I’ve spoken before about what I consider one of the prime benefits of using the lectionary: that it prevents me from selecting texts based just on what I want to say. Left to my own devices, we would probably spend a lot of time in Jeremiah, Job, and Jonah, not because of the alliteration, but because those are three texts that are among the most interesting to me. I once heard a story about a pastor who did not follow the lectionary, and, one week, as he was preparing a hopefully fresh sermon on his old standby, the Sermon on the Mount he opened his Bible, only for those well-worn pages to promptly fall out. He had turned over those pages so much that he had finally worn away the glue that held them to the binding. The lectionary serves as a check on that impulse, common to us all, to focus our attention narrowly, to limit our sight.
One of the lectionary’s flaws comes from the desire of the writers to prefer familiar stories, to play the hits, if you will grant me an old radio reference. So these last few weeks we have, for example, heard Samuel’s warning against choosing a king, and then skipped to Saul’s anointing. We read of David’s anointing, after God has come to regret choosing Saul, but we often skip over just how Saul lost God’s favor. If we do decide to tell the story of that battle, we often focus on Saul’s greed, putting aside questions about Saul’s mercy in the face of the kind of unjust divine command that Moses and Abraham argued against.
We read about David’s decision to trust God over human military power in his fight with Goliath, but the lectionary skips over David’s subsequent decision to choose human military power over God when David seeks an alliance in Gath. Instead, the lectionary jumps to bring us here, to the beginning the text we call 2 Samuel, a title that here should not be heard as suggesting a sequel written later, but the second part of a text that was too large to fit on a single scroll. As our story resumes, we learn that Saul and his son Jonathan have died while David was in battle. We skip the fact that David and Saul were nearly on opposite sides of that battle, and would have been if the Philistines had not sent David away from their battle line with the Israelites to combat their allies, the Amelekites. Even within our passage today, we skip over David ordering the execution of the messenger who brought him the news of Saul’s death as well as Saul’s crown and symbols of office before beginning to publicly mourn a man who had tried to have David killed repeatedly before suddenly switching sides in this conflict and leading the Israelite army against his recent allies, the Philistines.
We have to be careful to make sure we do not see only what we choose to see, only what we want to see, only what makes us comfortable.
Some of you know that I spent time serving internationally, first in Northern Ireland, then, a few years later, in Kenya. After spending a year in Kenya, I stopped to visit friends in Northern Ireland on my way back to the U.S. During that visit to Northern Ireland, I went with a few friends to the Ulster Folk Museum. It’s a living history museum, sort of like Colonial Williamsburg, but with a focus on small, family-farm life in nineteenth century Ireland. One farmhouse we toured had a thatched roof, whitewashed walls, and two rooms, whose purposes were described roughly as one for sleeping, and one for…everything else. A large family would have shared these two rooms, with no electricity, no running water, and heat only from the wood, or more likely, peat, burning stove and oven.
One of my Northern Irish friends looked around and said “I can’t believe people used to live like this.” I froze. At the time, I could not respond, could not begin to respond. A few hours or days later, I tried to explain my response, that I had just come from Nairobi, a city with enormous wealth, but also with about two million people who would view this nineteenth century farmhouse as luxurious. Parts of that city rival the population density of day-time Manhattan, but all on a single story. I wanted to scream “you can’t believe people *used* to live like this? so many still do!” But I knew she would not understand, because she only knew what she had seen. Even then, I was thinking only of those who I had seen in Mathare, and not the uncounted homeless in Belfast, or in Richmond, or here, because I had not seen them.
Our New Testament texts too, deal with this question about what we see. Yes, Paul uses this metaphor of seen and unseen to talk about eschatology, to talk about the future kingdom of heaven, but our texts today look at what is seen and what is not in a much more direct way.
Our Gospel text features two healings. Jesus has just returned to the Jewish side of the Sea of Galilee, and he has barely even gotten off the boat before a crowd gathers. This tells us how important Jairus was. Jairus, a leader of the synagogue, is able to walk through the crowd, to part the assembled people and skip to the front of the line. Everybody sees Jairus, and gets out of his way so that he may be the first to speak with Jesus, the first to ask Jesus for a healing, and Jesus, and the crowd, all follow Jairus toward his house.
Now, along the way, we encounter someone else. Someone who is not seen, someone who is not even named: “there was a woman who had been suffering from hemorrhages for twelve years. She had endured much under many physicians, and had spent all that she had; and she was no better, but rather grew worse.” Twelve years this woman had been in pain. Twelve years, this woman had been in, or sinking into poverty, spending everything on doctors who failed to heal her. Even more, someone with hemorrhages would have been considered ritually unclean. Many of you were frustrated as our concerns about covid-19 kept us out of this sanctuary for over a year. Imagine her pain as she would have been kept out for twelve years. I have heard several people mention that they went a year without a hug, or a handshake, a year without touching, or being touched, by anyone. Anyone this unnamed, hemorrhaging Israelite woman touched would also have been considered unclean, and would have had to undergo ritual purification before being permitted back into the Temple, back into the Jewish holy spaces of the time. Imagine twelve years without a friendly touch.
Then, as now, this is the kind of woman we desperately try not to see, try to pretend does not exist. This is the kind of woman who leads cities to decide not to end homelessness, but simply to hide it, to contain it, to police homelessness and move the homeless somewhere out of sight so that they might become out of mind.
Everyone saw Jairus coming and got out of this way so that he could be the first to speak to Jesus. If anyone cleared a path for this woman, it would have been because tried to avoid touching her, to avoid seeing her, to avoid having to acknowledge her presence and existence. Thanks, perhaps, to this very desire of us all to avoid contact with, to avoid seeing poverty, this woman is able to get close to Jesus and to reach out and touch his cloak. So great is her assurance that Jesus comes in the power of God, so great is her faith, that this is enough to heal her, enough for Jesus to notice her and speak to her.
Jairus may have been the first to speak with Jesus in this passage, but this unnamed woman was the first to be healed. Jesus continues to heal Jairus daughter as well, but first, Jesus healed the one who we try not to see, the one who is not named.
I wonder if the Gospel does not name this woman because there are too many like her, because if we name her, this becomes a one-off event, too easy to isolate as a single element, but while she remains unnamed, while she remains in mystery, perhaps that can push us to see her in all those we try not to see today.