Which, let's face it, is how you and I identify some people — the retarded, the disfigured, the drunk, the ex-convict. We give them a name which is not really a name but a label.
And, to get more a bit more personal, what is your name, what label do people stick on you? How do people identify you: kid, teenager, single, divorcee, step-parent, widow, retired, old person? And what is it that is bending you over: your job, your studies, worries about your health, trying to keep your marriage together, trying to cope with loneliness, trying to be a parent and still maintain your sanity? There are so many ways life has of bending us down, breaking us down.
Jesus sees the bent-over woman. He calls her to him, and he says to her, "Woman, you are set free from your ailment." He places his hands on her. And she stands up straight and begins praising God.
And when the big cheese of the synagogue gets all bent out of shape about how inappropriate it is that this healing should take place on the sabbath, for heaven's sake, our Lord won't stand for it. He has no patience with those who are more concerned about legal niceties than they are about relieving human suffering. "You hypocrites!" he says. "You give water to your work animals on the sabbath. Ought not this woman, a daughter of Abraham whom Satan bound for eighteen long years, be set free from this bondage on the sabbath day?"
Did you hear the name Jesus gives to the bent-over woman? He calls her "a daughter of Abraham." She's the only person in the whole Bible to be called by that name. Abraham, of course, was the great father of faith. He was the one who, many years before, received God's promise that a great nation would be created out of his descendants, a people through whom all the nations of the earth would be blessed. This woman, says Jesus, is a daughter of Abraham, no less. She isn't the crippled woman, she isn't a nobody. She shall not be shunted aside, given a label to keep her in her place. No, she is a beloved child of Abraham. She is part of God's great plan of salvation and blessing for the whole world.
Isn't this Jesus just too much? Love just pours out of him, almost as if he can't help it. He can't help noticing the invisible ones, can't help loving them, can't help healing them. In the case of the bent-over woman, Jesus reaches out to heal without even being asked. He sees her, sees not just the obvious thing — that she cannot stand up straight. He sees whatever spirit has been keeping her life bent. He sees the totality of her suffering: the humiliation of her ailment, the way it has set her apart into a prison of loneliness. He sees how other people look away when she comes into their line of vision. He sees the emotional as well as the physical pain she suffers. He sees the whole picture, sees that she is too timid or too afraid or too hopeless to ask for healing.
Just as he sees the same things about each of us, sees deep into our need, sees what sometimes we cannot even see ourselves, that our anger at other people is so often really anger at ourselves, that we're often afraid to look inside ourselves because we know there's a lot of garbage there that we'd rather not deal with. He sees that the good front we sometimes put on when we're out in public, even here in church, is often a cover-up for the hurts we have suffered over the years — the rejections, the disappointments, the betrayals, the failures, the losses, the fears. He sees the ugly stuff inside us — ugly things others have done to us, ugly things we have done to ourselves, ugly things we have done to others, ugly things that were nobody's fault, but just happened.
He sees it all and, just as he did to the bent-over woman, he calls us over to him. He says to us, "Come here to me. Let me put my hands on you and heal you. Let me take all that is bent and crooked in your life and make it straight and strong. Let me wipe away all the ugliness inside you. You are a child of Abraham, you are God's child, you are loved without limit, without reservation, without condition.
"I love you," Jesus says. "I love you. I love you. I love you."
Kenneth L. Gibble is a writer and instructor in preaching and worship for the Susquehanna Vally Satellite of Bethany Theological Seminary.
1. See William Willimon, Pulpit Resource, Vol. 26, No. 3, 32.