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.

I’ve taught English at Calvin College since 1998–where I get to read books and talk about them for a living. What could be better? Along with my wonderful colleague, Jane Zwart, I am the co-director of the Calvin Center for Faith and Writing, which is the home of the Festival of Faith and Writing as well as a number of other exciting endeavors. Given my interest in teaching, I’m the founding co-editor of the Duke University Press journal Pedagogy: Critical Approaches to Teaching Literature, Language, Composition and Culture (and yes, I realize that that is a very long subtitle). I also do various administrative things across campus. As an Army brat, I’ve never lived anywhere as long as I’ve now lived in Grand Rapids. I count myself rich in friends and family. I enjoy kayaking and hiking. I collect cookbooks (and also like to cook), listen to all kinds of music, and watch all manner of movies and tv shows. I love George Eliot, Jane Austen, Marilynne Robinson, Dante, E.M. Delafield, Tennyson, Hopkins, and Charlotte Bronte (among others). And I have a bumper sticker on my car that says: “I’d rather be reading Flannery O’Connor.” Which is true.

10 Comments

  • Daniel Meeter says:

    Marvelous. Why we love St. Mark. And people say that his Gospel doesn’t know about the Resurrection. The Resurrection is all through his Gospel, like with this woman. I wonder if the tradition ever gave her a name, and a saint’s day.

    • Thanks, Daniel. She’s often named Veronica–and this story fused with later ones of the woman who wiped Jesus’s face as he carried the cross. Also: some interesting tradition in art. This story is on the catacomb walls, for example.

  • Dale Cooper says:

    Your words bless me deeply, Jennifer. They serve to encourage me to draw near to my Savior, and in faith to long to touch him “tentatively and tenaciously.”

  • Erika Dekker says:

    Beautiful and powerful. Thank you!

  • David Stravers says:

    Jennifer, thanks for reminding us of this great story. My years of ministry in India have included many encounters with “untouchables” (Dalits) who have had similar healing experiences, social and spiritual as well as physical healing. One more aspect of this story to consider. Jesus said, “Your faith (pistis) has saved (sozo) you.” What “faith” did she have? Having been totally isolated for many years, she could not have heard Jesus’ (or any rabbi’s) teaching. She could not have known the basics of the Gospel, or of the Scriptures, nor even the basics of Jesus’ own proclamation. “Faith” here, as every where else in the Scriptures, is best translated “trust.” It has nothing to do with doctrine. She decided to trust this Person for healing, and risked everything to show that trust. A warning to all of the many scholars and religious leaders who wrongly define faith as believing in certain doctrines, rather than trusting in a person.

    • George E says:

      Good observation. Faith is trust to the extent one acts. Had she believed Jesus was her healer but did not move to Him, would she have been healed? But her faith was put into action — she showed her faith by her works.

  • George E says:

    You share excellent insights, Jennifer. Art and intellect can go hand in hand.

  • Debra K Rienstra says:

    Great piece, Jennifer. I love Mark’s bracing succinctness. Faith is trust in a person, yes, but I think Jesus also honors the kind of faith that looks a lot like desperation. He receives it gently.

  • Karl Westerhof says:

    Thanks for this, JH!
    I remember all too well being touched (for money) by a beggar woman on the streets of Dhaka. It was a long time ago, but how well I remember the feeling of revulsion in my stomach that was my first response. How unlike Jesus. How beautifully Jesus breaks through all the cultural and personal blocks and correctness. May I be more like him.

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