It was hot. Already the sun had parched the earth. The air was still. The ground beneath her feet radiated the heat. She was tired. Earlier she had thought about staying at home. Her weary body could use a rest. All week long she had toiled in the heat of the sun. On this Sabbath she longed to rest her crumpled, aching body. She tried to ignore the weakness she felt. She had suffered long and hard. She couldn’t even remember when or how she had become so weak. Over the years, her weakened spirit had left her body bent and crippled. The evidence of her heavy burdens could be seen in her crooked spine. She was ashamed of her appearance.
It had been eighteen long years since she had stood straight and tall. She vaguely remembered running when she was a child. She ran everywhere back then. She ran faster than anyone else in the town. She loved to run. Running made her feel free.
Her mother used to warn her not to run. Her mother tried to stop her. But she was so full of life. She wanted to see everything. She wanted to do everything. She wanted to go everywhere.
Her mother warned her not to be so curious. Her mother tried to keep her busy. Her mother tried to keep her out of trouble. But it was no use, no matter how many tasks her mother gave her; she always managed to find time to explore. She had so many questions. She wanted to know how things worked. Life was so very exciting. She dashed from one adventure to the next. She ran everywhere, everyday. Except of course on the Sabbath. On the Sabbath she walked. She walked with her family to the synagogue. She loved to go to the synagogue. As her father and brothers took their places at the feet of the rabbis, she sat quietly with her mother and sisters and the other women and girls in the back of the synagogue. She listened carefully as the men and boys talked.
She longed to ask questions, and for the longest time she did not understand why she was not allowed to speak. She longed for the freedom to speak. When each of her brothers went in turn to learn to read from the Torah, she longed to sit with the rabbi and learn. She tried to satisfy her longings with questions. She asked so many questions. At first people were amused by her curiosity, but eventually they became annoyed. In time their anger grew.
She doesn’t remember when she stopped asking questions, any more than she remembers when she stopped running, it just sort of happened, without her really noticing it at all. She accepted that she was not free to ask questions. She no longer felt free to run. Her mother may not have been able to give her enough tasks to stifle her curiosity, but her husband and children provided her with so many tasks that she could barely keep up.
Maybe they were right. Maybe she didn’t really need to know. Maybe she was annoying. Maybe she shouldn’t be so demanding. Maybe she shouldn’t question the way things were done. Maybe she should just accept her lot in the world. Maybe she should just make do with what she had. She felt so trapped. Maybe they were right.
Gradually she stopped asking questions and she resolved to carry her burdens in silence. She settled into the routine that life offered. She even stopped running. These days there weren’t so many tasks. She was alone. Her husband was gone. Her children were grown with families of their own. But even the small tasks seemed difficult for her now. Just getting out of bed was more than she could manage some mornings. What was the point? Why bother? She was so very tired.
Going to the synagogue was one of the last pleasures she had. The familiar words and sounds provided some comfort. Sometimes she could forget her burdens for just a moment. Faint hope seemed better than no hope. She had waited until she knew that the others would have left before she set off. Although she could no longer look into their faces, she wanted to avoid the pitying glances that she knew in her heart were there. She could not bear to hear their whispers. She knew that they blamed her. She knew that her ailment frightened them. She would have avoided the synagogue altogether but she knew that he was going to be there. The whole village had been buzzing about him all week long. He had been speaking in the village and his words had stirred people. There were rumours that he had healed many people. Some said that he was the greatest storyteller who had ever travelled through these parts. Surely such a great teacher would be asked to speak in the synagogue, on this Sabbath. For just a moment, she felt a pang of the old curiosity.
She wondered just what it was about this man that had set their tongues to wagging. So she trudged on in the heat. Her bent and crippled body weighed down by the burdens she carried.
The ground beneath her was familiar. For eighteen years her hunched back had limited her vision. Her face looked out at a limited world. She could not see the tops of the olive trees. The sky, even the sun that beat down on her were beyond her vision. What she could see of the town was empty. Everyone was inside the synagogue. She quietly slipped in the side door, relieved that she had once again avoided contact with her neighbours.
As she made her way to the back of the crowd she heard his voice. She could not see him, but somehow she knew that the voice she heard was his. Perhaps it was the authority with which he spoke. Perhaps it was the trace of a Nazarene accent. She barely had time to wonder. He was calling her. She felt the crowd part. She heard him call. Fear turned her feet to stone. She could not move forward. She felt her neighbours’ eyes upon her and she began to tremble. Each breath she took she thought would be her last. Suddenly she felt her old friend curiosity begin to stir.
Why was he calling her? Why was he singling her out? Was he going to chastise her? Was he going to point out her sin? Was he going to tell them that her ailment was punishment for her refusal to accept her lot in life? Was he going to point to her and warn them not to step out of line? She felt the questions rising up in her. She could not stop them. Her feet began to move. She could see them moving and she wanted to run. For the first time in eighteen years she wanted to run. But she knew that she couldn’t run.
She wanted to run right out of there. But slowly, her feet moved her tired aching body closer to him. She stood before him and watched as his chest moved up and down. She wondered what his face looked like. Was he angry? Was he about to lash out at her? Or did he look down on her with pity in his eyes? She focussed on the steady movement of his chest and when the word came she was startled.
“Woman, you are set free from your ailment.”
“Woman, you are set free from your ailment.”
What was he saying? Could it be true? After so many years of longing? Was she finally free? She felt his hands upon her. Gently he rubbed her tired shoulders. And then all of a sudden she felt it. He had called her. Jesus had called her. Jesus had called her up to the front of the synagogue and in front of all the men and women of her village Jesus had declared that she was set free. Immediately she stood up straight and she began praising God. Praising God in the synagogue!
She, a woman who had been suffering from an inner poverty that had left her incapacitated for 18 years; she whose weakened spirit caused her body to respond in kind, leaving her bent forward, unable to stand, she was released from her prison and she stood up straight and she began praising God. She praised God, in the synagogue. Until the leader of the synagogue stood up.
She looked him straight in the eyes and she waited. He was indignant because Jesus had dared to cure on the Sabbath, and he 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.” For the first time in eighteen years she looked closely at their faces. She saw their smug expressions. She was about to bow her head when Jesus shouted, “You hypocrites! Does not each of you on the Sabbath untie your ox or your donkey from the manger, and lead it away to give it water? Shouldn’t this woman, a daughter of Abraham who has been bound for eighteen long years, be set free from this bondage on the Sabbath day?”
The words of Jesus put all his opponents to shame. Standing tall and proud, tears of joy streamed down her face as she remembered that she was a daughter of Abraham and of Sarah. That she too was an heir to God’s promises. Overcome with joy she, once again began praising God. The entire crowd was rejoicing at all the wonderful things that Jesus was doing. Relived of her burdens, set free from her prison, standing tall and proud as a daughter of Abram and Sarah, secure in the knowledge that she too was an heir to all the promises of God, she praised God.
There are days; you know the kind of days, the days when we can see ourselves as this woman. There are days when I wonder when the burdens of life became so heavy that I became crushed by them. When and where did my childish enthusiasm for life disappear? When did I stop running toward life? When did I become so cautious? When did I let my many tasks bare down on me and cause me to just trudge on. When did I stop demanding answers and resolve to carry my burdens in silence? When did I settle into the routine that life offered? There are days when even the small tasks seem difficult and just getting out of bed is more than I can manage. Then there have been those days when I simply can’t bear to look into the eyes of my neighbours, when I want to avoid their pitying glances. Days when I couldn’t bear to hear their whispers, because I knew that they blamed me. Days when my burdens weighed me down.
And there are other days when I can see myself as the leader in the synagogue. Those days when some child dashes under the altar and I try to crush that child with. Or when some rule somewhere is tossed aside or trampled on and I can’t hold my tongue. And there are those days when I self-righteously quote scripture at some poor sod who has gotten under my skin. Those horrid days when I can’t summon up the grace to be anything more than just a hypocrite. Sadly there are even days, when I am threatened by another person’s freedom and I want to cling to the rules, because the rules are familiar and the rules provide order and the rules mean I don’t have to think and I can just put myself on automatic pilot and all will be well.
And then there are those glorious days, when the burdens of life are lifted and I want to dance with the pure joy of life and praise God without ceasing. Like that day when the doctor said I was cancer free, I ran like the wind that day. Or the day I quit my job to go back to university, I danced that night. Or that first day at university, I walked tall around the campus that day. Or that first day at seminary, standing in the chapel singing God’s praises as the faculty processed in decked out in their academic robes. I sang loudly that day and for days after I was full of questions about everything. Or that glorious day when the phone rang and the voice on the other end said, they voted to call you. I felt like I’d been set free that day, free to embark on a glorious adventure.
We’ve all had days when the burdens of life have weighed us down and we’ve all had those horrible days when it seemed easier to heap burdens upon others because the best we could muster was some kind of hypocrisy that enslaved a sister or a brother. And we’ve all had those days when we have been set free to be the people God intended us to be and we can’t help but sing God’s praise. But if this were just a story where you could relate to a crippled woman who is healed and a few hypocrites who want to spoil the party it would just be an ordinary story and we could, depending on the kind of day we are having be satisfied with identifying ourselves as either blessed of burdened. But this is not just an ordinary story. Because we are gathered here in this place; and here in the church, which is the Body of Christ, each of us is called to be Christ to one another. Which means that in addition to identifying ourselves with the one who is healed and the ones who are hypocrites, we are also called to identify ourselves with Christ for we are called to be healers. We are called to set one another free! We are called to lift one another’s burdens! We are called to lift the burdens of injustice, disease, sadness, poverty, and even the burdens of death.
Like Christ, we are called to challenge the religious practices and beliefs of our day that are insensitive to peoples’ suffering.
We worship a God who created us to stand up full and free and have the courage to look God in the eye and to ask God to share our burdens. We worship a God that wants us to stand tall and look one another in the eyes; set one another free, call one another to account and rejoice in God’s steadfast abundant grace. So do not let your burdens weigh you down. Do not let rules and regulations and law turn you into self-righteous hypocrites. Rise up! Rise up, look around and in the faces of your sisters and brothers see the face of Christ and let them see the face of Christ that is in you.