I thought about what rules mean when I spent time this week with the hemorrhaging woman we heard about in the Gospel. This presumably Jewish woman. This presumably Jewish woman who, according to purity rules of her day, was unclean. While a woman bled during her menstrual cycle—or during an illness that prolonged that cycle—according to the Levitical laws, she was not supposed to touch others or be touched, or those she touched would also be unclean. Other people couldn’t even touch where she sat. Now this sounds harsh and a little misogynistic, and maybe it was, but like I said, I tend to believe rules are there for a reason. So I dug. I wanted to know the context of these laws. And I found a compelling reason. Blood, obviously, transmits diseases. It’s the same reason, maybe, that athletes are required to leave games when they take a hit, get a cut, and are bleeding. They can’t get back in the game until the trainer can wipe up the blood and put a bandage on the wound. For those moments they are unclean, not allowed to be in contact with anyone else.
I tend to believe that rules are created with good intentions. But what happens when the enforcement of the rule becomes more important than the intentions of the rule? What happens when we honor the letter of the rule more than how it is actually serving people?
What happens when a society is more concerned about an unclean woman touching them than they are about the fact that she’s been bleeding for twelve straight years? Or the fact that she’s spent every last cent she has on finding a cure and is now destitute and desperate?
What happens when a society is more concerned about enforcing their border laws than they are about the young children who are separated from their parents because of how those laws are enforced?
What happens when a society is more concerned about whether or not Antwon Rose should have ran from the police than the fact that a 17 year-old is dead from shots in the back?
Our society has created our own versions of unclean people under the cover of “rules are rules.” Their stories not worth hearing, their dignity not worth preserving, their lives not worth protecting because rules are rules.
It’s easy to paint this as an us/them situation. Us the rule-followers against them the rule-breakers. Or us the oppressors and them the victims. Or us the victims and them the oppressors. But the truth is, we’ve all played each of those roles at some point. And we have all have been deemed unclean in the eyes of someone at some point. I can’t even guess at the ways each of you has suffered because you broke a rule—maybe a rule about what it means to be a “proper” woman or a “real” man or a good parent. Maybe a rule about who you’re supposed to love—or not love.
When you live so long by a rule that does not make room for your truth, it eats away at you. Not only had the hemorrhaging woman spent twelve years not knowing what it
meant to be healthy, she spent twelve years not being touched, cast to the margins because her body did not work like other bodies. I can’t imagine how desperate she must have felt. So she wandered into the crowd, heedless of the rules, and she reached out.
What would you do? What do you do? Where do you reach for when you don’t know what else to do? When you’re scared because you’re not sure if the situation will ever change?
Are you one of those people who, like me, reach for the quick but shallow safety of rules? Maybe obnoxiously correct people’s grammar or get irrationally angry when someone is double parked because the rules feel like the only control that’s left.
Do you reach out for whatever might numb you? A drink or hours of television or late nights on Facebook.
Do you distract yourself to exhaustion? Go out every night, see friends, go to events, keep yourself busy. Not to get support, but just to pretend like everything is fine.
These are ways to cope, yes, but I wouldn’t say that they are ways to reach out like the woman reached out. Because reaching out requires trust. Reaching out requires that we recognize that we can’t do it alone, that healing only happens through love, and love only happens in relationship. Reaching out is an act of faith. And faith is a ridiculous risk.
“If I but touch Jesus’ clothes, I will be made well.” What a ridiculous, faith-filled idea.
But here’s the thing about Jesus. He is the literal embodiment of relationship. God with us. The form that love took when God entered into this world to be in relationship with God’s people. And we know that love “bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.”
It suddenly doesn’t seem like such a stretch that even the smallest act of connection with Jesus would heal. And she was healed. Before anyone knew what happened. Even Jesus. And that smallest act of faith shook him. Even in the middle of that thick crowd, where people were pressing in on him, he felt that tiny reaching out. Before Jesus could even understand what happened, she was healed.
Then he turned around, wondering who touched him. Despite her fear that presumably she made Jesus unclean by touching him, she revealed herself and told him what had happened. Did this Jewish teacher chastise her for breaking the rules? Did he punish her for doing so on purpose despite knowing better?
No. Jesus recognized her need fulfilled. He engaged her, deepened the relationship, called her daughter. And then he went even further: Jesus made this woman the agent of her own healing. “Your faith has made you well,” he said.
You were suffering and desperate. You didn’t know what to do. But you trusted in me, and reached out, and your faith has made you well.