What must life have been like? Twelve years sick. Destitute from medical bills, Likely excluded from her religious community, perhaps from any community. Alone.
How much energy must it have taken each morning to lift her fatigued, anemic body, to look for food, to search - again - for a cure. To wash her clothes. Always, to wash her clothes.
I wonder if she prayed. I wonder if in her forays into the community anyone ever noticed her.
One day, Mark tells us, Jesus came to town. She went to see him. Maybe at first, as was her custom, she hovered around the edge of the crowd. But eventually, something awakened inside her and propelled her into the crowd, to reach out, to touch Jesus' cloak. With the touch, finally, came the healing she'd been longing for.
Jesus, aware that healing had gone out from him, asked who had been healed. The disciples noted the large number of people around him. What kind of question was that? But maybe Jesus' question wasn't for information. Maybe instead it was an invitation - an invitation to the woman to testify, to witness to her own healing, to her own determination to obtain that healing. "Daughter, your faith has made you well; go in peace, and be healed of your disease."
Today's story of the hemorrhaging woman is what some would call the "meat" of a "Markan sandwich." The author of Mark's Gospel is fond of starting to tell one story, interrupting it with a second story, then concluding the first story. The stories are meant to be read together. They inform each other.
Today's initial story begins with Jairus the synagogue leader's plea to Jesus to save his dying daughter. It's on the way to Jairus' house that the hemorrhaging woman approaches Jesus and is healed. As soon as Jesus declares the woman healed, someone comes from Jairus' house to say that his daughter has died. "Why trouble the teacher any further?" they ask. Overhearing the news, Jesus says to Jairus, "Do not fear, only believe." You can almost hear Jesus add: only believe like the woman we just encountered.
On the surface, the focus of the two stories is about faith - the lone woman's faith that propels her into an audacious act and the synagogue leader's faith that falters. If we look below the surface of things though, another contrast can be found - the difference between community and isolation. The crowds Mark describes - the throngs that greet Jesus, the friends and family waiting for Jairus when he and Jesus get back to the house - these crowds stand in stark relief with the lone woman, ostracized, excluded, alone.
Over the centuries this woman's story has been told, many people - perhaps especially other women - have found courage in her gutsy faith. Looking at her actions through the lens of community and isolation, though, the question comes - What if her faith didn't have to be so gutsy? How might the story have gone differently if the woman had had a community of friends and family like Jairus and his daughter had? What if the social and religious systems in place had not excluded her? What if she'd had someone to help her? What if people had seen her?
Though raised in rural Ethiopia, Simeesh Segaye was proud to have completed the 8th grade, a rarity for girls in her area. At 19, she married and soon became pregnant, an occurrence celebrated by her husband, family, and friends.
But when Simeesh went into labor, no baby emerged. After laboring for two days, her "neighbors carried her for hours to the nearest road and put the nearly unconscious Simeesh on a bus. The bus took another two days to get to the nearest hospital. By then the baby was dead."[i]
As she recovered from the ordeal back in her village, Simeesh discovered that "she was crippled and leaking urine and feces." Because her obstructed birth had gone on for so many days without proper treatment, she had developed fistulas, opening in her colon and bladder that made it impossible to control her body's elimination systems. Nerve damage had made it difficult for her to walk. Simeesh's husband and parents raised $10 for a bus to take Simeesh back to the hospital to repair the fistulas. When the bus arrived, because of the odor, riders refused to let Simeesh get on. Simeesh's family took her home. Her husband soon left her. Simeesh's parents loved their daughter and wanted to help, but even they were unable to abide the odor. They constructed a hut outside their home for Simeesh.
For two years, Simeesh lay in the hut hoping for death. Unable to use her legs, ostracized from her community - even from her loving family - there seemed little point in living. Finally, her parents sold their only asset - their livestock - and used the $250 to pay for a private car to take Simeesh to the hospital. At the hospital, Simeesh was referred to the Fistula Hospital in Addis Ababa.
The Fistula Hospital was established in 1974 by married doctors Reg and Catherine Hamlin. Reg died in 1993, but 94-year-old Catherine continues to work at the hospital. When they arrived in Ethiopia, they encountered many women who suffered from fistulas, something they'd rarely seen in their native Australia and New Zealand. Inadequate healthcare for women with obstructed births had led to the high incidence of fistulas. Even in places where there was adequate care, intense shame often prevented these women and girls from seeking the help they needed. It's estimated that 90% of women with fistulas have contemplated suicide.
Of fistula patients, Reg Hamlin once said, "Mourning the stillbirth of their only child, incontinent of urine, ashamed of their offensiveness, often spurned by their husbands, homeless, unemployable, except in the fields, they endure, they exist, without friends and without hope. They bear their sorrows in silent shame. Their miseries, untreated, are utter, lonely and lifelong."[ii]
When Simeesh arrived at the Fistula Hospital, she was too weak to endure surgery. The hospital staff worked with her - through good food, physical therapy, and connection with other fistula patients - to strengthen her for the surgery. Eventually, she learned to walk again, had the surgery, and happily, has made a full recovery.
Because of her despondence at the time she was brought to the hospital, it is doubtful Simeesh would have had access to the same kind of gutsy faith as the woman in today's story had. Simeesh's healing came from a family who was devoted to her, to the vision of two doctors who saw the need for a fistula hospital, and to the community of medical staff and other fistula patients at the hospital. It was through the help and love of those around her that Simeesh regained her will to live. Alone, her faith in her healing faltered. It was the people around her who gave her strength and who helped her to heal, both body and spirit.
Jesus praised the lone woman's gutsy faith. He lifted her up as a positive example, even to the leader of the synagogue. All of that is well and good. I do wonder, though, 2,000 years later, if Jesus might also lift up the gutsy faith of communities and countries as they - as we - reach out to those who are isolated. I wonder if Jesus also might praise the audacious faith that removes barriers to good healthcare for people, especially women. I wonder if communities and countries had more faith, the world's impoverished peoples - especially women - could get by with less?
Let us pray.
Holy One, we believe in our hearts that you fiercely love all your children. Give us the heart, the will, and yes, the faith to live your fierce love in the world audaciously. Amen.
[i] Kristof, Nicholas D. and Sharon WuDunn. Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women World wide, New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2009.
[ii] Hamlin Fistula Ethiopia. http//hamlinfistula.org/