Encountering God in Pain and Vulnerability

Mark 5:25-34

Author Susan Sontag asserts that each person holds two passports: one is to the land of the healthy, the other to the land of sick. We all know the zest of physical, emotional, and spiritual well-being: we know it because we hardly notice it.  Our bodies are our friends.  We bound up the stairs, enjoy a full plate of food, and don’t even notice our bones, stomach, or vision. Then again, there’s that other land where illness constricts our lives, once normal tasks are challenges, and we can no longer keep up with others.

Sometimes illness leads to judgment from others and ourselves.  People ask, if we’re huffing and puffing, “you were a smoker, weren’t you?’ Or they condescend, “You never lost that weight and look at you now.  If only you became a vegan, you’d be healthy today.”

The onset of illness can also have religious overtones.  Even today some preachers connect sexually transmitted diseases with God’s punishment of America’s immorality. A few preachers still speak of AIDS as God’s judgment on the gay lifestyle, meted out through hurricane and disease.

In today’s scripture, this unnamed woman – usually described as “the woman with the flow of blood” had to endure both the daily pain and limitation of illness and the judgment of her peers.  We aren’t told the nature of the illness, but most scholars suggest it was gynecological.

Her illness rendered her an object of judgment: she was considered unclean, unable to go worship services, contaminating everything she touched, and likely immoral.  If she was married, she could not have intimate relations with her husband and may not have had any friends – her neighbors would have feared not only contagion but guilt by association.

I remember a determined student in the Protestant Church at Georgetown University – Kevin, who came from Maine.  Every month or so, he had to go to the hospital and he had to be careful about being around people with colds.  When he heard one of my congregants revealed to me that he had AIDS from a blood transfusion, he was angry.  He didn’t want to be judged or treated differently.  Perhaps you remember the fear by another young person, Ryan White, who had to endure prejudice, some of which came from the religious community. Like many people today, both Kevin and this woman, who had done no wrong, were judged as spiritually or morally responsible for their illness.

Today, many of us have chronic illnesses.  They won’t kill us but they change our lives.  Each morning I need to remember to take three pills to keep my hereditary hypertension in check.  This woman suffered from a chronic illness for twelve years; it might have been her daily reality from adolescence.  Before the era of insurance, she sought remedies, spent all her money, and showed no improvement.  Like some today, her illness threatened her with bankruptcy.

She’s desperate and when she hears that the Healer’s coming to town: she summons all her courage in quest of a cure.  She is courageous as she braves the stares and anger of the crowd and risks the judgment of the Healer; after all, every other religious leader has judged her as responsible for her illness.

As she comes nearer, she is guided by her mantra, “If I only touch him, I will be well…If I only touch him, I will be well…If I only touch him, I will be well.” And then she does, and energy flows from the Healer to her, what some might call Chi or Prana, changing her cells as well as her soul.

The Healer looks around, “Who touched me?”  The disciples think the Healer is off kilter, because he’s been jostled by dozens. But, Jesus recognizes that only one has truly touched him.  She comes forward, tells her story, and Jesus proclaims, “Your faith has made you well – Go home, make a life for yourself, have a family, be part of society once again. You are physically cured and you are also spiritually  healed.”

Today, physicians speak of the faith factor in health and illness.  They assert the importance of our faith, attitudes, and prayers in shaping our lives for the better, and being tipping points between health and illness.  I believe this is true, and that’s why pray at the drop of a hat for anyone who wants it, share affirmations and scriptures, and try to keep an affirmative attitude myself.

This woman encountered Jesus in her deep need.  Her faith opened her up to the healing energies of the universe and she became a new person. Still, when we talk about faith healing, we need to avoid two extremes.  The first is what I call the “omnipotent mind.”  The notion that our health and prosperity is entirely in our hands.  Some new agers speak of “creating your own reality,” and on more than one occasion I have counseled people who didn’t get well and were blamed for their negative thinking.  “You brought this illness on yourself because you weren’t positive enough.”

I’ve also seen this attitude in certain faith communities.  Perhaps some of you have heard of the prosperity gospel or the “name it and claim movements.”  These movements assert that “if you only enough faith, you can conquer illness and overcome any limitation.”  But, then again, those whose illness remains or are unsuccessful financially are judged as faithless.  “If you only more faith, God will cure that illness.  You don’t trust God enough, that’s why you’re still sick or poor.”  On many occasions, I have counseled good people traumatized by bad theology: who believe their lack faith is the cause of the troubles they’ve experienced – from cancer to job loss.

On the other hand, we need to avoid the other extreme of impotence in terms of changing our lives.  We need to claim the wisdom of Reinhold Niebuhr’s “Serenity Prayer”:

God grant me the serenityto accept the things I cannot change

courage to change the things I can;

and wisdom to know the difference.

The prayer reminds us that we can be agents in our own destiny.  We do not need to accept the way things are in our personal lives, relationships, workplace, society, and health.  We can’t change everything, but we can by positive attitudes, spiritual practices, being part of a prayer community, reaching to others, and lifestyle changes reduce pain, improve the quality of our lives, and deepen our faith.  Even we don’t experience a cure, and must live with the things we cannot change, we can experience a healing, a sense of peace and trust in God.  We can affirm that nothing can separate us from the love of God.

That day, a desperate woman sought Jesus’ healing touch, and received the energy that transforms cells and souls.  She was cured in body and healed in spirit.

Limitations abound and we may have to accept them.  But, beyond the limitations is love of God, who is on our side, who feels our pain and rejoices in our successes, who wants us to be well and inspires us to be part of a healing process.  God wants us to reach out, to touch the hem of Jesus’ garment, to change our lives, and to trust that we can experience the transformation of body, mind, and spirit, while still accepting our limitations.

God wants us to accept one another’s limits without judgment and work together for the healings we all need, knowing that in every season of life, we are in God’s hands, and that we can be spiritually healed, even if we aren’t physically cured.