Text: Luke 13:10-13
And just then there appeared a woman with a spirit that had crippled her for eighteen years. She was bent over and was quite unable to stand up straight. When Jesus saw her, he called her over and said, “Woman, you are set free from your ailment.” When he laid his hands on her, immediately she stood up straight and began praising God.
In the chapter right before Luke tells this story of the bent over woman, Jesus is in full eschatological mode, teaching about being prepared for the coming Kingdom, which will arrive whenever God is good and ready. It’s one of those chapters in the gospels that, if you’re reading a certain kind of Bible, is printed almost entirely in red. Jesus is in front of a crowd that numbered in the thousands, people jostling to get a glimpse of him, elbowing each other aside so they can hear, even trampling each other in the frantic push forward. They are straining to hear what he has to say and the energy of the crowd is matched in the intensity of Jesus’ words: “….whoever denies me before others will be denied before the angels of God…Take care! Be on your guard…This very night your life is being demanded of you…Be dressed for action and have your lamps lit…”
And no wonder the crowd is so intense – eighteen Galileans had just been killed by Pilate. His sporadic persecution was enough to stoke their fears and raise their hopes that their suffering was a sign that the Kingdom of God was near.
Then suddenly the scene changes and Jesus is no longer shouting to be heard by thousands of restless, fearful, hopeful followers. Now he’s in a synagogue on the Sabbath when he sees a woman who is bent almost in half. I love way the text describes this scene: “and just then there appeared a woman.” I wonder how that happened. Surely she didn’t just appear out of nowhere so how did she get there? For someone who had been bent over and crippled for eighteen years the text makes it sound like she got there suddenly, so maybe some of her friends nudged her or even pushed her toward the front so Jesus would be sure to see her. Or maybe as Jesus was walking into the synagogue the people stood aside to let him pass and since she couldn’t move very quickly she got sort of stuck in the aisle right in Jesus’ way. Or maybe nobody knew how it came to be that she found herself suddenly in Jesus’ line of sight, and after the whole thing was over everyone wondered how she came to be in just that place at just that time when God’s grace washed over her like a wave and left her drenched in joy and gratitude.
We also don’t know how she came to be crippled. We don’t even know if she was young or old. Was she crippled as a little girl by scoliosis or some spinal deformity? Had she had a normal life only to become contorted by arthritis or osteoporosis as she got older? I wonder what she looked like. Where did she put her arms? Did they rest behind her with hands clasped on the curved hill of her back? Did they dangle near the ground or fold like bird wings by her side? And what did she see? Rather than recognizing people by their faces did she know them by their dirty toes, bulging bunions, and the dusty hems of their robes?
One of the hallmarks of Jesus’ healing stories is his statement, “Your faith has made you well.” He says it to the hemorrhaging woman and to the blind man. To others who are healed, Jesus says, “Your sins are forgiven.” To the paralytic whose friends opened a hole in the roof and lowered him down, he says, “Go and sin no more.” To Jairus whose little daughter lay dead he says, “Do not fear, only believe and she will be saved.” He asked the man lying beside the pool, “Do you want to be healed?” But it’s different with the bent over woman; her healing is astonishingly simple. Jesus says, “Woman you are set free from your ailment.” And when he laid his hands on her we’re told that she immediately stood up straight and began praising God.
This woman has had eighteen years of suffering. In those days, that may have been nearly half her life. Half of her life was spent crippled and bent over and now she can spend the next half standing up straight. How is she to understand those years of suffering, of being imprisoned in a body that twisted her bones and perhaps her spirit as well?
Not long ago my book club read a book called, “Picking Cotton.” It’s the true story of Jennifer Thompson Cannino and Ronald Cotton that began in 1985 when he was convicted of raping her when she was a 22-year-old student at Elon College in Burlington, N.C. Ronald was also 22 years old when he was sent to prison to serve a sentence of life-plus-fifty-four years for raping Jennifer and another woman. He served ten years and six months when, based on DNA evidence not available at the time of his trial, he was declared innocent and released. The book is told in the voices of these two people.
Jennifer begins by describing how careful she was during her assault to remember the facial features and identifying characteristics of her attacker. She was convinced that she had picked the right man out of a photo line up and then a physical line up. She identified him in court and he was convicted on the strength of her eye-witness testimony. But even after Ronald Cotton was sent to prison she could not get him out of her life. She saw him in her dreams and in her mind, her view of the world and her place in it was forever changed by her rape. The one thing she held onto was her certainty that she had identified the right man.
Some years later she married and had twins. This is how she describes that time: “And you can only imagine that that was my blessing. That was my gift from God because I was a good person. And I would tuck my babies in at night and sing them a song and I would pray a prayer for their safety and their health for them to grow up and be good, strong people…And then I would end my prayer with, ‘I pray that Ronald Cotton is killed today in prison. But before he leaves this earth to Hell, let him know the horror of what that night was for me. Let him experience that incredible loss of control and power, and then I want him to die.’ Every night I prayed this prayer; it was important.” (From transcript of presentation April 20, 2009 at Washington School of Law).
While Jennifer was praying for Ronald Cotton’s death, he was experiencing a hell of his own. Not long after he entered prison he met Bobby Poole, the man who in fact was guilty of Jennifer’s rape and who bragged about it to inmates in the same dormitory where he and Ronald were housed. Ronald describes his frustration and anger boiling over as he hit a punching bag over and over until his hands were raw and bloody. He wanted to kill Bobby Poole with his own hands so he fashioned a homemade weapon and night after night slept with it on his chest waiting for his chance.
For most of us healing doesn’t happen as suddenly as it did for the woman in Luke’s story. For most of us it’s a long and grinding process that takes us through sorrow and anger, insecurity and hurt and just when we think some joy is in reach we get knocked back and we have to start over. How does the spirit survive such body bending grief?
After being exonerated by DNA evidence, Ronald was approached by a documentary film maker who wanted to make a film about his experience. As the film was being made, Jennifer also was asked to tell her story which she agreed to do on the condition that she not ever have to see Ronald Cotton. She was afraid that he would want to kill her for wrongly sending him to prison. So now Jennifer’s desire for revenge was replaced by her fear of revenge. She also was still unconvinced of Ronald’s innocence. A part of her needed to hang onto her certainty, she had spent ten years clinging to the certainty that she had helped punish the man who raped her.
She says: “But I sat in this church, and when I saw his truck pull up outside the window, what really, really struck me was when he went to open the door for his wife. His wife is about 5’1”. I’m 5’1”. And I realized Ronald was too tall. He could not have been my rapist. He was just too tall. How had I made that mistake? Ronald came around the corner and stood in front of me and I couldn’t physically get out of the chair and I started to cry. And I looked at Ronald, and I said ‘Ronald, if I spent every moment of every day of every week of every month for the rest of my life telling you how sorry I am for what happened, could you ever forgive me? And Ronald Cotton, with all the grace and mercy and love and kindness and humility in the world took my hands, and with tears in his eyes, said ‘I forgave you years ago. I’m not angry at you. I want you to be happy and I want to be happy. And I want you to live a good life, and I want to live a good life. And don’t look over your shoulders thinking I’m going to be there to hurt you. It will not be me.”
Jennifer Thompson Cannino and Ronald Cotton were two people staggering under the weight of having been victimized by violence. Tied on top of that load was the baggage of an imperfect judicial system. Fear and anger added a few extra pounds as well. But what doubled them over and made them ache with bone crushing pain was carrying the burden of revenge. For ten years each of them wanted another human being dead. How were these two bent over people able, finally, to stand up straight?
One of the questions we ask in Spiritual Direction is “Where do you really hurt?” For most of us the source of our pain is not so obvious because we do such a good job of looking like we’re fine, just fine, thank you very much. But the way we experience suffering and loss shapes our capacity to be present to life. The paradox is that the more we protect ourselves from pain the further we are from wholeness. But oh how we want to avoid our pain. We over-medicate ourselves with food or alcohol or exercise. We let the dominating voices of culture, family, and even church drown out our inner voice. We become who we are expected to be rather than who we truly are, so that one day we look in the mirror and instead of seeing ourselves we see some strange-looking, bent over person we hardly recognize.
Our deepest pain comes when we lose touch with our own soul. Sometimes the pain is so great that all we can see are dirty toes, bunions and dusty hems dragging in the dirt. Such deep suffering shakes the foundations of all we think we know and believe in. As the Jungian psychologist James Hollis says, it is through such deep suffering that…“We learn that life is much riskier, more powerful, more mysterious than we had ever thought possible. While we are rendered more uncomfortable by this discovery, it is a humbling that deepens spiritual possibility.” (Finding Meaning in the Second Half of Life, p. 85)
The soul has an innate desire for wholeness. Pain points us toward a greater wholeness. And the more painful our experience is, the greater its capacity to change us. I hate that, but I do believe it’s true. Even a state of wrenching grief – and often it is a state of wrenching grief – becomes a state of grace when it breaks our hearts open allowing us to become receptive to the divine goodness that surrounds us. Even our pain is part of the goodness.
Our perception of God, the world, ourselves changes when we look through the lens of suffering and it changes again when we look through the lens of recovery. Ask any recovering addict or alcoholic. Ask anyone whose life was threatened by cancer or violence or despair. Ask anyone who has come through the death of a loved one and is no longer bowed low and they will tell you that their suffering shifted something in them. They will tell you that their suffering put them at a crossroads. Alcoholics Anonymous teaches that a person isn’t really ready for recovery until they’ve hit bottom. It isn’t until someone realizes how much they need God that they can take the first step toward recovery. That’s why AA is such a profound spiritual journey. People come in all bent over and twisted up, and they are supported, loved, and held by the power of community until they’re able to stand up straight and rejoice.
When Ronald Cotton heard the prison warden say, “You’re a free man; you can go home,” he stood up straight and went out of the prison gate rejoicing all the way. When the bent over woman heard Jesus say, “Woman you are set free from your ailment,” she stood up straight and began praising God. Our soul, which is really the voice of God within, is calling us to freedom. Our soul’s voice, sometimes shouting, sometimes singing, sometimes barely a whisper, comes through the clamor and din of our pain saying, “You’re free; you’re free. You can stand up straight now, my beloved, because you’re free.”