Leviticus 15: 25-27
If a woman has a discharge of blood for many days, not at the time of her impurity, or if she has a discharge beyond the time of her impurity, all the days of the discharge she shall continue in uncleanness; as in the days of her impurity, she shall be unclean. Every bed on which she lies during all the days of her discharge shall be treated as the bed of her impurity; and everything on which she sits shall be unclean, as in the uncleanness of her impurity. Whoever touches these things shall be unclean, and shall wash his clothes, and bathe in water, and be unclean until the evening.
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For a long time, I’ve wanted to speak of women’s blood from the pulpit. Because in the cultural psyche menstruation is most often considered with disgust, it is shrouded in silence and for many girls and women, shame. Here and indeed, around the world, this shame negatively impacts girls’ and women’s lives from missing school when they have their periods to having impressed upon them the idea that somehow menstruation makes them mentally and emotionally weak or out of control.
The time has come. Not only is it Women’s History Month but also we have the added bonus of misogyny being the theme of the day of late and using the time-tested ridicule of menstruation as a misogyny’s weapon. Witness one presidential candidate publicly suggesting a debate facilitator treated him unfairly because, “there was blood coming out of her wherever”. Out of her wherever.
Oh yes. The topic has earned a place in the pulpit.
There are a number of women’s freedoms and rights blatantly under assault right now. But our focus today is women as sexual beings because that is what most gets under the skin of those who would deny women access to reproductive health care: that women are sexual. And the attitude seems to be that because only women bleed we are by nature messy and unclean and inconvenient. We’re messy when we are healthy and having periods and inconvenient – and expensive -when we’re pregnant and birthing babies. Pregnancy and childbirth have been cast as gross, too. All that blood and placenta.
And if, God forbid, you are diagnosed with any lady-part cancer – save breast cancer – you will witness friends and acquaintances swallowing hard at the mention of your ovarian, uterine or cervical cancer. Same for endometriosis.
But something rather perverse has happened to our relationship with breasts. More than any other lady-part, we’ve come a long way in normalizing breasts. We can actually deal with them quite maturely …. when breasts have cancer. When breasts have cancer it’s pink ribbons on parade and cute “Save the tatas!” bumper stickers on every car in the lot. But on the other hand let the outrage begin when a woman breast-feeds her child in public. We’re good with the breast in breast cancer. Not so much with the breast in breastfeeding.
The culture is a bundle of confusing contradictions.
We try to do better here at All Souls. The theme of the day at All Souls is “vulnerability.” Women are not by nature vulnerable. We are steady on the beam, prepared for life. Because our rights and freedoms are being threatened of late we are proving our power over and over again. Nothing about women should inherently transmit anything but strength. Including menstruation.
Menstruation may in some quarters be considered something that makes girls and women vulnerable, but let’s seek to challenge that attitude here in this house of faith, this house of hope because the awful attitudes that have plagued this topic that is as fraught as it is ordinary are rooted in scripture that begs to be disrupted and that disruption may as well start in churches and mosques and synagogues for it is in these places where the trouble began, after all.
We hear the ancient law: Leviticus. The words stick in our minds like a disturbing memory.
Unclean … Impure
Uncleanliness … impurity
It’s a lot of baggage to disrupt. Every person in this sanctuary born with the female organs involved in menstruation: Fallopian tubes, ovaries, a uterus, a vagina has at least one story about menstruation that is rooted in shame.
I am so sure of this point that I have done something I never do from the pulpit: I’ve made a statement that is so absolute on behalf of over half of the people in the sanctuary this morning. Normally I refrain from such sweeping statements, knowing that our lives and therefore our perspectives are unique.
Not so for girls and women and menstruation.
So the first challenge is not to make menstruation normal in our eyes. We’ve got miles to go before “normal.” First we need to deal with the shame so many women and girls feel and are made to feel and have felt since Leviticus was first read in the temple. First we need to claim menstruation as a clean. As pure. As nothing about which to feel ashamed.
This is how we start.
Today our children are in an Our Whole Lives (OWL) session in which they are learning that their bodies are good and clean and pure and in fact, sacred. And therefore we take care of our bodies because they serve us so well. So we honor, respect ourselves as physical and sexual beings and treat our bodies with dignity.
So while the children are down the hall in their classrooms wrapping their minds and hearts around this truth, the grown ups are here in this sanctuary doing the same.
Let’s start with an ancient story. This story is about a woman who had been hemorrhaging for 12 years. Now that you have been reminded of the ancient law as laid out in Leviticus, you have a sense of what her life must have been like. Unable to leave her home; unable to go to the temple to pray; barred from being touched; seen only as impure and unclean. For twelve years.
But she is determined. She has heard of Jesus’ healing miracles and willing to try anything; she takes a chance and makes her way through the crowd.
Here is the story of the bleeding woman.
Mark 5: 25-34 & Luke 8: 40-48 (a mash-up of the two)
New Revised Standard Version
There was a woman who had been suffering from hemorrhages for twelve years. She had endured much under many physicians and had spent all that she had and she was no better, but rather grew worse. She had heard about Jesus and came up behind him in the crowd and touched his cloak, for she said, “If I but touch his clothes, I will be made well.” Immediately her hemorrhage stopped and she felt in her body that she was healed of her disease. Jesus asked, “Who touched me?” When all denied it, Peter said, “You see the crowd pressing in on you; how can you say, ‘Who touched me’?” But Jesus said, “Someone touched me for I noticed that power had gone out from me.” He looked all around to see who had done it. But the woman, knowing what had happened to her, came in fear and trembling, fell down before him, she declared in the presence of all the people why she had touched him and how she had been immediately healed. He said to her, “Daughter, your faith had made you well; go in peace.”
This story is amazing for several reasons. For 12 years, this woman is isolated because she is considered unclean. Still, against all the rules, she leaves her home and makes her way through the crowd, hanging her hope on the man who has come to be known as a healer. She need only touch his clothes and she will be healed. And she does and miraculously, she is. And however anonymous she hoped to be, something unexpected happens that foils her plan. As the woman is healed, the healer himself, Jesus feels his power go out from him. The crowd envelops him but still, he feels that something has happened. He asks. Peter (sarcastically) responds. “You see the crowd pressing in on you; how can you say, ‘Who touched me’?” But Jesus is like a dog with a bone. He knows his power has been taken from him he wants to know by who and why. The woman, now healed, musters the courage to come forward to reveal her illness and give thanks for the cure. We can assume that every single person in that crowd is horrified by her admission. In our context today, this woman’s public admission of bleeding would have been as horrifying as the woman breastfeeding her infant at the mall.
But Jesus is not horrified. Even though at that moment he had been on his way to help a dying girl, he interrupts his trajectory and speaks with the woman who had bled for 12 years. He touches her, both of which are forbidden by law. He doesn’t care. Instead, he assures her that it is her faith that made her well. He leaves her and takes his leave with these words, “Go in peace.”
Jesus disrupts the narrative.
Can you imagine? Every person in this room who has ever had a period; who has ever hemorrhaged and felt your body’s energy drain, can you imagine the power of that exchange? Of your rabbi, priest, imam, minister, spiritual leader – your faith tradition’s doctrine – saying to you of your particular female body’s reality: you are blessed by that body. Go in peace.
We ought to be proud of many of the programs and ministries in which we are involved at All Souls perhaps none more than our lifespan sexuality education program. OWL seeks to equip our children and youth with value-laden information about their bodies and sexuality. Yes: value-laden. There once was a misguided effort to offer sexuality education that was value-free. And then a greater wisdom emerged. There is nothing we need to wrap our values around more than the sexuality information we are sharing with the youngest among us. And just one of those values – simple as it may seem – is, “Your body is good. There is nothing gross about your body. Your body can do amazing things. Your body blesses you. Honor and take care of your body and honor and respect the bodies of others.”
That’s a value. Leviticus is a value endorsed by people who lived three millennia ago that have no connection to our current understanding of women’s bodies and menstruation. We must shake off the ancient and damaging response that says, “gross” and instead proclaim something like this: “Be fearless. No blood should hold us back,” as the nameless woman in the ancient story was in her way and context, fearless and powerful. So powerful that she calls to us through time. Her words may well be these, “Be fearless. No blood should hold us back.”
And yet, this won’t surprise you, this story that is found in three of the Gospels, Mathew, Mark, and Luke, it barely makes it into the Catholic lectionary. And where it is listed, it is listed as optional should the presider choose to offer a shorter reading. Shall we guess how often the priest opts for the shorter reading? Why is this so? Perhaps because Jesus disrupts the narrative. Or because women’s blood is thought to be too gross for the congregation’s tender minds. Or because this nameless woman simply does not matter.
To which the chorus of angels dressed in white and fighting for the vote; the chorus of angels bent over crops while organizing farmworkers; the chorus of angels giving the people new language that says, “Black Lives Matter” to which all of these women say:
And because she does, she makes her way to our consciousness. There is a good deal of art made inspired by this story. The earliest one I found was this one carved in the walls of the Roman catacombs. The woman may be nameless but we know her. And we are moved by her. Because she endured.
And finally, she is met with these words, “Go in peace.”
“Go in peace.”
We hear these words every Sunday at the conclusion of our worship service. “Go in peace.”
We may go in peace but we bring that peace out into a world that holds tight to a too-old attitude that women are unclean, impure and emotionally fragile and unpredictable. In direct response, we are in the midst of a backlash women’s movement the likes of which has never been seen and it is fueled by women’s righteous anger.
We must be assured through our own agency that women are not now nor have ever gone quietly into the night in the face of outrageous claims to our bodies and sexuality by others whether those claims are being made by governments; politicians; or religious dogma. Of religious dogma, Unitarian Universalists and all religious liberals are in a powerful position simply because of the value we hold that says that from birth to death sexuality is a healthy and natural part of our lives. By imparting the same value to our children we disrupt the narrative and attitudes encapsulated in ancient laws that have burdened women – and men! – with shame.
We must use our power to dismantle these attitudes for it is these attitudes that are at the foundation of the brick house that is patriarchy. And when women are not reviled among because we bleed – among other reasons we are reviled, all related to our sexualities – we will be closer to true and deep equality for women and indeed, for all.
We’ll end with a video that reads more like a prayer.
“No blood should hold us back.”
Amen & Blessed be.