Lent 3 – Who Do You Say That I Am?

“Jesus as Healer,” Susan Ryder

 As those of you who have been here the last two weeks know, we’ve been exploring a Lenten theme based on this passage from the Gospel of Mark 8:27-29: Jesus went on with his disciples to the villages of Caesarea Philippi; and on the way he asked them, “Who do people say that I am?” And they answered him, “John the Baptist; and others, Elijah; and still others, one of the prophets.” Jesus then asked them, “But who do YOU say that I am?” This morning we will consider Jesus as healer, and begin with a few readings, and a question for you to consider. First, the question: Have you had an experience of healing in your life? What was it like, how did you experience it? How were you healed?

Mark 1:40-42
A leper came to Jesus begging, and kneeling said to him, “If you choose, you can make me clean.” Moved with pity, Jesus stretched out his hand and touched him, and said to him, “I do choose. Be made clean!” Immediately the leprosy left him, and he was made clean.

Mark 5:21-34 When Jesus had crossed again in the boat to the other side, a great crowd gathered around him. Then came one of the rulers of the synagogue, Jairus; and seeing Jesus, he fell at his feet and besought him, saying, “My daughter is at the point of death. Come and lay your hands on her, so that she may be made well, and live.” And as he went with him, a great crowd followed him and thronged about him. And there was a woman who had had a flow of blood for twelve years, and who had suffered much under many physicians, and had spent all that she had, and was no better but rather grew worse. She had heard reports about Jesus, and came up behind him in the crowd and touched his garment. For she said, “If I touch even his garments, I shall be made well.” And immediately the hemorrhage ceased; and she felt in her body that she was healed of her disease. And Jesus, perceiving in himself that power had gone forth from him, immediately turned about in the crowd, and said, “Who touched my garments?” And his disciples said to him, “You see the crowd pressing around you, and yet you say, “Who touched me?” And he looked around to see who had done it. The woman came in fear and trembling and fell down before him, and told him the whole truth. And he said to her, “Daughter, your faith has made you well; go in peace, and be healed of your disease.”

When I was 16 and newly diagnosed with Rheumatoid Arthritis, friends from my church youth group tricked me into attending a healing service at our church one Sunday afternoon. I say tricked because had I known in advance what was happening I never would have attended – my father had shared enough stories of his Pentecostal upbringing with people speaking in tongues and being slain the spirit to keep me away from a healing service for the rest of my life, no matter what might be wrong with me. And while I believe they meant well, it turned out to be one of the most traumatic experiences of my life, as a man I’d never met ranted and raved and laid hands on people, demanding God heal them of whatever affliction they were claiming. By the time I realized what was happening it was too late to leave, and he had already zeroed in on me at the prodding of my youth minister. Looking back now, as an adult AND a minister, there were so many things wrong with that – none the least of which that I had not invited this man to heal me. When I wouldn’t respond to or interact with him he became a religious bully, alternating between telling me my faith was weak or that I had Satan inside of me. The last thing I remember is bursting into tears and getting out of there, wheeling my friend Martha ahead of me before he had a chance to command her to rise up and walk, something she had never done in her 16 years of life. Not only did that incident mark the beginning of the end of my relationship with that congregation and traditional Christianity, it also soured me on any and all of the healing stories found in the Gospels for quite some time.

Of all the stories I was eventually able to reinterpret through an expanding progressive lens, I still avoided the healing ones. Give me a tough saying of Jesus any day – or even a miracle story that defied science. Feeding thousands of people with a few loaves of bread and a handful of fish – that was due to sharing what people had with them. Walking on water? Probably low tide and a sandbar. Turning water into wine – a handy parlor trick, or a metaphor for something. But Jesus healing a bleeding woman or a leper? No, just no. And then my mother was diagnosed with a very rare aggressive cancer while I was serving my first congregation in Iowa. She was determined to be one of the 2% who survived that particular cancer through a combination of western medical intervention, meditation, guided visualization, and prayer. I was equally determined not to lose my mother. So together we read books and listened to tapes by Dr. Bernie Siegel, and watched a Bill Moyers series called “Healing and the Mind” on PBS. If you can get your hands on it, it’s amazing – first airing in 1993. I ended up buying the book that went along with it, and it still offers me wisdom and perspective all these years later. The greatest gift it offered me was to understand the difference between being cured and being healed.

The final episode filmed and interviewed participants at a retreat center in Northern California – there at Commonweal, cancer patients spent a week in a beautiful setting overlooking the Pacific Ocean participating in group support sessions led by a psychotherapist, in addition to massage, yoga, meditation, deep relaxation, imagery work, poetry, exploration of sacred space, and a gourmet vegetarian diet. Evening sessions were led by Commonweal co-founder Michael Lerner, and explored choices in healing, mainstream therapies, integrative therapies, pain and suffering, and death and dying. One of the people we met in the episode was Chris Saxton, a 43-year-old single woman diagnosed with metastatic cervical cancer the year before. At the beginning of the retreat week she seemed an unwilling participant in the group sessions; she appeared angry and closed off. She laughed little and was not open to hugs and affection from others in the group. As the week progressed she began to open up. She admitted she was angry about her diagnosis, and when pressed, she admitted that her biggest fear was to die alone. The more she shared and participated with others in her group, the more you could see her change. Her defenses dropped, her body language softened, and she agreed to ask for help when she got home. At the end of the episode, Bill Moyer’s voice offered a voice-over of a scene of Chris posing for a photo with the group and hugging people goodbye. “After she left Commonweal, Chris Saxton sent back a poem. The last line reads, ‘I still can see you gathered, such an unlikely family, and I know I can find my way home.’ Soon after, Chris died surrounded by family and friends.” My mother and I were in tears as the show ended, and Mom said through hers, “But she wasn’t cured!” I replied, “No, but she was healed.”

Medical anthropologists make a distinction between healing and curing: Healing is associated with illness, which refers to the social meanings attached to that condition. Curing is associated with disease, which refers to the actual physical condition of a person. I have come to believe that Jesus was about was healing, not curing – and in the end, that was so much more significant than life or death. Michael Lerner of Commonweal says, “I think realistically everyone with cancer hopes to be cured in some sense, but one of the most fundamental distinctions we start with is the distinction between healing and curing and how curing is what mainstream medicine has to offer when possible, and that’s what the physician brings to you. And healing is what you bring to the encounter with cancer. Healing represents the inner resources that you bring to it. Medical doctors confront the ravages that disease works on the body. Commonweal addresses the afflictions that rack the mind and spirit.”

Once I began to understand the healing power of Jesus as something different than a magical curative super power, the healing stories in the Gospels became much more powerful for me. My perception of Jesus and the healing stories was redeemed – or healed if you will. One of the first things I noticed was how Jesus touched the people he healed. In the stories from Mark I shared earlier, it saysJesus touched them and made them well. This is especially important because people afflicted with disease were considered unclean, and good Jews, especially Rabbis, would never touch them because then they themselves would have to be purified and made clean again, even if the affliction was not contagious. Lepers and bleeding women were in particular to be avoided, and in the readings I shared, not only did Jesus touch and heal a leper who begged him for healing, he also touched, or was touched by, a woman who was bleeding.

The way Mark tells it, Jesus was asked to heal the daughter of a prominent synagogue official named Jairus. While Jesus was on his way to her house, he was going through the crowd and was touched by a woman with a menstrual disorder she’d had for 12 years, which meant no one had been allowed to be around her all that time because of her uncleanliness. She literally had not been touched – hugged, patted, or caressed – in 12 years. Additionally, because of purity regulations, because the woman touched Jesus meant that she would have made Jesus unclean too. So according to purity laws, he should not have gone to the home of a synagogue official right after having been contaminated by the woman’s impurity. He should have immediately gone to be cleansed himself. And even more than that, he never should have engaged with her. She was a woman, after all, and a bleeding one at that! Once he felt the power rush from him and discovered who it was who touched him, he should have removed himself from the situation and gone to be made clean. That was the law. Instead, he engaged her – something she must have been so lonely for and for which she must have ached! He commented on her faith and did not reprimand her – he praised her. And then he continued to Jairus’ home to heal his daughter.

While Bob will say more next week about Jesus as a barrier breaker – the healing stories of Jesus are definitely part of that persona as well. Jesus’ healing stories illustrate his compassion for outcasts, those who should not be associated with. And like last week, when Bob spoke about Jesus as social prophet, they also illustrate the importance of putting the well being of people over any laws. The law said not to touch people who were unclean – unclean people were those who were afflicted with disease. So at the lowest point in your life, the time you most need the support and affection of loved ones, you are ostracized, kept apart, untouchable – while what you yearn for most is to be touched.

Rachel Naomi Remen is the Medical Director of Commonweal. She says, “What we begin with is the first and most powerful technique of healing which is simply listening, just listening. One of the greatest gifts you can give another person is your attention.” Another is touching. Dr. Remen continues, “Touching is a very old way of healing and so we try to touch people with the same tenderness that a mother would touch a child because what a mother is saying to a child in that touch is, ‘Live.’ Many people when they have cancer talk about being touched as if they were a piece of meat, or one woman actually said to me, ‘Sometimes when I go for my chemotherapy, they touch me as if they don’t know anybody’s inside this body.’ Others are not touched at all – as if cancer is contagious. In the end, she says, touch can be something that is deeply reassuring. There’s something about touching that may strengthen our will to live – while isolation weakens us.”

So this is what I think about now when I hear a story of Jesus healing – of him seeing them as valuable human beings, listening to them, engaging with them, touching them, all of which brought about their healing. Whether or not the disease was cured, he brought healing. And that is something I can definitely resonate with.

Healing and the Mind