She had heard about Jesus, so she came up behind him through the crowd and touched his robe. For she thought to herself, “If I can just touch his robe, I will be healed.” (Mark 5:27, 28 NLT)
This unnamed woman in Mark 5:25-34 is my soul sister. As a lonely teenager, isolated and invisible, I took comfort in Jesus’ awareness of her: he picked her out in the mob pressing against him and honored her courageous act of faith and trust, an act as simple as touching the hem of Jesus’ robe.
Recently this woman’s story has grown in significance, as I not only relate to her loneliness but to her pain. The story has become more meaningful…and more challenging.
Illness – stomach pain and unrelenting heartburn – attacked over two years ago. Doctors disagreed on the diagnosis and argued over the best way to treat the illness. Despite my best efforts to change my diet and sort through opposing medical opinions, my health deteriorated. I lost too much weight, my skin took on a grayish quality, I couldn’t eat without feeling sick, and my body stopped making estrogen, a source of grief for me and my husband as we had been trying to conceive. The stress of it all debilitated my spirit and my sense of self.
Mark shares few details about this woman; he does not even give her a name. We know she hemorrhaged for twelve years before encountering Jesus; we know she suffered at the hands of many doctors, who drained her savings. We may extrapolate that her unrelenting bleeding isolated her from community members who cared about ceremonial cleanness. Likely she was told by religious leaders that her suffering was God’s judgment of her sin. We also gather she was desperate enough to try something crazy, pushing through a large crowd in order to touch the garment of a well known healer, believing that touching Jesus would heal her.
This season of illness has allowed my imagination to wander through the gaps in this woman’s story. I expect that her suffering at the hands of doctors was not only physical but emotional. Countless times, I read about or was told by a doctor of a “silver bullet” treatment plan. If I paid for an expensive blood test to identify food intolerances, I would see progress; if I would try the Paleo diet, my gut would heal; if I went for acupuncture weekly, I would experience relief; if I would simply take an acid reducer, or conversely, not take the acid reducer but instead supplements, I would be well. Once I acknowledged that I had stomach issues, I encountered fellow sufferers, and I learned about surprising strategies that worked for others – aloe vera, acidophilus, yoga, even electro-shock therapy! I never went as far as trying electro shock therapy, but I did try everything else, with no great improvement. Whenever a new solution did not work as quickly as I hoped, my discouragement deepened. After awhile, my hopes faded.
For this reason, I am astounded by the woman’s willingness, after twelve years of failed solutions, to garner enough hope to touch Jesus. What made her confident that this audacious act would work? It impresses me that she was willing to risk drawing negative attention to herself if touching Jesus did not work. If she remained unhealed, she could have been blamed for making this popular rabbi unclean.
My heart rejoices that this crazy display of faith worked for the woman; after twelve long- suffering years, she finally experienced healing. My heart also aches, because this has not been my story. Many people have prayed for me over the past two years. Some have laid hands on me and anointed me with oil. Several months ago, I admitted to my spiritual director, “I feel like God is ignoring me.” I have wanted a miraculous healing, defined by immediate, long lasting relief from pain. I did not care at first whether God or diet or medication caused the healing. I just wanted to be well.
Instead, healing comes slowly, at a tortoise pace. I took a seven-month medical leave of absence and only recently returned to my work as an associate pastor in a large Presbyterian church. I take six medications and several supplements every day and carry around pill-boxes like my older congregants. I diligently guard my diet, my exercise, and times of rest. If I fudge in my self-care, my body reacts immediately. My resilience grows day by day, and I am encouraged by improvement. My skin is no longer gray, I am slowly regaining weight, and I am less stressed and know myself better. But, I am not well yet.
Rather than rooting myself in the outcome of this woman’s story – in her miraculous healing – I return to where I started as a teenager, with the conviction that Jesus notices my suffering and does not ignore me or leave me to face my pain and frustration alone. God’s presence travels with me, in moments of clarity, in glimpses of healing, as well as in discouragement and doubt. Through it all, I continue to come back to this soul sister, grateful for her trust and her courage.