The Woman with the Flow of Blood
Matthew 9:20-22; Mark 5:25-34; Luke 8:43-48

What do you have to report today? Were you challenged yesterday? What did you add to your burden of knowing? Remember the first night we were together here Dr. Emile Townes told us that our diversity has outpaced our care for each other? Remember that she said we are losing our sense of "we"? Well, I think that our willingness to be challenged, our willingness to seriously consider what we hear even if we initially disagree, our willingness to say yes, well, I think this is a very important way to care for each other, to learn to respect diversity, to learn to allow differences to touch us.

Now let us turn to one of my favorite Gospel passages: the woman with a flow of blood. And in this Bible study I will be using elements not only from Mark's version of this story but also Luke's and Matthew's versions.

Can you imagine what it would be like to have a vaginal hemorrhage for twelve years? Can you imagine what it would be like, on top of having a flow of blood for twelve years, on top of that, can you imagine what it is like to feel, to be considered to be, to believe that you are unclean? I want us to take a full minute in silence to imagine ourselves being considered by others and considering ourselves unclean.

This woman, everyone knew that this woman had a vaginal flow of blood.1 Everyone knew it because according to the religious laws she was unclean and had to be ostracized. This woman was condemned by religious law to a feeling, a belief: she was condemned to believe that she was soiled and unworthy.2 Not only was she unclean, but anything she touched was unclean. This meant it was her responsibility not to contaminate others. And we know that this was the way she felt because the text says that when she had to identify herself as the one who touched Jesus she "came in fear and trembling." She knew she was unclean and had hoped to pass inapercibida—she had hoped nobody would notice her. She knew that by touching the hem of Jesus' garment she had made him unclean. The story leaves no doubt about how she felt. She knew that now Jesus would have to observe some washing rituals in order to purify himself.3 Can you imagine the state of mind of this person? She had indeed internalized the condemnation of her society and her religion. She had been socialized to think of herself as dirty, as soiled, as filthy.

I want us to think about this. Socialization is such a strong force in our lives. Even if we know differently "intellectually," we often act the way we have been socialized. Why? Because the process of socialization convinces us that what society says, what society has as a rule or custom, that is what is normal. If we think differently, if we act differently, we are deviants, we are abnormal. There is something wrong with us, we are inferior.

El proceso de socialización es tan fuerte, tan totalizante, que aunque intelectualmente sepamos que la verdad es otra, si actuamos en contra de lo que la sociedad considera normative, nos sentimos inseguras, nos sentimos mal. Lo que hacemos se considera divio, anormal, y a las que acutamos en forma diferente se nos consideran inferiores.

It is against this socialization that this audacious woman has to act. What gave her the courage to act? What pushed her to go ahead and touch the hem of Jesus' garment despite her feelings of uncleanness? ¿Qué le dió a esta mujer audaz la fuerza para ir en contra del proceso de socialización?

Matthew 5:26 tells us one reason, "she had endured much under physicians." Can you imagine twelve years of seeing doctors who did not know what to do? Can you imagine the kind of remedies they suggested? Is it far-fetched to think that she was financially ruined? Twelve years of seeing doctors would certainly push me to go against the grain, against any grain!

But I believe there was something else at work here. I think that what gave this woman the courage to come up behind Jesus and touch the hem of his garment was what is called the revolutionary potential of those who suffer, of those who are poor and oppressed, el potencial revolucionario de los que sufren, de los pobres y los oprimidos. It is not that she did not suffer; on the contrary, she did! But obviously this woman, at least at the moment when this story takes place, she did not understand herself primarily as suffering. She understood herself primarily as struggling against what oppressed her. What gave her confidence at this moment, what gave her strength, what gave her courage, was that she had not given up, that she still believed enough in herself to struggle. La lucha, eso es lo que le da significado a la vida de esta mujer. Es el sentido de la lucha y no el hecho que sufre, es el luchar y no el sufrir, lo que la lleva a atreverse a tocar el manto de Jesús.

Yes, it is la lucha, the struggle, that pushes her on, that gives her the strength to touch Jesus' garment. And because she is willing to struggle, because she calls forth from the depth of her being her own power, that is why she can benefit from Jesus' power.

In the version of this story in Luke's Gospel, you remember how Jesus responded. Everyone is pressing against Jesus. So to his question, "Who touched me?" Peter says, "Everyone is touching you, master." But that is not what Jesus was talking about. Someone had touched him in such a way that he perceived that power had gone out of him. This woman took the initiative. This woman dredged up from her battered self, from her sense of personal uncleanness, she dredged up a positive sense of self, of her life, of her body, of who she was. That positive sense of self: that was her power. And that power-touch of the woman was what Jesus felt. Her power called forth his; and he released his power.

My sisters, remember how the widow we looked at yesterday acted on her own behalf? Do you remember how we saw that she did for herself? We have the same thing here: a doing justice for oneself, something we women need to embrace.

Power, my sisters, is not given, power has to be taken.4 El poder es algo que tenemos que tomar, que tenemos que aceptar que tenemos; nadie nos puede dar poder. Power is not bad. Power is neither moral nor immoral. It depends what we do with the power we have. We can use power to do good or to do evil. We can use power to create situations for people to be self-determining or we can use it to control and dominate others, to oppress others. El poder en sí es algo neutral. Lo podemos usar para bien o para mal, para crear situaciones en las cuales las personas puedan ser sujetos de sus propias historias, o podemos usar el poder para controlar, para dominar y oprimir.

The woman with the flow of blood used her power to access Jesus' power. And, as a result, she was healed. My sisters, we might try to give up our power, but we must not do that. To give up our power is to abdicate responsibility for who we are, what we do, who we become, and we, simply, cannot do that.

Let us go back and look at Eve. She had to decide for herself, she had to take responsibility for eating or not eating. God did not enclose the forbidden tree so as to curtail Eve's actions. At times we might think it would be better if decisions were made for us, if someone or something would tell us, "do this," "do not do that." But as part of our being made in the image and likeness of God we have to accept our power, we have to take responsibility for what we think, what we believe, what we decide.

Notice the interaction between Jesus and this woman. She uses her power, she takes the initiative. Jesus says, "Power has gone forth from me." This indicates that what happened to him in a way took him by surprise. And notice further that, according to Jesus, what healed her was her faith, the courage she mustered to touch the hem of his mantle, the power she had to access Jesus' power. Es la fe de la mujer lo que la cura. Es el valor que tuvo de tocar el manto de Jesús; es el poder de la mujer lo que activa el poder de Jesús. It is the asking accompanied by the doing, that's what is going on here.

All three accounts of this story use the phrase "made well" instead of "healed." This translates a Greek phrase that carries with it the idea of rescue from impending destruction by a superior power. And this is very important for us to notice because it gives us a window into perhaps one of the reasons this story was included in the Gospels. What is the impending destruction, the superior power this woman is fighting against? May I suggest that it is the casting off, the doing away with the ingrained blood taboo that classified her as unclean, that is what she is fighting against. The fact that all three Synoptic Gospels report this story signifies that in three different contexts of the early Christian community this event in the life of Jesus was considered important. Certainly Jesus rejects the uncleanness of women. The fact that all three evangelists interrupt the story of the raising of the daughter of Jairus—one of the leaders of the synagogue—indicates that the early community saw the event of the woman whose faith saved her from impending destruction as important.

This story, my sisters and brothers, is one of those gems that preserves for us a glimpse of what the early Christians meant by "[in Christ Jesus] there is no longer male and female" (Galatians 3:28). It meant that the Christians were a community of equals.5 Este evento en la vida de Jesús nos deja ver un poquito como era la comunidad primitiva de cristianos. Era una comunidad en la cual todos eran uno en Cristo Jesús; una comunidad en la cual las mujeres tanto como los hombres eran considerados capaces de tener las mismas capacidades y cualidades; una comunidad en la cual había igualdad.

In this community of equals Junius, a woman, was as much an apostle as Paul; Phoebe and Prisca, both of them women, were deacons;6 Mary Magdalen was the first witness of the resurrection of Jesus. This community of equals recognized that the women disciples of Jesus were the ones who paid for his personal needs and financially sustained his ministry;7 and it was the women who stayed by the cross until the end.

What the women of the Gospels did then outlines for us what we are to do today. We must grab hold of our power and insist that our churches have to be communities of equals.

Al final, ya desesperada, lo último que le quedaba a esta mujer con el flujo de sangre era la lucha. Y convencida de que "sí se puede," luchó; usó su poder y se curó. Igual tenemos que hacer nosotras.

In the end, all this woman had left was her belief in the struggle. She realized that as long as she struggled there was hope, and that she had nothing to lose by trying.

May her faith in the struggle, her belief in herself regardless of all that society thought about her, be a source of inspiration, a source of blessing for us.


1You can read the laws that governed uncleanness for women in Chapters 12 and 15 of the book of Leviticus.

2The idea of uncleanness seems to have been a development of primitive taboos imposed on places, things, actions, and people that were considered potentially destructive to a group, a clan, a tribe. So laws of uncleanness are, first of all, related to a sense of self-preservation. Second, laws of uncleanness, especially those around issues of sexuality, life, and death arise from a sense that potent and mysterious forces are at work and "anything repulsive, abnormal, or distorted was likely to be regarded as unclean." The third step seems to happen once the idea of deities has developed. Uncleanness is then related to the will of the gods: the unclean is repulsive to or prohibited by the gods (Isaiah 35:8; 52:1; Ezekiel 39:24; Revelation 21:27), or belongs to the sphere of the demonic powers opposed to the gods (Zechariah 13:2; Mark 1:23; Luke 4:33; Acts 5:16). Fourth, the laws governing cleanness and uncleanness are developed and rituals of purification are set and prescribed. In priestly thought uncleanness was considered to be contagious, so one could become unclean by contact with an unclean person or thing.

"A woman's menstrual flow, because of its cyclic occurrence analogous to such important cosmic rhythms as the phases of the moon, its connection with fertility, and its relationship to the life forces contained in the blood, was a potent source of uncleanness....Analogous to, but more serious than, menstrual impurity was a persistent discharge of blood from a woman." (L.E. Toombs, "Clean and Unclean," in The Interpreter's Dictionary of the Bible, Volume 1, edited by George Arthur Buttrick [Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1962], 641-648.)

3Ibid., see particularly the section of this article dealing with "Purification Rituals."

4Several women came to me afterwards and asked me to amplify what I meant by this. Power has to do with self-actualization, with coming into one's own source of strength and being. Therefore, I believe that others can help us, enable us by affirming us and providing for us the opportunities we need to come to know ourselves, appreciate ourselves, value ourselves. But in the end, only each one of us can actualize ourselves, can value ourselves, can use our potential to its maximum in order to become as fully as possible the persons God intends us to be. Power has to do with ability to act and to influence others. And that is something that cannot be given to anyone.

5For ample explanation of this theme see Elisabeth Schussler-Fiorenza, In Memory of Her (New York: Crossroad 1983).

6Schussler-Fiorenza, chapter 5.

7Luke 8:1-3.