The Bent Woman

Sermon at St James Colwall on Trinity 13 2016

Isaiah 58:9-14; Luke 13:10-17

“Come back tomorrow!” That’s the message no-one wants to hear. We don’t want to have to wait for hip replacements or knee operations or indeed, should be we like the woman in our Gospel, for spine realignment. Unlike most NHS patients, this woman has had to wait for eighteen years before something is done about her condition. She is much worse off than an animal, because they, at least, have the attention of their owner to keep them healthy. Animals are, after all, more useful than women – at least in biblical times. In the mind of the leader of the synagogue, waiting another day would not make that much difference. After all, she’s waited eighteen years already. But in one more day, Jesus may not be there. The opportunity will have passed. Her condition will continue. “Do it now, today,” seems to be one message from this reading. Don’t wait for the right opportunity to allow God to act. Be prepared, always and in every situation, for his power to work in and through you and others.

It is easy and perhaps most usual to see our two readings today as being predominantly about what it is and is not permissible to do on the Sabbath or, in our case, on Sunday. I’d like to move away from this topic, which has been well explored on other occasions, and think about the wider context of the gospel reading and some links to the Old Testament passage. As we’ve noted before, nothing in Luke’s gospel is there by accident. Each story is carefully linked to those preceding and following and the themes of each inform our understanding of the central one, on which we are focusing. In the case of the healing of the bent woman, immediately before comes the story of the barren fig tree, which in turn is linked to Jesus’ teaching on the need for everyone to be conscious that they are sinful. There are no special degrees of sin and certain people do not deserve punishing more than others. In the case of the woman, her condition would be thought of as being the result of an evil spirit, a punishment for some guilt in her life. Because of its long duration, she would be condemned as having done something particularly wrong. But notice that this is one of the healings where Jesus does not forgive her sins. He simply restores her to her proper human condition. Immediately after our passage are two short comparisons likening the coming of the kingdom of God to the mustard seed and the yeast. Both are small, in the same way that the woman is not very noticeable or important in her community, but both create an abundance of life and energy. The vigour of the mustard seed contrasts vividly with the barren fig tree. The woman’s healed condition frees her to grow and flourish in the way God intended and we are told that she glorified God for this. The Greek verb translated ‘glorified’ is a continuous one – she didn’t just praise God then and there, she was in a continual state of praising, her life being infused with the joy and the life of God. That kind of joy and power is the same as we find in the passage from Isaiah – the restorative work of God which brings new physical life as well as spiritual health and takes place when we practice in our lives his values and priorities.

It is easy to overlook, to forget, or (as Isaiah admonishes) to put aside, God’s way of responding. The woman would be easy to overlook. In a crowd you would literally look over her. She would not be visible amongst those who could stand upright. But Jesus doesn’t miss her. He sees her, he calls her, and he straightens her out (again, it is literal), he touches her and she becomes able to stand up. She doesn’t do it herself. It is the power of God working through her to straighten out the physical infirmity and to release her so that she can express her awareness of God’s love. The story reminds us of how often we overlook what does not conform to our expectations and how easily we can cease to be aware of what is going on around us, simply because it is long-term and very familiar. We are called to continual awareness, to constant prayer and to an alert willingness to allow God to act in us and through us at all times.

So much for the theology. But what about the woman? Like many of the characters in the Gospels, we know very little about her. She was badly crippled and had been so for many years. This condition was attributed to the action of Satan. When she was released, she praised God without stopping. All the focus of the passage seems to be going on around her, almost as if she still doesn’t matter. But she does. Jesus makes that very clear by calling her ‘daughter of Abraham’ – a person as important in the community as any other. So how might she have told the story?

“The first thing I noticed was his feet. After eighteen years of staring downwards, you get to know a lot about feet. Feet are as individual as the people standing on them and just as revealing of their character as any face. There are pampered feet and practical feet and painful feet. There are impatient feet and peaceful feet and powerful feet. There are feet only too willing to give a kick to man or beast. There are feet that push past and feet that give you a wide birth, but precious few that come close and stand alongside you.

“So when he called ‘Come and stand with me,’ the first thing I noticed were his feet. Tough feet with miles of travel behind them, hard and lean, yet with the structure of the slim, strong bones showing through the skin, beautiful in their own way. Feet that had walked over many mountains to bring good news, like a light in the darkness, like a spring in the desert. Feet bearing one who would restore and repair and release from bondage.

“And I heard his voice. When you can’t see people’s faces, you learn a lot from their voices. And when they can’t see your face, they’re mostly not too careful what they say. So I was used to the words washing over me like dirty water when I longed for a clear spring. To being prodded with the verbal finger of condemnation or stifled by the blanket of self-occupied ignoring. His voice was different. It was not bound and constricted by the troubles of sin and guilt. It was the voice of abundant love and joy pouring out over the parched and barren years of a wasted life. And he said ‘Come and stand with me.’

“So I moved. Cautiously, as always, through the forest of legs and feet, across the polished tiles marking each painful step until I was before him. I could see nothing but his feet, firm and sure on the ground and shadowed by the hem of his robe. Just for a moment, a shaft of sunlight pierced the dimness of the synagogue and painted a bright spot, like a splash of ichor, on his ankles. Then my shadow crossed the beam of light and I felt as if I had been illuminated, filled with a cleansing brightness so powerful that it was more painful than anything I had born in all the years of bondage.

“And he touched me. From his hands flowed release and peace. Coursing through me, the power unlocking each tight bond, each grating bone, each fear and guilt that had tied me down so long. Daughter of Abraham, child of God, I stood straight and looked the world in the face. And the first and only face I saw was his.”