The Rev. Helen Havlik – 30th Sunday in Ordinary Time – October 27, 2019
Jesus said the greatest commandments are: “love the Lord your God with all your heart, mind and strength, and your neighbor as yourself.” Love God, love neighbor. Easy to remember—but what does that look like? And especially what does it mean to love our actual neighbor? That’s the question Alexandra Kuykendall asks in her book, Loving My Actual Neighbor—and she answers it by describing how our love for the real people around us can be nurtured and lived, which is our focus for the fall. So far we’ve talked about being humble and listening to others. In our Gospel reading, a woman finds herself in an awkward moment even as she’s healed from a long illness. I’m reading from Luke, ch. 8, beginning with vs. 40. Listen to God’s holy word.
We know Jairus’ name but we don’t know hers. Because she was nobody, right? Her long illness—well, this is awkward because maybe it was a so-called female problem—like endometriosis or fibroids—well known to women everywhere that no one talked about openly until very recently. At least it seems her periods never stopped and that was hard enough on her physically. But it wasn’t just about her. Well, this is awkward, it was about the blood. It made her “unclean”—not just once a month but all the time. If she were a normal woman, she would have just had her period and when that was done, she would have used a mikvah—a ritual bath—to become clean again and acceptable to the community. But she couldn’t do that if she never stopped bleeding. Instead, it was 12 years of awkwardness, of people wanting to know if anything had changed, if they could now treat her as one of them again, if she might ever bear a child. Twelve years of awkward conversations with doctors who took her money and offered no answers. She was untouchable and we can only imagine how unbearable her awkward life was.
Then Jesus was there. He’d been off in gentile territory but had come home. Jairus, the leader of the synagogue, had come to him because his daughter was dying and, of course, Jesus was hurrying to his house, pushed along by the crowds pressing in around him. Though the unnamed woman undoubtedly knew her place and held back—she didn’t want to be accused of making anyone else unclean—she apparently trusted that Jesus could help her. He didn’t even have to know—right? Even standing in a healer’s shadow could do the trick—that’s what everyone said. Maybe she could edge toward him unnoticed and just bump into him? Maybe?
Maybe that was the plan, but it sure didn’t work out that way. She got close enough to him to touch him, but even with all the people pressing in around him, Jesus felt her presence. Both of them felt the healing as it happened. She knew it and he knew it and she was happy and relieved and elated all at once. She was well physically which meant she would be well socially. After so many years, her awkward life would be different. She could take her monthly bath like the other women. Maybe she could bear a child? At least, she’d no longer be their awkward neighbor.
And then he said it: “Who touched me?” He stopped walking, looked around, sought her out despite Peter’s objection. Her relief turned back to anguish as she heard murmurs in the crowd, as she saw that people saw her, as she knew she’d have to come forward and admit what she’d done. It was awkward, so awkward, the worst kind of awkward all the way around. Jairus—who must have known her—staring at her in his own anguish. The crowd staring at her, wondering what this would mean for the little dying girl Jesus was on his way to help. Jesus listening to her and what she stumbled to say, everything frozen in time until those words, “Your faith has made you well—go in peace.”
That’s awkward, right? What do we do when our encounter with someone is out of our comfort zone? Peter pretended it didn’t happen. The woman wanted to crawl under a rock. The crowds were probably confused. Some of them didn’t care. Some of them urged Jesus forward. It was his own willingness to stand there, him-self vulnerable in the awkward moment that allowed the woman to be vulnerable and tell the truth. It was his willingness to be present then and there that made her healing complete—his open confirmation of her healing restored her to her community so that after 12 years she finally could get on with her life.
When I was growing up, we had one black rotary dial telephone on a party line (anyone remember them?) we shared with six other houses somewhere in our neighborhood—we didn’t actually know who else was on the line. Etiquette said you didn’t listen in on other calls or talk too long. And that didn’t matter so much until I got into junior high and was allowed to call my friends. One night I was on the phone when a neighbor broke in, saying she needed to use the phone right away. Apparently she’d been listening in because she said she was going to report us to the police because it was against the law to do homework over the phone. I protested that we weren’t doing homework, but she demanded to talk to my parents. It was awkward and embarrassing and I was shaking as I hung up the phone. After that, I didn’t make calls, sometimes still avoid making phone calls because I’m afraid someone will yell at me.
Feeling awkward means feeling uncomfortable, even unsafe—vulnerable. It’s a feeling we usually do just about anything to avoid—and that avoidance may stop us from loving our actual neighbors. It can stop us from offering support when someone needs it. It can also stop us from trying new experiences or meeting new people. I don’t want to look stupid! I don’t want to say the wrong thing! The awkwardness of feeling like we aren’t good enough at something or don’t know what to say can stop us from connecting with the people around us. But Alexandra Kuykendall says the call to love as Jesus did asks us to have the courage to face our vulnerability, “to stand in the uncomfortable rather than run from it. To be willing to hang in there when conversations or circumstances get downright awkward, believing that won’t always be the case, and even if it is, that loving our neighbors is worth the trouble.” (Loving My Actual Neighbor, p. 99) Finding that courage is a choice that allows us to stay in the present moment where we often find unexpected blessing for ourselves and others.
I used to think when things got awkward, I would die of embarrassment. But I’ve learned that no one dies because of awkwardness—really. It’s uncomfortable but most of the time doesn’t last that long. Besides, when it comes to loving our neighbors, it’s not actually about us, is it? Because, as the woman who was ill for so long discovered, awkwardness can redeem. Desperation made her screw up her courage to seek healing and, when she was found out, to speak her truth to Jesus and the crowd. Though Jesus pushed for her awkward public confession, he stayed in the moment to heal her spirit, too, as he commended her faith in front of her neighbors. And the little girl? Well, this isn’t awkward. She was healed, too.