The Unnamed, VII: The Woman with the Chronic Condition

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February 26, 2023

The Unnamed, VII: The Woman with the Chronic Condition

Passage: Mark 5:25–34

During Epiphany and Lent Christine and I are preaching a sermon series called The Unnamed. It’s about a virtual battalion of characters in the Bible who don’t get a name but are very important to the story. This has giving Christine and I an excuse to revisit the sweep of God’s history with God’s people, from the Garden of Eden to the Garden of Resurrection, including this story from the early days of Jesus’ ministry from the Gospel of Mark:

Now there was a woman who had been suffering from a flow of blood for twelve years. She had endured much under many physicians and had spent all that she had, and she was no better but rather grew worse. She had heard about Jesus and came up behind him in the crowd and touched his cloak, for she said, “If I but touch his cloak, I will be made well.” Immediately her flow of blood stopped, and she felt in her body that she was healed of her disease. Immediately aware that power had gone forth from him, Jesus turned about in the crowd and said, “Who touched my cloak?” And his disciples said to him, “You see the crowd pressing in on you; how can you say, ‘Who touched me?’” He looked all around to see who had done it. But the woman, knowing what had happened to her, came in fear and trembling, fell down before him, and told him the whole truth. He said to her, “Daughter, your faith has made you well; go in peace, and be healed of your disease.”

One day fairly early in his ministry Jesus is just about to launch into his daily sermon when the local rabbi begs him to heal his very sick daughter. Jesus instantly abandons his sermon notes, stands up, and starts charging off to do this good deed.

And so there they are—Jesus with his entourage of faithful disciples, a vast throng of adoring autograph hounds, the curious paparazzi, and a security detail of no-neck body-guards the size of NFL linebackers trying to clear a path to his destination, but this vast rabble is not making much headway through the narrow, cobblestone streets of that tiny Galilean village.

And Mark tells us that among the crushing crowds there was a woman who had suffered from ‘hemorrhages’ for 12 years, probably some sort of menstrual difficulty, and it’s important to remember that whatever she was suffering, it was much more than an inconvenience for her.

Ancient Judaism, you will remember, was the most fastidious of religions. Judaism had all these rules about what was clean and what was unclean, what was acceptable and what was unacceptable, what was touchable and what was untouchable.

She was excluded from all human contact; she was living on the fringe of her community. If she was married, her husband could not make love to her, could not touch her, could not even come near her. If she had children, they too would have to keep their distance. She is completely, utterly, abjectly alone. She is the definition of loneliness.

This has been going on for 12 years. Mark tells us that “she had endured much under many doctors, and had spent all she had, and was no better, but rather grew worse.”

And then she hears about Jesus, this Miracle Man, this Wonder Worker, and she says to herself, “What the hell? Why Not? I’ll give it a whirl.” But he is ensconced behind this impervious fortress wall of swarming humanity; sprawling crowds stand between him and her.

So what does she do? She worms her way aggressively and rudely through the masses, as if she means to touch the stage at Madison Square Garden and be showered with Bruce’s sweat at a Springsteen concert. “If I can just touch the cuff of his Levi’s,” she says to herself, “if I can just brush the toe of his Chuck Taylors, if I can just glaze the hem of his robe, if I can just glance the fringe of his power, maybe I can be made whole; maybe I will be welcomed back into the human community.”

Twelve years waiting to touch the fringe of power, just so she no longer has to live on the fringe of her community.

And I love the way Mark talks about Jesus’ miracle-making machine. The instant she touches the fringe of his power, she can feel in her body that she is suddenly well. The bleeding stops just like that. Likewise, Jesus feels the power exit his body.

That is such a nice narrative touch, don’t you think? That miraculous power is tangible; that energy is palpable; it’s like a shock of static electricity. Giver and receiver alike can feel the exchange of energy; the down at the back of both necks stands up straight.

You remember how Darth Vader and Obi Wan Kenobi from Star Wars can feel it in their bodies when someone accesses The Force and some of its energy is drained away? That’s what’s going on in this little story.

“Who touched me?” Jesus instantly demands. They say there is no such thing as a dumb question, but Jesus’ disciples think this one might just qualify. “Who touched you?! Jesus, you’re a hot celebrity crushed by a milling mêlée of humanity; everybody’s touching you!” “No!” he says. “Somebody touched me with faithful intent. I know the difference. I know when someone wants something from me.” Jesus sounds angry, but he’s not; he is amazed; he is astonished by this towering but anonymous faith.

Twelve years to brush the fringe of power. According to this story, faith is persistence; faith is resilience; faith is never giving up hope; faith is keeping covenant with the universe even when the universe persistently mistreats you; faith is keeping covenant with your own personal potential; faith is holding on to outlandish possibilities past all reasonableness. Twelve years spending all she had and suffering much under many doctors, and this Miracle Man comes along and she believes, she hopes, she keeps faith.

When Glenn Cunningham was an eight-year-old boy in Kansas in 1917, someone mistakenly put gasoline instead of kerosene in a canister at his schoolhouse, and the resulting explosion killed his 13-year-old brother and left Glenn with severe burns on his legs and torso. The doctors wanted to amputate his legs, but his parents refused. It was six weeks before he could sit up. It was two years before he could walk.

Finally he managed to pull himself up leaning against the back of a chair. Then he graduated to the tail of the family mule, and when he outgrew the mule, he hung on to the tail of an obliging horse named Paint. In 1934, he ran a mile in 4:06. They say he was the greatest miler of all time.

Glenn Cunningham was a man of deep faith; his favorite Bible verse was Isaiah 40:31: "But those who wait on the Lord shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint."[1]

Glenn Cunningham was Louis Zamperini’s hero when little Louis was a hellbent-for-trouble teenager in California. Louis and Glenn went to the 1936 Olympics in Berlin together. You remember Louis Zamperini, survivor after 47 days as a castaway on a life raft in the Pacific and three years in a Japanese POW camp, subject of the beautiful book Unbroken.

I’ve talked to you about Louis before, but I don’t think I’ve ever talked to you about Laura Hillenbrand, the author of Unbroken.  Maybe you know that Laura Hillenbrand had never met Louis Zamperini when she published that book. She has been seriously ill since her student days at Kenyon College. She’s 55 now and has suffered from Chronic Fatigue Syndrome for over 30 years, and almost never leaves her house in Washington.

A while back, she installed a lift in her house so that she could get up to the second floor, and when The Wall Street Journal interviewed her in her home, she told the reporter that she’d skipped her shower that day so that she would have the strength to do the interview.

She doesn’t do book tours, and she conducted all these hundreds and hundreds of interviews with Louis and those who knew him, even his Japanese captors, via telephone. She’d heard about Louis when she was doing research for her previous book Seabiscuit, about a scrappy little horse who overcomes giant odds to win his victories. So you can see why Laura Hillenbrand is fascinated by stories of resilience and perseverance.[2]

It took her seven years to write that book, and she barely left her house. "I'm looking for a way out of here," she says. “I can't have it physically, so I'm going to have it intellectually. It was a beautiful thing to ride Seabiscuit in my imagination. And it's just fantastic to be there alongside Louie [Zamperini] as he's breaking the NCAA mile record. . . . It's my way of living vicariously."[3] So you see what can happen when you keep faith with the world even when the world is persistently cruel, when you keep covenant with your own latent possibilities.

Someone here has been suffering from ill health for twelve years and has suffered much under many doctors and has spent all she had.

Someone here has been stumbling around with a broken heart for twelve years after losing the love of his life.

Someone here lost his job twelve years ago and has filed one bootless job application after another, and still his towering gifts go unused.

Someone here has been waging a fierce battle with the noonday demon of depression for twelve years and can barely drag himself out of bed every morning.

Keep faith in the universe which keeps trying to beat you down. It could be that he has a miracle waiting for you. Can you see him, this intense Galilean, sprinting across the countryside, hellbent for Jerusalem, where he will die, but then rise again? If you can just touch the fringe of his power, if you can just brush the hem of his robe...

Oh, by the way, Mark never gives this woman a name. She is among a battalion of unnamed but important characters in the Bible. But in later years, the Christian Church just thought this was so wrong, so they started calling her Veronica.

At the end of his life, when Jesus is carrying his own cross to Golgotha down the Via Dolorosa in Jerusalem, he stumbles and falls to his knees. Veronica rushes out from the streetside crowd and hands him her veil, so that he can wipe the blood and sweat from his face.

When Jesus hands the veil back to Veronica, it is imprinted with the imperishable image of his very own face. So Veronica has become the patron saint of photographers and filmmakers.

You can probably guess what the name Veronica means, because you can hear that it contains the word Nike, which is Greek for victory. So Veronica is, quite literally, the one who wins.

[1]From Unbroken, by Laura Hillenbrand (New York: Random House, 2010), p. 16. Also a couple of details from the Wikipedia article on “Glenn Cunningham.”

[2]Steve Oney, “The Defiant Ones,” The Wall Street Journal, November 12, 2010.

[3]Laura Hillenbrand, quoted by The Christian Century, May 17, 2011.

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