Power Through Powerlessness

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A few years I was on the train dressed up for one of those dinner cruises. It was rush hour, so the train was very full. People were pressed in tight. At some point I felt someone behind me touching me in away that felt uncomfortable. I turned around and glared to let the guy behind me know that I knew it was him. Only a little while later I felt it happen again, and I reeled around and yelled at him. I told him he better not touch me again. Instead of support from fellow passengers I felt others thought I was overreacting. Like the disciples asking Jesus how he could wonder who touched him when so many people were crowded around. I felt powerless in that situation. I questioned my own judgement but knew it was not just someone bumping me with the movement of the train. But I think most women are meant to feel this way at times. Powerless, vulnerable, questioned.

The woman in the story has suffered so much over the previous 12 years. She is powerless to change her situation. Even though she has tried and tried to find a cure from the many doctors she has seen. Still she suffers with bleeding everyday. In that time her condition made her unclean in the eyes of the religious authorities. She could not cook for her family because she would make them unclean. She could not sit on the same furniture. Could not sleep in the same bed with her husband (if she has one).

In contrast there is Jairus, a prominent community figure. He is quite powerful in his situation in life. As a leader of the synagogue he would have been one of the men in the community that kept this woman from being fully integrated with the rest of the people. He was charged with upholding the purity laws and practices that were thought to have kept the rest of the community in God’s favor. But now he too is made powerless by the sudden illness of his daughter. A girl who has been alive as long as the woman has been suffering.

Both these figures — one named, the other anonymous — come to Jesus in their desperation.

I think power and feelings of powerlessness are at the root of much of the conflicts of our time. The turmoil in our political system is about who has the power and who feels like they don’t. And it’s about those in power wanting to keep their power at all costs. Even making policies that further disempower whole groups of people. From police brutality to legislation that limits women’s rights to make their own decisions about reproductive health. To detention of families seeking asylum and the expressed with to deny them due process. To the people in middle America who voted for Trump because they feel their power slipping away. The desperation of powerlessness takes many forms. Some take up arms and shoot classmates and teachers. Others take up protests in the streets. Still others cross borders against the law hoping for mercy.

With more anxiety coming down the road with questions about who will fill an open position in the highest court. We are constantly dealing with dynamics of power.

For the woman she found some power in persistence. Though she had received no help from medical professionals, she took one last chance. But it meant crossing a boundary that could have had severe consequences. It meant breaking the laws that kept her separated from others, especially men. To reach out and touch without asking permission. Trusting the power of God to heal her. She takes what she believes she is owed. Knowing that if she asked first, she might get rebuffed again. She doesn’t take that chance this time. This time she takes what belongs to her as a daughter of God.

Jairus, who may have never faced powerlessness like he did in the face of his daughter’s death, assumes the same posture as the woman before Jesus. He kneels in a gesture of recognizing one more powerful than he is. It is an amazing thing. Here a religious leader also transgresses what he himself has taught. Against the other authorities who fail to recognize Jesus’ power, Jairus takes a chance. What if this is the only option for his daughter? He is willing to risk losing his position, looking foolish, looking blasphemous in front of his congregation. If it could mean life restored to his child.

I would like to think that Jairus learned something in his encounter with Jesus. Whether or not he knew the woman personally, though if they were from the same village it is likely he did. His experience of limited power might have taught him empathy for those whose power was limited by virtue of their gender or other life situations. Empathy as a means to shared power is something we should work to cultivate.

Jesus feels the power leave him when the woman reaches out for healing. And in that state of powerlessness he goes and heals Jairus’ daughter. Both the woman and the girl were restored to full life by their encounter with the emptied Jesus.

Follow me on this logic, but with empathy we learn to speak against abuse of power and imbalances of power. Not because we need to rescue others but because we understand our connection to them. That we are all in the same boat, even if we are separated by life experiences. Jairus was one sick child away from losing all his power for the sake of the one thing that mattered most. And he and the woman both come to the same place, the feet of Jesus to find healing.