In 1820, Martin Fugate immigrated to the United States from France. He married Elizabeth Smith and they settled near Hazard, Kentucky. It turns out that they were both carriers of a rare recessive gene that turns blood and skin blue. Many of their descendants shared this condition. Collectively, they became known as “the blue people of Kentucky.” The disorder can cause serious problems—heart abnormalities and seizures—but most of the time, it does not. The vast majority of these people with blue skin lived long and healthy lives. Their condition remained a mystery for more than a century, until eventually researchers identified the gene and developed a treatment.
In her novel, The Book Woman of Troublesome Creek, Kim Michele Richardson imagines the life of Cussy Mary Carter in the 1930s. She’s the last of her kind, the only remaining person with blue skin besides her Pa. Around town, everyone calls Cussy Mary by the nickname “Bluet.” Though her Pa hopes for her to be married, books are Bluet’s passion. She is thrilled when she is chosen to join the “Pack Horse Library Project” administered by the WPA. She spends her days traveling the remote Appalachian country on her mule, Junia, delivering reading material to her neighbors. Though some of them are literally starving to death, their hunger for education is as great as their longing for food. The town physician, “Doc,” desperately wants to study Bluet and her Pa. One day they find themselves in terrible danger because of their color and they are forced to accept Doc’s help and protection. In exchange, he takes Bluet to the big city for testing.
At the hospital, a terrified Bluet is wrestled to the ground and sedated, humiliated and violated. Bluet recalls waking up afterward.
“I’m sorry the nurses were rough with you, Bluet,” [Doc] said, “But it was very important—very—and we’ll learn soon about your family’s blood and how we can fix it—fix you, my dear.” I felt a spark of anger slip behind my eyes, prompting a headache. What I most wanted was to be okay as a Blue. I never understood why other people thought my color, any color, needed fixing. “It’ll be wonderful to fix you, won’t it?” Fix. Again, the chilling word caught in my throat, and I suddenly wished Mama had fixed my birth with some of her bitter herbs. Then I would’ve never had to suffer this horrid curse of the blueness. Still, Doc said it would be wonderful, and I couldn’t help but wonder what my and Pa’s life would be like if we were fixed. The confused thoughts made my head pound harder. (p. 130)
The story of Cussy Mary strikes me as a good companion to today’s Gospel story. This pairing keeps us honest about the complexities of healing. Cussy Mary’s “illness” is socially constructed in the sense that she would have been perfectly happy and healthy with blue skin if it were not for the mean-spirited exclusion and violent persecution she endured at the hands of her neighbors. And the “cure” Doc offers is awful, dehumanizing, and ultimately unnecessary. Of course, sometimes we are sick, and we need and want healing. But we want support and help without stigma and shame. The whole idea that anyone needs to be “fixed” under any circumstances is deeply problematic. What we want, as Bluet puts it, is “to be okay as we are.” Or to paraphrase Frederick Buechner, to feel at home in our bodies and at peace in our minds.
There are two interconnected themes in today’s Gospel story: healing and the sabbath. What is at the heart of both, and what ties them together, is liberation. The woman was able to stand up straight for the first time in eighteen years. This changing posture, though, was not simply about her physical capacities. It was a visible sign of a spiritual and social reality—she was “set free.” And her liberation was not something that happened to her in isolation. This liberation changed the community as much as it changed her. Jesus’ healing ministry freed others to relate to the woman differently.
The synagogue leader’s real interest in objecting to the woman’s healing was to oppose Jesus. For whatever reason, he thought it was his job to be a gatekeeper and a rule-setter. He needed to be in control of how and when healing happened. He didn’t think of the woman at all; he simply saw the chance to nail Jesus on a technicality. No work on the Sabbath, and healing is “work.” Gotcha! Jesus reminded the leader of something he surely already knew, that the Sabbath commandment, in Jewish tradition, is not tied just to the story of creation. It is also rooted in the story of the Exodus.
The book of Deuteronomy contends that the whole point of Sabbath is to allow everyone to rest. The elites can rest whenever they want. They don’t need a Sabbath day. The commandment in Deuteronomy chapter 5 specifies those who should have off at least one day a week—not only sons and daughters, but also those who are easily exploited: slaves, livestock and “resident aliens.” “Remember” verse 15 urges, “you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the Lord your God brought you out from there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm; therefore the Lord your God commanded you to keep the Sabbath day.”
The prophet Isaiah’s words about the Sabbath strike a similar note. When the prophet called out those who went their own way and served their own interests on the Sabbath, he was criticizing the decision some made to enrich themselves through forcing others to labor without rest. Refraining from trampling the Sabbath means refraining from trampling the personhood, dignity, and health of our neighbors. The prophet argues that the well-being of each member of the community is linked to the well-being of the community as a whole. As the Jewish-American poet Emma Lazarus said, “Until we are all free, we are none of us free.” Isaiah promises that the community that puts an end to oppression will experience abundant, vibrant life. “If you remove the yoke from among you,” the prophet declares, “The Lord will guide you continually, and satisfy your needs in parched places,and make your bones strong; and you shall be like a watered garden, like a spring of water, whose waters never fail.” The Sabbath commandment envisions a world of liberation, a society in which everyone, even the poorest and most vulnerable, experience rest, renewal, and delight, have time and space to enjoy life, contemplate the beauty of the earth, and commune with God. And that Sabbath vision is the basis for Jesus’ ministry of healing.
One aspect of this story of healing bothers me. If healing is not about treating people like objects that need to be fixed, if healing is about seeing and honoring each other’s dignity, if healing means we can be okay as we are, that we can feel at home in our bodies and at peace in our minds, if healing is systemic, if it sets us free from oppression, if it makes the community well and whole, if healing is liberation, then why didn’t Jesus ask the woman if she wanted to be healed? Maybe Jesus made a mistake. Maybe Jesus had a blind spot. I don’t need Jesus to be perfect for his ministry to hold the blessing of God. However, I believe that healing is a dialogue between God and us. When God offers healing, when God invites us into a different way of being, God always leaves room for us to choose. It is our right to refuse. And, if we want healing, it is our responsibility to actively receive it. So I think the woman did agree to be healed. Her actions suggest consent. She did not stay bent over. She stood up. She looked everyone in the eye. She did not remain silent. She found her voice. She began praising God. She became a leader in the spiritual life of her community.
Friends, we talked last week about what kind of time it is in the life of our church. We are feeling tension about all the change we have experienced. Many of us are uncertain about who we are now and how we can contribute. We are processing grief and coping with diminished energy. And, of course, we are not alone. These struggles are clearly present in our larger world. Everywhere I see the tension, confusion, stress and exhaustion, the sense of being pushed to the limit of our endurance. I see it in people’s dangerous driving, in the polarization of our politics, in the oppressive and inhumane working conditions that make it necessary for nurses to threaten a strike. Someone suggested to me recently: given what kind of time it is, maybe we could focus on Sabbath for this year, on rest, renewal, and replenishment. I think we have to start with ourselves while resisting the tunnel vision that focuses only on our own needs. What could Sabbath look like in your life or the life of First Church? Is there some change, even a small one, that could offer liberation? What does God’s invitation to receive healing look like, sound like, feel like to you? And how will you respond? And then, what might you do, what might we do together, to honor the biblical vision of Sabbath as the basis for healthy and just society? How are we being called to contribute to the possibility that everyone can access spaces of rest and healing, liberation and agency?