Heat Wave... Standing up Straight with the Bent Over Woman
Now he was teaching in one of the synagogues on the Sabbath. And just then there appeared a woman with a spirit that had crippled her for eighteen years. She was bent over and was quite unable to stand up straight. When Jesus saw her, he called her over and said, “Woman, you are set free from your ailment.” When he laid his hands on her, immediately she stood up straight and began praising God. But the leader of the synagogue, indignant because Jesus had cured on the Sabbath, kept saying to the crowd, “There are six days on which work ought to be done; come on those days and be cured, and not on the Sabbath day.” But the Lord answered him and said, “You hypocrites! Does not each of you on the Sabbath untie his ox or his donkey from the manger, and lead it away to give it water? And ought not this woman, a daughter of Abraham whom Satan bound for eighteen long years, be set free from this bondage on the Sabbath day?” When he said this, all his opponents were put to shame; and the entire crowd was rejoicing at all the wonderful things that he was doing (NRSV) ************************************************************ Don’t you just love a heat wave? I know everyone complains about how uncomfortable they are, and how they don't want to move or can’t breathe, but truly- that’s what makes them so impressive. No matter what you do there is no getting away from it. You can go into air conditioning for a while (and even there you can still feel it) But eventually you have to go out again. And when you do, you have no choice but to let the heat envelop you, surround you; even to the point where it threatens to overwhelm you! It seems that even if you are very still, there is no escape. When you are caught in the middle of that heat, your only defense is to embrace it.
Our story today is about "the bent over woman." Isn’t that an interesting way to be identified? She has no other name that we know- history has named her, judged her and labeled her by her appearance… by what’s wrong with her… by her situation.
Anyway, it is the Sabbath- the holy day- and the Jewish people have congregated in the synagogue- their place of meeting- and Jesus is teaching. And like every first century synagogue, the men are in front and the women are in back. And somehow Jesus notices a latecomer; a woman- bent over, or in the Greek, 'bent double.' She is quietly making her way toward her seat- cane in one hand, head toward the ground… she is used to slipping in late and is hoping to go unnoticed. She had been living this way for the past 18 years… slumped, bent, hunched…
Do you know what happens when you spend 18 years looking at the ground? You miss a whole lot going around you, that’s for sure. In fact, when you spend 18 years looking at anything, you miss a whole lot of life going on around you.
But the bent over woman, the text says, was crippled by a 'spirit'… bent over and unable to stand up straight at all. Do you know what that says to me? That there was a time in this woman’s life, before this happened to her that she could look people in the eye. At one time in her life, she had been stronger; maybe even healthy. But something had happened to her, and whatever it was, she could not leave it behind. It could have been an illness; and I don’t doubt that Jesus could have healed her physically. But I don’t think that's what this is about...
"Crippled by a spirit", says that there is something that has gotten hold of you, or has assumed power over you, or has taken control of your life. And that 'something' is causing you to live life in a crippled state… as less than… handicapped… making allowances for and making your choices by. And it’s so powerful that it dictates your actions; how you speak, where and when you go, how you act, how you think of yourself, and think of others. When a spirit has crippled you, you have succumbed (willing or not) to the power of that spirit- and it can take everything from you.
We don’t know what 'spirit' had crippled this woman.
It could have been something that happened to her; as a child or an adult… human beings can do unspeakable things to each other, and especially to the weak. Something can be experienced that is so traumatic it leaves one unable to move on…
It could have been some type of abuse or mistreatment that had gone on; perhaps daily. She could have been living in a relationship (or a home) that was unhealthy. And her ability to stand up straight had been taken from her over time.
It could have been an addiction of some kind. (Yes, addictions were present in the 1st century) Anything from drugs and/or alcohol to gambling, to food addictions, to compulsive shopping and spending, to nail biting, to judging others, to gossiping. Pick your poison… but every time our behavior is altered to accommodate our addiction, we’ve been crippled by the spirit of that addiction.
And please understand, once one is under the power of that spirit, it can seem like there is no way out. It’s like the heat wave we were talking about earlier… it seems like there is no getting away from it; it envelops you… surrounds you, and you can get to the point where it threatens to overwhelm you.
And after trying to stand up against it for so long, only to fail again and again, you can feel like your only defense is to just embrace it; and worse, to accept it… “This is just who I am now!” And you begin to identify yourself, in fact you begin to let others identify you based on that spirit… “He’s the fat one; she’s a workaholic; he’s a drunk; she’s a widow; she’s been abused, he’s got a bad marriage, she’s neurotic, he is self-centered…” And those labels stick... My God do they stick…
And once we internalize our labels, we quickly learn to become ashamed of them. That’s common in our, “only the strong survive” “take care of yourself” “figure it out” society… But a life lived in shame is not easy to navigate. So we spend our lives with a cane in our hand slipping in late and making our way to the back corner of the room; hunched over because we can’t stand to look anyone in the eye… can’t stand to look ourselves in the eye anymore. "Keep your head down, damn it!"
This is the bent over woman. She is everyone who has ever struggled to rise above the pain of oppression and low self-worth and judgment from others… she is everyone who has struggled with illness, addictions, loss of value, loss of spouse, or self-esteem or innocence… she is anyone who has lived in a situation that is intolerable… anyone who has been told "You Can't" and believed it.... anyone who has lost hope…
And as she makes her way to her seat that balmy Sabbath morning, Jesus calls to her. And Jesus doesn’t shout out, "Hey, YOU! Crippled one in the back row!"… or "Hey, Quasi Moto, I'm talking to you!"… or any other label that she or anyone else has used to identify her. He called her in a way that she knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that he was talking to her... Jesus used an identification that was unique to her... a name, if you will... Jesus calls her…
And hearing her name speaks to something inside of her; she recalls who she was before… Hearing her name she thinks… “I remember her… I remember my life before I took on the name of shame… I remember my life before I wore the label of addiction… I remember my life when I looked people in the eye; hell, when I looked myself in the eye… I remember life before IT came and took over.
Hearing her name is like a cool breeze in the middle of a heat wave, and she lets it wash over her in delight… and it gives her the strength to make her way toward the source of all wind and breath. It gives her strength amidst and despite the thunderous whispers and bolts of judgment she feels from everyone in the room… from everyone who knew her- and knew about her…
And when she arrives at the eye of the storm… at the place of peace that one finds at the feet of Jesus, she hears…“Woman, you are free from your ailment…. Woman, you are free from your oppression…. Free from judgment…. Free from shame…. Woman, you are no longer under the power of this thing that has controlled your life for so long… Free to be who you are and not who others tell you, you are. Free to live in the grace and mercy of the one who loves and cares for and knows everything you’ve ever experienced… free to love yourself, accept yourself… not with resignation, but with affirmation… You are precious… You are cherished… You are adored."
And Jesus lays his hands on her and immediately she stood up straight, and began to praise God. (vs.13)
And the room held its breath… a miracle!
But not many of us like things that we can’t explain. It makes us feel helpless. We feel out of control; vulnerable; unable to define or dissect what we just saw take place before our eyes… So the leader of the synagogue does what most of us would do in that situation… he looked at the faces of the amazed people who had questions he could not answer; and not knowing what to say, he deferred to the rules.
“This is the wrong day for healings… we only do this kind of thing during the week, not on Sabbath!”
Notice, that he didn’t deny the power of Christ- he didn’t deny the healing, he didn’t deny that this woman was made brand new. A lot of times I think that’s how it is for us. We understand (in theory) that God can do anything- we don’t deny the power in the room- we profess that Jesus can take away our sorrow, heal our wounds- but we want Jesus to do it within the framework we have set up- according to our plan- in ways that are not threatening, or scary, or risky. We like the "safe healing" Jesus.
But here's how Jesus responds: He calls the leader of the synagogue a' hypocrite'; And then he turns to the woman, and he calls her 'daughter'…. Daughter! He looks at the crowd with their mouths still wide open and lovingly reminds them that this woman, the one who they have made to feel 'less than,' for all of these years, is as much a part of them as the leader of the synagogue. He reminds them that the family of God is not about shaming people into community, or marginalizing those who struggle, or reaching outside the circle to help those who can’t help themselves as if it’s some magnanimous gesture on our part. But reminding them (us) to bring those people to the source of all wind and breath… to the center.
I don’t know what may have you "bent over" today- what may or may not have a hold on you, or how far into the margins you may feel. I don’t know what you struggle with, or what it is in your life that keeps you in the state that you’re in, or has claimed power over your life. I don’t know the name you have come to know yourself by or what labels you wear…
But I do know this. We all, to some extent, live 'bent double.' And it may or may not be in the form of a debilitating disfigurement- in fact, no one may be able to see that you are bent over at all.…
But Jesus knows it. He has seen you in the back of the room with your cane. He has seen you slip in at the last minute, hoping no one notices. And this moment, He is calling to you…"Stand up Straight." And he is not calling like the gentle cool breeze, but with the prevailing and pervasive fire of grace, mercy and truth… calling you with love so hot that it envelops and surrounds and (praise God) just plain overwhelms! Your only defense is to embrace it. Talk about a heat wave!
When Jesus calls you- to the “you” inside... to the “you” from before... to the “you” he created… what he offers is life; life that is rich and full and free. You don’t have to live bent over to anything or anyone or any label ever again, because the one who knows the truth about you sees all of it and still calls you daughter! The one who loves you exactly the way you are calls you son!
Oh what a God we serve!
And I know the temptation is to turn a deaf ear… to think, when you hear the word “beloved” from the mouth of God, (and that is God's name for you, by the way... Beloved...) When you hear your name, you begin to think, “That can’t be for me… Christ can’t really mean me.” But here's one more thing to think about... When Jesus addresses the crowd, do you know what he calls the spirit that has kept her crippled all these years? He says, "this woman has been bound by satan for 18 years!" Now "satan" in Greek doesn’t mean the guy in the red suit with the horns on his head… "satan" means “accuser.” I would leave it to you to decide who is the accuser(s) in this story, and I’ll leave you to decide who the accuser(s) are in your own story. For now, stand up straight!