Eighteen years is a very long time to see only the dirt under your feet. A few moments ago, I had you all stand up during the children’s message, and for the briefest moment, we reenacted with our bodies this woman’s daily reality – she was unable to fill the basic role that her society had prescribed her gender. She could not carry water or wood to cook with; she could not chase after children if she had any; she could barely see where she was going, and probably moved very slowly and carefully. Perhaps that was why she seemed to arrive at the synagogue in the middle of Jesus’s sermon.
She certainly didn’t seem to expect that Jesus would be there, or that Jesus would even take notice of her, much less free her from her condition.
My great-aunt Norma, in the years before she died, was also completely bent over. I remember seeing her at family reunions in the summer when I was very young, and being both curious and a little horrified. I think one time I must have asked about her, because I remember my mom telling me that it was from many, many years of carrying heavy milk pails on the farm, and that now her back was just like that.
What I noticed was that she seemed so much shorter than everyone else. Fully upright she would have been pretty average, of course, but because of her back problems, everyone else stood about a head taller than her. In a crowded room or in line for the jello salad at the family reunion, you might run right into her if you weren’t careful.
While for Norma, her back problems were caused by her hard work as a farm wife and came on gradually over the course of a lifetime, this woman Jesus met at the synagogue was prevented from being of use in the only ways she was allowed to be in her time. She could not carry a bucket of water for anyone, not even for herself.
And yet she caught the notice of Jesus. When others perhaps would have ignored her or looked away, Jesus called her over to him. And she followed his voice – perhaps knowing that she had interrupted the sermon, but certainly not expecting what happened next: to be healed. After eighteen long years, her back is now straight, and the first words out of her lips are used in giving thanks to God for freeing her from her bondage. Her first act of freedom was to worship.
She praised God because Jesus had freed her from the yoke of her pain. She praised God because Jesus had freed her from the stigma of uselessness. She praised God because Jesus had not just seen her, but had taken notice of her. She praised God, because the first face she saw in eighteen years was the face of Jesus.
Yet this woman’s tribulations were not over yet. In the face of this wonderful miracle in their midst, there were those who could not see past the violation of the strict practices of the Sabbath day. After all, there are rules to be followed, traditions to be observed, and protocols to adhere to in what can and cannot be done on the Sabbath. Order must be maintained. The Sabbath is a day of rest and a time to hear the teachings of the Torah. The preacher does not simply stop the sermon in order to perform a healing. Disruption of the norm should not be tolerated. Where would it end???
For the leader of the synagogue, a true follower of God should “remember the Sabbath day and keep it holy,” which for him meant following the rules of the law. After all, they were the sons and daughters of the tradition of Abraham, set apart by God to be a blessing to all the nations. And Sabbath-keeping set them apart from all the nations around them. This was especially vital in Jesus’s time, when the empire of Rome controlled nearly every other aspect of their public lives.
Healing had an important place in God’s work, of course, but only on the proper days. According to the traditions of the law, not even healing should encroach on the sacredness of the Sabbath.
But Jesus knew that humanity has a talent for muddling up things that are good for us. Something is seriously out of balance in any tradition when a rule becomes more important than a person.
In a way, these religious leaders were bent under their own burden, and so were unable to see something amazing happening right in front of their eyes.
They had forgotten that the Sabbath was not about rules; it was something God created for us to take delight in. They had forgotten that the Sabbath was about liberation from the burden of work, not working so hard at NOT-working. They were bound while the woman was set free.
When rules get in the way of God’s work, one of them has to go. And though it may not happen on our time, Jesus shows us that freedom will always win out in the end.
Fifty years ago this coming Wednesday, over a quarter million people filled the streets of Washington DC to rally around the Civil Rights movement and to hear from a Baptist preacher from Alabama talk about his dream. Like the visions of the prophets of the Old Testament, Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. spoke of a day when all people - black, white, Jew, Gentile, Protestant, Catholic – would join hands and sing “Thank God almighty, we are free at last.” In a time when the color of your skin barred you from certain human rights like access to education and voting and even certain restaurants, King dared share his dream with the nation and the world. As the saying goes, no one is free while others are oppressed.
And so the non-violent breaking of the rules began, with Rosa Parks’ refusal to move on the bus to countless young people who sat at white-only lunch counters and refused move as they were verbally and physically assaulted, spat on and ultimately arrested. And later that year, the Civil Rights Act was passed, making discrimination on the basis of race, gender, ethnicity, or religion illegal, and ended segregation in public places. There has been lots of progress in fifty years, and there certainly is still a long way to go.
Though we are still caught up and weight down by the injustices and oppressive burdens, every week we gather together to remember that Jesus’s death and resurrection has freed us from fear of death and the grave. It is not a rule or a requirement to be part of worship; it should be a joy and a delight to meet and share the great things that God has done for us, about how once we were bound, but now are free, once was lost, but now are found, blind, but now we see.
I hope that the woman who was bent over continue to attend synagogue regularly, to share how her world has been completely changed by Jesus. Though we will never know her name, Jesus gave her a title – he called this once-crippled woman with no worth in her culture a “daughter of Abraham.” She is a daughter of the promise, proof that the God of Abraham kept a promise to a childless couple so long ago.
We rejoice with daughter of Abraham and the rest of the crowd that day as Jesus liberates one more burdened soul, and let’s be on the lookout for where God is at work liberating those in our midst – and where God is also liberating us too. AMEN.