Not to long ago, I started watching a new series on Netflix called “Diagnosis.” It is a documentary series that features real people dealing with real physical ailments. These people usually have been suffering for years but with no relief and no diagnosis. With the help of a doctor and The New York Times, these people and their stories are shared world wide in the hopes of finding a diagnosis. And it happens and it’s so amazing. I wondered if the internet or The New York Times would have existed at the same time as Jesus if the woman in today’s gospel would have suffered for 18 years.
Think about this, she was bent over for 18 years. There was the physical pain, I’m sure, that accompanies being bent over for that long. I mean, I think many of us take for granted all of the ways we are able to bend and stretch. It’s only usually when we are unable to do those things that we learn how important they are. But, there also had to be an emotional, mental, psychological, and maybe even spiritual component to her ailment. Think about this: she was literally hunched over. Her world view consisted only of what her eyes could see. For 18 years, she hadn’t been able to see the sun or the stars. She may have struggled to look into the eyes of her loved ones. Because of her ailment, she was most likely shunned by those around her in the community. She was avoided, ignored, or maybe even shunned. While the text does not say as much, I can only imagine the kind of toll that took on her mental health.
Enter Jesus, of course. He was in the synagogue teaching. The woman shows up. Now, we are not told if this is her first time at the synagogue or if she is a regular attendee. What I do know is that no matter if she’s a visitor or a regular, it takes a lot of courage to show up. I commend her. And Jesus, of course, sees her. And Jesus, of course, does what Jesus does, and heals her. But he goes a step further and lays hands on her. Her healing takes place immediately. All of her 18 years of trouble are gone in an instant. The woman’s response is to praise God. This is where our language lacks (once again). The idea behind this praising verb is that it is continual. This praising is not a one time thing. She praises God and praises God and praises God and on and on.
But there are the naysayers. There are always the naysayers, aren’t there? We so badly want to side with Jesus on this one, don’t we? Well, at least I do. Of course he’s going to heal on the sabbath. Jesus sees someone in need and responds to that need. That’s what Jesus does. But, I have also sounded like or at least thought like the leader of the synagogue too often. Sunday is the day of sabbath. Scripture tells us we are to observe the Sabbath and keep it holy. There are very few places any more that are actually closed on Sunday. Sunday has become the day when we grocery shop, do the laundry, catch up on that yard work, participate in the club sports, prepare for the week ahead and on and on. I even engage in a lot of these things once my work here is done many Sunday’s.
At the same time, it’s not unheard of for me or any of my other colleagues to lament the attendance at church. Maybe you’ve done it yourself. People say “church just doesn’t seem to be the priority of families any more.” Or “the only time available to have youth group is Tuesday nights at 10pm or Thursday morning at 530 because these kids are so busy.” By saying or thinking these things, we are just like the leader of the synagogue. So, I am actually understanding the lament of the synagogue leader here a bit. I understand why Jesus did what he did but I also understand why the leader feels the way he did. It’s a bit of a conundrum really.
For Jesus, it wasn’t a matter of obeying the sabbath, it was a matter of life and death. The fact that he brings up obtaining water for the animals is his way of trying to convey this message. Remember, his audience were people that live in a very hot and humid climate. Having water for your animals (animals, I might add, that will provide sustenance for your family) is a matter of life and death. If the animals die, the families might not have food or a way to monetarily support their family. Others might argue though that keeping the sabbath is a matter of life and death. Luther says that following the sabbath means that “We should fear and love God so that we do not despise preaching and His Word, but hold it sacred and gladly hear and learn it.” There are many who believe that attending church, listening to God’s word, feasting at the table, and being in Christian community with one another is a matter of life and death.
What are we to do then with this conundrum? Well, it should be no surprise to any of you that I am going to preach and encourage us to look on the side of grace. I say it shouldn’t surprise you because if you’ve been here longer than a minute you know that my sermons,my life, my “brand” so to speak is all about grace. While Jesus gives the crowd and the synagogue leader what sounds like a lecture, it really is an invitation to grace. Jesus highlights the ways that they are not living into a sabbath by feeding and watering their animals. Although it may not sound like it, this really is grace. Jesus is inviting them to continue living into grace instead of always trying to live by the law. The law is great. God’s laws are there to protect us and guide us. But trying to live our lives by the law can be exhausting because it is practically impossible. I know many of you would love a true sabbath day; a day when literally nothing has to be done other than the spiritual, physical, emotional, and mental feeding of your body. That sounds amazing. But, I also know that it is impossible. There is always something that has to be done.
So, we can either beat ourselves up knowing that we’re not obeying and keeping the sabbath holy or we can live into the grace God through Jesus Christ invites us to. While we may not be physically impaired like the woman in our story, our focus can tend to be like hers prior to healing. We are only able to see so much. It is only when Jesus heals us and lays hands on us that our perspective opens up. Sometimes we are so focused on the law, the must-dos, and, unfortunately, shaming those who do not live by the law (including ourselves) that our focus gets to be like tunnel-vision. Jesus invites us to open our eyes and our minds. When we engage in confession of the things we have done and the things we have left undone, we confess in the ways we have lived by the law, or not, and the ways we might have demanded others live by the law. And through the saving and redemptive power of the cross, we are forgiven. When we are splashed with those baptismal waters, we are reminded that even when we desire to live by the law and fail, God will be there, naming and claiming us each time. When we are fed at the table, we are reminded of God’s grace that is for us, despite us, every single time.
If trying to be a perfect Christian (whatever that is) and trying to live perfectly under God’s law has you bent over, my beloved, I invite you to live into grace. It is a gift from God. It is given to you freely. We need not ask for it (the woman didn’t ask for healing, Jesus just did it). But here’s the thing about grace: it will mess you up. In the best way. Grace allows us to be free to love ourselves and our neighbors. Grace is what allows us to stand upright, praise God continually, and rejoice at all the wonderful things Jesus has done, is doing, and will continue to do.