She’d been bent and twisted for 18 years. If she were with us today, she’d been bent and twisted since 2004.
Take a minute to imagine what life was like for the woman. The invitation is to do this in your imagination or IRL–in real life–that is, actually stand up, bend over, and walk around a little. What might it have been like only to see the ground for 18 years? What might it have done to the woman’s social life? Her family life? How might it have affected the rest of her health? Imagine what it must have been like to live twisted and bent for 18 years. (Pause)
Now, imagine feeling the gentle touch of a hand on your back…a hand! Simply to be touched…it had been so long…And not just touched, but…what was that warmth emanating from that hand? And the words… “Set free from my weakness?” Yes! Something tight inside is uncurling….What for almost 2 decades has seemed impossible suddenly seems possible. You straighten, pain-free…and look into the eyes of your healer. Then you do the only thing you can do: You give loud praise to the Great Spirit! You might even do a little thank you Jesus dance.
Oh, to be healed! To be set free from weakness! When our physical health is restored, our emotional and spiritual lives soar. Such joy! And when someone else is healed, the joy spills over to just about everybody else.
Almost about everybody else…
When the twisted woman stands up straight, set free from her weakness…and when she starts her joyful celebration, the “head man,” as the First Nations Version calls him, protests. He protests the woman’s healing. You see, Jesus has healed someone–that is, he has worked– on the Sabbath. In the law, working on the Sabbath is forbidden. There are six other days of the week to heal; do your healing work then, NOT on the Sabbath!
An aside in the First Nations Version says that Jesus looked at the head man with sorrow and anger. If Jesus was sad, it’s likely because the head man didn’t get it. Mired in the letter of the law, he missed its spirit. Because of his stranglehold on the law, the head man wasn’t able to experience the joy–the miracle–of the woman’s healing.
If Jesus was angry, it might have been directed at the head man’s real goal: clinging to power, a power that came from policing religious law. If Jesus is going to flaunt the law, where will the head man be then? Powerless. In his mind, there’s only one thing the head man can do: protest. If Jesus is angry, perhaps it’s because, once again, the religious structure that’s in place ignores and diminishes the needs of the folks living in need on the margins of their society.
“Healing” is a soft, comforting word. Everybody wants to be healed, right? That’s a big part of what we do here at UCT…we create space for people to heal from the wounds the world has inflicted. Many of us come to church bent and twisted, looking for some help in standing up straight. And when that healing comes? What joy!
Yes, “healing” is a comforting word. AND…it also can be disruptive. If the social or religious structures in place thrive on people’s weakness, what happens when those weak ones experience healing? They gain power, right? And if the powerless gain power, what happens to those who benefit from the current power structures? No wonder the head man felt threatened.
Yesterday, here at the church, we heard an essay written by Leonard Scovens and read by Leonard’s grandmother, Joan Livezey. For those who are new to UCT, 23 years ago Leonard Scovens murdered the daughter and grandson–Pat and Chris–of UCT member, Agnes Furey. Shortly after her daughter’s and grandson’s deaths, Agnes wrote to Leonard. Until her death from Covid a year ago tomorrow, the two came into relationship and asked what it would take for each of them to heal. Their conversations through the letters they wrote, led them to work for a transformation of our criminal justice system through restorative justice. Eventually, Leonard joined UCT. He is one of us.
As I listened to Leonard’s words yesterday, today’s sermon floating through my mind, something Leonard wrote resonated. When Leonard suggests that people who are incarcerated need to be healed, guards resist, sometimes violently. Leonard says that the stance of the guards–of the entire criminal justice system–is that “prisoners should be punished, not healed.”
Can you imagine what would happen if people who are incarcerated were healed? Recidivism rates would plummet, right? Then what would happen? Prisons would be emptied. Profits would dwindle. The power of those who benefit from our criminal justice system would drain away. No! Absolutely not! Prisoners healed? No way!
In response to the head man’s protest, Jesus calls his bluff by reminding him that if the head man’s horse needs a drink on the Sabbath, he’ll give the horse a drink–that is, that even the head man makes exceptions to keeping the Sabbath. If the head man will break the Sabbath to give his horse a drink, why not heal this woman?
The Gospel writer tells us that Jesus’ enemies are shamed by Jesus’ words, but the hearts of the people jumped for joy because of the wonderful things he was doing.
To be healed is to be empowered. After healing from two foot surgeries–a process that took a couple of years–I was empowered to go on walks again. I am blessed beyond measure that those healing surgeries were available to me.
Sometimes, though, healing comes from learning to live with physical limitations. A 2001 documentary about Ram Dass called Fierce Grace chronicles Ram’s journey of living with the effects of a stroke. In one scene, the camera captures Ram’s slow process of getting into a car’s passenger seat. Asked if he’s frustrated about his inability to drive, Ram says, “If I get into the passenger seat thinking I’m a driver, I’m frustrated. If I get into the passenger seat as a passenger, I enjoy the ride.” Sometimes, the deepest healing comes in accepting our limitations.
By whatever means it comes, healing empowers us. If we are intentional about it, communities like ours can be a great source of healing. Think of UCT as a power plant. We empower people through providing a space for them to heal. Then together, we healed people can help heal the world. What we do here is…miraculous.
I recently learned about St. Augustine’s take on miracles. An African leader of the church in the 4th and 5th centuries, “Augustine claimed that what the Bible calls miraculous has more to do with timing than with anything else. According to Augustine, miracles are those moments when, for reasons of God’s own, the Holy One chooses to do quickly what that One usually does at a more deliberate pace” (John Claypool, The Hopeful Heart, 41).
So here’s what I wonder. I wonder if the bent-over woman came to the synagogue that Sabbath because that’s what she always did on the Sabbath. I wonder if the people in her faith community watched for her each Sabbath, helped her to her seat, and gathered the things she would need for services. I wonder if those same people helped her during the week… bringing her food, helping her with tasks around the house, maybe even enlisting a massage therapist to ease the pain in her back.
I wonder if the care of the woman’s community prepared her for the healing Jesus brought. I wonder if the real miracle was a slow one, 18 years in the making. The Gospel writer gives us no hint of anything that happened before the woman’s healing…but it does make you wonder, doesn’t it?
An update on my journey with the Gospel song, I Need You to Survive. Written by David Frazier and popularized by Hezekiah Walker, it’s one of the most powerful songs I’ve encountered. On a recent retreat, I was asked to play the song on guitar while my friend, the songbird, Dana, sang it. I’m sad to say that I did not play the song well. At all. I butchered it.
So, I tried to learn it on piano. The going was very slow. My learning to play it definitely was going to take one of those slow miracles. As I fretted and prayed for God to send a Gospel pianist, there was a knock on the door. Rev. Jarvis Alls generously let me film him playing I Need you to Survive. We sang it a couple of Sundays ago.
That Sunday, as she greeted me after service, Tulani said, “I’m going to teach you how to sing that song the right way.” Caroline said she’d help. Looks like I butchered it again. Sigh.
Last Sunday, Erica and I were talking about the baptisms of her two beautiful children, Holland and Harper. (September 4th!) When Erica told me she and her mom sing in a Gospel choir, you know what I asked, don’t you? “Do you all sing, I Need You to Survive?”
That’s when Erica told me the story of a woman bent and twisted by grief, a woman who experienced healing in her community. (Erica tells the story.)
Mother at 20 something year old son’s funeral. Church was packed. Young people stood in the aisles. The woman was bent over with grief. At one point, one of the young people started to sing… “I need you, you need me, we’re all a part of God’s body…” Everyone else joined in. By the end of the song, the grieving mother was sitting up straight.
Today, we’re going to sing I Need You to Survive with Hezekiah Walker. Go straight to the source, right? When Tulani said she wanted to teach me how to sing the song correctly, she mentioned the cadence of the song. I invite you to listen for that as we sing. Or just sing. And listen…as we remember our deeply-loved friends, Agnes and Sue, who we miss so much, two women who taught us the power of the message of this song, Agnes and Sue taught us that we need each other to survive. (Sing, I Need You to Survive.)
In the name of our God, who creates us, redeems us, sustains us, and hopes for our wholeness. Amen.
Kimberleigh Buchanan ©2022