Psalm 30, Wisdom 1:13–15; 2:23-24, 2 Corinthians 8: 7-end, Mark 5: 21-end
Today’s reading from the Gospel of Mark offers us two healing stories sandwiched together, a story within a story. This is a device that Mark uses to emphasise particular themes and in this case primarily the themes of healing and relationship with God. For myself, as someone who has just been made your Vicar and had that very special privilege of the cure of souls for this benefice bestowed upon me by the Bishop, these words about healing and relationship really struck a chord for me, but I think they can speak to all of us in our journey as Christian disciples.
First and last - the bread of this sandwich - is the story of Jairus and his daughter. Jairus is an official of the synagogue, he is a person of authority in Jewish society. We are introduced to him by name. He is able to perceive who Jesus is, and his faith in Christ is clear in his request that Jesus comes to his daughter “so that she may be made well, and live”
The movement of the story toward Jairus’s house is interrupted by the story of the haemorrhaging woman. Even though she remains anonymous and is given no name, the particulars of her story have great theological significance: her continuous haemorrhaging means that she is ritually unclean; her poverty (she “had spent all that she had” trying to get well) renders her powerless and underscores her absolute vulnerability within society. In short, she is quickly established as the opposite of Jairus. Unlike him, she reaches out and touches Christ noiselessly, without speech. Hers is a story of isolation and social alienation, an outcast on the fringes of society. She shows extreme courage in touching the hem of Christ’s clothing. For someone considered ‘unclean’, her touch would have been considered to make others unclean, especially men.
But instead of calling her “unclean” Jesus names her “daughter”. Instead of being angry at her touch, Jesus praises her faith and recognises it as the thing that has healed her - “your faith has made you well”
This detour on the way to Jairus’ house tells us something about Jesus’s ministry. When a wealthy man wants Jesus to heal his daughter, he must wait for the healing of a destitute woman. The need of the marginalized and vulnerable is addressed before the need of the celebrated and powerful.
But the pivot of this passage lies not in the differences between Jairus and the haemorrhaging woman, but what his daughter and the woman – the two victims of illness - have in common.
Firstly, they are both healed through faith in Jesus Christ. Jairus recognises Christ and believes he can heal his daughter. The woman comes before Jesus “in fear and trembling” not the fear of the faithless, but the fear of one who knows that she is coming into relationship with God.
Secondly, both victims of illness here are female and ritually unclean, one as a result of death and one as a result of haemorrhage; in a sense they are both outcasts. An act of touch restores both women to new life even when those around them consider them lost causes.
That touch is the source of the healing for both the girl and the woman is particularly poignant to us right now. After a time of pandemic when we have needed to keep our distance from each other, as we cautiously begin to emerge from lockdown and are perhaps able to hug family members and loved ones for the first time in a very long time, the power of touch has become magnified. After isolation, we are even more acutely aware that touch can make us whole and give us peace. For me, touch in this passage represents relationship: how it is not just an act of miraculous healing, but about coming into relationship with God through Christ’s touch. That is what heals them. It reminds us of the importance of relationship, and that we are in fact shaped in relationship to other persons, and in our relationship with Christ. It makes us whole. As the contemporary Scottish philosopher John Macmurray once phrased it, “I need ‘you’ in order to be myself.”
As well as relationship, another important theme this passage raises is what does it mean to be healed?
Every person of faith who suffers, such as the haemorrhaging woman and the desperate parents of the dying little girl, prays for – and holds onto a belief in – the possibility of miraculous healing, but dramatic physical healing is rarely the response to our prayers. This call for God’s healing has been so profound over the time of Covid, and we have been brought into acute awareness that not all our prayers are answered. Some, no matter how hard we pray and no matter how strong our faith, do not recover, whilst others do.
How do we hold onto faith when our prayers for healing aren’t answered?
As we know, prayer is no easy fix, no shopping list to tick off and solve all our problems; sometimes it’s hard, sometimes it feels like God isn’t listening, or even there at all - but it is the very ground beneath our feet on which we walk in our faith. Prayer draws us into a closer relationship with God and can bring blessings beyond our own understanding of our needs. Prayer is about allowing God space and time in our lives to respond, to allow for God’s time and God’s loving influence on our lives. Sometimes it works in a way that isn’t even perceptible to us, except perhaps in retrospect. This closer proximity through prayer is the touch of Christ who is not physically present. Prayer, then, is healing in its less obvious, less dramatic form: healing as peace and acceptance in the face of disappointment, and as awareness of the continuing presence of God in our times of despair.
After Jesus has healed the haemorrhaging woman, he goes to Jairus’s house. He is told the child has died, but replies that death is not the final answer. He tenderly takes the child by the hand and in his native Aramaic says “Talitha, cum…. Little girl, get up!” Jesus shows the same tenderness and gentleness to both the woman and the girl. He has as much concern for the girl's humanity as he does for the outcast woman, they are both every bit as precious as each other.
How does this speak to us today in world in desperate need of healing? It reminds us to reach out to everyone, and especially the marginalised, isolated, the forgotten with love and tenderness. To welcome the isolated person so they are no longer alone, to awaken in people the presence of love in their lives. To break down social barriers. The passage also reminds us to be audacious and courageous in our faith and our belief in God’s healing power. To think outside the box, to hold onto our belief and faith even when others tell us to give up. The result may not be what we asked for, but calling out to God in prayer will bring us closer to God and allow us to feel Christ’s healing touch in a way that blesses us beyond our imagining. As your new Vicar, that is a message I will be holding close to my heart.
Amen Rev Melanie Harrington