A few years ago I bought this small wooden figurine of an elderly woman, kerchiefed and bent, weighed down by a load of firewood. She stands on the window ledge behind my laptop and sometimes I look at her and say, “Me too,” because how she looks is how I feel. It’s not a load of firewood that is bending my back, but the seeming endlessness of this Covid pandemic, or the everyday burdens that come with ageing. More often than I like it’s the backpack of theologically outdated and outgrown beliefs and practices that I still carry around because can’t quite bring myself to put down and trust what I see when I look up and out.
One Saturday morning a couple of thousand years ago, a bent-over woman shuffled into her local synagogue and sat down in the space set aside for women. Familiar but virtually invisible, she was alienated by a community perception that her condition was just punishment for some hidden sin. Jesus, a visiting preacher there by invitation of the synagogue leaders, noticed her sitting apart on the stone bench that ran the length of the little synagogue.
If you have ever felt how she might have then Jesus’ next move might be confronting, because he invited the woman to move out of her space and into the ring of watching and listening men. The choreography speaks to me, and I wonder why Jesus didn’t move over to where she was.
Instead, in spite of her fear, she did as he asked and moved from the edge where custom had placed her and right into the centre where Jesus stood. In one fluid movement he bent down, looked into the woman’s eyes and reached to embrace her. Her head lifted, her back straightened and she found herself looking into Jesus’ eyes.
Jesus and the woman stood united. In the eyes of the surprised and scandalised synagogue president this visiting preacher was aligning the woman with themselves.
Not for the first time Jesus had moved out of recognised religious boundaries and was standing with the disenfranchised and the marginalized. The centre had moved and religious authorities suddenly found themselves standing on the periphery. Outraged, they spat out words that put the blame onto the one who minutes before had been burdened not just by her physical condition but by cultural traditions and expectations.
Until Jesus reached out to her, humiliated for reasons beyond her control, her dignity ignored, nobody else had stopped to see the woman she was inside. It takes courage to hang on to your best self when circumstances beyond your control push you out to the fringe. It takes courage, too, to move into a place at the centre, a place that seems reserved for others. Maybe her making that move in response to Jesus’ loving invitation was the miracle that enabled the healing.
It seems to me that Gospel stories about Jesus and woman have a great deal to tell us in this time when we are losing touch with religion as we have known it. The interaction between Jesus and this unknown, crippled woman, is a story for our time. You’ll find it in its more familiar wording in Luke’s Gospel, chapter 13, verses 10-17. All of us are in it somewhere, sitting or standing. Let it talk to you.
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