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. She was bent over and was quite unable to stand up straight. 12 When Jesus saw her, he called her over and said, “Woman, you are set free from your ailment.” 13 When he laid his hands on her, immediately she stood up straight and began praising God. 14 But the leader of the synagogue, indignant because Jesus had cured on the sabbath, kept saying to the crowd, “There are six days on which work ought to be done; come on those days and be cured, and not on the sabbath day.” 15 But the Lord answered him and said, “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? 16 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?” 17 When he said this, all his opponents were put to shame; and the entire crowd was rejoicing at all the wonderful things that he was doing.
So, every once and a while, when I read scripture, I burst out laughing. It doesn’t happen very often because we’ve been socialized to not laugh when scripture is read. We’ve been taught that it is the Holy Word of God and we need to read it in a flat and monotone voice so as to respect it or something. Even still, I burst out laughing this week.
Listen again to the beginning of our gospel: Now Jesus 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.
So let me get this straight, Jesus, you know…the Lord, sees a woman who has been bent over for 18 years. A woman who knows people by their feet and not their faces. She slowly shuffles her creaking body into the synagogue, she has just found her seat, and she has just bent her knees past that point of no return, and he calls out, “Hey, hey you… come here.” So she cranks herself back up and continues up the aisle toward Jesus.
I mean, how rude is that? You’re the Son of God, you go to her for God’s sake. It’s a healing story. You’d think Jesus could have met her half way or something.
At first, I didn’t think commenting on this little piece of comedy found in our gospel would have anything to do with the actual sermon I was going to preach. In fact, I figured it would be 5 minutes of sermon filler, a waste of time, since I could think of what to preach. And while that might still be true, I realized something. The reason I burst out laughing, the reason I thought it was so ridiculous is because in my mind, Jesus was breaking a sort of unspoken rule in our society. A rule that says you care for your weak and sick by helping them. You open the door for someone on crutches, you bring a plate of all the potluck food to the person in the wheelchair. It’s just what you do. It’s called being nice.
But in the text, it says that Jesus saw her. And I can’t help but wonder, maybe what he saw was something we couldn’t see. Maybe he saw that what this woman didn’t need was his pity, but instead needed to be empowered. That she needed to be given something to do rather than have something done for her.
You see, so often when tragedy strikes or when someone gets sick, our temptation is to swoop in and take care of them. To do everything for them that they would normally need to do for themselves. Like meals and laundry and dishes. And while these are often great ways of reaching out, sometimes it can do more harm. Sometimes it can take more power away from someone who has already had enough taken away from them. So rather than be helped, they need to be empowered. To do what they can do.
In a sermon a couple months ago, Pastor Nadia Bolz-Weber offered a good example of this. She said that there were a few months of her life she came down with a “touch” of hypochondria. She was a stay at home mom with a baby and a toddler. She was exhausted all the time and got sick a lot one Winter. After awhile she started to think that something was seriously wrong with her. And secretly, without being totally conscious of it, she really hoped something was wrong with her. Nothing fatal, she says. Maybe like, a totally treatable form of cancer or something like that. You know, so that she could kind of get a hall pass. A break from everything. She said that ahospital stay started to look awesome. Someone else to bring her food and she could lay around all day watching tv and taking narcotics. What’s not to love? But then after ending up in her doctor’s office for the 3rd time in 6 weeks demanding that he run tests on her since she was sure she was sick…her doctor looked her in the eyes and said, “Nadia, nothing’s wrong with you. You just have to deal with your life.”
Sometimes, rather than being helped, people need to be empowered. And so maybe that is what Jesus saw. That rather than needing help, this bend-over woman needed empowerment. She needed to be shown the things that she could do in her life rather than the things that she couldn’t. And when she sees that, it’s like her pride and her self-worth and her sense of being a valuable human being instead of a burden on society comes rushing in with such force that her whole body just straightens out and she stands taller than she ever has before in her life.
Jesus didn’t follow the rules I expected when it comes to helping this woman. And that’s what we learn about Jesus today. That Jesus is always willing to break our rules for the sake of life. He didn’t go to that crippled and bent over woman, highlighting what she couldn’t do. Instead, he asked her to come to him, highlighting what she could do. Because he knew that would give her more life.
And now get this… that isn’t the only rule Jesus broke that day. Jesus actually broke a bigger rule. A rule we carve into stone. A rule we memorize in confirmation. Jesus broke the third commandment too. Remember the Sabbath day and keep it holy. Or at least according to the leader of the synagogue, he did. After Jesus heals this woman, the leader of the synagogue gets angry because Jesus healing was considered “work” on a day of rest. “There are six days on which work ought to be done; come on those days and be cured, and not on the sabbath day,” he cries out to the crowd gathered there. And the leader of the synagogue is right. And he even has the Bible on his side. He reads right from the bible that the Sabbath is a day of rest and no work ought to be done on it.
So according to a couple of lines in Scripture, this guy is right. But what the leader of the synagogue has forgotten is that laws, even the laws of God, were made for humanity. Humanity was not made for laws. Stops signs and speed limits are a good thing. We need them. We rely on them. And if we don’t follow the law then we deserve a ticket. But if there is an emergency and we are rushing to the hospital to get someone medical attention, does anyone care if you are following those laws or not? No! We would think it ridiculous if a man rushing his pregnant wife to the hospital were pulled over for rolling through a stop sign.
But this man, this leader of the synagogue wanted Jesus to follow the rules to the T. To follow the 10 Commandments. To not heal this woman. To make her wait another day before she could look people in the face again. Another day before she can breath deeply again into her crowded chest. He wanted to make her because that was law. But you know what…sometimes you can follow the law and the rules so well and still be wrong.
My friend and preacher Alan Storey tells a story of a track and field team. A couple of years back, two colleges in California came together for a track meet. And one of the teams had never won a track meet in their history. Never. But for the first time, it was looking like they might win. It came down to the last event, the pole vault. And all this team needed was for their vaulter to get over the bar. That’s all they need and they would win a track meet for the first time in their history. And guess what? She does it. She gets over the bar no problem and the crowd goes wild. They had just won for the very first time! But then the coach of the other team makes an objection. You see, the pole vaulter was wearing a friendship bracelet. And according to the rules, those competing cannot wear jewelry. The pole vaulter was ruled disqualified and her team lost the track meet. Sometimes you can follow the rules so well, to the T, and still be wrong.
Jesus didn’t care about the rule. He cared about this woman and the fact that for 18 years she’s been bent over. And he didn’t want her to wake up one more day like that. So for Jesus, the grace and love of God always bends towards that which is life-giving, rather than that which is lawful. That which gives life always trumps the law. Just as a farmer is allowed to untie their ox or donkey and give it water on the Sabbath, because it gives life, literally, to the animal, so also is healing okay on the Sabbath.
For God, the absolute law is that of love and grace. Any other law must always bend to the grace and love of God.
So I can’t help but wonder, what are the laws and rules we have set up here as a church that too often seem more important that God’s love and grace and forgiveness. Who do we not want to receive the grace and love of God because they haven’t followed the rules and laws well enough? What laws and rules have we set up in our society that help us police who is a benefit and who is a burden to us, who is good and who is bad, rather than letting Jesus’ proclamation of God’s unconditional love for ALL people be our guide? In a couple of minutes we are going to proclaim Noah as God’s beloved child. That God has loved him longer than any of us have and that God will love him longer than any of us can. That there is an unconditional promise hidden within that water that will never dry off. And you know, today, that is an easy promise to proclaim. Because Noah is so cute. And little. And innocent. But the question is, will we proclaim that same promise to him years from now when he isn’t so cute and little and innocent. Will we proclaim it when he is rambunctious and misbehaving? Will we proclaim it when he breaks the law? Will we proclaim it when his faults and failures disappoint us? Will we let the unconditional love and grace of God that is for him, and for us, be lifted up over any other rule or law we might build around him? Because Jesus will. Jesus will always let the unconditional love and grace of God that is for Noah, and for you, be lifted up over any other rule or law we might build around him…or us. And we, my friends, are followers of Jesus called and sent to go and do likewise. So may we do just that this week…go and do likewise. AMEN
 Alan Storey, “Re-Shaped by Jesus”, preached August 22nd, 2013. Found at aslowwalk.org.