preached at Lighthouse this morning
As a kid, I loved the “Where’s Waldo” games. I don’t remember owning any of the books, but I’m sure I checked them out during frequent trips to the library — of course, these days there are a number of websites that allow you to play online. In the books would be pages of pictures that posed the same assignment – find Waldo. In case you missed out on this game, Waldo is a scrawny character. His wavy brown hair is hidden under a red and white stocking cap that matches his red- and white-striped shirt. Glasses and jeans complete his ensemble. Waldo is always hiding in the strangest places – in the midst of a battle scene, at the circus or even underwater. The ultimate puzzle features Waldo in the midst of a crowd of folks who are all wearing red- and white-striped shirts and stocking caps. Waldo may have been in plain sight, but he blended into the background.
The woman in our text today seems a little like Waldo. The New Revised Standard Version says “and just then there appeared a woman.” It makes it sound like she came out of nowhere. She didn’t exist until Jesus recognized her. And yet, she’s been bent over for 18 years. EIGHTEEN years. That’s older than some here have been alive. And what do you see when you are bent over? Not much beyond the ground directly beneath you. I’m assuming – and this is only an assumption – that this woman has not traveled very far in the last 18 years. Folks who are bent over tend to stay close to home. I imagine that she isn’t a stranger who just happened to stroll into town on this particular Sabbath. But if this woman is Martha from down the street, why didn’t anyone see her? Why doesn’t anyone seem to know her name?
A lot of speculation has been done about why this woman was bent over. Although Luke is a physician by profession, he doesn’t really tell us much about the woman’s symptoms. Euguene Peterson, in his popular Bible paraphrase The Message, describes the woman as suffering from a terrible case of arthritis. Others have suggested a curvature of the spine. Luke simply describes her as having a “spirit of infirmity.” Kate Huey, United Church of Christ minister states that Luke is telling us this woman has been pushed down, held bound by Satan. United Methodist minister David Owen continues that thought, suggesting this “infirm spirit” means “that ‘her life force had been weakened;’ that she had been ‘feeble of temper’… or that her vivaciousness had deteriorated. In other words, this woman was depressed. Russell Rathbun, a preacher in Minnesota and scholar in midrash traditions links the term “bent over” with stories from the Hebrew Bible of God making those who are bent by oppression stand up straight. One example of this is Psalm 145:14: “The Lord supports all who fall, and makes all who are bent stand straight.” The story of the bent over woman certainly supports this sort of interpretation. Jesus admonished the church leaders, urging them to treat this woman at least as well as they treat their animals. What happens to a person when they are treated worse than animals?
Perhaps this woman was bent over because she didn’t have the energy or the motivation to stand up. Or maybe, years spent in pain, staring at her feet with no answers and no hope of healing have brought her to that point. According to professionals, severe or longterm illness is one of the leading factors of depression. Perhaps her inability to fully engage the world around her, to meaningfully contribute to her family’s resources, to walk swiftly to her destination have left her feeling worthless. And so, aside from the occasional trip to the synagogue, she was withdrawn from society. Her neighbors don’t know her, because she doesn’t believe she is worth being known.
I’m guessing quite a few of us can relate. Statistics show that 1 in 5 of us will experience depression at some point in our lives. That depression is beyond just sadness or grief. It can cause us to feel hopeless, to lose energy, to feel restless and irritable. Some folks change eating or sleeping habits or have persistent aches and pains. At the worst, depression can lead to suicidal thoughts – and maybe even the taking of one’s life.
This week I posed a question to friends on my blog. I asked those who have experienced depression or been close to someone who has to describe what it is like. I then asked those who are part of faith communities to share what the response had been to their illness and what they would have hoped for. One responder admitted that he rarely feels understood by those who have not personally experienced clinical depression. “When it hits hard, I personally find it hard to do anything positive, think anything positive, or accept any help from anyone,” he said. “Thoughts that you would never consider to be true, become true in your mind – about your self-worth, how others feel about you, your value to your family, to Christ.” Things you otherwise know to be untrue become the dominant voice in your head. Another, who said he doesn’t really remember life before his depression, described life as “a bowl of crap.” He does everything he can to avoid people and tries to divert his mind by attempting to solve advanced math problems. He shared that he has attempted suicide and regularly thinks about it.
Several respondents admitted to hiding their illness from their faith communities. One said, “I suffer from the illness of depression. It is difficult to say. I can not say it to my church family. Only in the safe confines of my small group Bible study do I even come close to admitting it and then I dance around it with great delicacy.” She, like several others, has been made to feel that having depression is somehow incompatible with the Christian faith. While this particular friend has sought medical help, she fears her church family will believe that she isn’t a good enough Christian because she can’t overcome her depression on her own. “The greatest difficulty I face as a Christian with this illness is feeling like an inferior Christian,” she said. “Shouldn’t my relationship with the living God be enough to overcome this feeling? I spent many years mired in deep depression attempting to treat it as a spiritual condition not a physical/emotional illness. I spent many hours in great anguish trying to give God my burden and let his joy fill me, but to no avail.”
Another mentioned her own experience of having a pastor tell her all answers should come from within the church. Her pastor wanted to act as therapist, but did not have any of the training or expertise to help her. Instead of being helpful, this pastor delayed this woman’s healing.
Being depressed is not a sin, it is an illness. Just in case you missed it, I’ll repeat myself – being depressed is not a sin, it is an illness. If a person breaks his leg, we don’t tell him that he must not be faithful enough if his leg does not heal on its own. No! We take him to a medical professional who can set the bone and put the leg in a cast. Unless the method of breaking was particularly embarrassing, people are not hesitant to mention their broken leg. Instead, we get people to sign our casts, vent our frustrations in not being able to get around as easily as usual, or complain about our itchy skin beneath the plaster. We can depend on the help and prayers of our Christian brothers and sisters.
Our brothers and sisters with depression need the same care. My friend who is afraid to share her illness is on the way to recovery, but she says “My greatest need from the Christian community is to be loved in spite of the fact that I am emotionally defective.” People – all of us – need to know we are loved. We need to know that someone is there, loving us, praying for us, hoping with us and walking alongside us – even when we walk in dark places.
Contemporary hymn writer Brian Wren penned a communal song of lament in the late 80s, as a response to Psalm 88. Wren writes:
God, give us freedom to lament
and sing an honest, aching song,
when faith is twined with discontent
and all is empty, wrecked and wrong.
Give us the candor to complain
when pain attacks without reprieve
and evil rages unrestrained
while you are absent, or on leave.
As faith and understanding show
how love could gamble to create
by letting be and letting go,
we tremble at the risks you take.
The stakes are infinitely high
when love, its purpose to achieve,
must leave the Word in Flesh to die
while God is absent, or on leave.
We’ll walk beside you, come what may,
to you our hopes and hearts belong,
and when we’ve nothing else to say,
we’ll sing an honest aching song.
The song is a reminder of the pain we sometimes feel. It is often easy to feel as if we are alone when depression strikes. This hymn allows faith groups to express that hurt and emptiness together – carrying the hurt of our brothers and sisters. That is the example we see from Jesus. Jesus does not lecture the bent-over woman; he does not scold her for her lack of faith. He does not tell her that she brought her condition on herself. Instead, he calls her over and heals her. There is no indication that he treats her any differently from the blind man or the lepers that he heals.
What this indicates is that Christ sees no difference between depression and other illnesses. And neither, does it seem, do the religious leaders of the day. The leader of the synagogue does become angry – not because of what the woman was healed from, but because of the day of week the healing took place. He instructs the crowd – six days of the week are designated as work days – come on one of them if you wish to be healed, not on the Sabbath. Jesus quickly reprimands him. He reminds the leader, and the gathered worshippers that this woman is more than a face in the crowd. “She is a daughter of Abraham,” he points out – she is a treasured part of our family and heritage. His words counter the words that have been running through her head for the last 18 years. She isn’t a worthless nobody, she has remarkable value in the community, in the synagogue, in God’s kingdom. Shouldn’t she be free from the pain she has been in? Jesus gives name and identity to this nameless woman.
If you are here today and suffering from depression – or if you know someone else who is – I pray you find words of hope. You are a treasured part of this gathering. I hope you find in this church a group of friends you can confide in, who will walk alongside you. I also encourage you to seek help. With treatment – counseling and medication – 70-80% of people will recover from depression.
And may all of us hear Jesus’ words. As a child, I spent countless hours searching for Waldo. But how many hidden people walk alongside us everyday? How many men and women have been bent over by depression or by circumstances? Jesus urges us to see those in our midst and to look compassionately upon them. How might we provide encouragement?
My friend and professor, Terry Rosell, wrote a prayer in 2007 asking God for hope in the midst of depression. Terry is a bioethicist who is passionate about finding help for those who suffer from mental illness. I will close with his words and let them be a prayer for all of us:
God of all hope, hear my prayer.
Please, someone listen!
What I feel now is fear, almost despair.
When was it better?
I can hardly remember a good day.
It seems so long since I saw the sun.
How long has it been since the clouds parted
and my soul saw light?
Are you still there?
Do you still care even when I no longer can,
when I do not care even if I live or die?
Yet hope is in me;
something deep desires life.
Still care is in you
and in those who act with you on my behalf.
God of all hope, hear my prayer.