Let me ask you: what must you do to be healed by Jesus? (Good Samaritan, response to ‘who is my neighbor’). At first we might be tempted to say, ‘well nothing, it is grace alone that saves.’ Alternatively, we might say, ‘well you have to do x and y; be good, be right, be kind, etc.’
I think both extremes are wrong answers. And this passage from our gospel reading today helps us to understand what I think is a general theme in scripture. So let’s look at it. “Now he was teaching in one of the synagogues on the sabbath. And just then there appeared a woman with a spirit that had crippled her for eighteen years. She was bent over and was quite unable to stand up straight. When Jesus saw her, he called her over and said, "Woman, you are set free from your ailment." When he laid his hands on her, immediately she stood up straight and began praising God.”
If we were to take this woman’s example as Luke records it here, what would one have to do to be healed by Jesus? That’s right: come to him. To ask for his help. Here’s the catch: a lot of us want help, but we want it on our own terms. I remember when I was a master’s student at Wycliffe. I had one goal and one goal alone: I wanted to do my PhD. And I remember my prayer to God was this: God, I want to do my PhD. I don’t care what it takes, get me into the PhD, give me the ability to get into the PhD. This really wasn’t a humble ask, because it wasn’t grounded in trusting God. It was grounded in me wanting my own way, me wanting to do something whether or not it was in line with God’s will for my life. I didn’t care about what God might have put before me as an alternative, only getting into the doctoral program. As you know, I did get in and I did complete it. And perhaps this was of God’s will. Or perhaps he used my stubborn refusal to listen to his will, my insistence on my own way, to chasten me, to teach me, to reshape me. Because I can tell you this: the years I spent working on my PhD are some of the worst years of life I have ever endured. They were exhausting, gut wrenching, but more than that, they were years where I lost touch with God, years that made me doubt God’s existence, years that made me see the whole academic enterprise as an exercise in human ego, fear, hurt, and frustration.
I wanted to be healed from so many things, but I ask myself now, ‘was it God to whom I truly turned, or was it to my own need for validation, for place and purpose, under a thin veil of serving God.’ The woman in our gospel lesson demonstrates the opposite to my own thinly veiled prayer: this woman came near to Jesus, she responded to his call to come over, she didn’t direct God to fulfill her will, but rather she accepted Jesus’s healing touch. There’s an essential difference between opening up and asking God for his healing, and trying to build the figurative ladder or structure that we think will make us right and good and just and whole.
These two types of responses: my own – borne of real need, real hurt – that still clung to earthly standards of value and worth, of standing and place; and hers – borne of submission to God’s own will, direction, knowledge, and perfection in accordance with the kingdom of God – both of these responses we find in numerous examples throughout the Scriptures. Every time Israel tried to accomplish its own will, for example with the golden calf in the desert, afraid they didn’t have a provision of food or water, or in Judges where they kept going astray I did – they ended up suffering in the most painful way one can: the feeling of being abandoned or bereft of God. Not just suffering – suffering is bearable when it is done with hope in God – but suffering in the absence of assurance that one is yoked or tied to God for his people is virtually unbearable.
So the first lesson I think this passage provides to us is that when we approach God, we are to do so with humility. Lord, here is where my heart and mind are, here is what I’m struggling with, here is what I am thinking. Yet Lord not my will but yours be done: heal me Lord in accordance with your will. Give me the strength to endure and to persevere in faith as I follow you, whatever my circumstances.
Then of course there is the second half of this passage where the Jewish leaders criticize Jesus for healing on the Sabbath, a day when no work was to be done. When Jesus is criticized though he shoots back and the leaders and says, "You hypocrites! Does not each of you on the sabbath untie his ox or his donkey from the manger, and lead it away to give it water? And ought not this woman, a daughter of Abraham whom Satan bound for eighteen long years, be set free from this bondage on the sabbath day?"
In other words: yes, our customs and our ways of doing things are important for running an organization, and we do need them as they help us ensure social order, teaching, etc. But they ought never to inhibit someone from seeking and finding God. When someone approaches God, they need God, they need to touch him tangibly, to receive his embrace and not to be inhibited. What does this mean? It means that sometimes we have to play it by ear as to how we’re going to share the faith. Sometimes we have to step out of our traditional ways of communicating or worshiping or communicating about God to others, so that they can receive him. This doesn’t mean we have to throw away these customs and traditions and ways. Not at all. It simply means that sometimes, in certain circumstances, we need to forego or adapt or alter how we share God with others.
In summary: our gospel lesson today is I think about figuring out how we can be ‘nimble Christians.’ What I mean by this, is that, if we want people to truly open up to God and this goes for all of us in here, as well as all those we encounter, we need to know who God is and to know the sorts of ways he’s interacted with others as Scripture tells us so well, that we can adapt our own ways on the fly, in order to ensure that we do not become like the leaders of the synagogue, but rather follow in Jesus’s own ways: to show God to others, to receive God into ourselves, we must place him and his ways first and then adapt to what it is that he shows us. In this way, we are made able to rejoice with the crowds because we ourselves might better be able to see, to then trust and then to rejoice and be joined into all the things Jesus is doing. AMEN.