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The bleeding woman

(Mark 5:25-34)

Woman by nature is prone to bleeding. It is given to her by God, not something of her making. During her monthly period, the woman loses blood from unfertilized egg. If the egg is fertilized, it forms the nucleus of a human being, the beginning of life. If not it breaks up and oozes out slowly as blood. Thus all human beings begin life as woman in the egg principle and in a woman’s womb by God’s design. The experience of menstruating is often one of protracted excruciating pain for some women with nerve racking headache or migraine, lasting from three to seven days. Some have compared it to a lesser pain of childbirth. Thus whether she conceives and gives birth or not, every woman experiences pain akin to that of childbirth.

The Healing of the Woman with the Haemorrhage (Catacombe of Sts Marcellino and Peter, Rome)

Jesus recalls that a woman in childbirth suffers great pain because her time has come, but after the child is born, she forgets her pain for joy that a human being is born into the world (John 16:21). Jesus himself experienced birth pangs in his protracted three-day passion starting from the agony in the garden through his trial, crucifixion to his death on the cross. In the garden his sweat fell like thick drops of blood; artists depict him with blood shot face with blood oozing from his thorn crowned head. Climactically on the cross, blood oozed out of his nailed hands and feet. His mission accomplished “he gave the Spirit (John 19:30); a soldier pierced open his side with a lance and blood and water flowed out. The church sees these events as Jesus’ labour pangs in giving birth to a new creation, humanity and the church through the sacraments of initiation: baptism (water), confirmation (the Spirit) and the Eucharist (blood).

What has all this to do with the story of the bleeding woman (Mark 5:25-34) one may ask? By her God-given nature woman is prone to bleeding. This woman who was “built” by God (God’s first building in Scripture was the woman; verb banah Gen 2:22) to partner with him in conceiving, bearing and giving birth to other human beings, was bleeding for twelve years. The pain and stress entailed can hardly be imagined. Mark’s Greek describes her affliction as mastigos (whip). The physical scourge was nothing compared to the social trauma and stigmatisation of her socio-cultural and religious heritage. A bleeding woman was legally and socially unclean in herself and a source of uncleanness to anyone and anything she touched or that touched her, “for seven days” or for “as long as the blood discharge lasts” (Lev 15:19-30). In some traditional African cultures a menstruating woman had to dwell apart in a makeshift abode outside the house; she could not cook for her family or associate with others till the bleeding stopped. The pain was bad enough, but being made monthly a social outcast in her home, family and society exposed her menstrual state to everybody, including her children, and diminished her human worth. The embarrassment and psychological trauma caused by such dehumanisation can hardly be imagined. Today some priests still forbid menstruating women from receiving communion or approaching the altar. This ritual uncleanness is a major, even if unconscious reason for banning women from the Catholic priesthood.

Fortunately, unlike lepers, the bleeding woman in Jesus’ time did not have to ring a bell shouting, “Unclean, Unclean” to warn others from coming near her (Lev 13:45-46). The Israelites considered blood as the principle of life, which is why eating flesh “with blood in it” was forbidden (Gen 8:4). The story of the bleeding woman is the story of a woman who refused to sit back, resign to fate and allow herself to bleed to death. Mark describes her as being in a “drawing of blood” ( en hrysai haimatos) and the flow itself as a “well of blood” ( pēgē haimatos ). How could have bled nonstop for that long without dying? The reason was her determination to stay alive. She was luckier than many women who bleed to death at childbirth through natural process or caesarean operation. Such women are totally helpless, at the mercy of doctors and nurses; they lack the strength, power and consciousness (if they are under anaesthetics) to fend for themselves. The woman in the story was different. Her determination to stay alive resolutely sustained and impelled her to do everything in her power for twelve years till she could be rid of her affliction. Was she motivated by her belief that God did not intend her to live perpetually as a bleeding woman? Her hope for a cure remained undaunted even after she had spent all she had on doctors, with worsening results.

Finally she heard of Jesus and believed within her that if she could touch even his garment, she would be healed. What medical experts could not do, merely touching Jesus’ garment would do for her. But by pushing furtively through the crowd and touching Jesus’ garment, she would have defiled both the crowd and Jesus. What faith, courage and daring against the socio-cultural taboos and legal prescriptions of her religion. If touching Jesus would cure her, could her touch make him unclean? Could one who heals her twelve-year long affliction be rendered unclean by her touch? This is food for thought in a context where the alleged “ritual impurity” of women is a reason for barring them from ministering in the sacramental life of the church. Such belief voiced or not makes unclean what is natural; it declares null and void women’s God-given genderless grace which makes them with men substantial and consubstantial members of Christ’s body through baptism. Worse still it reduces Jesus to a lifeless object capable of being contaminated by woman’s touch and voice. Yet he, “the liturgy of the church” (John Paul II) is The Life who gives eternal life to all in his indivisible body .

The woman’s view was different. “If only I can touch his garment, I shall be healed.” She did; and was healed “instantly”, without a word. She knew “in her body” where the affliction lived, that she was healed. Jesus responded by asking “Who touched my garment?” The disciples were surprised at such question seeing the crowd milling around him. For the woman and Jesus the touch was specific “his garment”; not the purposeless touch by the crowd. In John, soldiers cast lots with Jesus’ garment yet drew no power from it (John 19:23). The outflow of power from Jesus arrested instantly the woman’s outflow of blood; “Deep calling on the deep”. Did Jesus feel drained by this exit of power from him? He, “The Life” (John 14:6) came to give life-enabling power ( dynamis) “to those who believed in him” (John 1: 12-13). Life cannot be diminished no matter how many people live it. In reply to Jesus’ question the woman came forward “in fear and trembling”. The Western text adds “because she had acted secretly”. As a woman she was not a legal person or public figure in her society. Further, for twelve good years she had been barred from appearing in public, from touching and being touched by others because of her bleeding. To have to come out in full view of the large crowd and be seen as the woman who dared to break their religious laws was emotionally devastating. Or was it the fear that normally accompanies encounter with the divine as in Mark 4:41? Jesus brought the woman out not to disgrace or upbraid her for touching him; but to let the crowd hear her story (“She told him the whole truth”); to affirm and praise her for her faith and reinstate her in the community as “daughter” (absolutely, not “daughter of”), no longer a “bleeding woman” and social outcast, but one dear to Jesus and who belonged integrally to her community in her woman human right.

In Luke 19:9-10 Jesus equally reinstates Zacchaeus by calling him “a son of Abraham”, no longer a tax collector and sinner. Remarkably Jesus did not send the woman to the priest to offer expiatory sacrifice to God for her sin of uncleanness as demanded in the law (Lev 15:28-30) or as he did in the case of the ten lepers (Luke 17:14). In their case the priest had to expel them from the community; so he had to reinstate them. What message can be drawn from this story for today? The story of the bleeding woman packaged with that of the Gerasene demoniac (Mark 5:1-20) and Jarius’ twelve year old daughter (Mark 5:21-24, 35-43) underscores God’s power to do what is humanly impossible for one who believes. Faith is the means to draw healing power from God and overcome all the death dealing and life diminishing forces in our personal lives, communities and world. The twelve years of the woman’s sickness and of Jarius’ daughter symbolise the twelve-tribe nation Israel. Unless women have the will and determination to arise from their age-old socio-cultural conditionings and unevangelised biblical and religious stipulations neither they, society nor humanity will be healed, restored to the wholeness God intended for them at creation. Women are God’s unique partners in bearing and fostering life. They cannot do this if they themselves are downgraded simply because of their God-given biological sex or because of their illness. Women need to be fully alive, healthy and beautiful to give life to the world God create “good” or “beautiful”. They are by God’s design humanity’s immune system in the natural order (Gen 3:20) and in the order of grace (Gen 3:15). If the woman bleeds or is bled to death, society and the church equally bleed to death. Ours is a world where endless peace talks defy positive results tending rather to escalate and intensive wars and conflicts especially in developing nations; people feel they can exploit and destroy without consequences the earth “our common home” on which depend our life vitals as Pope Francis ( Laudato Si’) has reminded us. Besides human trafficking developing countries suffer forced migration and the brain drain of their professionals, human resources for building build their nation.

Mark’s story of the bleeding woman invites Christians to hear anew that the solution to humanly unsolvable problems lies in resolute and undaunted faith in Jesus such as the woman had, a faith courageous enough to break all anti-life and dehumanising laws and traditions whatever their origin. To access an Internet website one must click its link. To draw water from a well, one needs a bucket. The woman’s staunch faith was the bucket with which she drew healing power from Jesus, God’s well of salvation, to end instantly her bleeding. Faith is the indispensable link to click to access healing from God for today’s multi-faceted, interminable and apparently incurable life-draining bleedings. Faith in Jesus, the Saviour of the World, will enable humanity that is bent on self destruction to become whole with the wholeness God intended for it at creation, put an end to these ills and find rest, shalom, wholeness. The faith that touches Jesus and draws power directly from him will equally eventually overcome the age-old and apparently unchangeable reasons rooted in unevangelised cultures and unchristological traditions that bar women from touching him sacramentally; thereby restoring wholeness to his church.

The stories of the bleeding woman, the Gerasene demoniac and Jairus’ daughter are three cases that defy human solution. Jesus, God’s Good News for humanity, is their solution. This does not mean converting everybody to Christianity since the gospel way of life is not synonymous with Christianity, though the two should not be mutually exclusive. May all Christians and humans, like the bleeding woman, stop searching and spending uselessly on solutions that cannot heal and instead reach out with unflinching faith and touch Jesus for personal, communal and global healing. “Daughter, son, your faith has set you free. Go in peace and be made whole, totally rid of your affliction”.

Teresa Okure

The author

Teresa Okure is a religious of the Society of the Holy Child Jesus (shcj) and teaches New Testament and gender hermeneutics at the Catholic Institute of West Africa in Port Harcourt, Nigeria. She is the author of many books, dictionaries and articles and gives lectures throughout the world. She is currently President of the Catholic Biblical Association of Nigeria (caban) – which she founded – and a member of the Anglican-Roman Catholic International Commission (arcic), representing Catholic Africa. 




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