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. When Jesus saw her, he called her over and said, “Woman, you are set free from your ailment.” When he laid his hands on her, immediately she stood up straight and began praising God. —Luke 13:11-13
Like most of the healing stories in the bible, the ailment from which this woman suffers is unclear, but the specific diagnosis does not really matter. Whether it is arthritis, or multiple sclerosis, mental illness or addiction, or plain old ordinary worry—the burden of it doubles her over and separates her from community. She is so bent over that she cannot look others in the eye. She cannot see as one who is upright, fully present, whole. We might wonder what she must feel and how others see her.
Minister John Bell (of the Iona Community) observed that ““One of the less savoury aspects of contemporary society seems to be the desire to categorize people according to their deficiencies, rather than call them by their names. So we talk about the physically challenged, the mentally challenged, the abuse victim, the anorexic, the overeater, the divorcee, the single parent, the cross-dresser, the agoraphobic. And true as these descriptions might be, there are two greater truths with which we have to deal in the face of Jesus Christ. The one is that God does not define us by our problems or our past. And if God does not, why should we? The bend-double woman whom Jesus healed would never have been completely cured as long as she was diminished by the stigma which had been attached to her. She had both to walk tall and to believe that her prime identity was that of a daughter of Abraham, a beautiful child of God.”
Recovery is a process, frustrating as it is to all who are involved—whether it is recovering from the birth of a child, the replacement of a knee, addiction or the death of a loved one. In the early years of my own recovery from alcoholism, I identified myself first and foremost as an alcoholic and I remember thinking that there was nothing else for me but that. It was a helpful approach in the beginning. I was enveloped by a community of people who were seeking the same recovery, my days and nights were filled with the 12 step spiritual solution and I followed the directions given to me by those who had gone before me, making seriously big changes to the way I lived my life. All of this focus on the ‘disease’ provided me with a community of support, made for safer choices and allowed me to keep my eyes on the prize, so to speak. But, as my recovery has progressed, and the spiritual solution to my addiction has literally become woven into everything that I am and do (and even engendered my vocational call to Christian ministry) the identifier of alcoholic has become simply a part of who I am and how I see myself. It informs my path but does not define me. More significantly, that ‘community of support’ loved me before I could love myself, carried the message of the solution to me and countless others, and taught me to see myself as a perfect, forgiven child of the God who makes no mistakes. It was only in the context of community that my recovery became complete and my identity was transformed.
In the Synagogue, in community, the woman’s sights are raised by Jesus, not just to see better, but to see who she is more clearly in the eyes of God. And, despite the indignation of the synagogue leader over Jesus’ ministrations on the Sabbath, it was the ‘entire crowd’ that rejoices.
Beloved, you must know that we are way more than our afflictions, way more than our shortcomings, way more than our limits, way more than our worries and fears, and waaaaaayyyy more than the labels that others put upon us. God has always known our names and our natures and always seeks us out. God celebrates our worth and calls us to follow. God calls out to us today, by name, in order to get us seeing the whole picture and standing upright so that we might be transformed and renewed into the whole and perfect soul that God created us to be.
I pray that our faith community might be a place of sanctuary to all who are bent over with worry. I pray that we might be a house of care to all who are burdened with life. I pray that we might be a company of welcome to all who are lost to community. I pray that we might be a community of seekers to all who travel with questions. I pray that we ours might be a sacred space of worship for all who reach out for God. May it be so.
Rev. Wendy Miller Olapade (firstname.lastname@example.org)