This world is full of marvelous stories. That’s easy to forget in the midst of the slug of a presidential campaign. But there are amazing, wondrous things happening at every moment of every day. And I think it’s a worthy spiritual discipline to find the time to concentrate on those things.
A few weeks ago I came across one of those amazing stories about an elderly woman named Anna Pesce whose back was severely bent by osteoporosis, scoliosis and a herniated disc. Despite her 85 years, Anna began to work with a yoga instructor. Over the course of only two month, despite the initial pain, her body began to come back into its own. At the end of those two months, she could stand up straight. The before and after photographs are amazing. Anna Pesce was born again.
To stand up straight – to see in front of you – to have a long view – to look at the sky: these are things that most of us take for granted. Maybe the unnamed woman in Luke 13 took those things for granted too, when she was young and healthy. But for the last 18 years of her life, she lived bent over and quite unable to stand up straight. She had forgotten what it was like to look someone in the eye or to watch storm clouds approaching. Instead she looked at feet and heard the cruel whispers of those who assumed that God was punishing her.
Despite the fact that people treated her like a disease, this woman remained a part of the covenant community. Instead of staying at home, hiding her misshapen body, she went to synagogue on Saturdays. On this particular Sabbath, a guest speaker was in town. His name was Jesus of Nazareth. She’d heard stories about his ability to heal people. Maybe she was hoping for a miracle. Or maybe she was just being faithful and showing up to worship.
So there was Jesus seated in front of the crowd as was the custom, teaching them about the Kingdom of God, when the woman came shuffling in the back door. Jesus saw her. Most everyone else ignored her. But Jesus saw her. “Madam,” he said, “would you please come up here?” She felt her face go hot. What if the people laughed at her worn tunic? What if she tripped over something she could not see? But she went anyway.
She was still several feet away from Jesus when he announced: “Woman, you are set free from your ailment.” Those words were so unexpected, so shocking that she stopped in her tracks. She was still trying to take in those words when suddenly her bones began to pop and crackle as she stood up straight. The first thing she saw was the face of the man who healed her. And then, she looked out and saw neighbors she had really seen in years. She realized that she could take a very deep breath. She could raise her arms over her head. Like Anna Pesce, she was born again.
The crowd gasped and Jesus smiled, but the leader of the synagogue, charged with keeping the Sabbath holy, was furious. He appealed directly to the crowd, ignoring Jesus: “Friends,” he said, “there are six days of the week to work. Would it have really made that much of a difference for this woman to wait one more day?”
Now, it’s easy to judge this man, but keeping the Sabbath was and is a bedrock of Jewish religion, enshrined in the Ten Commandments: “Remember the Sabbath Day and keep it holy.” That’s what he was trying to do. But in Jesus’s day, there were different points of view about how one keeps the Sabbath. Some fundamentalists interpreted the work prohibition very strictly, refusing even to help a suffering animal or someone who is in danger. There is no indication that the Pharisee in this story is one of them. But he was a traditionalist. And healing was work. And it was right in the synagogue… on a Saturday. Come on, Jesus! But those weren’t the only two ways for a faithful Jew to look at the Sabbath. Some interpreted the commandment in light of the Exodus story. According to Deuteronomy 5, the Sabbath was made so that “… so that you may rest and remember that you were once a slave in Egypt, and that the Lord your God brought you out from there.” So Sabbath was about rest. But it was also about remembering liberation. And what good is remembering liberation if you are bound? And if anyone was ever enslaved to her body, this woman was. So Jesus was doing the work of mercy – just another way to honor the Sabbath.
And Jesus had little patience for interpretations that honored religious observance over mercy. “You hyprocrites!” Jesus cried. “You give your livestock water on the Sabbath, so why wouldn’t you want living water for this woman on the Sabbath?”
Luke never tells us her name, but Jesus gave her a new one. He called her a “daughter of Abraham.” That was a profound reminder to everyone that she was precious in the sight of God and integral to the covenant community. Once despised and disparaged, Jesus gave this woman pride of place.
This wonderful story is full of grace. There are many angles from which a preacher might approach this text, but let me offer just three brief observations and see if any of them have resonance for you.
First of all, notice that this woman, unlike other sick people remembered in the Gospels, never asked to be healed. Her healing seems to surprise her as much as it did everyone else. And that rings true to my own experience of grace. I do pray and ask for things, sometimes very specific things. But it has been my experience that most of the gifts of God have come to me without my ever asking. We eat and drink, and laugh and love, and sleep and rise day after day after day. These gifts come to us unbidden and undergird our whole lives. But beyond that, every now and again, something so extraordinary comes into our lives that it stops us in our tracks. It’s pure gift. It’s pure grace. And like this woman, we never asked for it.
Second, as I mentioned, it’s easy to disparage the leader of the synagogue for simply doing his job. And it’s easy (and a very old heresy of the church) to imagine that Jesus was somehow separate from the Judaism in which he was raised. But Jesus defends the sacredness of the Sabbath and the importance of the covenant with Abraham. This story is not about Jesus versus the Jews or Jesus disparaging Sabbath observances. It might be easier if her did, since we are so quick to break the Sabbath ourselves. The church long ago gave up Sunday as a day of rest, but that doesn’t mean we should have. Sabbath is a gift of grace and one I suspect we need now more than ever. What would happen to us if for just one day a week we put away our smart phones and computers and televisions? Did you feel yourself react to that notion? Perhaps that’s an indication of just how addicted we are. But what would our lives be like if we disconnected electronically and reconnected to the earth and to one another, face to face?
Third, this story reminds us that meeting Jesus – really meeting Jesus –dramatically changes our perspective. When she got out of bed that morning, the woman saw her feet and never expected to see anything else. But then she met one who made the lame to walk and the blind to see. And she raised her head and was able to see the distant horizon, and all that might yet be.
Like all the stories in the Bible, this story is our story. You may have perfect posture, but have all been bent low by our worries and our fears. We have learned through the school of hard knocks to take life in small doses. We see only a few feet, a few moments, a few days ahead. That might feel safer, but it robs us of our perspective.
So Jesus comes to us and touches us and gives us a new name and lifts our heads. Jesus lifts our heads so that we can clearly see all the glory of this broken and beautiful world. Thanks be to God. Amen