Scripture: Luke 13:10-17
Our friend Adam drives to the office like he does every morning. Over the past few years he has begun to notice some things that he found quite disturbing. On basically any given morning and afternoon while he drives down the exit ramp toward the coffee shop he sees someone standing there asking for help. At first he was concerned but then as they became familiar he stopped looking. But something changed, the people asking for assistance were showing up in others places as well, and they were not always single individuals but families. He pulled into the coffee shop, and sitting near the edge of the lot was a van, the van was filled completely with boxes and standing outside it was a woman with a couple of kids. They were not begging for money but there was something about the situation that made him think. They were not exactly the stereotypical image of homelessness; the woman walked the children to the corner where they met a school bus. She turned to the face the buildings behind her, and sighed. Adam could see the stress rising as the woman’s jaw tightened. She turned to the van pulled out a folder, locked the doors, and began to walk toward the strip mall.
Adam exited his own car and began to walk to the coffee shop, as he neared the door the woman was walking to the same door. He opened the door and allowed the woman to enter in front of him. She went to the counter and ordered a small plain coffee, and taking a seat at a table with a discarded newspaper. Adam ordered his drink and sat down to enjoy the brief morning ritual of java consumption. He observed the woman making a list of addresses and numbers. She opened her folder reading a paper inside and comparing it to her list. Adam could sense the frustration as the woman read over her resume and realized yet another potential job that her skills would not exactly fit. She groaned and let her head sink into her hands. At that point Adam rose and walked over and asked her if he could barrow a different section of the paper. His approach gave her a bit of a shock and as she jumped her arm spilled her coffee. Adam was embarrassed and asked if he could buy her another cup. She actually allowed him too. From there a conversation developed.
At this point he felt a bit awkward because he was sitting there talking to a stranger in the morning. But she opened up to him. She explained how she had been laid off a few years back, her husband was deployed overseas, and they recently lost their home. She had floated between temporary and part-time jobs but was unable to find something that was full-time and they needed some sort of income to be able to find a place to live. Adam had heard the story, or at least a story similar to it over and over. He had seen it in his community, but this was heartbreaking. She was trying very hard, doing everything she knew how to do to try to make ends meet while her husband was overseas. She talked about her kids and how proud she was of them. Adam enjoyed talking with her, and he really wanted to help.
It is a sad story. A story that has been told for several years, and one that is never easy to hear. We would like to think that this story is one that is not being told any longer but all too often it is. And often when we hear the story we are left in an awkward place, wondering if there is anything that we could do to help or thanking God that we are not the characters. The economic plight of America is one we hope we can soon stop talking about, but the stress it brings has weighed heavily on everyone’s shoulders. We can often feel overcome by it or we could just unplug and let it pass us by.
I bring it up because I believe this ties into the scene in today’s passage. Jesus goes into a synagogue to teach on the Sabbath, as he is accustomed to doing. In walks a woman who had a spirit that crippled her for eighteen years. She was so bad that it bent her over for years she was unable to straighten ups. There is no mention of anything else. No mention of family, just that she came into the synagogue. We do not even know if she was seeking Jesus out or if she just happened to be there, though I tend to believe that this woman came to this synagogue faithfully for eighteen years.
For eighteen years, a spirit had weighed down this woman. Have you ever thought about what type of spirit would weigh down a person till they were unable to stand upright? There are any numbers of stresses that can cause our shoulders to sag a bit. The passage says that there was a spiritual component binding her as well. Something about the struggle within and without was coming between her ability to freely worship.
Jesus saw her; he called her over and said, “Woman, you are set free from your ailment.” When he laid his hands on her, immediately she stood up straight and began praising God. It is hard to look past the amazing release of the woman’s bound back, but I want us to look a bit deeper than the healing. There is really no indication that this woman came to the place of worship to find Jesus. For eighteen years this woman was silently walking in and out of this place of worship. For eighteen years this woman passed in the shadows quietly carrying a burden. For eighteen years she was an unseen participant, never fully accepted, never fully respected, never really seen.
Jesus saw her. Healing begins when we are seen. This woman was hiding for eighteen years behind a false image of herself, she was carrying a burden that was too personal to share with the community, and it was binding her. She carried this for eighteen years. Slowly it ate away at the vertebrae of her back, slowly as she hid behind the false words saying that all was well in her house. The gravity of the stress too painful to share openly was slowly folding her in half, for eighteen years she was afraid yet longing to be seen. Jesus saw her. He saw the fear that kept her hiding in the shadow. He heard the weeping spirit that was being bound inside. He saw her and was moved to minister.
This caused a controversy in the community. The leader of the synagogue, the equivalent of the senior pastor, began to speak boldly about the law and how it was not right to work on the Sabbath day. He began to preach boldly that people should spend the other six days of the week seeking healing but to keep this seventh day devoted only to God. I speak harshly about the leader of the synagogue because I know the pressure placed upon his shoulders as well. Within his office he wields great power, the power to bind and loosen, the power to encourage and to shame. He holds power, but that power has a price no matter how this man uses the power given to him by God and the community he serves, it threatens to break him. By a word this man could sway the entire community one direction or the other. The leader might begin to think that he is the one that is moving the community, but a swaying community is like the pendulum of a clock it moves one direction but eventually it begins to come back. The leader is not the mover, makes sure that the clock is maintained.
Jesus too responds negatively to the leader. Calling him and all that were riled up by his passionate speech hypocrites! They are hypocrites because they forgot why they were there. They thought that they were force that moved the community, that they were the ones in control, but they too were just swaying one way then the other. They were hypocrites because the synagogue was meant to be a house of worship and prayer, a safe place where people could come before God and their community to seek help and release of the burdens in their lives. Yet for eighteen years these leaders lived and worked within this community and they failed to see this one woman who was bound by a spirit, a spirit that was literally folding her in on herself. For eighteen years this woman walked in and out never finding help but only finding more judgment and condemnation which only bent her down a bit more. These men were hypocrites because they spoke eloquently, yet when it came time to put words into action they failed to see the opportunities to share the love of God. You see it is easy to speak words of faith, but it is totally different to live words of faith.
Jesus says, “Does not each of you on the Sabbath untie his ox or his donkey from the manger, and lead it away to give it water?” Each of us will do what we need to do to keep our livelihoods. There are aspects of life, there are chores that we must do no matter what day it is. Tending livestock is a chore that must be done. My dad would never work on Sundays; he was very passionate about this. I remember one year during harvest it kept raining. There was so much mud and water in the fields that my dad had to purchase tire for our combine that were used in rice fields. It just kept raining, all week long it rained and then Sunday was a beautifully clear sunny day, and every other farmer in the community went out to cut wheat, but not my dad. My dad taught me to keep the day of worship holy, no matter what. But even my dad would make sure the livestock was cared for on Sundays. We would cut holes in the ice during the winter on Sunday just like every other day. In the summer we would make sure that the windmills were pumping properly so that the livestock would have what they needed. Was my dad a hypocrite? No, because life is sacred. If we are charged with the well-being of any creature, human or animal we must care for it every day.
Jesus says you hypocrites to these men, because they know full well that they would take care of their livestock, just like my father would, yet for eighteen years they let this woman, who had been part of their community, sit in bondage. They made no effort. They did not even see her. Jesus did though. He saw that she was struggling even to stand on her own two feet. He saw that there was emotional, spiritual, and physical pain that the rest of the community overlooked. He saw her and he was compassionate.
She quietly sat in worship for eighteen years, never wanting to be a burden to the community yet the weight of her stress was breaking her, causing her to even question if God actually loved her. She questioned because the very people with the power to help were the ones that withheld the grace that could have easily released her. What was her burden? We may never know, but we can speculate. What are the burdens of anyone in a community? Her burdens are probably the same burdens that each of us carry, we carry them on our shoulder hoping that some would see us and help.
Adam saw a woman living in a van with two kids. He saw her struggle, he saw her frustration, and he engaged her in conversation. Over a simple cup of coffee he listened to her story. What should he do next? There are countless things that he could do to help. He could ask to look at her resume, knowing that she was trying to find a job, he could even offer to help her rewrite her resume. He could offer her a job at his place of employment. He could look at her skills and experience and possibly point her in a different direction if he happened to know of any possibilities. He could at the very least make sure that she knew that someone in the community cared. Every day he came to this same coffee shop. He had never seen her before, but it is clear that she had always been there. They look at the names on the list together and he does one thing, he asks if he can pray with her and lets her know that if she needs to talk that he will be back the next morning.
Adam saw the woman, Jesus saw the woman, when everyone else failed to see. Jesus is not saying that we have to fix the problems of everyone we meet, but he does tell us that we should at least give them something to drink. As we enter into this time of open worship and holy expectancy let us each seek the Spirit of God and ask that our eyes will be open to see the bondage within ourselves and within our community, and ask how we can assist the spirit in releasing the ties so that all can drink from the refreshing springs of Christ.