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.
This is the Word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.
We do not know this woman’s name. We do not know where she comes from, where her family is, or much else. And at the same time, it is easy to picture this woman, weary and resigned, unable to stand up straight. We know her strength and determination to continue to come to the synagogue, to be with God’s people in worship and life despite being bent over and unable to stand up straight. Her eyes remain lowered by the force on her back, never fully able to make eye contact. Constantly looking down, down at her sandaled feet, down at the road, down at the pew. She may want to look up to greet her neighbor or see the stars but her back restricts her from this. When was the last time she was able to look directly into someone’s eyes and feel seen?
I wonder how she was treated in the synagogue. If it was anything like the modern American church, I could imagine a few different responses. Perhaps she was always greeted by a friend at the entrance and they would sit together. Perhaps this friend whispered in her ear when something interesting happened up front that she might have missed. Or, and I know we can imagine this “or” as well, did she come in and sit in the back by herself? Did she faithfully attend this worshiping community but continue to be overlooked because of her back and not fitting in? I wonder how her community treated her?
This woman arrived at worship one day, and probably noticed a general hubhub that was uncommon as Jesus started teaching. She may not have seen or recognized him because of her condition but I bet she knew something was different about this day. And while Jesus was likely surrounded by disciples and people seeking him, Jesus saw her, even if she could not see him. He saw her and knew her struggle.
I want to pause her because there are possible misunderstandings of this passage that can cause harm. First, the healing of those deemed disabled. The demarcation between able bodied and disabled bodies is not always clear. Many people who fit the “disabled” label do not think of themselves as disabled. But rather look at how society privileges some abilities over others and creates spaces where the privileged bodies can participate and the unprivileged bodies cannot. So when we look at healings from Jesus, we should not see disabled as wrong or bad or even sinful. I believe we need to look at God’s liberative action and restoration into community in those stories. This is about more than a physical healing, it is a restoration to wholeness in community. (To learn more about disability justice, check out The Word is Resistance podcast.)
Second, we have a synagogue leader who seems to be upset about this healing. I know we have looked in past sermons about the ways anti-semitism is interpreted into the Bible and sometimes actually shows up in the Bible too. This is one of those passages where it has often been interpreted into the text. Those bad interpretations say, “Look at how strict the Jews are. They do not want healing. They want rules. Jews are bad. Jesus is good.” Now, I know that is fairly derivative but that is often what is taught. However it misses a major point. Jesus is Jewish! He went to a synagogue to teach about God’s laws. While Jesus and the synagogue leader might have some different interpretations and experiences, this passage is not about Jews being bad.
Okay. Back to the story. Jesus sees this woman. He knows her crippling pain for many, many years. And here we see the liberative action of God in this story. Jesus’ healings are always more than just a cure. They are focused on liberation. This is a healing because it restores her to full participation in her community. Jesus calls her a “daughter of Abraham,” reaffirming that belovedness that no one can take away. It may make us wonder, “What aspects of society were keeping her from full participation?”
I imagine many of us have been on both sides of this woman’s story. Many of us know what it is like to have circumstances that are out of our control but used to define us, exclude us, distort us, and even harm us. Some of us have had our agency stolen because of our class or race or gender or ability. Some of us are seen to be “crippled” because we do not fit the social narrative of normal. Especially in places like churches that promise to be a community and promise to be welcoming but are not.
How does our community respond to these different access needs? Do we participate in the crippling of communities by making access different for different bodies? Do we focus on the cure while ignoring the liberation of the person from systemic oppression? Or are we a church community that sees people as cherished, beloved, called, and invited to praise God with our unique stories? Are we a community that works towards liberation of all people regardless of ability, race, class, gender, orientation, immigration status, legal status, language spoken, education level, religion, respectability?
Because the truth of our faith and the truth shining through in this story – that I need each and every one of you to take to heart is this: There is no disease, no pain, no boundary that can keep you from God’s love for you. Just as you are. Warts and all. You are deeply, deeply loved from the foundations of the earth to the farthest reaches of the universe. You are loved.
And so is the person sitting next to you. And the person down the street. We are called as a community of faith to remove those boundaries from participation in our community so that all can experience their belovedness. Can we do this church?