Sometimes it seems impossibly hard to be a woman. I have no doubt that its hard to be a man too – but I can only speak for those females among us. For us females, it can feel like an up hill climb all the way sometimes. We have uniquely female medical issues – which are never dignified. We have hormonal fluctuations and emotional swings (that aren’t even hormonal). We have anxieties and paranoias, we have hidden fears and brooding worries that we are, or will, or have, failed. And we carry on. Even when we feel like we are a complete outsider. Even when we feel like we are completely alone. Even when we feel like life will never get any better. We carry on.
Maybe this is you. Maybe you where a face to make everyone think you’re doing fine, but on the inside you’re wracked with doubt and pain. Or maybe it’s been weeks, months, even years, and you feel like you just can’t get things to go right. You’ve tried, you’ve fought, you’ve endured, but the battles you’re fighting are on every front and feels like its never going to end. And maybe this follows you to church. You sing the songs, you pray the prayers, you listen to the sermon, but you just feel somehow separate to everyone else.
One of the characters in today’s passage was completely separated.
In Mark 5:21, we see Jesus crossing the Sea of Galilee again into Jewish territory and as the crowds press around him, a synagogue leader called Jairus pleads with Jesus to come and save his dying daughter. On the way, Jesus has an encounter with a woman:
“A large crowd followed and pressed around him. And a woman was there who had been subject to bleeding for twelve years. She had suffered a great deal under the care of many doctors and had spent all she had, yet instead of getting better she grew worse. When she heard about Jesus, she came up behind him in the crowd and touched his cloak, because she thought, “If I just touch his clothes, I will be healed.” Immediately her bleeding stopped and she felt in her body that she was freed from her suffering.” (Mark 5:24-29)
This story is in the gospels of Matthew and Luke also, but Mark provides the most insights into the woman. Even so, we get precious little about her. We don’t know her name, her situation or even her specific medical condition. What we do know is that she has been bleeding for 12 years and, under the Levitical laws, that means that she has been ceremonially unclean for all that time:
“When a woman has a discharge of blood for many days at a time other than her monthly period or has a discharge that continues beyond her period, she will be unclean as long as she has the discharge, just as in the days of her period. Any bed she lies on while her discharge continues will be unclean, as is her bed during her monthly period, and anything she sits on will be unclean, as during her period. Anyone who touches them will be unclean; they must wash their clothes and bathe with water, and they will be unclean till evening.” (Leviticus 15:25-27)
What we need to remember is that all purity laws (male and female) were linked to the temple system – what that means is that the temple, the priests, temple gifts and so on had to be guarded from ritual impurity. Nothing tainted by impurity could be offered up in the presence of God. Just touching, or being touched by, someone who was unclean, communicated the impurity to the other person.
And as an unclean person, you had to keep away. Its interesting that the Hebrew word for “menstruation” here is niddatah, which has as its root ndh, a word meaning “separation”. An unclean person could not go to temple, and couldn’t really be around other people in case of making them unclean and they would have to be purified.
So this woman must have been lonely – and paranoid. Given the separation from people and temple, her condition must have been very public. Everyone would know. Nobody would want to touch her or be near her. She was an outsider (ceremonially speaking), and would have been made to feel like an outsider in every other cultural and social way.
On top of that, physically she must have been supremely debilitated. Bleeding constantly for 12 years. And without modern hygiene products or pain killers. She may have experienced anemia, dizziness and a number of other physical ailments. She must have been exhausted, depressed and emotionally drained.
The gospel says she had suffered greatly at the hands of various doctors and instead of getting better, had got worse. To give us an idea, Adam Clarke’s 19th Century Commentary on the New Testament quotes 17th century Dr Lightfoot who had studied the medical machinations of 2nd Century Rabbi Jochanan.* What Rabbi Jochanan outlined was a series of treatments (if you can call them that) for just such a complaint:
- Take of gum Alexandria, of alum, and of crocus hortensis, the weight of a zuzee each; let them be bruised together, and given in wine to the woman that hath an issue of blood. But should this fail:
- Take of Persian onions nine logs, boil them in wine, and give it to her to drink: and say, Arise from thy flux. But should this fail:
- Set her in a place where two ways meet, and let her hold a cup of wine in her hand; and let somebody come behind and affright her, and say, Arise from thy flux. But should this do no good:
- Take a handful of cummin and a handful of crocus, and a handful of faenu-greek; let these be boiled, and given her to drink, and say, Arise from thy flux. But should this also fail:
- Dig seven trenches, and burn in them some cuttings of vines not yet circumcised (vines not four years old); and let her take in her hand a cup of wine, and let her be led from this trench and set down over that, and let her be removed from that, and set down over another: and in each removal say unto her, Arise from thy flux.
And apparently there were many others to try if this last one didn’t work either!
Can you imagine? On top of the physical, emotional and mental burden, she had been poked and prodded and no doubt with each prospective cure, her hopes had been raised. And yet, the Bible tells us, she got worse.
And then she hears about a man who can heal.
She doesn’t even approach him face to face. Shame? Possibly. After 12 years of being an outcast I can imagine she’d want to remain as invisible as possible. Of course Jesus realises he’s been touched.
Then the woman, knowing what had happened to her, came and fell at his feet and, trembling with fear, told him the whole truth. He said to her, “Daughter, your faith has healed you. Go in peace and be freed from your suffering.”” (Mark 5:33-34)
This is such a beautiful scene. He could have turned round and called her out for touching him – for making him unclean too. But he doesn’t even mention it. Elsewhere in Mark we have seen Jesus changing the understanding of the old covenant law (the sabbath laws in chapter 2 and later food laws in chapter 7). His refusal to rebuke her – his complete lack of attention to purity laws in fact – is a stunning omission here. And this was liberating, for all Jews and particularly women.
Whats also interesting here is the Greek word for “healed” here is the same as “saved”. This is complete restoration. Complete. Restoration.
Who else could give her that?
Who else could give us that?
The doctors could not heal her. The purity laws could not save her. Only Jesus could heal her. Only Jesus could save her. Only Jesus could give her her life back.
Just after this, Jesus completes his journey to Jairus the synagogue leaders house. Jairus’ daughter has died. But Jesus brings her back to life. He gives her her life back.
Who else could give her that but God?
Who else could give us that but him?
I’m not saying everything in our lives will miraculously get better. I’m saying Jesus sees us, saves us and restores us. In the middle of our mess, Jesus restores us. And we follow. We follow because he saved us first. He loved us first.
When you feel exhausted and disappointed and frustrated and hurt and betrayed and confused, when the rest of the world feels relentlessly difficult, the one safe place we have is in him. We are cleansed in him. We are perfected in him. We can find our peace in him.
This blog is a stand alone piece but it is also part of a weekly online bible study. If you have missed any or would like to reference back to the beginning, the links are below:
- Week 1: “Who do you say I am”. Introduction to the gospel
- Week 2: The Beginning. Mark 1:1-20
- Week 3: The Who, the what and the why. Mark 1:21-45
- Week 4: Jesus didn’t come for the super-religious. He came for you. Mark 2:1-17
- Week 5: There is nothing you can do to start – or stop – God’s plan. Mark 2:18-28
- Week 6: Jesus wasn’t the man they wanted him to be. Mark 3:1-12
- Week 7: Jesus made us a new family – does church really feel like that? Mark 3:13-35
- Week 8: Is fruitfulness something we do or something we are to be? (Mark 4:1-20)
- Week 9: What will the kingdom of God be like? (Mark 4:21-34)
- Week 10: Jesus goes out of his way to specifically find you (Mark 4:35-5:20)