I had the honour of spending this past weekend on retreat with 30 women of various ages, all gathering to talk about our bodies and our faith.
I went largely because a friend had asked me to help on the planning team for the retreat, but I wasn’t sure I’d get much out of it.
After hearing these women’s stories and reflections, and doing a lot of moving and praying and praying by moving, I left feeling much more in touch with my embodied self, with the body that I both have and am, and committed to loving this body.
As part of the retreat I got to creatively tell the story of the “woman with the issue of blood” from Mark 5:25-31. I’ve reproduced it here. I owe a lot of the inspiration (and one or two direct quotes) to Padraig O’Tuama’s reflections on this passage in his book In the Shelter: Finding a Home in the World.
Word became flesh.
God became human,
Cells infused with Spirit,
DNA interwoven with the divine.
the salty air of the sea of Galilee.
the jolt as his boat makes contact with the land.
takes one step, takes another,
walks off the boat straight into another kind of sea,
a surging tide of bodies,
a tangled jungle of limbs, reaching,
trying to touch him.
Bodies pressing around him,
stealing every inch of his personal space.
As if he belonged to them.
As if they owned him.
Jesus is needed.
Immediately he is needed.
His hands are needed.
A man falls at his feet
and begs Jesus to put his hands
on his dying 12-year-old daughter.
The man is important,
his name is Jairus.
is never named.
We tend to call her “the woman with the issue of blood.”
A woman with an issue.
In this story, men have names, women have issues.
Women’s bodies have issues.
is swallowed by the crowd.
No one else in the story knows she is there.
She doesn’t matter.
She might as well not exist.
It is deeply strange for the gospel narrator to notice her.
She is on a mission.
A woman on a mission to rid herself of her issues,
to rid herself of her issues with her body.
She slips through the crowd, behind him,
so as not to take up any space,
so as to de-emphasize her physical form.
Just the corner of his robe.
Just the fringe.
That’s all she believes she needs
That’s all she believes she deserves.
She doesn’t dare touch his body.
Only what loosely covers it.
That way she can slip away as unnoticed as she came.
As though she wasn’t
It’s not like she’s never touched a man,
or had a man touch her.
Doctor after doctor had put their hands on her.
One after another,
until she was spent.
And in a cruel twist of the knife,
None of this had helped.
Her “issue” had only worsened.
Her doctors exploited, impoverished and failed her.
Her body unfailingly betrayed her.
Her womb, meant to nurture life,
dealt her only death.
For her people, the Jews,
blood was the same as life.
Her body was slowly draining blood,
draining its very life,
drop by drop, day by day,
more than 4300 days, in fact,
She had been dying the same number of years
as the important man’s daughter had lived.
And then there was the pain…
The gospel writer calls her disease a “mastix,”
Literally, a whip,
a many-stranded whip of leather with metal tips inserted.
Her experience of her body
is like that of a metal-tipped whip.
Her issue is that her body is self-flagellating.
And because she cannot hide the stains
or hold back the steady flow of gossip,
the torture does not end with her own body.
She has learned there are so many kinds of torture.
The eyes that stare and then quickly look away.
The whispering, half-covered mouths.
Faces twisted in disgust.
Women’s robes drawn back and held close
so as not to brush her.
Every one of those women bleeds, it’s true.
Every month they separate themselves from the men
and enjoy resting in one another’s company.
After seven days, they bathe in the ritual pool,
and they are considered clean,
they are considered fit to enter the sanctuary.
For her, it’s different.
She knows the scriptures.
She knows Leviticus.
“‘When a woman has a discharge of blood
for many days at a time
other than her monthly period,
she will be unclean as long as she bleeds.
Any bed she lies on will be unclean,
and anything she sits on will be unclean.
Anyone who touches them will be unclean;
they must wash their clothes and bathe with water,
and they will be unclean till evening.”
[adapted from Lev. 15:25-27]
Twelve years of unclean.
Twelve years of carrying a curse.
Twelve years of embodying contamination,
her spiritual impurity treated as contagious
even if her physical disease is not.
She transmits her pollution to everything she touches,
everyone she touches.
(Though she has touched so few people in twelve years
that she could count them on her fingers.)
They rush to build walls around her,
walls propped up by their fear and disgust
and reinforced by her shame.
She is excluded not only from the holy,
but even from the ordinary.
Her body is boundaried.
She is segregated in her own isolation chamber.
She is utterly alone.
But incredibly, she has not given up.
She has one last hope,
One last healer.
Pushing down the voice of shame
and the constant background noise of her pain,
she grabs hold of her last shred of self-worth,
her last crumb of agency,
and she violates the code by which she lives.
Her fingers reach through a crack in the wall containing her,
and find the fabric of his robe.
In that instant, their two bodies become aware of something.
Her body tells her that her pain has left her.
His body tells him that healing power has left him.
Who touched my robe?
Jesus, don’t be ridiculous - everyone is pressing in on you.
Hundreds of people are touching you.
But there’s touch, and then there’s touch, and we all know that.
Who touched my robe?
Jesus, we need to hurry; Jairus’ daughter is near death.
We can’t delay for something this trivial.
Who touched me?
She stands there, swept in a flood of conflicting emotion.
The immediate relief - life no longer draining from her.
The unbelief that twelve years of constant pain
could end in an instant.
The crushing realization
that she has not escaped unnoticed,
the rush of fear - this illicit healing may cost her her life.
It would be just her luck.
The choice - to run? To hide?
To make herself small as she was so accustomed to doing?
Or to violate another boundary
and presume to speak to this healer
who without his own consent
had done for her what no doctor could do?
The perpetually hidden woman
makes herself known.
The withdrawn woman
takes up space,
and becomes the second person that day
to fall at Jesus’ feet.
Her words enter the ear of the Word made flesh.
Fearfully she tells what the gospel writer calls “the whole truth.”
She places her body at his mercy.
his mercy is wider than she could have known.
His mercy breaks through walls.
His mercy blurs boundaries,
undraws border lines.
This is key to his body’s work on earth.
His purity was never threatened
by her so-called contagion.
His life force has strength enough to reverse the flow,
to positively contaminate her with healing.
He chooses his words for her carefully,
each word targeted to undo the system of purity
that threatens to keep her suffering
even after her bleeding ends.
And so instead of receiving blame or punishment,
the woman without a name,
the woman without any evident connection to family,
receives from the lips of Jesus the name:
It’s a name that crumbles the walls propped around her.
It’s a name that picks up the stones from those walls
and builds a bridge of family.
It’s a name utterly free of disgust,
a name that sees her and knows her
and loves her.
It is as if she belonged to him.
As if she actually deserved to touch him.
As if her body finally had a home,
could breathe, could be safe,
could stop holding itself in
and holding itself back.
And maintaining eye contact,
with that steady gaze that infuses her with dignity,
Your faith has healed you.
You are the main agent in your healing.
Your healing springs from your own choice
to step past your shame,
to refuse to believe that the world can rightly name you
and to risk believing that I could love and heal your body.
“Go in peace and be freed from your suffering.”
Receive wholeness in your body.
Now that I have confirmed your freedom, be free.
Don’t let anyone wield a whip in your direction.
And confident that you are worthy,
that you are beloved,
that you belong,
keep carrying your body
into the places where they tell you
that you should not go.
And in that moment of resurrection, I wonder if Jesus foreknew
that after bringing his own body where it should not go
one too many times,
crossing one too many border lines,
he would one day let these crowds lay their hands on him,
that he too would feel that pain of metal-tipped whips,
that he too would watch his own life blood drain from him,
that this would open his way to dismantle that last wall,
the very wall between death and life.
His body carving a path
for our bodies to follow him further up and in,
to a world where all is whole and well,
where nothing is missing,
nothing is bleeding, nothing is broken.
Where all created things have learned their loveliness.
The crowd disrupts his momentary silence.
He continues on, his hands required
to break the curse of death on another woman.
She remains, letting it all wash over her,
her true name, his embodied love.