Bent Over

Sabbath Day Thoughts — “Bent Over” Luke 13:10-17

It was the best sermon I had ever heard.  Shall I start with the voice?  Rich and melodic, captivating.  Within moments, I felt as if I had known him all my life.  He read the Torah with such love, as if he were feasting on every word.  And when he opened the scriptures to us, they came alive.  I could feel the compassion and mercy of God in ways that I had never felt before, as if even I were a beloved child of God.  The synagogue at Capernaum was quiet. Every ear strained to hear every sound.  When Rivka’s baby began to fuss, we all said, “Shhhh!” not wanting to miss a word.

But then it stopped.  Without warning or “Amen,” there were simply no more words.  Worshippers began to buzz and turn restlessly in their seats.  Slowly things got louder, like a wave of sound rising from the best seats at the front of the sanctuary and rolling back to where I stood, mostly hidden, in the doorway.  My husband Moshe placed a hand upon my back and cursed under his breath.  “Lord, help us! It’s you, Mahalath. He sees you.  I knew we never should have come.”

I should tell you about my back.  It started the year our second child was born, a sweet and ruddy boy to join an older brother.  I was still hale and strong.  With one child bouncing on my hip and another sleeping in a sling at my breast, I worked alongside Moshe. We brought in the barley harvest and shook olive branches to rain down a harvest of ripe fruit. I milked the goats, fed chickens, ground grain at the wheel, and spun wool into yarn.  Young and able with the handsome Moshe at my side and our beautiful boys, I was the envy of many, and that may have been part of the problem.  You know the ways of jealousy and the dangers of the evil eye.

One day, I bent to lift the bread from the oven, and I couldn’t stand up.  My back writhed like it was being squeezed in a vice, and my whole body seized in pain.  I couldn’t breathe.  I couldn’t move.  I dropped to my knees, sending the loaves into the fire.  The world grew dim and then went black.

I’m not sure how long I was in darkness.  I awoke to the sound of my children crying.  Moshe hovered over me, looking worried.  A Greek physician from Sepphoris had been brought to attend me. 

“Ah!  You are awake!” the doctor said matter-of-factly.  He dribbled a vile tasting liquid into the corner of my mouth.  “Drink it all, dear,” he said with kindness. “It will help with the pain.”  I gagged it down, blinking back tears, and slipped into a sleep troubled by dreams of fire, serpents, and burned bread.

When I awoke, Moshe was sitting at my side, holding my hand.  Our boys had climbed into the bed with me.  Their small hands clutched the folds of my tunic. Their cheeks were red with worry and weeping.  “Ugh!” I moaned.

Moshe leaned in, “Mahalath, stay still.  The Greek says that you have been possessed by the spirit of the python.  You must save your strength to fight.”

Now, I had heard that in Delphi, on the far side of the Great Sea, the Greeks worship the sun god.  Poseidon speaks through priestesses possessed by the spirit of the python.  Twisted, bent, and rigid, they prophesy all day long.  For the right price, they might even tell you of a bright future.  But that had nothing to do with me. I loved Yahweh.  I was a beloved daughter of Israel, or so I thought.

I did fight.  I found my feet again.  I learned to live with pain.  I tended my children.  I did my best to keep our home and fields, but I never stood up straight again. Our neighbors said that I was “bent over,” as if I were a broken reed or a tree snapped by a windstorm. With every year, my back bent more noticeably, and as my shoulders rounded and my spine folded in on itself, my perspective grew small, narrow, and limited. 

My affliction made me unwelcome at the synagogue, for only someone cursed by Yahweh could look as I did.  But each week, I would wait at the back, hovering in the doorway, hoping for the smallest crumb of blessing.  Our neighbors stopped including us, uncomfortable with my woe and believing the worst.  One day, the neighborhood children began to call me names. At first, they did so behind my back; eventually, they did so to my face.  In time, most people just called me “Bent Over Woman,” as if I didn’t even have a real name.  I prayed always, hoping that if I could find the right words, I might be set free from this prison that my body had become.

So, while I could tell you that he preached the best sermon I had ever heard, and I could tell you that Rivka’s baby fussed, and I could tell you that the preaching stopped and the sound of whispering and unrest rolled to me like a restless wave, I could not tell you what he looked like, or why Rivka’s baby fussed, or why the rabbi stopped speaking, or why the sound of my restless neighbors rolled toward me.  Because the only thing that I could see was what I always see: my feet.

Moshe reached a protective arm around my back and held my hand.  “Mahalath,” he whispered, “He’s waving to you!  He wants you to come forward.”

I tried to turn and leave, but Moshe held me fast.  “Mahalath,” he urged, “What have we got to lose?” 

What did we have to lose?  It doesn’t get much worse than living in constant pain, shunned by your neighbors, and excluded from your church.  It doesn’t get much worse than being called Bent Over Woman.  My life had become an agony of loneliness and suffering.  With Moshe at my side, I walked to the front.

If it was quiet when the rabbi spoke, it was deathly still as I stood before him.  Every eye in the synagogue was fixed on me.  Every breath was held.  Even Rivka’s baby was silent. 

Then, this rabbi did a most unusual thing.  He squatted down on his haunches, down into my limited field of vision, and he looked up into my face.  He was sun-browned, as if he worked in the fields.  Fine lines creased the corners of his eyes, which were a deep, bottomless brown.  He smiled and his kind eyes sparkled with interest and concern. Next, he said the most ridiculous thing that I had ever heard, “Woman, you are set free from your ailment.”  Didn’t he see what everyone else saw: my hideous bent-over back?  Someone snickered. Moshe took a protective step closer.

What happened next is still being talked about in Capernaum.  The rabbi stood up and placed his two broad, strong hands on my poor crippled back.  What I noticed first was warmth, like the sun on a winter day bringing a blessing to your upturned face.  Slowly it flowed out from his hands, spreading down to the tips of my toes and reaching up to the top of my head.  It was then that I realized that my pain was gone.  The spirit of the python that had held me tight in its grip had departed!  I took a deep breath and then another. Then, for the first time in eighteen years, I stood up.  I gasped and shouted bold cries of “Alleluia!” and “Thanks be to the Holy One of Israel!” I hugged Moshe, then I hugged the rabbi as my neighbors watched in shocked silence.

Not everyone was happy.  The synagogue leader was scandalized that I had entered the sanctuary, and the rabbi had healed on the sabbath.  But the rabbi would hear none of it, for surely, even one such as I deserved the mercy that is shown to an ox or mule. 

With a wink, the rabbi turned to me. “Mahalath,” he called me by name. “Mahalath, I think I just finished my sermon for today.”

I practically danced toward the door of the synagogue, followed by the rabbi and Moshe.  Out they went, but before I left, I turned to my neighbors, the ones who for eighteen years had ignored me, gossiped about me, called me names, and failed to show me the courtesy one might extend to a barnyard animal.  I looked them in the eyes and said, “By the way, my name is not Bent-Over-Woman.  My name is Mahallath. You are welcome to come break your fast with us today.”

The synagogue erupted in cheers and praise.  That sabbath evening, Jesus dined with us, and so did all of Capernaum. The pot never emptied, the bread seemed to multiply, and the wine never failed. But that is a miracle to tell on another day.  I rejoiced—and so did the whole village with me—in the wonderful things that Jesus was doing.


Luke 13:10-17

10 Now he was teaching in one of the synagogues on the Sabbath. 11 And just then there appeared a woman with a spirit that had crippled her for eighteen years. She was bent over and was quite unable to stand up straight. 12 When Jesus saw her, he called her over and said, “Woman, you are set free from your ailment.” 13 When he laid his hands on her, immediately she stood up straight and began praising God. 14 But the leader of the synagogue, indignant because Jesus had cured on the Sabbath, kept saying to the crowd, “There are six days on which work ought to be done; come on those days and be cured and not on the Sabbath day.” 15 But the Lord answered him and said, “You hypocrites! Does not each of you on the Sabbath untie his ox or his donkey from the manger and lead it to water? 16 And ought not this woman, a daughter of Abraham whom Satan bound for eighteen long years, be set free from this bondage on the Sabbath day?” 17 When he said this, all his opponents were put to shame, and the entire crowd was rejoicing at all the wonderful things being done by him.


James Tissot, “The Woman with an Infirmity of Eighteen Years” (La femme malade depuis dix-huit ans), Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons, in the collection of the Brooklyn Museum.

Helped and Healed

Sabbath Day Thoughts — “Helped and Healed” 2 Kings 5:1-14

We can find it hard to ask for help. Blame it on our American independence.  We generally think we know best, and we don’t like other people telling us what we should or should not be doing. It’s a deeply held American belief that we can be self-made men or self-made women.  That phrase was coined in 1842 by Senator Henry Clay to describe individuals whose success lay within the individuals themselves, not with outside conditions. Needing help? That can sound downright un-American.

Naaman needed help.  The Syrian General was a mighty man of valor.  He wielded absolute authority over his troops.  He won victory after victory for his country. He commanded the respect of his king.  He amassed untold wealth and acquired a retinue of servants. Naaman even had the favor of the Hebrew God Yahweh, who gave him victory after victory.

But Naaman couldn’t do it all.  Naaman suffered from tzara áth—leprosy.  He had skin lesions and eruptions. In the biblical world, Naaman’s disease rendered him an unclean social outcast, separated from God and neighbors We know that Naaman’s leprosy was bad enough that the household talked about it, and we can surmise that the men whom Naaman commanded did, too. It was bad enough that Naaman and his wife worried about it—and it seems that they had given up hope on finding a cure.  In fact, no one on earth could cure leprosy.  Only God could do that.

We all need help sometimes. The COVID-19 pandemic made us acutely aware of that. We needed help at church.  Thank goodness that our Resource Presbyter David Bennett came by that first week when things shut down and gave Duane and me a crash course in livestreaming.  I can’t begin to say how thankful I am for all the help that Scott and Karen gave me in troubleshooting technical issues and providing music.  How about Gaelle serving week after week as our greeter and COVID screener?  Many hands helped to set up a worship space in the Great Hall and to eventually move us back into the sanctuary.  Help was needed and help abounded.  Thanks be to God.

COVID made us all realize that we needed help at home, too.  Perhaps someone helped you shop for groceries or brought food in when you tested positive.  Our crafty friends got out their sewing machines and stitched up masks for us.  When we couldn’t figure out how to Zoom, thank goodness for those techy people who got us online and in touch.  When there wasn’t any toilet paper, sanitizing wipes, or bleach on the store shelves, neighbors reached into their stashes and shared what was needed. The mass vulnerability of the COVID pandemic turned us to one another in search of help and in willingness to provide it.

Naaman got help.  It started with the most vulnerable member of the household: a young Hebrew slave girl.  She saw the affliction of Naaman and felt compassion. She cared enough to go to her mistress with the hope of a cure.  If only Naaman would go see the Prophet Elisha!  That started a cascade of helping actions.  Naaman’s wife persuaded the general to seek help from his king.  The king wrote a letter of support and loaded up the travel wagons with treasure.  After a momentary meltdown, King Jehoram of Israel sent Naaman to Elisha.  And Elisha stepped up to say that he was the man for the job.

But all those offers of help almost came to no avail.  At Elisha’s house, the mighty man of valor expected an impressive ritual, the prophet in flowing robes, waving his arms, chanting incantations, and touching Naaman’s wounds.  Instead, the front door opened, a servant came out, and Naaman was instructed to bathe seven times in the Jordan, where the murky waters were brown as dirt.  Feeling hurt and disrespected, Naaman prepared to turn around and head home.

Beyond the mutual need of the COVID pandemic, it can be hard for us to ask for help. Nora Bouchard, author of Mayday! Asking for Help in Times of Need, writes that we are hardwired to want to do things our way.  It’s there from the moment that our toddler tells us, “Me do it, Mommy!” to the moment they leave the nest and don’t call home nearly as often as we would like.  We could also be reluctant to ask for help because we do not want to be perceived as needy or vulnerable.  Among the most influential forces in our willingness—or reluctance— to seek help is the attitude that we experienced in our families of origin. Were our bids for help encouraged and answered or were they ignored?  Were we treated like a whiny cry baby? Did someone take advantage of our need for assistance?  If help was hard to come by growing up, then we may have particular trouble asking for help now.  Our wiring, our self-perception, and our formation can all get in the way of asking for the help we need.

We might be more likely to ask for help if we remembered that Jesus asked for help. If you read the gospel lection for today (Luke 10:1-11, 16-20), then you were reminded that Jesus sent seventy disciples on ahead of him in pairs to every place where he himself intended to go. The Lord could have done it all by himself. But Jesus saw the rightness of asking for help and the wisdom of pairing up buddies so that they could help one another.  Jesus also sent them out with minimal resources—no purse, no bag, no sandals. As those vulnerable disciples moved from community to community, sharing the gospel, they depended upon the help of others.  It was in the giving and receiving of help that the beloved community of the first Christians took shape.

It might also inspire us, as independent-minded Americans, to remember on this Independence Day weekend that even our founding fathers and mothers needed help.  It’s questionable whether we would have won the Revolutionary War without the help of our French allies.  Starting in 1775, France became a secret supporter of the revolutionary cause, providing us with engineers to build fortifications, as well as uniforms, arms, and ammunition to equip the Continental Army.  French aid to the colonies came to more that 1.3 billion livres (that’s about $13 billion), crippling their own economy.  At the turning point of the war, at Saratoga in 1777, 90% of American troops carried French rifles and all of our gunpowder came from France.

What might asking for help look like for us?  I like to begin with prayer and inviting others to pray for me.  We could also start small with help for a minor problem, rather than waiting for something to morph into crisis.  We can trust that the Lord has brought people into our lives who will want to help us, just as the Lord did for Naaman.  If those folks can’t help us, they may know someone who can.  We could also consider having a support team, a little like the people who were in our COVID bubbles but permanent.  These are the people with whom we can feel safe asking for help and extending ourselves in help.  There is help out there if we are willing to ask.

Naaman got the help that he needed. Using a tenderness of language that suggests real affection, the servants interceded, saying to Naaman, “Father, if the prophet had commanded you to do something difficult, you would have done it.  Why not try something simple?”  Maybe this healing process really could work. They had come so far.  Wasn’t it worth a try?

Down Naaman went to the shores of Jordan.  He stripped off his uniform and everyone got a look at his scabby skin.  Then he waded down into the chocolaty brown water.  It rose to his ankles and knees.  It surged above his waist and chest.  He grimaced, held his breath, and dunked his head.  Seven times Naaman went down.  Seven times he came up, sputtering.  At some point, Naaman noticed that he was no longer the same.  Help had led to healing.  The mighty man of valor walked out of the river with skin as soft and supple as a young boy. Alleluia!

Help—both holy and human—abounds for the asking.

Resources:

Walter Brueggemann. Knox Preaching Guides: 2 Kings, ed. John H. Hayes, (Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1982).

Lisa Fierenz. “Why Asking for Help Is Hard to Do,” in Psychology Today, April 5, 2017. Accessed online at http://www.psychologytoday.com.

L. Daniel Hawk. “Commentary on 2 Kings 5:1-14” in Preaching This Week, July 3, 2022. Accessed online at www.workingpreacher.org.

Brian C. Jones. “Commentary on 2 Kings 5:1-14” in Preaching This Week, July 7, 2019. Accessed online at www.workingpreacher.org.

Suzanne McGee. “5 Ways the French Helped Win the American Revolution” in History, Sept. 9, 2020. Accessed online at www.history.com.

Cory Stieg. “Everyone Needs Help During the Coronavirus Pandemic” in CNBC: Health and Wellness, April 22, 2020. Accessed online at http://www.cnbc.com

W. Dennis Tucker. “Commentary on 2 Kings 5:1-14” in Preaching This Week, Feb. 15, 2009. Accessed online at http://www.workingpreacher.org.


2 Kings 5:1-14

Naaman, commander of the army of the king of Aram, was a great man and in high favor with his master, because by him the Lord had given victory to Aram. The man, though a mighty warrior, suffered from leprosy. 2Now the Arameans on one of their raids had taken a young girl captive from the land of Israel, and she served Naaman’s wife. 3She said to her mistress, “If only my lord were with the prophet who is in Samaria! He would cure him of his leprosy.” 4So Naaman went in and told his lord just what the girl from the land of Israel had said. 5And the king of Aram said, “Go then, and I will send along a letter to the king of Israel.” He went, taking with him ten talents of silver, six thousand shekels of gold, and ten sets of garments. 6He brought the letter to the king of Israel, which read, “When this letter reaches you, know that I have sent to you my servant Naaman, that you may cure him of his leprosy.” 7When the king of Israel read the letter, he tore his clothes and said, “Am I God, to give death or life, that this man sends word to me to cure a man of his leprosy? Just look and see how he is trying to pick a quarrel with me.” 8But when Elisha the man of God heard that the king of Israel had torn his clothes, he sent a message to the king, “Why have you torn your clothes? Let him come to me, that he may learn that there is a prophet in Israel.” 9So Naaman came with his horses and chariots, and halted at the entrance of Elisha’s house. 10Elisha sent a messenger to him, saying, “Go, wash in the Jordan seven times, and your flesh shall be restored and you shall be clean.” 11But Naaman became angry and went away, saying, “I thought that for me he would surely come out, and stand and call on the name of the Lord his God, and would wave his hand over the spot, and cure the leprosy! 12Are not Abana and Pharpar, the rivers of Damascus, better than all the waters of Israel? Could I not wash in them, and be clean?” He turned and went away in a rage. 13But his servants approached and said to him, “Father, if the prophet had commanded you to do something difficult, would you not have done it? How much more, when all he said to you was, ‘Wash, and be clean’?” 14So he went down and immersed himself seven times in the Jordan, according to the word of the man of God; his flesh was restored like the flesh of a young boy, and he was clean.


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