Sermon on Mark 5:21-43
Summary: that we can help to make others whole if we combine our faith with God’s power, and allow ourselves to be “waylaid” in order to heal.
Today we are given the opportunity to ponder a very well-known healing
story within the context of our service of prayers for healing. In fact we
are given two stories here, each of them immensely potent just on its own,
but, as we shall see, when put together as they are here, they are
especially powerful and challenging.
Let’s remind ourselves of the context: Jesus had been very active. The passage we heard from Mark’s gospel comes hot on the heels of Jesus in the boat calming the storm, and immediately after he has healed a man possessed by demons. He returns by boat to the other side of the lake, and immediately there is more hubbub and another crowd. Forward first of all comes Jairus, a prominent leader in the synagogue. This of itself is important of course. Here is a staunch Jew, very probably hostile and threatened by everything that Jesus stood for, coming to him for help. He would have heard and maybe even seen the kinds of things Jesus had been doing, and in his darkest moment – when the life of his young child is hanging in the balance – he asks Jesus for his help. Parental love is strong and, when push comes to shove, for Jairus it is more important than religious divisions. Jesus responds and agrees to go with him.
When we read for the first time those verses 21-24 of Mark 5 we probably thought that this was going to be another stunning, but straightforward miracle. In its original form of telling it almost certainly happened that way – that Jesus went off quickly with Jairus and healed his daughter. But that’s not how the story has found its way into Mark’s account. Instead we have something much richer. Jesus is waylaid – and we are given “two stories for the price of one.” Verses 25-34 are very different in style in the original Greek, and stand out from the rest of the passage. They have been inserted. Nineham describes it as “an incident broken into by another incident”. Jesus stops for the woman suffering from bleeding. Now we could struggle all morning for delicate euphemisms for her condition, but whichever way we dress it up this woman had been experiencing constant vaginal bleeding for 12 years. This must have been a horribly debilitating state, tedious, perhaps painful, certainly restricting. She had tried all sorts of remedies and cures but without success. It was common for the story-teller to mention how the medics had failed completely to help the person whom Jesus went on to heal – after all, it heightened the sense of wonder that we feel when hearing the story. (Only Luke refrains from this, being a doctor himself!) She would have been seen as ceremonially unclean and viewed as a social outcast. Her life must have been pretty miserable. As an interesting parallel, this unnamed woman has been suffering for as long as Jairus’ daughter has been alive.
And yet her desire to be well again, and to be accepted in society still drives her on, even after such a long time. She has an unerring belief that just by touching J’s garment she will draw on his incredible strength and will be restored. God wills that – restoration – for all of us. We have symbols of it today as bread and wine are taken as symbols of the restoration which he brings. “Nature’s gifts of wheat and vine now are set before us: as we offer bread and wine Christ comes to restore us” (Hymns and Psalms number 601). The woman is certain that he wants to restore her.
While I was reading in preparation for today I came across a term for the woman, coined by one of the commentators on Mark. He called her “the faithful thief”. She got what she wanted by daring to combine her overwhelming faith in Jesus, with his overwhelming power, by stealing a moment of contact with him and believing it would pay off. It did – she knew it straightaway and he knew it too. But he didn’t leave it there, just by healing her of her medical condition. He turned to her, and, for the only time he ever addressed a woman like this, he called her “daughter”. How special that would have been – no longer outcast or stigmatized, but owned as close to Jesus. There is a legend which says it was this woman, whom some called Veronica, who later gave Jesus a handkerchief to wipe his face as he carried his cross on the way to Calvary. Whatever the literal truth of that story, its device is to affirm she was important to Jesus and totally accepted by him.
And so the woman’s life is transformed… and Jesus remembers the task which was underway before he was waylaid – going to Jairus’ house to heal his daughter. Despite the fact that the news is now worse, Jesus persists. He takes the “heavies” with him – Peter, James and John - enters the house and restores Jairus’ daughter to good health. Whether she was dead or had slipped into a coma we don’t know and we don’t need to know. She also was brought back to fullness of life.
And so, he had done it again, albeit in a different way. So let’s go back to where we began – why do we have two stories wound round each other in this way? Well, we have them because they had probably already been spliced together before the material was put into the gospels. The story of Jairus’ daughter is the big canvas, a backdrop, against which a short but significant separate scene takes place. Or see it as an envelope, into which was placed a letter with the woman’s story on it. They go together neatly and we are meant to draw from them combined more than the sum of their parts.
Although the two stories are artificially linked, and almost certainly didn’t happen in the way described, I like the idea of Jesus finding time to stop and turn around when someone in need tugs at his hem. Even if he wasn’t really urgently on his way to save the dying daughter of a synagogue leader, I’m still impressed. He was in the middle of a large crowd, was busy and pressed upon. And yet he still prioritises his energies and time. He gives such attention to one outcast woman that her entire life is turned round. I like the thought of him being waylaid by the needs of others, even if they were lesser needs which others would have seen as too insignificant to bother him about. The woman wasn’t going to die imminently, she was well enough to be there in the crowd. And yet Jesus stops. He finds time for the extra things, the inconvenient things, the embarrassing things. Some people are very good at stopping for others. E.g Enid Drage’s funeral – pastoral visitor - that she always wanted to know the answer when she asked “how are you?”.
The raising of Jairus’s daughter speaks loudly of God’s power, initiative, and the saving significance of Jesus. He is a channel of amazing divine energy which can even raise the dead to life. In the other story, the focus shifts to the woman herself – she is steadfastly determined to seek for herself the fullness of life God intends for all. She draws the power down from Jesus but is herself instrumental in the act of salvation because of her huge faith that Jesus would work for her where all others had failed. One story is about divine action, the other about human faith. The added value is the lesson that both of these are needed and are available to us. If and when they are combined, we and God together can do great things.
Let us pray:……..
Lord God -
Give us faith. Show us your power. Help us to find ways of joining them together in order to do your work of restoration. Prompt and nudge us so that we might be “waylaid” in order to heal one another from pain, stigma, sadness and rejection.
As you have given, so we would give
Ourselves for others’ healing;
As you have lived, so we would live,
The Father’s love revealing. (Hymns and Psalms, 604)