The Gospel calls us to remove ourselves from comfort to face the reality of life as a member of the body of Christ.
Flying with a toddler is stressful. In a months’ time I did it four times, so trust me on this. There is a tangible tension as a toddler enters the boarding area. It’s not that my daughter doesn’t travel well – she’s actually really great on planes. There is just something about a toddler on an airplane that makes people hold their breath, if only a little bit.
If you don’t know what I’m talking about, take a toddler to the airport. The tension is palpable as you take your seat at the gate. When will the meltdown begin? What if she cries the whole flight? Is it too late to fly standby? Do flight attendants sell earplugs and Valium? People are uncomfortable around toddlers on airplanes, and rightly so, because toddlers are emotional and impulsive beings. Holding our daughter on our lap for a 3-hour flight means that for 2 hours and 56 minutes my wife and I are attempting to re-direct her attention – anything other than how much she doesn’t want to be sitting on our laps. Toddlers do not conform to the scripts of social order and etiquette because they have not learned them yet. They don’t think of others because they have not been taught to think of the needs of others. Toddlers embody what St. Augustine called curvatus, the inward bent of the soul that causes us to think only of ourselves. It’s what sin is, really. It’s the tension of our inward bent screaming for what we desire.
In Mark 5, Jesus arrives in a small seaside town on the Sea of Galilee after casting demons out of a man and into a herd of pigs. When he arrives, there is already a huge crowd of people. They have heard about this healer and prophet, and want to come see what all the fuss is about. Amidst this crowd is a ruler of the synagogue, Jairus, who has a daughter near death. He is a man out of his depth, willing to do anything to save the life of his daughter.
Jesus agrees to the man’s request, and soon the throng of people is shuffling toward Jairus’ house. As the crowd moves up the hill, a curious thing happens. Jesus stops, wanting to know who touched him. I picture incredulous disciples eyeing each other wondering if he’s serious.
“What do you mean, who touched you.”
“Who hasn’t touched you?”
I’m sure the disciples felt awkward enough as Jesus adamantly searched the crowds for the intruder. Imagine how awkward they felt when Jesus found who he was looking for.
Not her. Anyone but her.
Mark describes her as a woman who had had a flow of blood for twelve years, a woman who had suffered under many physicians but to no avail. Now she was penniless, and her ailment was even worse than before. I’m sure you could smell this woman from quite a distance, and calling attention to her probably felt mean-spirited to the disciples. She was most likely able to edge herself through the crowd and touch Jesus’ garment because no one would want to be close to her.
At this point the disciples think they have it figured out. Budding Torah scholars that they are, they probably are guessing that Jesus is going call this woman out for touching him and making him unclean. According to Leviticus 15, any woman menstruating was ceremonially unclean, and anyone who touched a menstruating woman was unclean until the next day. The disciples must have been impressed with Jesus’ ability to peg an unclean woman, and it must have seemed an odd if not reasonable cause for all the awkwardness and tension. But Jesus doesn’t do what the disciples must have expected.
Twelve years is a long time to bleed, and it has taken its toll on this woman emotionally, physically, economically, and psychologically. She is a pariah who can’t escape her own stench. Mark says that she has spent all her money on healings that didn’t work. All she wants to do is be healed and fade into anonymity. Can you imagine her fear of being recognized? All she wants is to be normal, and now the last person she has to put her faith in has called the whole crowd’s attention to her.
I’m sure Jairus was furious at this woman. How dare she touch the teacher? His daughter is on the verge of death and now this filthy beggar woman has the audacity to disrupt his plan? Do you feel the tension? Everyone is staring at this poor, smelly, unclean woman. She has interrupted this teacher, and now most likely made him unclean to perform any healing of Jairus’ daughter. She has compromised the whole operation.
But Jesus doesn’t call attention to the woman to shame her. He joins her in her most desperate moment and tells her “Daughter, your faith has made you well; go in peace, and be healed of your disease.” Those words, “daughter, go in peace” must have been the most precious thing that woman ever heard.
It is in the woman that we find the key to Jesus’ movements. He is always pushing toward the outcasts, centering his conversations with the social elite in contexts where they are sure to be invaded by the smells of poverty and desperation. One cannot separate the words, or even the actions, of Jesus from the dirty and dusty stage on which he performed. The woman’s smell is our smell, is Christ’s smell.
To call myself a Christian means to demonstrate a willingness to be similarly invaded. Not only by those I associate with, but by where I venture to find and articulate my life’s meaning. The grace of Christ is not a cheap grace, and we would be foolish to think or act otherwise.
This call to service looks different for every person. What is true is that in Christ, God confronts and disrupts the normative scripts that we hide behind in order to affect change in us and around us. We should not be surprised when the world responds to the gospel with scoffs and disbelief. Nor should it surprise us when the world sees those who follow the gospel (and those they associate with) as hopeless causes to be avoided. Comfort and power is what the world praises, and both inoculate us from the self-giving love of the gospel. Comfort and power cause us to question whether or not we actually need God, and become increasingly self-interested. Conversely, it’s when we allow ourselves to be thrust into the world of grime and stench that the sick woman inhabits that we find the resolution to our own dissonance.
Andy Scott works and lives in Durham, NC, with his wife, Annie and daughter, Miriam. He dislikes summing up his life in two sentences, as it seems to do more harm than good.