiple kinds of bad soil – and they fail, in one way or another, to flourish, while some seeds fall on good soil and produce a large crop. In the parable, some seeds fall on a thorny patch, and the thorns grow up and “choke” the crop. The Greek word used for “choke” is sympnigo. This word, translated “choke,” in the parable of the sower and the seeds is only used in one other place in Luke’s Gospel: v. 42 from our reading today, when Luke describes the crowd as “pressing in” on Jesus. Just as the thorns choke out the Gospel, so the crowd threatens to press in and choke Jesus out. They’re suffocating him.
As they’re all walking together, bumping into one another, threatening to swallow Jesus up, this woman from the margins pushes her way to the center and reaches out and touches the fringe of Jesus’ cloak, and power surges out of him and heals her. All these other people are touching him too, Peter says so, but they don’t reach out with intention, and so they are unchanged.
Apparently there’s a difference between bumping into Jesus and reaching out in faith to touch him. There’s a difference between mindlessly following the Christian crowd and seeking Jesus with intention. When we don’t expect anything to happen, probably nothing will happen, but when we reach out in our need, when we hope despite our years of hopelessness, the power of God can infuse our lives.
There are many Christians (I have been one of them from time to time) and many churches who stay close enough to Jesus to be associated with him. They travel along in the same general direction. Occasionally they bump into him in one way or another, but they’ve stopped expecting anything to happen. They’ve stopped expecting Jesus to make a difference in their lives. They’re just going through the motions. There are times when Jesus acts in spite of us, as we’ll see in a few weeks when we look at Paul and Jonah, but God isn’t coercive. God won’t make you change your life unless you want to. God won’t force God’s way in. God will stand amidst the crowd, available to all, and wait for us to reach out in faith.
But, just as there were many reasons for the woman not to go to Jesus – fear of being caught, fear of being let down, the difficulty of pushing her way through the crowd – so there are reasons we may be hesitant to reach out and touch Jesus with intention. It’s easier to speak of Jesus as a good teacher, to want to follow the example he set, but it’s risky to expect him to actually make a change in our lives. What if it doesn’t work? What if we reach out, and we don’t feel the power? What if we remain the same, unchanged?
I think there’s one problem I have specifically, and I think it’s relevant to us as a church because we have quite a few deep thinkers and a pretty high percentage of people with theological educations, and that’s that I start to think knowing about Jesus is an adequate substitute for knowing Jesus. I think being able to wax eloquent about the Trinity or write a paper on Christology is the same as experiencing life with the Trinity, or letting the risen Christ transform my life. Really, this is a way for me to maintain control, to mitigate risk, to hide behind my intellect so I don’t have to be vulnerable and admit my need for God. When I think I can explain Christ, I put myself over him, and when I put myself over him I have the power, not him. That’s the opposite of the unnamed woman from our story. She has no control. She’s utterly helpless. She reaches out in her need. It’s her faith in Christ, not herself, that makes healing possible. “Daughter, your faith has made you well,” Jesus says.
Could it be that all our attempts to intellectualize Christ are actually choking him out? Is the wall we’ve built up to keep ourselves safe actually inhibiting the power of God from flowing into our lives? Are we bumping into Christ without receiving any healing because we think we’ve got him figured out? Or, maybe more accurately, because we’re scared to admit that we don’t have him figured out?
We’re exploring what it means to journey with God, as individuals and as a church. As I look at this story of the woman and the crowd, I want to be like the woman and not the crowd. I want us to be like the woman and not the crowd. I don’t want us to just bump into Jesus from time to time. I want us to go to Jesus with intention. I want us to be honest and vulnerable about the pain and fear we carry with us. I want us to bring them to Jesus and believe he can actually make a difference. I want us to wake up in the morning expecting to meet him in the midst of days crowded with work, obligations, and anxiety, all of which threaten to overwhelm him and choke him out. I want worship on Sundays to be our attempt to reach out and brush the edge of the Divine, to walk away with the healing and the peace that can only come through Jesus Christ.
[i] Joel B. Green, The Gospel of Luke, 346.