I hate being late. I think it’s disrespectful to whomever I’m meeting with. The delay is often an unplanned or unpredictable interruption but, nevertheless, it puts me on edge. How well do you cope with being interrupted? Do you manage to glide through the unexpected, seemingly unperturbed? Or do you start to panic, ever such a little, if your carefully laid plans start to unravel? Don’t worry, I won’t ask you which of those you are – I’ll ask those who know you best instead!
The Dutch priest and theologian, Henri Nouwen, wrote: ‘… my whole life I have been complaining that my work was constantly interrupted, until I discovered that my interruptions were my work.’
William Willimon, a retired Bishop in the United Methodist Church, had this to say about our passage today: ‘Having witnessed a healing and a resurrection, I am dying to get back to my study and write a sermon. As I pack up my books, already composing the sermon outline in my mind, Jesus stops me and says, “Forget the sermon. Get in the kitchen. Give her something to eat.” When you’re trying to keep up with Jesus, things never go quite as planned.’
A miracle set-piece
There are many ways of looking at our long Gospel reading today. Firstly, it’s part of a big miracle set-piece by Mark. Last week we saw Jesus showing his power over nature, by stilling a storm. Then he restores a man afflicted by a legion of spirits. Now we have the healing of a woman who has bled incessantly for 12 years – and the bringing back to life of Jairus’s daughter. Nothing, it seems, can resist the rule of God embodied in Jesus.
Until, that is, we get to the next chapter of Mark, when Jesus goes home. Mark tells us: ‘He could do no deed of power there’ because of their unbelief. So, a theme for today could have been faith. The disciples showed their lack of faith when they were afraid in the boat. The man with the demons showed his faith after the healing. Jairus and the woman with the haemorrhage showed their faith before the healing. We could learn much about faith by looking at each of these stories in context.
Or should we think today about purity? In this chapter, Jesus, the Jew, first goes into unclean Gentile territory, encounters unclean spirits which he drives into an unclean herd of pigs. Then he is touched by a woman made unclean by a continuous flow of blood. Then he takes a dead girl by the hand, making himself unclean in the process.
On the face of it, it’s pretty much a job-lot of ritual uncleanness. Yet Jesus brings life-giving power to them all, removing and over-coming the uncleanness. ‘The politics of purity replaced by compassion’, as one author puts it.
But I don’t think that’s the point here. The purity laws were really to protect the holy, sacred, places within the Temple in Jerusalem. Our action takes place in Galilee, which is several days journey away. If Jesus is rendered unclean, then so what? He’s not going to the sanctuary in Jerusalem any time soon. But more telling is that the crowd don’t keep their distance from the woman with the bleed. In a small, tight-knit, community she would have been well-known before the encounter with Jesus. So, have we understood the purity laws correctly? If the locals weren’t bothered, then should we be? Surely the more important point is that the sick and the dead are now alive and well.
Or should we go a bit left-field and saying something about how these stories of the woman and the girl show a pre-figuring of Jesus’ own suffering, death and resurrection? Mark describes the suffering of the woman in the choice of very particular words that he only uses elsewhere about Jesus’ suffering (8:31, 9:12). Mark only refers to blood twice – here and in reference to Jesus (14:24). The woman is said to tell the truth, again only like Jesus (12:14, 32).
And the story of Jairus’ daughter has references to death, weeping, mocking, then the dead raised and the great astonishment of the onlookers (5:42 and 16:8). Do you see any echoes here of another death and resurrection? That of Jesus himself?
Perhaps, after a year of keeping our distance, we should look at the importance of touch in these stories? Or do we talk about how the woman finds the courage and faith to take matters into her own hands, after years of not just suffering from the illness but suffering from the treatment too. She bravely takes responsibility. She reaches out to claim her healing.
But then she shows courage a second time when Jesus asks who touches him. In fear and trembling, she risks public rejection by owning-up – yet instead she gets an affirmation. And, so, the healing happens twice – once physically through her touch and the second, more holistically, through her telling the whole truth. Jesus affirms her role in the healing. The story encourages us to act courageously on our own behalf – and to support others as they struggle for healing and wholeness. To tell the truth and to see what happens next.
All of these are possible approaches for today’s reading and perhaps one or more of these speaks to you? Meets you at a point of need. But, having been distracted by all these other readings, I want to focus on where I started, with interruptions. Our Gospel has two stories, one wrapped round the other. One healing interrupted by another.
In Mark’s Gospel, Jesus is often interrupted. Here he’s on his way to help a prominent local religious official who is desperate enough to fall to his knees in front of Jesus and plead for his daughter. The man is high-status and important enough to be named. But on the way through the crowd to the house of Jairus, as the people press in on him, Jesus allows himself to be stopped by a nameless woman, made destitute by her illness. Her touch was enough to heal – job done you’d think – yet he stops to talk and to restore her to the community.
Who touched me?
You can feel the disciples, and almost certainly Jairus, getting increasingly more anxious as Jesus asks: ‘Who touched me?’ It reminds me of God in the Garden of Eden: ‘Where are you?’ and God to Cain: ‘Where is your brother?’ God already knew the answers but, in those instances, he didn’t get the entire truth in reply. There were snatches of truth. Evasions of truth. But here the woman gives the whole truth. Jesus gives the nameless woman a voice. A chance to speak her truth.
Jesus says to her: “your faith has made you well”. Last week he said to the disciples, when they were in the boat, that they were “without faith”. In his acknowledgement of her, the woman herself becomes the ‘daughter’ at the centre of the story. And she’s told to go in peace. To go in shalom.
Perhaps the ‘whole truth’ that she has to tell was a long story, for in that delay Jairus’s daughter dies. Jesus restores that daughter too. A daughter born 12 years before, at the start of the woman’s illness. Both, now, back to health. And he restores the girl to the family circle. This is no ghost. She’s hungry and she needs food!
Do we discriminate?
Jesus’ compassion is indiscriminate. How often do we inadvertently discriminate? How often do we not stop, when we’re interrupted, to give time to someone because we’re on our way somewhere else? Somewhere else which we think is more important? By doing so are we denying that person the chance to tell their truth? Denying their restoration, their peace, their shalom?
So, next time that you’re interrupted… just pause a second… before you decide what to do next. Before you decide how to respond. Afterall, Moses was interrupted by a burning bush. It changed both his life and the life of a whole nation. Who knows how significant the next interruption that you get will be?
I wonder if we think of this lock-down as an ‘interruption’. Will we hurry on when it’s all over, annoyed at the delay to our ‘normal’ lives, on our way to wherever it is we’re going? Or will we reflect on what we’ve done with it?
‘…my whole life I have been complaining that my work was constantly interrupted… until I discovered that my interruptions were my work.’ Amen
- Gench, F.T. (2004). Back to the Well. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press