Let me say that humans are so strange. I know this because I’ve been one my whole life and I’ve lived with them my whole life. Even this week, I looked at my husband, who I really truly adore, and he looked at me, who obviously he adores, and we both thought – “huh?” He looks at me and wonders why in the world I am not able to put the shoes away in such a way that we can functionally use the closet. And I look at him and wonder why in the world it is beyond this wonderful man’s capacity to put the dishtowel onto the oven handle instead of bunched up on the counter! And these are the smallest of the small issues—truly—but they show what is the crux, the meat, of every relationship.
So just track with me–Each of us grows up in a different body. We are each enfleshed in such a way that no one else ever will have the same body, the same influences, the same words and pictures in our heads. Each one of us is so incredibly unique in our make-up and thus our perspective on the world. So someone who stands over here on the left, will see a slightly different reality than someone who stands over here on the right. Our eyes do this right? One sees this side, and one sees the other side and when we put them together, we see something much closer to the truth of the object. By the nature of our bodies and minds being separate and located on a specific place on this earth that no one else can exactly inhabit, we will have different understandings of reality, different points of view, different ideas of what’s important, different ways of making sense and of working through the world.
And this might blow your mind but THIS is how it was designed to be! We were built in this way, by a God who made us in the image of His own very flourishing life. So we were built then to encounter each other over distance—geographical, physical distance and also emotional, intellectual distance – we were made in such a way that we have to communicate and to dialogue with each other in the space between us.
And this is pretty amazing.
As the poet John O’Donohue puts it,
“Its just incredible that we can make any sounds that can reach over and across to each other at all…The beauty of being human is that we are incredibly, intimately near each other; we know all about each other but yet we do not know, nor ever can know, what it is like inside another person…(The truth about the world full of individuals is) that the world is always larger, more intense, stranger than our best individual thought could ever reach.”
And having different points of view then, its not a sin. Misunderstanding, miscommunication can happen though. And the refusal to listen to the other and the possibility for the dominance of one point of view over the other is where sin can come in though. That’s where the potential for damage to each other and outselves can happen. That’s where the potential of any person or institution with power, like say, a church, can hurt others when it doesn’t listen and dialogue well. Was it Jonathan swift who said, “We have just enough religion to make us hate one another, but not enough to make us love one another”?
But how we choose to respond, to listen to our differences and to dialogue with other points of view is a point of invitation from an incarnated Jesus to us. I can listen to why Brad thinks its so important that the shoes be lined up, why its important to his understanding of the world, for how he functions. And He can listen to why I understand the world to be better when the dishcloth is hung up on the oven rack. We can listen, hear, and respond to each other and take each other’s view seriously, work to find a solution and contribute to a flourishing relationship.
So the key words here then are “listening” and “responding.” And its no small thing that the Hebrew word for obedience is actually rooted in the word for “listen” – listen and obey—obey is not just do what I say because I said so, but for grown ups, to obey is to listen and then respond to what is being said. Listen and respond to your mother’s point of view. To your your son’s point of view, to your neighbors point of view. Listen and respond so those who have experienced something you have not and who have knowledge you do not– and then to respond with your life and your knowledge. Listen and respond to God, to his voice and his way—to God’s point of view.
Being made for relationship means listening and responding to this Word.
What we are finding in this meditation on relationships can be described as ENCOUNTER. At the heart of relationship is the space in between us where we “encounter”, where we touch, where we listen to words, to bodies, to hearts. Where we speak words back and forth, where we dialogue, we learn, we grow – so imperfectly but we keep doing it. This is the echo that calls us towards God.
Our lives are encounter.
Our faith is encounter. Story after story of encounter. Here’s one:
To set the scene…In the gospels Jesus is different than other prophets and other preachers. The drama of Roman occupation and the tensions of religious, communal life created many men who travelled and taught, but there is nothing like Jesus in the literature of the time. While there is a lot of history about other prophets and their teachings, their speeches, their precepts, what’s unique to the gospel accounts is how they recorded the small stops between the speeches and teachings of Jesus. They recorded the interruptions in the “grand ministry” the constant encounters are remembered, not just the concepts, precepts, new rules for living. Its telling us something that those moments are what was recorded. And even more telling is the fact that the encounters recorded are with rich people, with poor people, with sick people, with powerful people, with powerless people. Jesus’ ministry, and the importance of his ministry to those who followed him was definitively rooted in HIS encounters. These totally unexpected encounters are really the meat of his work. This fact alone in the life of Jesus should startle us – even a little bit. There is not one bit of human reality, not one bit of human life that is an impediment to his message, work, love-there is not one encounter that distracts him from this work. The God of the universe is incarnated in every encounter – encountering others is his work.
In Mark 5 is a story of encounter like this. Jesus and his friends enter a village in Galilee—rural, fishing, backwater, no name town- maybe 500 people, maybe less. By this time Jesus was a bit of a celebrity, however reluctant, and there have been rumors in the air – at the markets, over fences, there has been talk of this prophet out of Nazareth who teaches with authority and who heals – not with magic and incantation and payment but with a word or two and with his presence, his proximity-maybe a touch. This sort of celebrity news does in this village what it still does in us – it makes them hopeful, it makes them talk, it makes them want to see it – out of curiousity and out of an unspoken hunger to harness something that will work for them, maybe somehow it will make them bigger, better by them experiencing it. Maybe it will heal them? Maybe it will give them what they’ve always wanted? We still respond to celebrity and trends and “buzz” like that.
Jesus comes to this no name town and he is met by the synagogue leader or ruler – he is a powerful person in this small town, but he comes with a direct and desperate request. His daughter is sick, to the point of death, would Jesus please come. Jesus stops for this encounter – and says, yes, I’ll come with you.
The crowd, which would have been mostly men in that segregated culture, surged around Jesus here in this village commons. They were eager to watch the action, eager to see the local celebrity at work—ooooh something’s going to happen, oh I heard about this. Shouts, laughter, excitement, servants, disciples, energy, heat from the sun, heat from the bodies, a whole scene making its way towards Jairus’ house. And then suddenly Jesus stops. The whole procession jostles – those on the outskirts of the action keep talking, laughing, awareness that something is going on is slow to reach them. Jesus stops suddenly and says, “Who touched me?” Who touched me? Who reached out across the distance between us and touched me and took some of my power?” And the disciples, maybe with a patronizing side-eye, said “um, look around you. Everybody is touching you.” But Jesus looks around again and looks at the faces…. And he sees one. One who absolutely should not be there. He looks at her for indeed, it is a her, a woman who dared to reach out and I wonder if he asked again, “Who touched me?” “Who are you who touched me? Who are you who has touched me and taken some of my power?” he is saying right to her. Jesus knows something significant has happened in this encounter- he felt it. And she makes a small movement forward and says “ I did – I thought if I grasped you, even just a bit of you, I would be healed.” And in that moment, she also knows that she was.
Imagine now the crowd’s response. This is a small town, these are the men of this village here to see with a mixture of hopeful and greedy hunger the Jesus who everyone is talking about and they’re on their way to a miracle. Then Jesus draws attention away from the immediate need happening to a woman who is on her knees, in the midst of them, not looking up. They know who she is. Immediately a ripple of revulsion shivers through this crowd. This nameless woman has been bleeding, hemmoraging, for 12 years. She has been experiencing menstrual bleeding for 12 years. And in both the religious and roman culture of this village, that is a relationship death sentence.
Because in this culture—the broader roman cultures and the jewish culture within it, we know that when a woman was menstruating, she was regarded with wariness or even downright hostility and derision. Pliny the elder, a Roman writer and historian writing in this area around this time writes that contact with a woman who is having her monthly flow, through a dress, or through touch would make “new wine sour, makes crops wither, kills skin grafts, dries seeds in gardens, causes the fruit of trees to fall off, dims the bright surface of mirrors, dulls the edge of steel, kills bees, rusts iron and bronze. Dogs that come near a bleeding woman become insane and their bites poisonous.” I’m not joking. This is the world and culture that determined encounter and the relationships of real people, in the place of the world God came to live with us.
You put that general, in-the-air culture together with the religious culture of this small jewish towns. For hundreds of years, generation after generation, God’s chosen people, the Jews, they have been telling themselves, “We have been occupied and dominated because we did not fully live by God’s laws.” So you better believe that those purity laws were being taken very seriously. And within jewish purity laws, when a woman is bleeding, or even if you touched a dead body, or a dead animal on the road, you are unclean and therefore cannot be touched so as not to make anyone else unclean. And being unclean is a big deal because an unclean person cannot experience God, you cannot go to the temple, cannot make sacrifices, you cannot enter God’s presence and experience God so it was important that you avoided someone who was unclean.
So its within this culture and religious life that this woman dared to be encountered.
Everyone in this town and every man in this crowd knows that this woman has been bleeding and is unclean and therefore has been beyond the realm of touch and encounter for 12 years. She has not had a moment in the last 12 years where she has been touched or where she has touched. She has not known any form of contact let alone a hug, or even a welcome—“Oh I’m glad to see you here” no one said that in 12 years. Depending on how strict this town and synagogue was, She might not have even been able to touch a piece of furniture that someone else might touch. No one is welcoming her to their house. How many subsequent years then, has she been without dialogue, without conversation? How many have been without eye contact? How many people remember her name. Maybe some people feel pity. Maybe people left food out for her. All her money, every resource she has, has been spent on doctors the text says. But after a while, how many people start to think she must have done something wrong – this must somehow be her own fault. And we do, even now, to somehow reassure ourselves that something this horrible won’t happen to us. How long was it until they all start avoiding her gaze? And once that’s done that its easy forget that she has a heart and a voice and an experience, parents, a background, a perspective – she is just a body to be avoided. She has been reduced to this one thing of which she cannot do a thing about.
This woman, crouched unseen, and she risked making every man there unclean. Moreover, she dared to make the celebrity in their midst unclean. The prophet they eagerly hoped would do something they could gossip about for weeks. The honored guest and the prophet who at this moment was on his way to Jairus’ house – argueably the most powerful man in town’s house to heal his daughter. Imagine Jairus’ jaw dropping in the moment that crowd cleared to reveal her and the horror of what’s going on dawns on him. His hope for his daughter’s life is in one moment of touch doomed – Jesus can’t touch her now. Jesus can’t even come into his house now for Jesus is unclean. His daughter is as good as dead and indeed a servant shoulders up to him in this moment and says – its too late my lord, she is gone. Grief and rage probably don’t even begin to start to describe what is erupting in this man, this crowd at the sight of this woman daring everything for encounter.
“Who are you who touched me? Who are you who took my power, who made me unclean and took some of my power of life and authority for living for themselves? Who?” the word who reaches over the distance says to this woman. I wonder if she told him her name. I wonder how long it had been since she had told someone her name.
This is the power of this echo, this longing which is a call for each of us to know encounter, to know relationship, to know the truth that we are made for each other. And THIS is where it intersects with Jesus. We were made to work through what it means that we have to encounter other human beings. We are not disembodied souls destined to transcend it all in a cloud of holiness, we are bodies, hearts, minds, and souls made to reach out and meet in the middle. And its hard and we are weird creatures and it requires work, effort, humility, listening, speaking up and forgiveness and maybe a willingness to get unclean. But this is the echo.
Then the words, “You are healed. You are made whole. Your faith has saved you. Go live.”
Every human is made for relationship. This unnamed woman was made for relationship and it was her need for encounter, relationship that drew her to Jesus.
For her, “being saved” by Jesus was not to come to some intellectual or even moral conclusion about him.
Her salvation came when Jesus showed up in her town and she dared to think that even she might be made whole and therefore be able to enter the fullness of her birthright as a daughter of God made for relationship. And that’s what God intended all along for her, that is why Jesus, stopped EVERYTHING, reached back to her across that space and this is exactly what he does for every one of us.
Jesus, this Jesus we sing about, he didn’t stop there though. He and his complete disregard for what others thought made him unclean then went to JAirus’ house, and he dismissed the people there that day who would gossip and hang around to see what would happen, and for the sake of that daughter and those parents he healed her-without the crowd, without the fanfare, he just did what this encounter asked of him.
2 women, one old and one young, being made whole and entering a new life of relationships, of knowing and being known.
Where are the encounters in your life – where at work, where in your home?
Who is it that is reaching across the space and reaching out?
How can you listen to what’s being said from another perspective? How can we do that as a church?
Who are you that is longing to reach out? Are you ready to answer and say your name and what you need? Are we all ready to hear and welcome another’s name, another’s story.
And what indeed is in the space between us—A better question is WHO is in that space between us? Well, its Jesus, the Lord, the one whose presence, without payment, magic or incantation, can indeed restore us to him, to ourselves, to each other. To what our hearts truly long for.