This is a sketch of the sermon I preached at St. Lydia's the week of March 2. The text is the story of the woman with a hemmorage of blood, Mark 5:21-42. You can read it here.
When my grandmother was a girl,
no one told her what it meant to get her period.
And so when she woke up one morning when she was twelve or thirteen
to find blood between her legs
and assumed that she was dying.
Raised in a rather Victorian home,
she told no one about what was happening to her body for several days,
when, finally, terrified,
she told her mother.
Most of us were most likely not raised in homes so victorian as my grandmother’s,
but our culture still has taboos about menstruation:
about the things that women’s bodies do.
As a student, I remember dropping by the student bookstore one day to pick up tampons
only to discover that the guy working behind the counter
was someone I harbored a little crush on.
I walked right out.
I just couldn’t by tampons from from him.
It’s a funny story,
but shows that I, like my grandmother,
felt a sense of privacy and embarrassment around “feminine hygiene,”
as they like to print above that aisle in the drug store.
As if the menstrual cycle is something dirty
that needs to be cleaned up.
Some of the same sensibilities were in play
in Jesus’ time, though the cultural context was very different.
The woman in our story
had been bleeding for twelve years,
and would have been considered ritually unclean.
Jewish purity laws most likely had their origins simply in public health:
they were a way of keeping people from eating animals
and doing certain things
that had a likelihood of making them sick.
The book of Levitius lists types of animals you shouldn’t eat,
includes prohibitions on touching things that are dead
or those who are ill.
Blood and other discharges were unclean,
and probably for good reason.
You didn’t want to go around touching those things,
especially in the days before antibacterial soap.
But the prohibitions of the culture had far-reaching implications
for those who were ill or sick,
Those people who were seen as unclean,
and so were expelled from the community.
The woman in our story would have been in just such a situation.
Levitcus 15 reads:
If a woman has a discharge of blood for many days, not at the time of her impurity, or if she has a discharge beyond the time of her impurity, for all the days of the discharge she shall continue in uncleanness; as in the days of her impurity, she shall be unclean. Every bed on which she lies during all the days of her discharge shall be treated as the bed of her impurity; and everything on which she sits shall be unclean, as in the uncleanness of her impurity. Whoever touches these things shall be unclean, and shall wash his clothes, and bathe in water, and be unclean until the evening.
How isolated this woman would have been.
She could touch no one, be touched by no one.
She could not eat with her family or live with them.
She couldn’t sit on a chair without contaminating it.
And after all these years of isolation,
her search for a cure has made her destitute.
She’s unable to work, out of options.
This story is often referred to politely as
“The woman with the issue of blood.”
But, when you really look at it,
really look at what we’re talking about here:
a woman who’s menstruated for twelve years,
it is a story that’s impossible to sanitize.
This is a story about a woman’s body --
a bleeding body.
And she reaches out and touches Jesus,
when she should never touch anyone, especially not a man.
There’s nothing polite about it.
It’s shocking and transgressive.
Mark has nested two stories together in this account:
the story of the the hemorraging woman happens right in the middle
of a larger story about Jairus’ daughter and her illness.
And when Mark does this, he’s asking us to may attention
to the way the two stories speak to each other.
What do they have in common? Where are the differences?
First, we might notice that there’s this funny detail that Mark gives us:
that the woman’s been bleeding for twelve years
and the girl is twelve years old.
There’s something going on there --
something about life and death and bodies.
The same year that the little girl was born,
the woman began bleeding.
And the same day that the woman is healed,
the girl is restored to life.
The woman ceases menstruation
and the girl, who’s twelve, and just about to become an adolescent,
has the opportunity to begin menstruation.
Again, these implications are not particularly polite or sanitized.
We’re talking here about women’s wombs, women’s cycles,
a woman’s ability to give life.
There is something very bodily at work in this passage of Mark’s.
Jesus brings both women back into life.
The girl was dead and is given life.
The woman might as well have been dead --
and she’s given her life back.
Second, there are these funny reversals in the text.
Little mirror images from one story to the other.
Jarius asks for Jesus to heal his daughter, while the women doesn’t ask, but take.
And Jesus, who should be made dirty when the women touches him
is instead made clean, and makes her clean as well.
So what are to make of this?
Here’s what sticks out to me:
Jesus has a hard time staying in the lines.
We always see him transgressing boundaries,
always going to the edges and the margins:
Just before this story is that of the Gerasene Demoniac,
a man with a deamon who lives not only on the edge of town,
but among the tombs -- the most unclean place a person can live --
among the dead.
He’s on the outside of everything, unclean, unwanted.
And this women -- she moves from the edges of society to the center to meet Christ.
Jesus is always crossing these lines he’s not supposed to cross,
touching people who no one else will touch.
The purity codes of Jesus’ day are like a quarantine area,
marked off with tape.
And Jesus just ducks right under the plastic tape
and marches in.
I think we get confused sometimes in our culture,
and think that being a Christian is about being good.
Maybe even about being nice or polite.
But nothing about what Jesus does is polite.
He crosses every line that’s been established.
And not just for the sake of crossing them --
not just to be contrarian or to break the rules or be rebellious.
he crosses them because of life.
Because there’s life on the other side.
Usually when we see quarantine tape,
it means that death is on the other side.
But as usual, Jesus turns everything upside-down.
It’s not death on the other side of the boundary, but life.
Are there places in our lives
marked off with quarantine tape?
Places we don’t allow ourselves to go?
Lines that we’ve put in place that we’re sure we mustn’t cross?
What is it that waits on the other side?
Life? Or death?
The quarantine line I’ve set up in my own life
has often been around risk.
I mark off places I shouldn’t go, things I shouldn’t do
because they seem to me too risky.
When maybe there’s more life on the other side of that line than death.
Maybe I’m keeping myself from living
by not crossing over to the other side.
The religious authorities of Jesus’ day
weren’t the only folks
interested in boundaries.
Religious people put up boundaries around a a lot of things
that they feel need to be contained.
And sometimes they lift their rules about what’s okay and what isn’t
from the same book of Leviticus that the chief priests and scribes
What’s often referred to as the “biblical mandate against homosexuality”
is one such boundary that’s been fought over in our country,
with churches splitting in the process.
Everyone is so concerned with this line that apparently shouldn’t be crossed,
because, I suppose, of fear of what might be on the other side.
But I look at the other side and see life.
loving sexual encounters,
and loved children.
This is a boundary with life on the other side, not death.
The boundary of gender
is another line
that our culture obsesses over.
Particular roles for men and roles for women.
Everyone needs to fit in one category or the other.
But look at all those people who fit somewhere in between.
All those people who find that their most life-giving expression of gender
may be broader than the bodies they were born with.
I meet trans people who are basking in the light of their discovered identity,
This is life.
This is a boundary with life on the other side, not death.
Here on the other side of this boundary,
life as we’ve craved and imagined it.
I’m not saying we should cross boundaries just to cross them.
We shouldn’t cross them just to transgress,
just to disrupt or destroy.
But when there's life on the other side --
isn’t that exactly the place where Jesus keeps leading us?
To the fringes, to the margins?
Delivering us from our death dealing quarantines
and calling us to step across the line?
From death to life?
From brokenness to wholeness?
The world’s ethical systems tends to be based
on encouraging that which will most contribute to human thriving.
But as time marches on,
it is sometimes easy for us
to loose track of the spirit behind the law,
and focus instead on the letter.
Jesus models an ethical system
based not on the rules that we’ve listed out for ourselves,
not on the boundaries we erected years ago
but one simple criteria:
life or death?
Do my relationships,
the way I use my money,
the places where I buy my clothes,
the television I watch,
the way I engage my sexuality,
the way I parent my children,
tend toward life or death?
We share the sermon at St. Lydia's, and so I invite you to observe a time of silence, and then share a story or experience that was sparked by the text.