Last week Jesus came off as really edgy. Angry even. But this week? This is a story of Jesus that’s a lot easier to get on board with. He’s a healer. He’s a transformer. He speaks the truth in love to the community, and people respond, “Yeah! Right on, Jesus!”
One Saturday, Jesus is at the synagogue. He’s teaching. It was normal for him to pause his life on the Sabbath to be with God’s people gathered in the synagogue. That’s where community went to hear from God and to be with each other. It’s fairly similar to what Christians have continued to do—largely on Sunday mornings— for the past 2000 years. One day a week, we pause our lives from the busyness all around us and make it a priority to hear from God and to be with each other.
Let’s imagine this scene together. The whole community has gathered. The men are inside and the women and children are outside. Jesus has been inside the synagogue teaching. He’s read and interpreted the Scriptures. Luke doesn’t give us the specific location of this synagogue, but I can imagine that if this is the one Sabbath Jesus is there, then there’s quite a buzz in the town over his presence and teaching. Even the synagogue leader would have been excited to have Jesus there.
The service is over. Jesus walks outside. One of the women who has been outside is among the crowd. She came to be present with her community in worship. She came to hear Jesus. For eighteen years she has suffered. She was bent over and could not straighten her back. For eighteen years her community has known the suffering of this one woman. While the Bible doesn’t offer us a modern medical diagnosis, it could be a condition like ankylosing spondylitis, an inflammatory disease that cause the vertebrae to fuse over time. She could have had neck and back pain, fatigue, difficulty breathing, and heart issues. Beyond her physical concerns would have been emotional and social ones—frustration, vulnerability, and even isolation.
Her condition has bound her for eighteen years, but Jesus sees her and frees her. What has limited her living is gone in a moment. It’s unexpected. Unlike other healings, there is no mention that she came hoping Jesus would heal her. Rather, it seems like she was just doing what a good Jewish person would do on the Sabbath—she was gathered with her community for worship.
What comes next is truly interesting. Surely there was a buzz in the crowd from this miracle, but the synagogue leader is not pleased. Something outside of what he thought was permissible has happened. He’s worried that more will come looking for healing and miss the point of the Sabbath. Rather than confronting Jesus about it, the leader calls out to the crowd. “There are six days for work. So come and be healed on those days, not the Sabbath.” To him, this is a bad precedent.
The leader of the synagogue has a narrow view of what God can do through people, particularly on the Sabbath. This woman was bound by her condition for eighteen years. To him, why couldn’t this have happened 24 hours later? Wait one more day, and then there’s no controversy about healing on the other days. Jesus’ response to him reveals that Jesus sees his view of what God is capable of doing in someone’s life—Sabbath or not—is too small.
I think all of us have something of the synagogue leader in us. No, I’m not saying we’re all a bunch of legalists. Actually, this church has very few legalists in it. Rather, I think we’re guilty of having too small a view of what God is capable of doing in someone’s life. We live without much expectation. We come to church without preparation or expectation. We have a hard time believing that God is at work in us. We don’t see God at work around us. And we approach Sunday as though it’s just another day.
I’ve been a pastor for almost 15 years. Throughout that time, churches have felt the constant encroachment of busy schedules and lives on Sundays. The weekends are for family. They’re for quick trips. They’re for sports. I cannot even begin to tell you the dozens of hours of conversations I’ve had with other pastors about how we can drive home that Sundays matter. (That’s not to say that sports or weekend trips or family time are bad!) Rather, we’ve discounted the importance of being together to the point where it’s just not a priority.
And then Covid happened. We closed our doors. We worshipped virtually. We reopened with a couple dozen in the building. We closed again. We opened again with limitations. We slowly dropped the limitations, but after two-plus years of this, the gathered community is a shell of what it used to be. Our lives have filled back up with all sorts of good things, but Sundays together sit in the corner gathering dust like a Teddy Bear we love but just don’t have time for anymore.
But my point is not to get us legalistic about coming to church. Rather, it’s to remind us that there is a power in being present to one another. It’s a power that certainly happens within the walls of this sanctuary. It’s a power that happens when we are intentionally present with others. We’ve grown so busy that we really do not expect God to speak into our daily moments. We’ve filled our lives with so much that we don’t expect that God might use us to do something that matters to someone else.
There is a power to being present. We see this when we set aside time to drive a neighbor to a doctor appointment. We see this when we hear a tinge of sadness in a friend’s voice, and, instead of ignoring that sadness, we ask that friend if they’d like to share what’s really on their heart. We see this when we’re intentional about making space for our lives to intersect with the lives of another who just might need that word of encouragement or hope. Isn’t that a bit of how Jesus lived? He went to the synagogue on the Sabbath because that’s what he did every week, but this time he encountered a woman who needed healing. He was present, and this led to her freedom.
And, while I am encouraging us to be present to one another throughout the week, I want to drive home that our presence at church is more significant than we have given it credit for. After all the pressures that have scaled back our chances for truly encountering each other on a Sunday at church, the pandemic has seriously set back the ways we engage each other as a church family.
Your presence here matters. It matters in ways that go far beyond your expectations. Over the past couple of weeks I’ve been having many conversations about what connections mean in the church and about how we can be connected in these times. Our elders have started these conversations. I show up at committee meetings with this question. Staff have heard how this is on my heart. I know that we’ll never be exactly what we were prior to 2020, and I’m OK with that. What I am seriously concerned about is that we seem to have forgotten how much happens interpersonally when we come to church. You can hear this sermon online. You can interface with others over social media. But our presence together offers something deeper and perhaps intangible.
Coming to church with open expectations gives the Spirit room to work among us in ways that go far beyond our imagining. What God does with your presence to your neighbor in worship is significant. There is a mutuality that happens when we gather for worship that cannot be replicated. Being present to each other helps us stay in tune to the ups and downs of our lives. It allows us to celebrate the growth of the children. It helps us notice the tear that falls during a prayer and gives us the chance to ask if we can enter into prayer for that person who is sad. And, like the woman who was present in the synagogue but not expecting healing, we’ll never know all the ways that God just might work among us to bring hope and health and healing.
It is my great hope that we can get back to treating Sunday mornings not with a sense of legalism or obligation but rather with expectation and delight. That’s one of the major points Jesus makes to the crowd after healing this woman. God made this space of Sabbath as a gift to humanity, as a place to become more fully human. It’s a space for freedom, and Jesus doesn’t wait to make her free. It’s an alignment of God’s will and the space for delighting in the goodness of life.
Worshiping together, likewise, is a space for delight. As we gather, I hope that we learn to come expectantly. Let’s come together because we believe that God is still speaking to us today, that God is speaking uniquely into this community through the Spirit. Let’s come, not because it’s convenient, but because it matters that we are together, sharing life. Let’s come because God may just surprise us with delight.
But, let’s not just stop there. Come because Sundays together are one of the primary ways our lives intersect with each other. Come not only for what you may receive but because of what God may surprise you in calling you to give to someone else—a listening ear, an unexpected smile, a new friendship to someone who has grown weary and lonely over the pandemic. I think you’ll be surprised what God has in store for you, if only you’d come with a sense of openness.
So, if your life has gotten too busy for Sunday church, try to put worship on your calendar before it fills in. If you’ve grown comfortable tuning in online because you don’t have to dress up, come in your PJs and bring your coffee. Give us a shot here again. And if you just can’t get here? Consider ways you can make space to bless others and to receive a blessing from others. It doesn’t have to happen in this building, but it sure encourages us when we’re here.
I do realize that preaching all of this to those of you already here is really “preaching to the choir,” so bring this message to those you know who are missing. Find ways to reconnect to your friends who aren’t in the pews next to you!
Jesus is the embodiment of God’s saving purpose. He foreshadows that in healing this beloved woman of God on the Sabbath. It’s a hint that God is bringing fullness of life into even the hardest place. That’s what is still going on here, Sunday after Sunday, as well as in the life we share together in our study, conversations, tears, and laughter. There is a power in being present to one another. May we never discount that, and may we renew our commitment to sharing our lives.