During this season, I’ve been dipping into a Lenten devotional produced by a small church that a close friend attends. A delightful collection of essays and art—contributed by many people in the congregation—mingle together to help the reader reflect on the life of Jesus as chronicled in the book of Mark.
One drawing really stuck out to me. A pencil drawing, startling in its simplicity, depicts the story of the woman with the so-called “issue of blood” from Mark 5. (In case you don’t recall this story, this woman had “been subject to bleeding for twelve years” and had spent all her money on doctors who had only made her worse (5:25-26). She believed if she could only touch Jesus’s clothes, she would be healed.)
In this depiction, Jesus is in the foreground, surrounded by children who hold his hand, cling to his neck, and joyfully lope alongside him as he walks. All around, large, dark robe-shapes signifying the thronging masses loom. And to the left side, the woman herself is portrayed. Significantly, she is depicted in the same light tones as Jesus, not in the dark garments of the crowd. Here we see her kneeling on the ground, leaning slightly forward at just the moment before she touches Jesus. In her gesture, you can detect both her tentativeness and her tenacity.
Her tentativeness and tenacity are both understandable when we remember the Levitical prohibitions she was up against. Many scholars believe she was suffering from what is medically termed menorrhagia (or abnormally heavy menstruation that is not only painful and messy, but can cause profound anemia and make everyday activities difficult). The Law said that if a woman’s period lasted beyond 7 days (quite normal in sufferers of menorrhagia) she would be “unclean” all the time, unable to participate in even the most basic things of life, including preparing meals. On top of it, she’d undergone quack treatments that had taken her money and hampered her health. And relationships were impossible: some writers have argued that, if married, the woman’s husband might have had to divorce her because being in contact with her would “contaminate” the entire household. Indeed, anyone who touched her, including all the people in the crowd that day would themselves become “unclean.” What she must have been suffering to decide to risk venturing out that day!
The story of the bleeding woman has become an important one to me in the last several years as I have myself developed an “issue of blood” because of uterine fibroids (one of the causes of menorrhagia). This admission may seem like TMI, but I would argue that that is because women’s health issues remains almost as taboo as in earlier times. The stigma surrounding an event that happens to half the population each month remains so strongly in place that, in response, “menstrual equity” is beginning to emerge in policy discussions in areas ranging from taxes, prisons, and manufacturing.
But if we’ve hardly made progress on this issue, Jesus is radically different. In fact, all of Mark 5 is inspiring in its proclamation that there is nothing unmentionable, there is no one “untouchable”: not the Legion-of-demon-possessed man in the first part of the chapter, not this bleeding woman, and not the dead young daughter of Jarius whose story closes out the chapter. There is no one to whom Christ’s healing does not extend, no one who is too “unclean” to be touched, no situation beyond Christ’s power.
Instead, in his interaction with the bleeding woman, Christ makes all of this explicit. Jostled by the crowds, Jesus asks upon feeling the woman’s touch: “Who touched my clothes.” Given the pressing state of the crowds, the disciples laugh. Who isn’t touching Jesus? But it’s telling that Jesus calls the woman out: he doesn’t just heal her silently (as he could have).
Of course, she has to respond. She could have taken her healing and gone away, but as Mark reports “Then the woman came and fell at his feet. She knew what had happened to her. She was shaking with fear. But she told him the whole truth” (5:32-33). Admitting to her “unclean” state is risky for this woman—Jesus would then be “unclean,” too. But by making her healing public, Jesus shows the nonsense of such categories: not only is he unchanged in any way because of being touched by her, but she is praised for her faith in doing the very thing that could render him unclean: touching him. By acknowledging and naming her faith, he brings her from the margins and establishes her as an heroine of belief. In the picture that so inspired me, the dark robes turn away from Jesus, but, by placing the woman in the same color robes as Jesus, the artist is clear that the woman’s faith shines bright. And she is not only physically restored, but as importantly, relationally: in the perhaps the most touching moment of the story, Jesus calls this woman—alienated from family and society by the law—“daughter.” Love restores what law rejects.
If Mark 5 tells us anything it’s that there really is nothing that can separate us from the love of God. Every person Jesus meets is faced with a seemingly impossible situation, situations they can do nothing to fix themselves. Yet the tentative hand of a hurting woman, reaching out in faith—even if only to barely brush the surface—seems like a fitting image for all of us who tremblingly seek the Savior ourselves.
NB: I did not get permission to reproduce the drawing described, so what is pictured here is from another artist.