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The Hemorrhaging Woman
Mark 5:21 - 43
By Joy Swartley Sawatzky
Rumor has it that in all accounts of my story that are circulating, I am not named. I am the nameless one that is better known for my physical condition, than for any name I might prefer to be called.
And as the story goes, I had the audacity to approach Jesus, taking healing for myself rather than waiting for it to be offered. They don’t get it. I wasn’t suddenly a woman who was desperate for her life. The desperation was a long time coming - more than the 12 years of blood loss. Twelve years of separation, isolation and desolation. Those years added up to the moment when I chose to leave my confinement and venture out. You see, in the end it was a matter of life or death, and I chose life.
It is all part of a story I have to tell, if you would be so kind to listen. I hope you are comfortable. I think if you hear the whole story it will explain some of why I was so desperate that day when I heard that Jesus was coming to town, so desperate that I would defy the law that until that point I lived by, and certainly the law that the people around me lived by.
As a very young child my only awareness was of contentment. I was part of a community of families. Our family yard had many children, boys and girls all ages. We lived to play with each other. Every day from the time the sun rose above the horizon to the time that it sent out the colorful rays of sunset, I lived to play, the entire settlement my playground.
We played only games children could understand and appreciate. Games limited only by our imaginations.
If all of the children were my playmates, all of the older girls and women were my mothers. O certainly I had my own mother, but everyone participated in loving me and caring for me and disciplining me, as I needed that some times as well. I knew that my mother disappeared on a regular basis for days at a time, but I was so cared for I didn’t think much about it.
As I got older, I gradually became aware that there were differences between the boys and girls. As the boys grew they began to play games of hunting and games that put them in competition with each other. They wanted to be the best, ‘on top’. The girls were more content to just be together, chattering and laughing, they played games of pretending to prepare food and pretending to care for babies.
It wasn’t too long before I began to notice that clearly the women…all the women except those heavy with child or those that were the old women of the tribe, would disappear from the circle, to the tent for some days every cycle of the moon, and as I grew up I noticed more changes.
My older cousins and sisters spent less and less time with the little ones and started spending more time with the women. They began going to the well with them, they began to take responsibility for tending the fire for the food, while I only came with a stick or two now and then. I was now the one who went to the men with the water gourd and food.
I didn’t mind, really. I liked being around the men – the smell of ripe bodies and the talk of hunting. There was nothing sweet or light about them. It seemed when I was around they would either ignore me or tease me and mess my hair.
But the older girls and their secrets…when I would question the older girls they would seem nervous, blush and giggle and say that I would find out – in time. It’s ‘big girl’ stuff they would tell me. They told me to go and ask my mother. My mother just waved me back to my play and told me to not rush these things, that my body would tell me that it was TIME. Time for what, I wondered. I didn’t want to wait. It made me nervous. It made me feel unsettled. I wanted to be like the big girls. I was already getting tired of the little children’s game. I was ready to grow up!!
Time passed and I was stretching and growing taller and fuller. My body was just beginning to show a hint of what was to come. Then one morning I woke up feeling different than the usual hunger in the pit of my stomach. My stomach was aching and churning all at the same time and as I looked at my sleeping straw I was shocked to see blood there…blood that was flowing from my body, down below.
I was terrified, excited, nervous. All these things at the same time. I’m not exactly sure why, but my first reaction was to hide it. To clean it up and pretend it never happened. I didn’t know what was happening to my body, but I had a feeling that this was very important. As fast as I would clean up the flow, I dripped again…and the churning!! I just wanted to hide myself away. I didn’t go out and play with the younger children. I didn’t yet understand all the ins and outs of the ‘law’, but I knew enough to know what made one unclean. And suddenly for the first time in my life I felt shame. I knew enough to know that I was unclean.
Eventually my mother came looking for me, and I could no longer hide my shame.
“Stay back”, I told her. “I am unclean.”
Instead of staying away, she gathered me in her arms and told me to come with her. It was now time to learn all I could about the ways of my body and to be ushered into the world of women.
She led me to the tent where I had seen so many of them go each cycle of the moon. Once inside there were familiar faces. My sister Jezebel, my Aunt Rebekah, my cousin Tabitha. They were so excited with my arrival. Laughing and chattering, they gathered me in their circle and treated me like I would have expected royalty to be treated. Giving me the most tasty foods, they rubbed my body with the sweetest of oils, they ceremoniously prepared a bed of straw for me to sit on and sleep on during this time. And they began to teach me the wisdom that had been handed down to them from generations of women before them.
The women taught me to welcome the ritual of time apart. During this time when the blood flowed from me each moon, I was to come to the tent and care for myself. To rest, be bathed in oils, listen to and tell the stories…but along with the welcome and grounding part of the time, came the need to understand the law. During this time each moon, I was not to leave the tent. I was to touch no one, I could prepare food for no one. I could have no form of contact with anyone outside the tent.
Over time they taught me all about the ways of my body, what would be expected of me, what I could expect of my body, what a man would someday expect of my body.
Instead of dreading the confinement determined by the law, I began to look forward to the days apart with the women in the tent. As I got older I participated in welcoming the younger ones in and we all spent time, gathered together in this sacred space telling and listening to each others' stories. Some were stories of healing remedies, some were stories of what was happening in the far reaches of the countryside (which they learned from their husbands), and some were stories that made me laugh until I could barely get my breath. The older women loved to give advice to those younger of the group. The older women loved to talk about all the things that they knew from living their lives.
My life outside the tent went through so many changes in those days as well. I was no longer sent out to the men with food and the water gourds. Mama told me it was no longer ‘proper’, and I did notice several of them looking at me in a way very different then the affectionate teasing I had gotten when I was little. I stayed close to the working women.
They began to tease me that I was getting of age when my father would be looking for a suitable mate for me. I couldn’t believe it. I was nervous with excitement – wanting what all the other girls were getting, the chance at marriage…yet thinking, wasn’t it just yesterday that I was playing with all my playmates – male and female.
Not enough years passed. My father did give me to be married – to a kind and gentle man, barely more than a boy himself. I learned the ways of married life from those around me. Not a whole lot changed. There was always someone there to show me the way. The women in the tent received my stories, listening them out of me. They were always interested and laughter and advice sprinkled their responses.
One cycle of the moon, my bleeding began as usual but did not stop after the normal number of days. As others were returning to their husbands, their normal lives, my blood-flow continued. At first I was not too worried. This happened with the others from time to time. But as the days and nights continued on without a break in the bleeding I began to feel something new to me – it was loneliness and fear. I loved my life among the tribe – cooking for and lying with my husband. Everything I did, I did with my family close by. Now they continued on with their lives – the religious ceremonies, the family celebrations … and I was not part of any of it. I began to make marks in the sand with each sunset. Days passed, weeks passed, moons passed, seasons passed. I soon replaced the marks in the sand with a bowl of rocks, and I filled one bowl and started another, and another…and another. This cherished symbol of my womanhood and femaleness became my very prison. This place where I knew who I was and felt loved and caressed and cared for, became the walls became my confinement. I have been confined for 12 years!!!
You see, in my culture and in my religion, I was unclean. I was no longer pure because of the loss of my normal wholeness. I was no longer complete, as I was not in proper control of something that was something that was meant to be. I was worse than the lepers. They at least had the community of each other to live with. I, instead, was destined to be alone. I could touch no one – no one could touch me, I could no longer share my life with my husband or my beloved family. No one could sit where I sat, no one could touch what I touched, if I touched anyone by accident they would be declared unclean and could not enter the synagogue, and have to be apart - out of good company until nightfall, when they could undergo a ritual for their cleansing. And no one wanted to be unclean!! At least they could go through a cleansing ritual. I was forever unclean as long as the blood flowed unstopped.
Ostracized, shut out – treated as the worst of sinners. A condition that I could control no more than you can control the color of your hair, this unstoppable blood flow, deemed me an outcast. No participation in weddings, celebrations, rites of passage events. I couldn’t give anyone a gourd of water, I couldn’t lie down in bed beside my husband. Darkness and despair were my constant companions. My husband and I spent our very last shekel in search of a cure for me. Some of the doctors were kind and listened and tried to help, some were crooked and deceitful and took my money knowing they could not help. Worse were the ones that gave me potions that almost killed me. Destitute, hopeless, so alone, cut off from any social contact. It seemed that even Yahweh was deaf to my cries. Over time I became pale and wasted and weak and I began to wonder what I had to live for. My world just kept getting smaller and smaller and smaller. I was no longer anyone.
My husband, what a kind and caring man!! If not for him the despair would have engulfed me much, much sooner. Only because he was a good man did he not divorce me. He helped to pay for the doctors fees as much as he could.
One night, my husband visited me under the cover of darkness, which he ventured to do now and then – knowing what the consequences were if found out. Usually we would sit and talk. He would update me on the news of the compound and on the better days we would laugh about the days we shared before the flow of blood went unchecked. This visit he begged me to try and see this man Jesus, he thought Jesus could help. He saw Jesus on the other side of the lake last week and couldn’t believe what happened to people who came close to him. People were being healed, healed of long time illness, people who were blind could see, people who could not walk, got up and walked, people who were possessed by demons were free.
I have heard some things about this man, Jesus. From what I understand he doesn’t follow the old laws of religion or culture, but is making his own rules. He draws all those of us who have no place to belong, into a place of belonging.
From what I have heard, and at the pleading of my husband – whom I love so much, to defy the laws of my culture and religion to leave my seclusion. The thought of it filled me with fear. It had been so long since I was out among people. Surely I would be recognized by my neighbors and family. In the past they had threatened to stone me if I left my tent, they shouted “UNCLEAN” if I showed my face. The knowledge that if I stayed in the tent any longer – I would die, and the love of my husband, gave me the courage to leave the walls of my tent. I ignored the glances and whispers of the people and pushed on. Some people scurried out of my way so as not to be touched, some yelled, “UNCLEAN” but I was so focused on getting to Jesus I didn’t pay any attention. If he is who everyone says he is, I will not even need to speak with him, I could just touch him quietly and leave.
I kept in the shadows of the tents, then kept to the edge of the crowd and watched. So many people were crowding in to be close to him, to hear what he had to say, to be healed by his touch. I had never seen so many people gathered in one place. I planted myself where I knew Jesus would have to pass by me. Then suddenly, this very important looking man came running up and pushing his way through the crowd to Jesus. By the looks of his clothing I remembered him as an elder in the synagogue. I overheard him ask Jesus, plead with him to come and heal his daughter. What courage that must have taken, as I would have imaged that he had counseled the people to stay away from this man who preached and acted against the very laws that he dedicated his life to.
But I didn’t care about that. Just seeing him there I knew that my chances were gone. Jesus would follow the important one to heal his child. And I would be left with my curse. I couldn’t let that happen!! I was NOT going to live with this bleeding another day. I pushed my way through the crowd, not caring who I touched…and I reached the hem of his garment. The fringe of his prayer shawl. That was all I needed. As I touched the fringe of his shawl, a surge went through me from the top of my head to every inch of my body – it was like fire…warmth and light and energy, like nothing I have ever felt before. It was followed by a cooling that was comforting. I knew, at that moment, I was healed of my bleeding. I had no doubt, and I slipped away into the crowd.
I wasn’t prepared for what happened next. Jesus stopped and said in a normal voice, “Someone touched me, who touched me?.” Those around him tried to convince him that it was just the press of the crown, how could he say that someone ‘touched’ him? But Jesus insisted and turned and asked more loudly above the noise of the crowd, “No, someone touched me? I felt my strength go out.” I froze. Should I run, or should I confess to what I had just done? It didn’t take me long to decide that I was finished with hiding myself away, a no person in a dark place. And I turned looked his way.
He had every right to be angry with me…to humiliate me even more than I was already humiliated by this stigma I had lived with. I imagined that I would look up into a face filled with anger, but as I looked up into his eyes, I saw only love. I looked into his face and I wasn’t afraid anymore, instead, I fell at his feet, trembling, and told him the whole story – the story you have just heard. He leaned down to listen to me, even though there were people all around him trying to get his attention away…trying to tell him to have nothing to do with me. His attention on me never wavered. When I was done he wiped a tear from my cheek and told me my faith had healed me. Actually, he said, “Daughter, you took a risk of faith and now you are healed and whole. Live well. Live blessed. Be healed of your disease." I was speechless!
Just that quick, he turned and left with the important looking man – as a messenger met them to say that it was too late, the girl was dead. There was one thing more that I wanted to tell him but he was gone too quickly.
I heard later that he was not too late for the little girl, but gave her life back to her as well. Amazing. She had twelve years of life, I had twelve years of death…and both of us were made whole.
I was not surprised though. I am witness to the power of this man. My only regret is that I did not get to tell him that one last thing – so maybe I can tell you. Want I wanted to tell him, is that, “My name is Ana.”
Copyright June, 2004 by Joy Swartley Sawatzky. All Rights Reserved.
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