To feel the bones curled in, muscles drawn tight, until you struggle to breathe, to open up for even one little breath. The long days and painful nights when each turn and toss refuses to yield one comfortable position and lying awake at night while the household slept you might be given to pray over and over that God would release you from this tight, bound grasp, because what else would one do in the middle of the night when everyone is asleep but peace won’t come to you?
The painful draw of breath, barely sipping the air, into crushed, curved lungs, the eyes watching only the dust in which you walk, neck too sore to look up-which would be a strain anyway, bent over as you are. No glorious sunsets, no mountain vistas, no casual joy of watching children run and play for you! Only the dust and the stirring of small creatures in it.
Pain has this function, that it narrows one’s focus down, like the shadow of blinders narrowing that focus until all you can see is the pain. It takes over your life until that is all you can talk about, all you think about, all you can see, and this obsession with it sends others scurrying for cover, running the other direction because it is just too overwhelming, too much, too hard, and there are no answers, and how we long to give an answer and be done with painful thoughts.
So yes, she a child of the covenant, was alone, was unseen, was unheard, had long, long since worn out the compassion of others, now they averted their eyes and did not see her at all, better not to be involved, after all, what could you do? So she, born an insider, one to whom God had made promises, passed her days and her nights, silent and alone.
The expansiveness of Sabbath, that incredible, glorious celebration of the end of slavery, was denied her. Even when others put down their burdens, rested easy with their families and breathed in the cool, free air of “I’m not a slave anymore and pharaoh can take a swim in the red sea for all I care” was denied her. Her breath was still sipped through tight lips and her pain was unceasing.
She was not one to give up though. She moved, she walked, she shuffled her feet through the dust and the landmarks she made her way by went unseen by most as she made her way through the city streets and into the synagogue. She knew pain, but pain, for her, was just a way of being, it was the unrelenting pinch of nerves that furrowed her brow and denied her a future, but it was just her way of being. It had been with her for so long, she could not remember any other way. So that day, as she had on so many others, she shuffled her way through the dusty streets and into the synagogue where she would listen and learn, and let her imagination take her places she would never know.
The first thing he did, which was unusual and unexpected, was to see her. Her pain, her struggle had exhausted caregivers and healers and, well everyone it seemed, so she had forgotten what it felt like to be seen so fully and for a few moments she felt exposed and vulnerable, as the crowd, the same crowd she had grown up with, saw her as if they had never seen her before, saw her through his eyes. So unsettling to feel so many eyes turned upon her, seeking out her flaws. Within the cage of her bent ribs her heart began to pound and while no one could really see, her face began to flush. And then he called her over, touched her with gentleness and in words both simple and utterly incredible told her God had healed her, said, God has straightened you and she felt her bones and the contractions of her muscles release and let go their fierce grip, so sudden it was she laughed and feeling the breath draw fully into her cramped lungs, she laughed and coughed and gasped.
If all her life she had lived a tight, pinched life, this was the breath she had been waiting for and it took her completely by surprise. God had straightened her, made her right, opened her up and the newness was startling. It both filled her and took her breath away.
Release to those held captive. It’s a timeless story, one we all relate to on one level or another. But to really understand this story we must go back to the story of the exodus. We must talk about the Sabbath and how it came to be. It’s easy for us to relate the Sabbath to God’s resting on the 7th day of creation, but it was instituted after the release from slavery. Most scholars agree that this slavery lasted 230 years, but some suggest it was as much as 400. We can agree that it changed the very nature of the Hebrew people. For hundreds of years they labored without rest, without relief; they labored from dawn to dusk and lived in fear. They scraped together whatever they could, they hustled, they depended upon their cunning, their wit, their strength, to make it from one day to the next. In the desert, this came to an abrupt halt. Imagine the dissonance. All your life, and all your parents and your grandparents lives, one thing had been certain, that you must scrape, fight, hustle just to stay alive and suddenly this stops. Suddenly you are told you are enough, you have enough, God is with you, God will do all the hustling, all the providing, so don’t even keep a stash and yes, for one day every week, do nothing but be. Be with each other, be with yourself, be with God, just be still and be.
The tightness that bound their lives was not physical, but emotional and spiritual.
We harden around our wounds, splinting and armoring in an attempt not to be hurt anymore. Where are we contracted today? Where have we curled inward, made our lives smaller? And can we acknowledge that changing that is really hard. In the nursing homes I used to work in, there were always people who had grown stiff and rigid, their muscles shortening over time, contracting, pulling them in, just as we get used to certain groups of people, refusing to stretch ourselves into difficult and uncomfortable situations. When we enter a new group, or a new classroom, we scope it out, looking for our people, the ones that make us feel good. In today’s world we have even more options for limiting our exposure to those who would confront us. We can block them, unfriend them, sit behind our computer screens thinking ill of them while never having to actually speak to them.
I’ll tell you a secret, though I suppose it’s not much of a secret. I believe that if you can’t have a conflict with someone, you’re not really in a genuine, authentic relationship with them. If the relationship depends on my agreeing with you, patting you on the back you agree with me, pat me on the back, then it’s business, not a relationship. A genuine, authentic relationship is one that can hold conflict, that can withstand it, even grow from it. We learn to be curious about one another’s passions, about each other’s hearts. We learn to be with each other with all our vulnerabilities and wounds and when we can do this, we grow closer, our relationship deepens. Conflict isn’t a deal breaker, the inability to tolerate conflict is. Stay with me through our disagreements and conflicts and I will stay with you, and in this way, our relationship deepens and grows.
The more we isolate and contract our lives the smaller our lives become, the more we live in fear, the more painful our lives become and the more we pull away, it becomes a cycle which feeds on itself. Into this cycle Jesus steps with grace, with love, with forgiveness. First, he sees. He sees us in our contracted, limited state, our vision directed not toward others but narrowed by pain as pain tends to do, because pain takes so much energy to manage, to simply get by, other interests simply fade away. He sees us with our heads down, shuffling through the streets and into the church, still hoping, still having faith, still looking for and asking for healing, still willing to believe that life can be more than this. He sees us and calls us into a better life.
But oh it’s hard to receive isn’t it? It’s hard to believe one more time that this time it could work! 18 years this woman suffered. I can’t even begin to imagine the healers she must have been brought to even as a child, the teachers who were sought out, the priests, the shamans. How exhausting it must have been to get your hopes raised up one more time and then, bam, it’s right back to where you were.
So Jesus sees her in her pain and her loss, her small contracted life and asks her for one thing, to be vulnerable, to trust him, to dare to have hope one more time, and she does. She shuffles her way up to the front of the crowd and she dares to hope one more time, wearing her heart on her sleeve being vulnerable, daring to hope.
Vulnerability is the birthplace of connection, of creativity. It’s honest and she gives this honesty to Jesus. If he sees her so fully she also allows him to see her in all her brokenness and vulnerability, in all her need and it is in this moment that God straightens her up. It is in this moment that she is restored, made whole. This is faith as an active trust, not a passive belief but the active movement of one soul toward another, with faith, hope, and love. And it draws her into community, into wholeness, it heals her.
Jesus invites her into a Sabbath rest, to put down her burden, to accept release from all that contracts and limits her life, to breath deep into the release from pain and to find herself in God. This is an invitation we all receive, not once, but continually. We too are invited to release our burdens, let go our tight grip around all that hurts and breathe deeply, letting go of all that would limit our lives, make them small. As we release our tight grip, our splinting and armoring we discover an openness, a spaciousness in our lives where beauty and grace can breathe new life.
I want to end with a poem by Denise Levertov called The Avowal,
As swimmers dare
to lie face to the sky
and water bears them,
as hawks rest upon air
and air sustains them,
so would I learn to attain
freefall, and float
into Creator Spirit’s deep embrace,
knowing no effort earns
that all-surrounding grace