One of my earliest, most vivid memories is from a church gathering when I was very young. I was toddling through the sea of legs in the fellowship hall, looking for my father, who was the pastor. But, because I was very small, I was looking at people's shoes. I immediately ruled out the women in heels and pantyhose. But then I was left with a sea of men's trousers and almost identically nondescript pantlegs. Finally, I found the set of legs I had been looking for and grabbed onto my father, holding on for dear life, overwhelmed by the crowds pressing around us.
Until I looked up, only to see a stranger smiling down at me. I had grabbed the wrong legs! I was terrified. And right when I was about to begin to cry, my father came forward. He had seen me in the crowd. And he knelt down and picked me up. My tears melted away as my father found me and held me close.
The woman in our Scripture for this today also knew what it felt like to view the world from the knees down. Whether it began as a physical ailment or not, the woman's condition soon took on a spiritual component as she was bent further in on herself from year to year by what Scripture calls a spirit of infirmity. Over time, the woman became accustomed to her shuttered view of the ground. People began speaking to each other across her back. And she could feel herself begin to fade into the background. No one looked her in the eye anymore or stooped down to speak to her face to face.
For eighteen years, the woman was unable to stand up straight. For eighteen years, she was unable to see the world clearly, having to turn her head from side to side to catch glimpses of her surroundings or the people near her. After eighteen years, I would imagine that she believed nothing would ever change.
And so, when the woman entered the synagogue that day, it did not feel any different to her. She shuffled in as always, her view limited to the top of her own feet and the floor right in front of her. The crowds pushed against her hips and shoulders, as if they didn't know she was there, jockeying with each other for a better view of Jesus. The woman was content to be pushed back against the wall, knowing she would not be able to see anyhow.
But even though the woman couldn't see him, Jesus saw the bent-over woman. Jesus saw her and called her over. Slowly, she shuffled forward. The crowds began to part and make way for her, some of the people noticing her presence for the first time. The woman's cheeks began to heat as she felt the eyes of the crowd on her. But she continued to slowly make her way toward the voice that called to her. "Woman," Jesus said, "you are set free.
And grasping her by her shoulders, Jesus began to push her up. Looking at his feet, then his knees, then his torso, finally, the woman was able to look Jesus in the eye. The first face she saw clearly in 18 years was the face of Jesus. And when she saw him, she began to praise God! She moved her hands and her arms up, until they were thrown over her head. And she tilted her head back as her spine fully unfurled. "Alleluia! Praise God!" she cried, tears beginning to course down her cheeks. She had been set free, indeed.
The energy was contagious, and soon the room was erupting in praise. But not everyone was happy. Over the hubbub, the leader of the synagogue had also raised his hands and begun waving his arms, shouting, "Stop! Stop! No! Not here! Not today! This is the Sabbath! If you want to be healed come on a different day. Don't you know the rules?"
You see, the synagogue leader knew his scripture. He knew that in Exodus, when the Sabbath Law was given to God's people, they were told to remember the Sabbath and keep it holy. For just as God rested on the seventh day after creating the world, God's people were also to rest. The synagogue leader knew what was at stake.
After all, if people began making exceptions to the rules, then at some point no one would really follow them at all. The Ten Commandments would end up becoming the Ten Suggestions and then what would people be left with? A bunch of sayings that sometimes were referred to with a sense of nostalgia - but the law would be stripped of all its power to protect and preserve and point people toward God.
So, the synagogue leader grabbed the rules and held on for dear life. Nothing was going to change his mind. After all, the woman's ailment wasn't life threatening. She had been like that for 18 years. Why couldn't she wait one more day?
For I suppose liberation and freedom, healing and hope, all too often sound like a luxury to those of us who are not suffering. Maybe someone's liberation can even feel like a threat to those of us who have already known what it feels like to be free. "Why make such a big fuss?" we sometimes say. "Is it really all that important? This sort of healing can wait."
But Jesus knows the rules too. And he has no patience for those who would use only part of Scripture to maintain their own order and control. And so, like a good rabbi, he begins to argue with the synagogue leader about how to read and interpret.
"You are correct," Jesus seems to say to the synagogue leader. "For in Exodus the law is very clear that God's people do not work on the Sabbath because even God took a day off. But what about Deuteronomy?" he prods. "Remember when the law is recorded there?"
In Deuteronomy the Sabbath is explained in a different way. It isn't tied to the seven days of creation. Instead, as Jesus says, in Deuteronomy, God's people are told to keep the Sabbath because they once were slaves, tied down, bent over, their view of the world shuttered by oppression. They would keep the Sabbath, and they would extend its rest and restoration to everyone around them, because they knew what it meant to be set free. For Jesus, there is no better day for liberation than the Sabbath. And there is no better time for healing than now.
There are moments in our lives when we realize that we too, like the bent-over woman or the synagogue leader, have been seeing things only in part. Maybe a spirit of infirmity has kept us stooped over, our eyes trained only on the ground in front of us. Maybe we have become accustomed to letting people speak across our backs or push us into far corners. Maybe we too know what it is like not to have people speak to us face-to-face or look us fully in the eye. When that is our story, Jesus comes to us, like he came to the bent-over woman, to bring healing and freedom from all the things that have kept us pushed down or shoved aside. Jesus helps us begin to stand up straight once again.
Other times, however, we are more like the synagogue leader. We have been unwilling to allow our vision to be expanded by other voices or other experiences. We cling tightly to our own truth, choosing to see the world and the Scriptures only through our own particular lens. We have ended up holding too tightly onto the wrong thing, missing the miracle of God in our midst. And when that is our story, Jesus comes to us as well, bringing new truth and new understanding, prodding us to read Scripture and see our world through new eyes.
For you see, even when we can't see things clearly, Jesus sees us. He sees us for who we are. And he comes to release us from the bondage we experience, the things that tie us up and hold us down, the ways our vision has become shuttered or impeded. He comes to us even when our limits have been self-imposed.
Through both his words and his actions, Jesus reminds us of what happens when we encounter the incredible, liberating Spirit of God! We can no longer live stooped over or pushed aside. We can no longer be satisfied by the limited vision of partial truths. Jesus comes to us, heals us, restores us, and then invites us to join with the full community of God in praise! And we finally see that healing and wholeness should never be postponed. For our God wants to set us all free! And there is no better time than now.