A large crowd followed and pressed around him. And a woman was there who had been subject to bleeding for twelve years. She had suffered a great deal under the care of many doctors and had spent all she had, yet instead of getting better she grew worse. When she heard about Jesus, she came up behind him in the crowd and touched his cloak, because she thought, "If I just touch his clothes, I will be healed." Immediately her bleeding stopped and she felt in her body that she was freed from her suffering.
At once Jesus realized that power had gone out from him. He turned around in the crowd and asked, "Who touched my clothes?”
"You see the people crowding against you," his disciples answered, "and yet you can ask, 'Who touched me?’
But Jesus kept looking around to see who had done it. Then the woman, knowing what had happened to her, came and fell at his feet and, trembling with fear, told him the whole truth. He said to her, "Daughter, your faith has healed you. Go in peace and be freed from your suffering."
-Mark 5:24-34 (NIV)
I'd love to know more about this women, wouldn't you – this woman who was so desperate to be healthy that she was willing to ignore social conventions and religious laws? For twelve years, she had lived with the bleeding. If it's the kind of bleeding it seems to be, then she had lived as well with the pronouncement of the Law that she was “unclean.” After so long, surely she had resigned herself to never being well, never joining in the joyful processions to the Temple for the festivals, never being a fully-participating part of the community. And, depending on how scrupulous her husband, family, and friends might have been, she might have resigned herself to missing much more than that. For at least some of the people around her, I imagine, any physical contact would have been out of the question.
So it's a true indicator of her desperation – and I think of her alienation from people around her – that she slips through the crowd to try and touch Jesus unnoticed. There's no raising of the voice from her, like the leper or the blind man who cried out to Jesus for healing. She doesn't even come and kneel respectfully, like the synagogue leader who got to Jesus just before she did. “If I can just touch his cloak, I'll be healed,” she reasons.
She's quiet. Easy to overlook. She's OK with that, because that's just the way she wants it. If she can just “accidentally” brush against him in the crowd, then no one's the wiser. There will be no embarrassing confrontation, where she has to say publicly what's wrong with her and receive the censure and self-righteousness of her peers. If she can just brush against him in the press of the mob, she can go away well and no one will ever have to know why.
I wonder how many women in our world are like her.
Thankfully, some women have found their voices. They’ve had opportunity, and people have supported them, and they’ve spoken out about the terrible things they’ve suffered. The victims of Larry Nassar, Harvey Weinstein, and Bill Cosby are some. Others whose victimizers are sufficiently well-known have been deemed newsworthy enough to gain a hearing for their stories. It’s good that their stories are being heard, especially when they are believed and some degree of justice is done.
But even those stories are not always heard, or believed.
And, for every one that is heard, I have to wonder how many women are lost in the crowd.
Valli Forrister was. In 1989, when she was a student at Lipscomb University in Nashville, she agreed to help a man who said his car needed to be jump-started. She let him get in her car so he could direct her to where his car was supposedly parked. In an alley, he pulled a knife on her and raped her repeatedly.
She refused to talk about what had been done to her. She worked at her job, lived her life, and told very few people. She suffered nightmares and panic attacks in silence. She was afraid of being judged, of people at school or church telling her what she had done wrong to bring what was done to her on herself.
Every year, on the anniversary of the rape, she would drive to that alley, all alone, just to prove that she could.
Finally, on the tenth anniversary of the rape, she asked her pastor to go with her. They prayed, and sang songs and walked through the alley together. Eventually, Valli was able to tell her story to other people, and the nightmares and panic attacks stopped.
Two women, lost in the crowd. Unwilling — unable — to raise their voices and tell their stories.
And it was Jesus and his people who finally gave them both the opportunity to speak.
“Who touched my clothes?” It almost seems like Jesus puts this woman on the spot. Some well-meaning person might counsel him today to be a little more sensitive. But what actually happens is that he gives this woman a voice. She wasn’t going to speak out and tell what had happened to her and what had been done to her. She had every intention of slipping away after surreptitiously touching the hem of his clothing. Instead, she was able to stand in that crowd and tell her story. And she got to hear Jesus commend her faith and send her in peace to live a new life.
And so I believe that his church should be the champions of women like her, like Valli Forrister, women who don’t know how to begin to tell their stories but who reach out their hands in desperation and hope and faith, believing that God will take notice and heal them. Valli wasn’t sure that she could find healing in the church. Maybe that uncertainty came from previous experience, maybe it didn’t. But I pray that churches will unfailingly be places where women can tell their stories and find listening people who will share their grief and offer love, support, and hope. I pray that among us, women who have been hurt and wronged can hear us commend their faith and offer them peace. We can’t heal them — only Jesus heals. But his people can help to make sure that reaching hands can come in contact with the hem of his garment.
There are women in our churches, in our schools, at our offices, and in our neighborhoods whose stories are lost in the crowd. They’ve stopped even trying to tell them. The world as it is has not given them many reasons to believe that they’ll be heard. May we be people who, through loving and listening, give them back the voice that’s been taken from them.
May we introduce them to the one who can offer them peace.