Luke 13:10 Now he was teaching in one of the synagogues on the sabbath. 11 And just then there appeared a woman with a spirit that had crippled her for eighteen years...
Whoever came up with the idea of having the story of the Bent over woman in August must have been a gardener over the age of 50! It’s easy to sympathise with her in these hot days when the weeds are high and thick, and the carrots need pulling, the potatoes need digging, the beans need snapping and the zucchinis need to be pulled before they become the size of a major league baseball bat. If you need a zucchini, please let me know. Seriously!
One of the things I noticed while pulling weeds this week is how limited our view becomes. The focus narrows down to the chickweeds and the petunias. There is no looking at the blue sky or a rose-colored sunset or the far horizon of a lake shore or the high peak of a mountain. There’s just the dirt at your toes, and maybe the feet of people around you. It’s an unpredictable world too, being bent over. Rain storms may be overhead, or a forest fire on the horizon, but staring down means that these kinds of things can not be anticipated or planned for. They just happen.
I’ve met a few bent over women; one was my husband’s grandmother who had debilitating osteoporosis and was quite debilitated at the end of her days. Another was a lady struggling with muscular dystrophy. She is a few years older than me, and her spine is quite curved. I thought at first she was having a difficult time in her wheelchair as she sat far forward on it, but then I realized that her spine was so bent that she looked like she was maybe 5 feet, but was probably closer to six feet tall. It took a team of 5 people to get her down into the lake to go for a swim. And I often think of the woman whose husband reroofed the manse last July. She was camping with her kids and saved them from a falling tree. Our roofer had to leave several times to help out with the kids and to be there when she woke up from the medically induced coma to the news that she has lost the use of her legs for the rest of her life.
But the woman I remember the most, who actually didn’t have a bent over back, but taught me a lot about disabilities, was a lady who I met in first year university. She lived in a dorm room two doors down from me and was a year or two older than me. She was a thalidomide baby. In her case, she had arms that were maybe a foot long, complete with elbows and hands, but only about 4 fingers each. It meant that she couldn’t do buttons but she could do zippers. Winter coats had to be adjusted to shorten the sleeves, and mittens were awkward, to say the least. She could hold spoons and pencils, loved skiing and swimming, but had no way to tie shoe laces. Things that I took for granted, bike riding for example, or typing, were challenges that had to be figured out in a way that would work for her. But one thing stuck in my memory of her. She once told me that she didn’t mind looking different than others and having challenges. She figured that everyone had some kind of disability, but some people’s disabilities were on the outside for the world to see. Other’s disabilities were inside, and invisible even to themselves. They are bent over, seeing only what is at their feet. They can’t see straight.
Jesus straightened up two people that day in the synagogue. He brought health and new horizons to the bent over woman, but also to the synagogue leader. The leader had forgotten the reason for the Sabbath. It wasn’t just about not working, a reminder that we are not slaves any longer, but it was about remembering to take time to be in relationship with God. And the leader was narrow-minded in his assumptions. In his eyes, the woman was crippled because she somehow had done something to deserve it. That’s still a common thread I often hear, “everything happens for a reason,” or even, “I must have some really bad karma.” He was also feeling threatened.
I can imagine that he was going about leading his regular service in his regular way, and this Jesus fellow stole the show, made the worship service a little chaotic with his actions, and the people must have been full of excitement about what they had just witnessed. Rather than leading the congregation in joining the woman to praise God, he carped about technicalities. Things weren’t fitting into his comfortable, predictable box. Jesus stepped outside the bounds by noticing the woman and empathizing with her. He touched her in compassion, wishing to free her from her feelings of shame and isolation. She didn’t ask for the healing, she was used to it after 18 years. But maybe she wasn’t so used to being seen as someone worthy of the same respect and kindness as others who could stand up straight and tall. Jesus didn’t just straighten her out, but reminded the leader that it’s about the bigger picture of God’s compassionate love for those who we would most like to dismiss and ignore.
There are so many people who are struggling, bent over with sorrows that cripple their relationships, their families and their very souls. Some are too angry to come to church; sometimes it is the church where they experienced a sense of shame from a leader with too narrow a point of view. They struggle from day to day, not hearing a kind word, a gentle touch, a moment of empathy. We may not be able to cure their pain, but we can remember that they too are children of God. And there are times we too are crippled up in pain both physical and emotional. Part of my vacation was struggling with the pain of self-doubt and fear. But when we gather together in a faith community, whether it’s here in Athabasca, at a church camp, or in a congregation hundreds of miles from home, we gather to hear the hope in Jesus’ words of love, “you are set free from that which cripples you.” May we remember that love and that hope.