People have no idea what it’s like inside my head.
They look at my body, of course. It’s plain to see there’s something wrong with me. When I was a little girl, my parents were worried sick about me. They asked me all the time, “Why don’t you just stand up straight?” They consulted physicians, who looked me over from head to toe, but couldn’t figure out what was wrong with me. As far as the doctors could tell, there was nothing medically wrong with me.
But without a clear diagnosis to work from, everyone assumed the problem was me. People would say things like, “Don’t slouch! Stop messing around and stand up straight! We know you can do it; the doctor said so! You’re just faking this illness for attention! Come on, just stand up straight already. You’re just not trying hard enough!”
But those were just the voices of other people. Even worse, SO much worse, were the voices I heard inside my own head: “You piece of garbage! You’re worthless! You’re hopeless! You deserve this! You should do the whole world a favor and just kill yourself right now!” They were SO LOUD and they never stopped, day or night. No matter what I did, even covering my ears with my hands, I couldn’t make them stop or get any quieter. Most days, I couldn’t even leave my house. All day long, I just sat in a corner with my head leaned up against the wall, singing to myself, just to have something other than the voices to listen to. It felt like a dead weight inside my chest, like someone had tied a heavy, invisible stone around my neck.
Once a week, on the Sabbath, my parents would force me to get up and leave the house. I felt so bad for them. Their hair had turned grey and their faces wrinkled with worry. They both had dark circles under their eyes from so many late nights when the voices wouldn’t let me get to sleep. I was almost twenty years old at this point. Any other “normal” daughter would have been married off by now, with a husband and children of her own to care for, but not me. They were getting on in years. Sometimes, I could hear them talking at night, worrying about what would become of me when they were gone. We had no other family. I would probably end up living on the street, where I certainly wouldn’t last long. Perhaps some of the neighbors would be kind enough to help me out from time to time?
The Sabbath was the one time each week when I would get out of the house, to go to synagogue. To be perfectly honest, I hated it. Since we were women, tradition said my mother and I had to stand at the edge while my father covered his head and went to the middle to pray with the men. I liked listening to the sound of their singing, but being around the other villagers was unbearable. Some people were kind: they would greet my mother and ask how I was doing this week. Others would look down at me with disgust, but most just politely ignored us. Just like I did at home, I would mostly crouch in the corner, leaning my head against the wall, and trying to make myself turn invisible.
One Sabbath, a traveling rabbi named Jesus visited our synagogue. People were saying lots of interesting things about him: that he was some kind of prophet, like the ones we read about in the Torah. As was customary, our rabbi invited him to preach and lead services that day. More people than usual came out to hear him. The synagogue was crowded, so I had an especially hard time finding a space against the wall were I could be.
As the congregation was gathering for worship, Jesus and I crossed paths at the synagogue door. I knew better than to speak to a man who wasn’t a member of my family, but I glanced up as he passed by, and we very briefly made eye contact. He gave me a smile and I quickly looked down again.
After the prayers, Jesus began to preach. One of the readings that morning was from the book of Isaiah (I heard somebody say that was Jesus’ favorite book to preach on). The reading said:
“If you remove the yoke from among you, the pointing of the finger, the speaking of evil, if you offer your food to the hungry and satisfy the needs of the afflicted, then your light shall rise in the darkness and your gloom be like the noonday… if you call the sabbath a delight and the holy day of the Lord honorable; if you honor it, not going your own ways, serving your own interests, or pursuing your own affairs; then you shall take delight in the Lord, and I will make you ride upon the heights of the earth”.
Jesus’ sermon was all about the Sabbath. He said there were two reasons why it was so important. First of all, it was the day God rested after creating the heavens and the earth, so we too should rest from our labors on that day. But the second reason, he said, was because God freed our people from slavery in Egypt. Pharaoh worked our people to the bone, making us build his palaces and pyramids. We were nothing more than animals to him, but God saw our suffering and liberated us by the hand of Moses. We are human beings, made in God’s image and likeness. Because of that, each and every one of us has God-given dignity and should be treated as such. Keeping the Sabbath, Jesus said, helps us to remember that dignity. That one day a week, when we Jews rest from our work and gather together to study the Torah and pray, should remind us to treat each other with kindness and compassion on the other six days of the week. The best way to keep the Sabbath, he said, is to help our fellow human beings live lives with the full and free dignity that God intends for them.
Then he paused in his sermon for a moment. He looked up and said, “There was a woman I saw on my way to synagogue this morning. Where is she?” The people started looking around at each other and shrugging their shoulders. Which woman was he talking about? He said, “She’s bent over and quite unable to stand up straight.” Everybody knew he was talking about me.
I was terrified. My only goal in life was to pretend to be invisible, but now everyone was staring at me because of Jesus. Then he did something I’d never seen any rabbi do before: he called me over to the center of the synagogue. Didn’t he know that was against the rules? Only men were allowed in that part of the room. But Jesus didn’t seem to care about that. He wanted me to stand up next to him, as best as I could, at the front of the service.
I could tell the leaders of the synagogue were uneasy about this. They were looking back and forth at each other with angry eyes. People were shifting back and forth uncomfortably. Jesus ignored them and turned directly to me. He said to me, “Woman, you are set free from your ailment.” As he said this, he laid his hands gently on my head.
And suddenly, the most amazing thing happened: It got quiet. I mean, really, actually QUIET. And not just quiet in the room… for the first time since I could remember, I was quiet on the inside.
The voices had stopped. I could hear myself breathing and the pounding of my heart in my chest. The pain of that dead weight, the imaginary stone tied around my neck, was gone. When Jesus lifted his hands off my head, I felt lighter, like I could float right up to the ceiling. Almost without thinking, I leaned back and… and… and stood up straight.
There was an audible gasp from the congregation. Looking around at everyone in the room, I realized for the first time that I am actually quite tall. In fact, Jesus himself was actually a couple of inches shorter than I am. I didn’t expect that. He just looked up at me and smiled again.
I don’t know what possessed me in that moment, but I felt like I should do something. I’d spent my whole life in that synagogue, listening to the men chant and pray from the very spot where I was standing. Sometimes, I would sing their songs to myself at home, just to drown out the voices.
But now, with the voices gone, I could feel that song rising up within me again, like a kettle boiling over. But this time, it was a hymn of praise, not a plea of desperation. I began to chant:
“Barukh atah, Adonai Eloheinu, Melekh haOlam.”
“Blessed are you, O Lord our God, King of the Universe.”
That was when the synagogue leaders really lost their temper. Not only was this visiting rabbi interrupting their service, but now he even had me, a woman, leading God’s praises in the place that was traditionally reserved only for men. Needless to say, I didn’t get to finish my hymn.
They jumped up and shouted, “There are six days on which work ought to be done; come on those days and be cured, and not on the sabbath day.”
But Jesus didn’t miss a beat. He wasn’t having any of their pious nonsense. He shouted right back at them, “You hypocrites! Does not each of you on the sabbath untie his ox or his donkey from the manger, and lead it away to give it water? And ought not this woman, a daughter of Abraham whom Satan bound for eighteen long years, be set free from this bondage on the sabbath day?”
Let me tell you, that shut them up real quick! After a moment of stunned silence, the crowd erupted into thunderous applause.
What Jesus did that day was not just for me; it was for everyone who lives with oppression and degradation of their God-given dignity. Jesus showed me that day that my life matters. Yes, even mine, which seemed to be so wasted and useless for so long.
Of course, every life matters to God, but God seems to have a special concern for those whose lives are degraded. It’s not that our lives matter more; it’s that we’ve been told so often that our lives matter less. That’s an error in judgment that God is eager to correct.
Our ancestors were made to believe that their lives mattered less than Egyptian lives because they were nothing more than Hebrew slaves, so God sent Moses to tell Pharaoh, “Hebrew lives matter!”
In my case, I believed that my life mattered less because I was a woman and because I lived with a chronic illness, so Jesus came to tell me, “Your life matters!”
This is God’s message to all who are poor and oppressed in this world. Wherever and whenever the God-given dignity of human life is threatened by the powers-that-be of this world, God intervenes with this message to the powerful: “These lives matter!”
Black lives matter. Women’s lives matter. Gay lives matter. Trans lives matter. Mentally ill lives matter. Disabled lives matter. Immigrant and refugee lives matter. It’s not that other lives don’t matter to God, but others haven’t been subjected to humiliation and violence in the same way that some of us have. We already know that those lives matter; we need to hear and know that our lives matter too.
It might be that hearing this makes you uncomfortable, just like Jesus healing me in the middle of a synagogue on the Sabbath made our leaders uncomfortable. I want you to know that it’s okay to be uncomfortable. Stay with that discomfort for a while. Don’t be too quick to speak up. Don’t interrupt my song of praise, even if it sounds angry and defiant. This is the song that Jesus gave me when he set me free and made me able to stand up straight for the first time in my life.
This is my song of freedom, I’m singing it for the whole world.
And believe it or not, I’m singing for you too.