I sat across the table from a friend of more than thirty years. The call came through with the wondrous news that they were now grandparents. His eyes filled up with tears of joy as he leaned into his phone, listening to his son’s long awaited news. For yes, this day has been long anticipated, deeply hoped for across so many months and years that those now celebrating had almost quit hoping. As he cried, I cried, too, to see his joy and to marvel at how everything came into focus. The rest of our conversation fell away as we marveled at this good news, focused on one tiny brand new life. This gift of God.
So it is I sit with the amazing story before us now and of how, for Jesus and others gathered there, ‘everything else fell away’ as the one crippled by a spirit comes into view. Yes, of course, Jesus and the disciples probably had plenty else on their minds. Now doubt, they were certainly talking about other pressing matters when they stepped into the synagogue earlier that day. And it was so that Jesus had to shift his attention from what he was teaching in order to tend to the need of the one standing before him. And yes, of course, there were rules about how the Sabbath was to be observed. But the sight of one suffering woman who did not have the will or the wherewithal to imagine that there might be something else for her besides this bent over existence, brought everything else into focus. She, too, was a gift of God and God’s own gifts were meant for her as well. Even on the Sabbath. Perhaps especially on the Sabbath.
I have had something like this happen in my ministry over these last several months, an encounter which brought everything else into focus. It brought to my attention the gift of God, the gifts of God standing right in front of me.
Some of you have heard parts of this story before. I will repeat the beginning for context and also because where we find ourselves today has far less meaning without it.
Last fall it fell to me to call upon a woman in the County Jail. She had just been convicted of a significant crime and was there awaiting sentencing.
Although she was connected to our congregation, she was not actually a member of First Lutheran Church. Friends of her asked me to go and so I did.
I will not forget our first encounter there. I had been calling to try to make an appointment with the jail to see her, but I was having trouble getting through. Finally, on a Friday afternoon, on my day off, I was driving by and on an impulse decided to just walk in. As I entered, I bumped into the County Sheriff who vaguely remembered me from one funeral or another. He called upstairs and the person in charge met me in the waiting room. She walked me through the protocol and before long, led me through several locked doors into a small windowed room where the woman I had come to see was waiting.
She stood and hugged me. (Remember, we were practically strangers.) She was weeping. She told me she was so afraid. I asked what frightened her, all the while knowing full well that she likely had a great deal to fear. She said she was afraid of being killed in prison. I had no answer for her, no way to honestly comfort her, so I simply received what she had to share. And then I asked if I could pray with her and so we did.
I quickly learned that there was little that I could carry in for her, but as ‘her pastor,’ I was told I could bring her a Bible. I ordered a copy of The Message Bible and on my next visit I brought it to her.
Now at this point it is important to know that she had not been raised in the faith. She had virtually no church background. I spent time on that visit walking her through how the Bible was laid out and how to find things. I marked a couple of my own favorite passages for her. I listened to how she was adjusting to that in between time and place. I prayed with her. And I left.
I went to see her several more times. I observed her ‘finding her way’ in the county jail. I listened as she spoke about the encounters she was having with fellow inmates, the dull routine of her days, when she had last talked to family and what she had heard from them. Always she brought her Bible. Often we would talk about what she was discovering there and what she was wondering about. Every time I prayed, we prayed.
On the day before Ash Wednesday she was sentenced. On Ash Wednesday I went to see her when, as you can imagine, her anxiety was heightened once more. She did not know when or to where she would be taken next and all the old fears resurfaced. The next day before dawn she was taken in a prison van to a medium security facility several hours away. All she could take with her was that Bible.
A few weeks later I heard from her. She was starting to adjust and asked me if I could send Bibles to several of the women there. I did. I got up at worship a few Sundays later and read a thank you note we had received from one of them. A few days later a member of our congregation walked in with a check for $500 to purchase Bibles for people in prison. Since then we have asked for more names and prisoner id numbers and we keep on sending Bibles.
All of this is background. Last week I received a handwritten letter from the one I said good-bye to at our County Jail on Ash Wednesday. I offer pieces of it here:
- “The housing unit I’m in changes all the time from decent to circus! Ugh!”
- “I have gained some new friends. I have shared Bible stories and scriptures with lots of people, too! I love sharing Bible stories and scriptures with people to make them find their inner peace and joy.”
- “Recently I was talking with a friend that has many, many more years than I here. She was sharing her favorite verse with me: Romans 15:1-2. I love that! I then shared one of my favorite stories with her — the story of the rainbow! It became one of her new favorites, too! Genesis 9:12-16. It brings me such a joy and an inner peace that I cannot express in words. Knowing (finally in my life) that Jesus died for my sins is an overwhelming feeling of love. I truly have peace and joy in my heart and soul now. That is huge for being in a place so full of hate, racism and confusion.”
- “Every day I try to find something to laugh about, something positive, a time for peace, and a time to make someone smile. I feel that God has brought me here to share his word, help people to understand him, and become closer to him as I have and just to help bring joy to people. Through reading the Bible I have learned a new patience with all types of people. Everyone is a child of God and everyone needs to be shown love. Even if it is a simple “hi, how are you today?” and actually waiting to take the time to talk to them. Some of the stories I’ve heard from people and how they’ve lived or were raised are heartbreaking. I know I can’t fix it for them, but what I can do is listen and bring them to God.”
And finally this:
- “I asked one of the ‘bullies’ if I could pray for them and she looked at me like I was crazy. I told her, ‘No, seriously, would that be ok?’ She told me yes and I took her hands in mine and prayed and she was crying in the end and thanked me. We are now friends…”
She went on to say she had enclosed a list of people who would also like to receive a Bible…
Her letter took my breath away: this living example of someone who was crippled by a spirit of fear (and who knows what else) who has been literally touched and changed, strengthened and empowered by the power of God. It has changed everything for her and from what I can tell, it is changing everything for those with whom she has connected in a place she never imagined and certainly never ever hoped for for herself.
Now all of this has nothing to do with the conversation in today’s Gospel about Sabbath. And yet, it jumps out at me now as a living example of the power and wonder of what God can do. Of what God does. If not on an unlikely day then at least perhaps, with an unlikely person or persons. Unlikely, at least by our very human estimations.
So it is that I will long think of my friend at a Correctional Facility in Illinois whenever I hear the story of the bent over woman:
- For in her and through her I am seeing the power of what God’s healing touch can do.
- Of what God does.
- Of how God can and does literally remove the spirit of what cripples and replaces it with another that changes everything.
- That has us standing up tall and thanking God.
Indeed, I have learned once more how important it is to simply focus on the need of, the wonder of, the one right in front of me. To remember that human suffering and struggle always takes first place on any list of priorities. Oh, in moments of great joy it is easy to see what matters most — as I described above. Sometimes we get so overwhelmed by human need that it becomes harder to see. And yet, this is what Jesus modeled again and again, this ability to care for those who needed care the most. Recognizing this, I do pray for the wisdom, the courage, the strength, the hope to move towards the struggle and those who live it. As Jesus did. As Jesus always did.
- In my heart I carry the story of one I know who is emblematic of the bent over woman for me. Who do you think of when you hear this story?
- When has ‘everything else fallen away’ for you? When have you known what matters most and who or what you are called to move towards?
- How does this story ‘speak’ in the place where you are called to live and serve?