El Santuario de Chimaya in rural Northern New Mexico is considered the most important pilgrimage site in the United States, at least according to many Catholics (Presbyterians might say Montreat, but there’s no need to argue!). More than 300,000 visitors come each year to this place to pray, to receive a blessing, and to access dirt that is said to have miraculous healing properties. Legend has it that in 1810, Don Bernardo Abeyta, a Catholic priest, saw something shining in the
hills. When he investigated, he dug up a crucifix. It was taken to a church in Santa Cruz, but reappeared in the hill where it was originally found. Three times, it was dug up, taken to the church, and then reappeared back in the earth. In time, the locals built a chapel around the place where the crucifix was discovered, and it soon became local belief that the dirt from that area had healing properties. People began associating miraculous healings with the dirt, and now, for more than 200 years, pilgrims have traveled to Chimayo to access the dirt. It is a place to go when healing has not come easily, perhaps when it seems only a miracle could do.
There is this large area at El Santuario where visitors are invited to leave pictures or items belonging to someone in need of a blessing. It almost looks like a stable- a wide opening in the front and the three other walls split into smaller stalls. Thousands of pictures paper the walls of these stalls. Stacks and stacks of pictures and written prayers for loved ones seeking God’s healing, God’s provision, or a blessing of some kind. When I visited last fall, I was overcome at the sight of a tiny baby shoe sitting on a railing near these pictures. It was soft-soled, the kind made for babies too young to stand or walk, and made of bright white leather with a pretty pink flower on top. I imagined that some parent, having not come prepared with a picture of their daughter, reached down to their sweet baby in her stroller and removed her shoe. An expensive offering. They placed it on the railing as a sign and a symbol of their prayer, their most fervent hope, that the arms of Jesus would wrap around their baby girl in protection, that she would live in the peace of God, that she will know God’s healing and wholeness. I imagined that that parent couldn’t bear to not leave behind some token of their hope that God would be with their baby. I prayed for that baby girl and her family. Their faith, hope, and love felt tangible to me.
Looking at the thousands of faces in those pictures and that one tiny shoe, I was caught up in the reminder of how much suffering there is in the world, how much we love one another, and how much we all just want to be okay, to be whole. No one travels, carrying a picture to a rural place in the desert mountains if they do not hope for healing. No one wastes a pair of perfectly good shoes in prayer if they do not hope fervently that God is watching and listening.
In Mark 5, we actually encounter the story of two other daughters who are in urgent need of healing. You’ve already heard the story of a woman who had been bleeding for 12 years, her life being drained out of her along with all of her money and social standing. But that story, in typical Markan fashion, is nestled between two parts of another story. We call this a “Markan sandwich.” Just before we encounter the woman with brave faith, we read this: When Jesus had crossed again in the boat to the other side, a great crowd gathered round him; and he was by the lake. Then one of the leaders of the synagogue named Jairus came and, when he saw him, fell at his feet and begged him repeatedly, ‘My little daughter is at the point of death. Come and lay your hands on her, so that she may be made well, and live.’ So he went with him.
It is there, along the way to Jairus’ house, that the woman with brave faith pushes through the crowd to touch Jesus’ clothing. And after she encounters Jesus, who says, “Daughter, your faith has made you well; go in peace and be healed of your disease.” We read, “While he was still speaking, some people came from the leader’s house to say, ‘Your daughter is dead. Why trouble the teacher any further?’ But overhearing what they said, Jesus said to the leader of the synagogue, ‘Do not fear, only believe.’ He allowed no one to follow him except Peter, James, and John, the brother of James. When they came to the house of the leader of the synagogue, he saw a commotion, people weeping and wailing loudly. When he had entered, he said to them, ‘Why do you make a commotion and weep? The child is not dead but sleeping.’ And they laughed at him. Then he put them all outside, and took the child’s father and mother and those who were with him, and went in where the child was. He took her by the hand and said to her, ‘Talitha cum’, which means, ‘Little girl, get up!’ And immediately the girl got up and began to walk about (she was twelve years of age). At this they were overcome with amazement. He strictly ordered them that no one should know this, and told them to give her something to eat.”
Two daughters- one a very poor woman, suffering, likely isolated from the world, bleeding for 12 years and one 12 year old from a wealthy and privileged family of prominent Jews, who stands on the brink of life and death. Both helpless in their situations, both wrapped in hope that Jesus can help, that Jesus can heal.
The repetition of the number 12 is not a coincidence. There are 12 tribes of Israel, 12 disciples, and these women marked by their 12 years- these women represent Israel. The woman who has been bleeding for 12 years lives on the margins, technically unclean, although we cannot know what that actually meant for her participation in society. The 12 year old girl is the daughter of Jairus, the leader of the synagogue. He represents power, wealth, and privilege, and by his extension, so does his daughter. Both daughters of Israel, both daughters of God.
The theologian Ched Myers explains his perspective on the story this way: “In the art of narrative, every detail is there for a reason, and Mark’s “aside” that the girl was twelve years old is a good case in point. She has lived affluently for twelve years, and is just on the edge of puberty. In contrast, the bleeding woman had suffered for twelve years, permanently infertile. This number symbolizes the twelve tribes of Israel and represents the key to the social meaning of this doublet. Within the “family” of Israel, these “daughters” represent the privileged and the impoverished, respectively. Because of such inequity, the body politic of the synagogue is “on the verge of death.”
The healing journey must, however, take a necessary detour that stops to listen to the pain of the crowd. Only when the outcast woman is restored to true “daughterhood” can the daughter of the synagogue be restored to true life. That is the faith the privileged must learn from the poor. This story thus shows a characteristic of the sovereignty of God that Jesus will later address: The “last will be first” and the “least will be greatest”.
The point is this: the healing for both of these daughters is really healing for their whole community, for their religious system that had left some behind, for economic systems that fail some to advance others, for social systems that create ingroups and outgroups. And so when we seek healing for ourselves, for those we love, we too must see the interconnectedness of all things. A common example- if you have been in our medical system for long- juggling doctors, the insurance company, the pharmacy, you see your medical care is part of a much larger system- a system that needs healing. Debra Dean Murphy writes, “When we pray for someone to get well— to be healed of an illness or infirmity— our prayer also ought to be for the well-being of the place, the people, the neighborhood, the land: the whole “kin-dom” to which that person is connected, “kin to,” as we say in the South— to which he or she is bound in relationships of mutual responsibility and care. When Jesus says to the woman, “Daughter, your faith has made you well; go in peace, and be healed of your disease,” it is an invitation to full restoration.”
But it’s that “necessary detour” as Ched Myers says it, that stops me in my tracks- and Jesus too. You see, the woman who had suffered for so long was not simply a symbol, and she wasn’t just part of a larger system that needed healing. She was a whole person who deserved a full and meaningful life. She needed restoration to her community and health in her body. She needed healing. And her faith makes her powerful. It isn’t that her faith allows her to heal herself. It doesn’t even mean that she can pray to God, asking for healing and definitely receive it. Our lived experience has taught us better than that; we don’t always get what we want when we want it. And healing comes in many forms, including death. But the woman’s faith makes her powerful because it gives her hope. It causes her to try one more thing when she has tried so many others, when she has spent all her money, and feels worse than ever. Her faith keeps her from giving up when all the evidence suggested she ought.
So, having heard rumors of Jesus, she sets out. She saw him ahead of her in this crushing throng of people moving around Jesus. She bumps and pushes, ducking under arms and pushing around others until Jesus is just ahead of her. She picks up her pace just enough and reaches out, letting her hands graze the material of his cloak. And as she knew it would, that touch is enough. She can feel it, the very cells of her body rearranging, transforming. An unstaunched flow of blood drying in a heartbeat. She is healed.
Jesus stops, knowing that his healing power has been accessed. “Who touched me?” he asks. And the woman, knowing that she has been healed, falls before him. She’s shaking as she tells him everything that had happened to her, right up to this very moment. “Daughter, your faith has made you well; go in peace and be healed of your disease.”
She isn’t just a symbol of Israel, and she isn’t a just a story for us to listen to today. She is a person in need of healing who somehow has enough faith to carry on. And somehow, she’s brave enough to hope. Somehow, she rallies the energy to find Jesus. Somehow, grace is there when she needs it. I’ll be honest; I don’t understand how healing works. I fear stepping into the dangerous theological territory of “believe and receive” or “name it and claim it” -promises that can’t be kept. I have seen enough people suffer to know that faith alone is not enough to heal someone, and I know that for some, healing and restoration can happen only in the life we find after death.
But here is what I also believe: faith and hope are powerful. Praying for one another, praying for ourselves, for healing does change something, even if it only changes our attitudes, even if it simply makes us more aligned with God’s will for our lives. Days before I visited El Santuario de Chimaya I had said goodbye to one of our members in the hospital and to another in his home. I was not at all certain that either of them would live long enough for me to see them again. And so as I made my little pilgrimage to the site that some believe offers healing, I prayed fervently for both of those beloveds. As I approached the small hole from which guests can dig up dirt, I dug some up for them, in their names. And I read a sign posted nearby that said that the dirt was not holy, it wasn’t miraculous. It was more like the ash we smear on our heads on Ash Wednesday, a sign of something beyond itself. That dirt isn’t healing, the sign says, but it is a reminder that healing can happen and that faith in God’s ability to bring about healing may be enough. Faith may be all we get, and it is enough.
Jesus was deeply aware of his healing power, but the woman was powerful too- her power was in believing healing was possible and having the courage to reach out. Her power was in letting go of all that had happened to her and believing in a different future, one in which she was free from this suffering. Don’t relinquish the power of faith, friends. Never give up believing that healing may be God’s plan for you. Trust that one day, all will be made well, and you will be wrapped in God’s healing love. Don’t let your suffering define you, instead, be known for your faith. Reach out to Jesus. Amen.