Social Distancing and the Woman with a Flow of Blood

This is not the sermon which I planned to preach this morning. On this International Women’s Day, I planned to preach about the unnamed women who walk with Jesus. I was going to riff off of the Leviticus text (Lev.15:19-30) which outlines the way in which women have been cast out from the temples of power simply for being women. Shedding blood comes naturally to women. But for millennia men have feared the life-giving abilities of women so much that they have judged the natural functions of our bodies as unclean. I planned to tell you about my own experiences of being cast out from the holy of holies. I was going to use my story as a way of celebrating just how far women have come in my lifetime.

You see when I was just seventeen years old, I was elected to the Church Council of my home parish. It was the late nineteen-seventies and the liturgical renewal movement was beginning to make its way through congregations. In my home parish it was decided that Council members would function as Worship Assistants. For the first time the pastor would have an assistant to help serve communion. For the first time in the life of our church laypeople would serve communion and pronounce the words, “The blood of Christ shed for you.”

I say laypeople, but I should really say laymen. You see, even though I was serving on Church Council, the pastor told me that the time wasn’t quite right for me to be a Worship Assistant. At first, I thought it was because I was too young. But then one afternoon, my beloved pastor told me that women were not permitted behind the altar. I had only been attending church for about two years, and I’d never learned about this particular rule. Imagine my surprise when my pastor explained that I couldn’t go behind the altar because in the Bible women were not allowed into the holy of holies because of our monthly cycles. I could not be a worship assistant because I could not stand behind the altar.

I was going to use that little story to make the point that the church has come a long way. You see, all the while my pastor was telling me that I couldn’t, the church already was. In 1976, Pamela McGee became the first Lutheran woman to be ordained in Canada. Today, I planned to preach a sermon in celebration of all the unnamed women whose faith has propelled them to move beyond societies attempts to limit their participation. I planned to celebrate the women who have been ordained in Canada these past 44 years. Daughters of this church whose faith gave them the courage to reach beyond the limits carved out for them by the taboos and fears which all too often defined them. Daughters who even though they bleed, they saw Jesus out there and decided to follow.

Well that’s what I planned to preach about and then I began receiving communications from York Region’s Public Health department. Listening to York Region’s Medical Officer of Health, I learned a new phrase:  social distancing.           Social distancing, suddenly, I had a whole new appreciation of our reading from Leviticus. In the course of this past week, we have all been learning not to touch one another. Indeed, we are not supposed to touch our own faces. Fear has birthed all sorts of new taboos as we try to navigate our new reality. If only blood were the cause of these taboos. But alas, miniscule droplets have become the basis of so much fear that there isn’t a drop of sanitizer to be found in any of our stores.

Social distancing.  Ideally, keeping between one or two meters between us. Washing our hands. Self-isolation. Some of you know that I’m a bit of a germaphobe. So, you would think that all this talk of Public Health Protocols would strike fear into my heart. Well, I must confess from time to time, all the talk of coronavirus plays on my imagination and can make me want to just stay home, where I have more control over who and what I must encounter. When I hear, warnings about our “seniors” being more at risk, and then they define “seniors” as over 60, and I realize that they are talking about me well, it doesn’t exactly inspire confidence. There was  something about all the precautions that we are taking that transformed my fear of catching the virus into a fear of being captured by the fear of the virus. So, many of the conversations which I have heard this week, so much of the media reporting this week, has had the effect of striking fear into people. I am no longer as afraid of the virus as I am afraid of how we are beginning to live our lives in fear. I’m beginning to think that social distancing is even more dangerous than COVID-19. The impact of social distancing is a being felt in retail stores as our neighbours begin the process of hording all the necessary supplies. For those of us wealthy enough to stockpile, one wonders exactly how we will embody compassion when our neighbours run out. Will health department calls to practice social distancing trump (pardon the pun) Christ’s call to love our neighbour?

Don’t get me wrong, part of loving our neighbour does indeed involve doing what we can to mitigate the spread of disease, but as of today there have been NO, let me repeat that NO evidence of community transmission of the coronavirus in York Region. So, there is no need to panic. There is also no need to engage in conversations that feed people’s fears. Each of us needs to remember to take a deep breath, before we speak. Repeating rumors is not a compassionate act. Neither is it compassionate to poo poo peoples’ fear. We need to listen to what people are saying and respond with compassionate common sense. Common sense does not include burying our heads in the sand. Careful, or perhaps I should say care-filled, preparations will go a long way to helping us to respond to the needs of our neighbours with compassion.

It is easy to see how our ancestors let their fear of the unknown lead them to create all sorts of taboos which have damaged an entire gender for millennia. Fear and taboos go hand in hand and there isn’t a sanitizer in the world that can wash away fear; only LOVE can do that. In English the word taboo is usually defined as a probation of something based on a cultural sense that it is excessively repulsive. But The word taboo didn’t come into the English language until the 18th century, Captain Cook learned the word from the Maoria word “tapu”. The broader meaning of the word taboo is sacred, holy, to be revered, handled with reverence or great care. Our Jewish ancestors believed that blood contains the power of new life. We are only now beginning to discover that our Jewish foremothers were accustomed to setting themselves apart during their periods. This was a sacred time for women, a time to forgo their regular chores and hardships, a time to contemplate the sacredness of life. Like the word tapu, it didn’t take long for our ancestors to take something sacred and turn it into a taboo. What was once liberating became oppressive.

The woman who walked up to Jesus and touched the hem of his garment, would have been oppressed by the fear of blood. She would have been required to stay away and if she did encounter people, the law required her to shout out a warning: “Unclean, Unclean, Unclean In the desert heat, I expect that the smell along would have alerted Jesus to the reality that the person who touched him was indeed a bleeding woman. When the woman fell at Jesus feet she was trembling with fear, she told Jesus everything and Jesus responded not by calling her out as a “bleeding woman” but by calling her “daughter.” As “daughter” the woman would have been protected from the fear-filled action of the crowd. After hearing her story, Jesus bid her peace and declared her to be free from her affliction. (Mark 5:25-34)

I like to imagine that the anonymous-gospel-storytellers told this story in a kind of male-muddled order. To hear them tell it the woman was healed before she told her story. I believe that the woman was made whole after Jesus listened to the woman tell her story. Frightened and trembling the unnamed woman fell at Jesus’ feet and told him the whole truth. “My daughter,” Jesus said, “your faith has made you whole; go in peace and be free from your affliction.”

Over the course of the next few weeks, we will need to hone our listening skills. Fearful people will want to tell us their stories. We are called to embody LOVE in the world, CHRIST has no body now but yours; our careful, care-filled responses will be what LOVE looks like in public. The ONE who we encounter in the body and the blood, the bread and the wine, is the ONE who empowers us to be LOVE in the world. May each one of us be freed from the affliction of fear as we go in peace to be LOVE in the world.

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