When Jesus had again crossed over by boat to the other side of the lake, a large crowd gathered around him while he was by the lake. Then one of the synagogue leaders, named Jairus, came, and when he saw Jesus, he fell at his feet. He pleaded earnestly with him, “My little daughter is dying. Please come and put your hands on her so that she will be healed and live.” So Jesus went with him. 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.” While Jesus was still speaking, some people came from the house of Jairus, the synagogue leader. “Your daughter is dead,” they said. “Why bother the teacher anymore?” Overhearing what they said, Jesus told him, “Don’t be afraid; just believe.” He did not let anyone follow him except Peter, James and John the brother of James. When they came to the home of the synagogue leader, Jesus saw a commotion, with people crying and wailing loudly. He went in and said to them, “Why all this commotion and wailing? The child is not dead but asleep.” But they laughed at him. After he put them all out, he took the child’s father and mother and the disciples who were with him, and went in where the child was. He took her by the hand and said to her, “Talitha koum!” (which means “Little girl, I say to you, get up!”) Immediately the girl stood up and began to walk around (she was twelve years old). At this they were completely astonished. He gave strict orders not to let anyone know about this, and told them to give her something to eat.
Mark’s Gospel reads like a whirlwind: when I was a student, Mark’s Gospel was one of our set texts and one of the things that sticks in my mind from those lectures is Mark’s sense of urgency. His frequent use of the word “immediately” sets up an almost frantic pace. Immediately such and such happened and then immediately Jesus said or did this or that. And that sense of constant activity is underlined at the start of this morning’s passage which tells us that Jesus “again” crossed the lake: he’s been backwards and forwards across the Sea of Galilee, teaching, preaching and healing and when I looked back at the events that precede this passage I found the story of the man with the unclean spirits who, when they came out possessed a herd of pigs. Before that we have Jesus calming a storm at sea, having had to be woken first from a deep sleep, both events suggesting huge emotional and physical effort. Then we have Jesus teaching through parables and everywhere being mobbed by the crowds. Add to that the relentless heat of Palestine which this week we’ve had a bit of taster of and we have a picture of a man who must have lived on the edge of constant exhaustion. Perhaps that’s why he so frequently took to boats: away from the crowds, gently rocked by the waves he could rest at last and maybe his fishermen disciples kept the boat in open water longer to allow more sleep rather than crossing immediately to the other side. And what does Jesus find when they get to the other side? “A great crowd gathered around him.” and he’s off again in that frantic round of teaching, healing and preaching with people grabbing at him, shouting and imploring him for help, pressing in on him at every side and we can picture the disciples trying to carve a way through the crowd like bodyguards – and all this, still quite early on in his ministry.
In this public chaos a woman is waiting her chance to approach Jesus by stealth, but before she manages to pluck up her courage, she’s beaten to it by an anxious father – presumably only two of many clamouring for Jesus’ attention. Jairus, a man of faith as made clear by Mark in his description of him as a leader of the synagogue, literally falls in Jesus’ path and apart from the clear hint of supplication and worship in someone throwing themselves down in front of you, Jesus can’t ignore the man: he can’t get past him. He has to respond. “My little daughter is at the point of death. Come and lay your hands on her, so that she may be made well and live.” Isn’t that an amazingly strong statement of faith in Jesus? There’s no preamble, no sense that the man has doubts. He’s straight in: “You can do this. Please.”
And now, just to show both the nature of Jesus’ appeal and growing reputation and the melee that surrounds him, Mark reintroduces the second supplicant, the woman who’d been quietly waiting: not waiting to speak to Jesus, though, just waiting to get close enough to touch him. She couldn’t possibly have approached him directly because she was a woman alone, and social norms would have prevented her from speaking to Jesus and because of the nature of her illness, a longstanding gynaecological problem, she would have been deemed to have been unclean and shouldn’t even have left her home to go out in public. In spite of the invisible role in which society had placed her, she summonses the courage to approach Jesus.
This woman’s faith may not be so obvious at first glance, but subtle as it is, given what she’d been prepared to overcome to be there, her faith must rank with that of the desperate father. Refusing to be powerless any longer, she breaks through the social, cultural and religious barriers that have relegated her to isolation.
In the midst of a hundred grasping hands, Jesus feels a powerful connection with one person. The woman believes that if she simply touches his cloak she’ll be healed. With everyone milling about, Jesus asks, "Who touched me?" And in effect, the disciples respond, "Really? Are you serious? Just look around.” The woman, however, instinctively knows that something has changed and, nervous as she is, makes herself known to find no condemnation, only compassion and healing. Reaching through the gender barrier, stretching across the ritual purity boundaries, this woman displays extraordinary faith, and Jesus recognizes it. Unlike the other miracle stories, Jesus doesn’t pronounce any healing words. He also doesn’t recoil or regard himself as contaminated. Jesus does nothing to bring the attention back to Him. Instead, he overwhelms her with gentleness. He does nothing but acknowledge her. He simply calls her "daughter;" and in so doing, he not only gives her the blessing that no one else was willing to give, he acknowledges the power of female faith. In seeking the source of the healing, he cites it as being her own faith. Her courage to break through the conditioning of a lifetime, brings her a condition she can barely remember: peace.
This whole incident must have taken mere minutes but in the meantime Jairus’ daughter has died and Jesus is interrupted again, this time by mourners who come to tell Jairus that his daughter has died and that there is now no point in having Jesus come to heal her. When Jesus tells the crowd that she’s not dead but sleeping, they laugh at him. In spite of their seeing his miracles, in spite of the teachings they had heard, when Jesus tells them that their mourning is premature, they laugh in his face. This is the nature of the crowd: a crowd is easily swayed between extremes, in this case between adoration and ridicule and perhaps this’ll help us to realise that Jesus was not always safe in the crowd and that very often his very being with the crowd was not just motivated by compassion but was a bravery motivated by compassion. Jesus may be a healer, but the girl is dead. What can he do about death, the mourners scoffed? Well, they soon see because Jesus goes to the house and restores the child to life.
At first glance, we might think that these two stories, lumped together as one, are really unrelated until Mark adds at the end of the story a kind of afterthought: oh, yes, by the way, the little girl was twelve years old. Perhaps we might sense something more is going on here than two stories simply sandwiched together. The woman had been sick for twelve years so maybe there are other connections. Jesus addresses the woman, who would have been considered unclean, as "daughter." By touching Jesus, the woman threatens to spread her ritual uncleanliness to Jesus. When Jesus takes the dead girl by the hand, he dares to make himself unclean because he transgresses another boundary by touching the dead. The healing touch of Jesus makes them well instead of making him unclean and he restores these two women to abundant life. Two needy outsiders become daughters of God.
Both the woman and the father of the little girl take Jesus seriously. Both believe that Jesus can restore their lives. Both kneel before him. This two-part story shows us that Jesus is active in the world with divine power to restore life, abundant life for everyone.
But this isn’t just a story about healing as you may well have been picking up as we’ve gone along. In many respects the healing elements are almost incidental: they’re simply the hook to hang a deeper understanding on and what a shame it would have been, I think, if we’d concentrated on the healing and missed the more subtle depths of these stories because if they’re about anything, these stories are about faith and God’s grace challenging and breaking through cultural and religious norms to reveal a new and deeper aspect of that same grace.
The crowds weren’t expecting it; they weren’t really open to it and all but a few probably didn’t even notice it. In that light, I think we have to ask to what extent we’re truly open to God’s grace breaking through in ways we didn’t expect; whether we’d be open to it – or would we stick with what we’re used to and are familiar with? Would we be numbered amongst the few that even recognise it or would we be with those who laugh and ridicule?