I once had a parishioner who was both the best and the worst storyteller. He was the best because his stories were always fascinating, funny, and fantastic. Not only did he have an intriguing life, he also just had a real gift for telling stories in ways that brought them to life in your mind’s eye. But he was also not the best storyteller because he was easily distracted. He would be in the middle of a story and then veer off course, “Which reminds me of the time…” he would say, and off he would go. Sometimes he would go back to the other story, but you had to really pay attention to remind him of where he had started. Sometimes the dropped ending on a story would come back to me days later and I would wonder, “I wonder what happened after he dropped that note to his secret love…”
Mark’s storytelling today is a bit like that parishioner’s way of telling stories. After the fantastic stories of the calming of the sea, and the healing of a demon-possessed man, Mark tells us of Jesus’ next dramatic moment. Jairus approaches Jesus and falls at Jesus’ feet, begging him to heal his dying twelve-year old daughter. This whole event is a big deal because if you remember, many of the other synagogue leaders were suspicious of Jesus, and even plotting against him. For a synagogue leader to approach Jesus for help is a huge break in rank. Jesus goes with Jairus without comment, but before we can find out what happens, Mark basically says, “Speaking of which, there was this woman who approached Jesus without Jesus knowing. You won’t believe what happened…” And off Mark goes telling another fantastic story.
This time, we learn of a woman who is a total outcast. She has been hemorrhaging for twelve years, she is destitute because she has spent all her money on doctors – to no avail, and let’s not forget she is a woman. We can almost imagine the clandestine approach of this triple outcast weaving her way into the crowd just to touch Jesus’ garment. To her credit, the simple touch works! Now, the story really could end there, but Mark tells us something even more fascinating – Jesus stops dead in his tracks, demanding to know who touched him. In a crowd of thousands, he wants to know which person touched him?!? The woman comes forward for what should be a great castigation and humiliation. Instead, her honesty and vulnerability open Jesus up to giving even more blessing. Not only has her faith in him made her well, he offers her the peace, health, and wholeness that will allow her full integration back into society – a double gift!
Now the good news is that Mark is not as bad of a storyteller as my former parishioner. Mark jumps back to Jairus’ story – but the news is bad. The daughter has died! Everyone thinks the cause is lost, but Jesus encourages Jairus to believe. So off they go, but this time with only Peter, James, and John. The gathered crowd mocks Jesus’ assertion that the girl is just sleeping. But when the six of them go in, Jesus quite simply takes her by the hand, calls the girl to get up, and then asks them to give her some food – dying can really take a toll after all!
You might be shaking your head at Mark at this point, wondering if we can’t just focus on one of these stories – truly either is powerful enough on its own. But Mark is not really like my former parishioner – he does not simply tell stories because he is good at telling stories, or because he likes to entertain guests. In fact, Mark does this more than once in his gospel. The biblical critics call this practice “intercalation,” but many people just call this a Markan sandwich.[i] As N.T. Wright explains, by sandwiching the stories together, “The flavour of the outer story adds zest to the inner one; the taste of the inner one is meant in turn to permeate the outer one.”[ii]
So what do we learn about Jesus through Mark’s sandwiching these stories together? Well, let’s start with how they are different. Jairus is an insider – as a male synagogue leader, he is well-known and respected in the community, presumably with some power and influence.[iii] Meanwhile, the bleeding woman is an outsider – a female, impure, impoverished outcast.[iv] Jairus publicly invites Jesus to touch his dying daughter; the woman secretly touches Jesus’ cloak herself. Jairus’ daughter is just a girl, but the woman has lived a longer life. More interesting though is how the two stories are alike. Both Jairus and the woman kneel before Jesus. “Both victims of illness are female and ritually unclean, one as a result of death and one as a result of hemorrhage; both represent the significance of the number twelve in Jewish tradition (the twelve years of hemorrhage and the twelve-year old girl); and both are regarded as ‘daughters’ (the little girl being Jairus’s daughter and the woman who is addressed by Jesus as ‘Daughter’). An act of touch restores both women to new life even as those surrounding them lack understanding.”[v]
Mark uses these two stories together because we need their differences and similarities to teach us something about Jesus and about ourselves. We learn from Mark’s sandwich that Jesus is present with both the powerful and the powerless alike. Both requests, despite the baggage both a synagogue leader and an impure woman bring, are honored by Jesus. What we note though is Jesus tends the woman first. Now some scholars might argue the pause in the story, and the death of the girl before Jesus gets there, are meant to build suspense.[vi] But equally important is that Jesus stops for the person without power first[vii] – even taking precious time to not just heal her but demand to be in conversation and relationship with her. He could have kept walking, knowing that his power had flowed out but staying the course with the good deed he was about to perform. But instead, he stops everything, everyone, and demands a connection – one that leads not just to healing but total restoration within the community – shalom.[viii] Jesus also shows us about the wideness of family. A few weeks ago, we read the gospel lesson where Jesus questioned the crowd about who his mother and brothers and sister were. Today he keeps expanding the circle. The powerful and persecuting are his family; the most ostracized outcasts are his family; even the vulnerable children are his family. Finally, Jesus teaches us that healing or the good works we do are meant to be within the context of relationship. That Jesus tends the bleeding woman and the young girl is much less important than how he tends the two females. Jesus’ help is not about an impersonal exchange – a few coins dropped in a hat or a check written to a charity – though those are necessary too. Equally important to dropping a coin in a hat might be stopping to talk to the person asking for a handout. In addition to contributing to a favorite charity, knowing the stories of specific clients is equally important.
What is hidden in these two tales about Jesus is the “flash of precious intimacy between two human beings who are socially very distant from each other.” As one scholar explains, what Jesus brings alive for us today is “Our relationships – in the church, in friendships, and in marriage – are not just something extra added on to life for distraction and entertainment, as if we would be complete human beings in individual isolation. Relationship, ‘touch,’ if you will, makes us human and whole. As the contemporary Scottish philosopher John Macmurray once phrased it, ‘I need “you” in order to be myself.’”[ix] What Jesus’ actions and Mark’s adept way at combining stories do today is invite us to consider not what we do, but how we do what we do. Jesus invites us to slow down – to take those moments when someone’s pain is presented to us, and not just offer help, but stop long enough to make a connection – to develop intimacy with others. “A teacher once remarked, ‘You know…my whole life I have been complaining that my work was constantly interrupted, until I discovered that my interruptions were my work.’”[x] Jesus also invites us to care for everyone – rich, poor, young, and old – but he especially wants us to start with those most in need. Finally, Jesus invites us today to see, really see, where people are, and to be a people of compassion, healing, and love. Before you know it, you may be the one at coffee hour, veering off one story to tell yet another story, all highlighting the wonderful, lifegiving, challenging ways that stepping into relationship with others has changed your walk with Jesus. I can’t wait to try to track your stories! Amen.
[i] Karoline Lewis, “A Lesson from Mark,” June 25, 2018, as found at http://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=5184 on June 28, 2018.
[ii] N.T. Wright, Mark for Everyone (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2004), 58.
[iii] Efrain Agosto, “Exegetical Perspective,” Feasting on the Word, Yr. B, Vol. 3 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009), 189.
[iv] John R. Donahue, S.J. and Daniel J. Harrington, S.J., The Gospel of Mark, Sacra Pagina Series, vol. 2 (Collegeville: The Liturgical Press, 2002), 174.
[v] Beverly Zink-Sawyer, “Homiletical Perspective,” Feasting on the Word, Yr. B, Vol. 3 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009), 191.
[vi] Lamar Williamson, Jr., Mark, Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1983), 108.
[vii] Mark D. W. Edington, “Theological Perspective,” Feasting on the Word, Yr. B, Vol. 3 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009), 192.
[viii] Williamson, 109.
[ix] Michael L. Lindvall, “Pastoral Perspective,” Feasting on the Word, Yr. B, Vol. 3 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009), 192.
[x] Williamson, 112 (quoting Henri J.M. Nouwen, Reaching Out, p. 36).