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Thursday, January 19, 2017

The Unclean Woman in the 21st Century (Luke 8:43-48)

In 2010, I wrote a couple of Mother's Day messages on Luke 8:43-48.  It's the story of the woman with the unceasing blood flow who touches Jesus in a crowd and is healed.  In these two messages, which I post here and in the next post, I looked at those healed.  This Sunday (January 22, 2017), I will again look at Luke 8.  This time, the focus is on what we learn about God.  Here is the first of those messages.

The Unclean Woman in the 21st Century (Luke 8:43-48)
Sunday, May 9, 2010, Mother’s Day

          Imagine this.  You are a 14-year-old girl.  You’ve never been to school.  You were married to a man at age 13, and became pregnant 6 months later.  Now you are in labor.  Labor has already lasted three days.  At midday, on the fourth day of labor, you pass a still-born child.  Relieved, you think the madness and torture is over.  But on the fifth day, you discover to your horror that you have no control over your bodily functions.  No matter how much you wash, no matter why you try, you have no control.  You cannot get rid of the odor.
          Your husband is disgusted.  He cannot stand you.  Your presence is unendurable.  You were supposed to become the mother of his firstborn son.  Instead, this has happened.  It must be some punishment for something you have done.  So, he throws you out of the house. 
          Your parents take you in, but they can’t stand the sight or smell of you any more than he could.  They make you stay in a shack at the edge of the family compound.  Your condition does not improve.  With no control over your body, you always reek.  You are put out again, this time to fend for yourself. 
You are 14.  You illiterate and have no skills.  You just want to die.[i] 

Here’s what the girl in that unbelievably desperate situation doesn’t know.  There are approximately 3 to 4 million women who deal with the condition she has and the condition has a name - obstetric fistula.  “A fistula is simply a hole between an internal organ and the outside world that should not exist.  There are two primary causes of fistula in women in developing countries:  childbirth, causing obstetric fistula and sexual violence, causing traumatic fistula.”[ii]  This impoverished girl thinks her life is over and quite possibly it is her fault.  The problem is unique to her and so she bears the agony of being punished for some unknown sin.  In truth, for only a few hundred dollars, a surgical operation could repair the injury and restore her life.
Instead, she has been kicked to the curb, and herself believes that the curb, the gutter, the waste heap is where she belongs.  Lewis Wall is the professor of obstetrics/gynecology in the School of Medicine and professor of anthropology in the College of Arts and Sciences at Washington University in St. Louis.  He’s also on the board of directors of the World Wide Fistual Fund,  That website gives loads of information about fistula, about what women go through, and it gives ways concerned Christ-followers can pray and help. 
Another website with even more information is the site of the Fistula Foundation  There, Asosa, an 18-year-old young woman from Southern Ethiopia shares her story.

I studied in school until 7th grade. I helped my mother at home with housework, but I didn't have to carry too many heavy things.
I got married when I was 15. I met my husband for the first time on my wedding day. My parents chose him for me. I felt sad that I had to quit my education, but otherwise I liked my husband. He was a good man.
I got pregnant one year later. My pregnancy was fine. My labor started at three in the afternoon and my husband and my mother were with me. A traditional doctor told me to go to the hospital. I got a free letter from my kebele. I went to Asosa Hospital and they operated to take out the baby, but it was dead.
After the baby died, I went back to my village and two months later my husband married another woman. My friends were there to help me in the village. I lived with my mother. When I came to Fistula Hospital, I was very happy. I knew this was the place where I would get cured. It has been 15 days since my operation and now I am dry.
I have made friends here. We have fun together and we talk about our health and our operations. We ask each other, what will you do when you are cured?
When I am cured, I want to go back home and continue my education. I want to study and I want to become a doctor like the doctors here and help girls like me who have this problem.
When I go back to my village, I will tell other women to go immediately to a hospital so that they won't have a problem with their labor. Most people don't know that a hospital can help them, but if they knew, they'd go.[iii]

          The pains of those who deal with fistula are real, but isolated.  It’s easy for someone in the United States to not know and not care.  Obviously men don’t need to be concerned about it.  And women who live in industrialized nations and have access to modern medicine don’t have to worry either.  Obstetric fistula is a third world problem and there are so many third world problems. 
How can we care for them all? 
Jesus cares for them, and we – His church – are his body.  We make up the body of Christ.  What burdens His heart is to burden ours.
I had never heard of fistula until I read the wonderful book Hospital By the River.  It’s the story of two Australian Christians, doctors Reginald and Catherine Hamlin.  They answered the call of God to go to the mission field, specifically Ethiopia.  There, they treated numerous problems, but their specialty was care for women who had suffered fistula.  These women, and sometimes their parents (rarely their husbands), spent all the money they had to travel from remote villages to the capital, Addis Ababa, so they could be seen and treated by the Hamlins. 
When they were cured through the routine surgery, it was like a miracle had taken place.  These women Catherine Hamlin describes thought their lives were done, and then they had life again.  Over and over, women praised the Lord, and saw life with new eyes.  Many stayed and worked as nurses and administrative assistants in the hospital.  Their lives in the villages they left behind were over anyway.  Husbands rejected them, parents saw them as burdens, a shame on the family.  They didn’t contribute anything and so were often relegated to the status of unproductive animals.  Not all husbands and parents were so calloused and cruel, but many were.  No one gave these women much hope. 
That complete rejection is what caught my eye as I thought about the Gospel, and as I thought about preaching on Mother’s Day.   
Luke 8:43-48 says,
As he went, the crowds pressed in on him. 43Now there was a woman who had been suffering from hemorrhages for twelve years; and though she had spent all she had on physicians, no one could cure her. 44She came up behind him and touched the fringe of his clothes, and immediately her hemorrhage stopped. 45Then Jesus asked, “Who touched me?” When all denied it, Peter said, “Master, the crowds surround you and press in on you.” 46But Jesus said, “Someone touched me; for I noticed that power had gone out from me.” 47When the woman saw that she could not remain hidden, she came trembling; and falling down before him, she declared in the presence of all the people why she had touched him, and how she had been immediately healed. 48He said to her, “Daughter, your faith has made you well; go in peace.”

          The connecting point for the woman came when Jesus called her “daughter.”  It says in verse 44, “immediately, here hemorrhage stopped.”  At that point, she was anonymous.  The crowd was so dense they did not notice her steal into the midst of them and touch Jesus.  Her bleeding condition rendered her ritualistically unclean.  By law she was cut off from society.  She couldn’t be in normal relationships because if anyone touched her, they too would become unclean.  She couldn’t go to temple or synagogue.  She was a “reject” in every way describable. 
          Yet, her gamble worked.  Violating law and convention, she made her way unnoticed through the crowd and touched Jesus.  Upon grasping his clothes, she was healed.  She could then wash up and present herself to the priest.  She’d be a part of society once again. 
          But Jesus didn’t leave it at a simple healing.  No healing is complete in his eyes until the broken spirit is healed.  She needed more than just her ailment corrected.  She needed to know that though everyone around her treated her like she was a piece of nasty garbage, God loved her.  In shame and despair, God saw her, was with her, and was for her. 
That point is driven home the moment Jesus calls her “daughter.”  The most legalistically minded among the Pharisees would have called her a lawbreaker.  Jesus called her daughter and commended her faith.  He also bid her “peace.” 
Peace in the Jewish sense is so much more than a simple absence of conflict.  It is wholeness, shalom.  The idea of shalom is that all right between a person and her neighbors and a person and her God.  Jesus called this troubled soul “daughter,” and he bid her “peace.”
This is what Jesus does for all people; you, me, everyone.  The Biblical lesson about an afflicted person and Jesus meeting her in her pain, at her lowest, most desperate point speaks into our lives because Jesus does the same for us.  When we seek him, force our way through obstacles to touch him, and have faith in him, he responds with love and grace.  And our lives change forever.
The woman didn’t suddenly have an easy life because she was healed.  Dr. Wall says of modern fistula sufferers who do not have access to treatment, “They are seen as hopeless, drifting to the margins of society where they live lives of misery, isolation, worsening poverty and malnutrition, unloved, unwanted, and alone.”[iv]  If a Christian ministry, reaching out in the name of Jesus identifies these women and helps them get treatment, they don’t pop right onto their feet and live meaningful, self-sufficient lives the day after the surgery.  The healed woman didn’t have an easy street the moment she heard the Master call her “daughter.” 
She did though have peace of mind because she knew without a doubt that God was on her side.  She did have a reason to live a purposeful life – she had been blessed by Jesus.  She would, from that point going forward, need a new community of people of faith to embrace and welcome her.  She most likely joined the ranks of Jesus’ women disciples (see “daughters of Jerusalem,” Luke 23:27-28).  Those who followed him would be a group on the fringes of society, but though they along with the male disciples were marginalized, it was they the Holy Spirit filled at Pentecost.
Similarly, the women healed of fistula will often need the church to help them find employment, and maybe a place to live.  Many will need the church to become their family, a source of friendship and emotional and social support.  It’s true of any group or individual today rescued from the brink of destruction by Jesus working through his body, the church. 
We help the alcoholic put the bottle down.  We must then help him get on his feet and discover God’s purpose in his life.  We help the person struggling with depression find joy and a loving community.  We then need to help that one move into a productive, sustainable joy that lasts throughout life.  We help each other through times of crisis and provide community and family as brothers and sisters in Christ.  We are there for one another in good times and in bad.  And, the church is always open, ready to enthusiastically welcome whomever we would deem to be the lowly, the outcast, the bleeding woman.  Just as the hurting soul can find hope in hearing Jesus call him “son” or her “daughter, he or she can find that hope in God’s people, the church. 
The connecting point for us is we are as broken as anyone.  The Wall Street banker and the starving child in a poor country have this in common: both are lost without Jesus.  But, both are saved when they recognize their own condition (of being lost apart from God), and turn to Jesus in repentance and in faith.  He welcomes and saves both.  AMEN

[i] Wall, L. Lewis, “Jesus and the Unclean Woman,” Christianity Today, January 2010, p.48-52.
[ii] The Fistula Foundation website,
[iv] Wall, Christianity Today, p.52.

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