Rev. Ron Patterson
August 21, 2022
Plymouth Congregational Churh, UCC
Fort Collins, CO
Lection: Luke 13:10-17
Did you ever meet the bent-over woman? Did you ever hear her story? I used to think I knew a lot about the New Testament until one day on Long Island back in the eighties, my friend Laura Remsen, a woman well up into her eighties came in to see me and asked me if I knew the story of the bent-over woman. I told her I’d never heard it and she took some delight in opening the Bible there on the end of my desk and showing me the story of the bent-over woman in the 13th chapter of Luke. I love it---I absolutely love it, when members of the congregation know more Bible stories than I do!
Well, as Laura stood there, I read the story of the bent-over woman. And what I read was what we heard today. As Luke tells the story, a bent-over woman comes up to Jesus. She’s been bent over for eighteen years, she’s not able to stand up straight. According to the story, her back is bent and her spine is twisted in pain and the cause is a spirit or as one of the older translations has it, “a spirit of infirmity.” She comes to Jesus because she has heard that he is a healer; she comes to him hoping to be healed.
And just that quick, with a word and with a touch, Jesus sets her free. Jesus heals her spirit and for the first time in eighteen years, she stands up straight and gets on with her life.
Question: Do you believe in spiritual healing? Do you believe in miracles? Do you think that this story is the actual account of a woman with a bent spine being suddenly straightened? Now I am not going to try to answer those three questions directly today, because they need more time than I have this morning, but I am going to invite you to think with me about the bent over woman and her healing for a few minutes—and then whenever we can in the next couple of months, to get together to talk about the things that bend your back and mine—I’m a good listeners and I have the time.
Let me begin by saying that my friend Laura sat down in my office that day and together we did some Bible study using the commentaries and other translations I had at hand. Together we became convinced that the story of the bent over woman carries life lessons all of us need to hear.
First of all, the story says that her spine was bent by a spirit, a spirit of infirmity. Now what on earth does that mean? What could have bent her over? As modern people, people who have trouble believing in evil spirits, I suppose that the most obvious answer was scoliosis or osteoporosis or some other disease of the bone or the spine. The obvious answer was that this woman was bent over by a medical problem and that if we met her, we might suggest that she needed to see a good orthopedist or a specialist of some sort. That maybe she needed surgery or perhaps she needed a back brace or some pills.
But Dr. Luke—and some scholars suggest that the gospel writer Luke was a physician—Dr. Luke has something more in mind here. Because instead of choosing a word which referred to simply a biological or a medical condition, Dr. Luke choose to describe the woman’s condition with a word that has four meanings. A spirit of infirmity could be a medical problem to be sure, it could have been a spinal injury or a physical disease, but the same Greek word includes three more meanings.
Her spirit of infirmity might have been a psychological problem—like clinical depression—the sort of depression which grabs hold of our lives and makes each day seem like a burden. Depression is like holding the whole world on your back without seeing any possible way of getting it off. This word covers the sort of emotional problems many of us have had to face or go through with the people we love. Things like this take the joy away and bend us over with worry or a sense of despair that just hangs on and won’t let go.
The evil spirit which had hold of her life could also have been a social problem—like being an abused spouse or a person with a substance abuse problem. She could have been caught in a complicated relational web that was sapping her energy and weighing her down.Her back could have been bent over by the worry another person was foisting into her life. She might have been bent over by abuse or weighed down with the emotional pain of watching someone she loved destroy themselves. When the behavior of another takes our love and twists it into worry our love for that other person can break us down and bend us over.
The same word also covers the idea of an economic problem or the pressure of people caught in the crosshair of pandemic and politics gone crazy. Maybe the woman was bent over with worry about the gun-toting crazies and the future of our nation. Or bent over from the worry of having more month than money. Maybe she was the first century equivalent of a person who has lost their job or whose unemployment benefits are running out. Maybe she’s like the person stuck in a minimum wage job with kids to feed or who is on a fixed income and the cost of prescription drugs just keeps going up.
Maybe she is like some people I know who must choose between eating right and taking the medicine they need to live. On the other hand, maybe her back is bent by having too much, too many things, too many responsibilities, too much to keep track of. Do I really have to remind any of you about the poverty of prosperity? Every one of those possible meanings and probable scenarios are conveyed in the little Greek word translated “a spirit of infirmity.”
And here, I hope you see the implication. Luke is trying to tell us that every one of those situations can weigh us down and bend us over and eventually take our health away. The implication is that all four are related and that Jesus has the power to change all of these conditions and their consequences. That Jesus healed this woman and that Jesus can heal us.
Now, let’s get personal. What bends you over? What grinds you down? What causes you to feel the weight of the world? What depresses you or makes you anxious? What truly worries you and keeps you awake at night?
The bent-over woman is the patron saint of life in the modern world. If we had icons in this faith tradition, we would hang her icon right up here in front where we could see it every Sunday. She is the matron of the migraine, the heroine of the heart attack, the shepherd of the sleepless night, the paragon of the parental nightmare which those of us with children have too often experienced. The same spirit of infirmity which bent her over is the cause of too much of the preventable illnesses in this world. Goodness knows there are enough things that can go wrong with our bodies without the stress we bring on ourselves or the self-inflicted wounds we suffer.
She represents the dame of depression. She is the detailer of the worst-case scenario so many of us run through in our minds every night. She personifies the pink slip specter of the fear of an empty bank account and cancelled health insurance. She points out the power that a poorly performing portfolio can have over a person’s life. She incarnates any worry we have ever had. She is the queen of the worry warts of the world. Her portrait graces any grudge we have ever borne, any bone we have insisted on picking, and every old score we have ever wasted our time trying to settle. She reminds us of every rotten thing about others that crowds our memory and ruins our remembrance of life’s best things.
She represents any enemy we have failed to love, any minority we have ever despised and every ounce of negative energy which we have held for more than the time it takes to let it go. Did you ever hear a twelve stepper use the expression: “Let go and let God”? The bent over woman’s motto for eighteen long years has been, I can manage, I can make it on my own, don’t worry about me, I’m tough and I can take it. That’s why she is bent over and in one way or another, a little bit or a lot, every one of us is bent over too.
The point of this little gospel story is that the human body is never fooled. And that’s where Jesus comes into the picture. Jesus is a helper and Jesus is a healer. Jesus is the one who wants to hear the story of what has us bent over and he’s the one who wants to help and who wants us to help one another. Jesus says come to me all you who are heavy-laden and burdened and I will give you rest and I will give you hope and I will give you abundant life. Let go of what weighs you down. Forgive others and experience the miracle of being truly forgiven—it’s like letting go of a ton of bricks.
Put your hand in my hand and let go of whatever causes you to clench your fist—anger, frustration, failure, fear—you name it—all of it wrinkles the heart and burdens the soul—let it go and let me show you the way of love. I have loved you without condition, love one another as I have loved you is what Jesus is saying. Love God and love yourself enough to take care of yourself, body, mind and soul. And that is the good news and that is the best news and that is the promise of life and it is true, it is true, it is true!
What bent the woman was real. What burdens you and me is just as real, but by the power of God in Jesus Christ, those real burdens can disappear. Give them to God, let them go and let the love that will never let you go come into your heart.
Please pray with me: Loving God, you see our lives and yet you love us. Take the things that burden us and weight us down and bend us over. We give them to you and seek your healing and hope in Jesus. Hear us now, as we pray in his name. Amen.