Aemilia Metella Interviews the woman who defied social conventions
The early evening light shimmered off the lake, and tiny lights danced and moved in unison upon the darkening water. My companion, Naomi, and I sat on a low wall and watched a fishing boat sail away from a small stone jetty. The men raised the sail, which flapped and billowed when it caught the wind.
I had come to Capernaum, a prosperous town on the shores of Lake Galilee in Judea, to meet Miriam. You may recall my interview with her. If you have not read it yet, then her story is worth a few moments of your time. Miriam introduced me to her neighbour and good friend, Naomi. There was no way I was going to miss a chance to interview a woman who overcame stigmatism and refused to let an opportunity pass her by twice.
The fishing boat sailed through the golden glow cast by the setting sun. I breathed in to savour the peaceful moment and relaxed, an experience not often given to a busy reporter. My companion seemed equally at ease in these surroundings. Not wanting to break the silence, I waited for Naomi to speak. After a few moments, she turned to me and smiled. Her grey eyes sparkled with a warmth and a touch of mischief.
“I had to be careful before my healing when I came out of the house,” she said. “But on evenings like these, I would venture outside if no one was around. You know what the matter was, don’t you?”
“No, your friend Miriam suggested I have a chat with you.”
“Well, the story going around is that Jesus healed me when I touched the hem of his cloak. But the details of my illness are either not mentioned or are talked about in veiled terms.”
Puzzled why this should be, I looked at her. Naomi leaned into me.
“Because it’s embarrassing,” she said. “We don’t talk about what happens to women’s bodies, especially as we get older. But I decided this morning to tell you everything, and you can write about it in any way you like. I’m through with it being a secret, only whispered behind closed doors. So, pick up your stylus, Aemilia Metella and start taking notes.”
Intrigued, I took out the stylus from my bag and waited for her to continue.
“Have you heard of Simon Peter, the apostle?” She asked. “I’ve known him since he was a baby. He used to run naked with my son, along the shore here.” She touched my arm. “That was a long time ago and you don’t need to write about that! He was always getting into trouble, and his mother despaired what would happen to him. But he was a good-natured child, and there was never any malice with him. Just high spirits.”
The lady next to me exuded a vitality that belied her mature years.
“My condition prohibited me from socialising with people. I could not even go to Simon and Rebekah’s wedding or join in any of the festivities. The law said I was unclean all the time, and everything and everyone I touched would be tainted with my uncleanliness. Unable to meet family or friends anymore, I lived my life in isolation.”
“What made you unclean?”
“According to our law, when a woman has her monthly period, she is unclean for as long as she has the flow of blood. That was fine when I was younger and only had to isolate for five or six days a month. But when I turned forty years old, my body changed. The number of days free of blood became less and less until I was haemorrhaging blood almost every day.”
“That must have been very difficult for you.”
Naomi sighed and shook her head. “It left me tired all the time, with little energy to do anything. Not that I was supposed to do much. I could not cook for others, eat with family, or even be in the same room as anyone else. I felt dirty and unclean. Only daring to leave my bedroom at night, when no one could meet me.”
Why are rules made to prohibit women from living their lives? When a girl begins her periods, she is considered to be a young woman, and from then on, able to give life to a child. But embarrassed, we whisper it behind closed doors. However, when a man in battle either spills another man’s blood, or his own soaks the battlefield, we call him a hero. Not for giving life, but for taking it.
“My situation was desperate because I had spent everything I had on doctors and quacks who promised to help me. The only thing they did was take my money and sell me useless medicine. Some of which even made me worse. Until I had sold most of my possessions and furniture, leaving me with the basics, just a bed and a chair.
“Each day I sat by the window, staring out at a world denied to me. One sabbath, there was a commotion in Miriam’s home and I saw her youngest son run out. A few minutes later, Simon ran back from the synagogue with Jesus, who I knew was a teacher and Rabbi. Later that night, Miriam shouted up to me from her courtyard, saying she had nearly died from a fever and Jesus healed her.
“After the sabbath was over, people flocked to Miriam’s house. Those who wanted to see Jesus jostled to get inside the courtyard. But I could not go out to meet him. The morning after, I watched him walk to the shore. He got in a boat and sailed across the lake. I yearned to sail away from my problems but knew I would never be free unless I did something drastic to change my situation.
“I needed to be ready the next time he came. Searching around my home, I looked for anything to sell, because I thought for sure he would want to be paid for his prayers. There was nothing left except the house, but then where would I live? What if he took my money and let me down? Perhaps he was a charlatan, like all the others.
“The day he arrived came unexpectedly, with no chance to get any money together. By this time, he was famous amongst the ordinary folk of Galilee, and a crowd scrambled to surround him. I knew it was against the rules, and I could be in trouble, but I was determined not to let the opportunity pass my door a second time. Gathering my shawl over my head, I rushed out of my house and joined the throngs. Frantic that I might miss him, I pushed and shoved people out of the way. As you can see, I am not very tall, and I squeezed between people to find myself at the front of the crowds. And there he was, striding towards me. Before I could even think about it, I touched the edge of his cloak, hoping that would be enough.”
She turned to me with tears in her eyes. “That was the precise moment something stirred within me. All the heaviness and pain inside lifted and, in an instant, I felt the bleeding stop. Ashamed of what I had done, I turned to slink away. I had touched a holy man when I was unclean. He stopped and looked around. ˋWho touched me? ˊ he asked.
“I recognised Simon at once, who replied, ˋThe crowd is enormous, Jesus. How can you ask such a silly question? Everyone is jostling us. An old woman has just elbowed me in the ribs. ˊ”
“ˋNo! ˊ Jesus replied. ˋSomeone touched me in faith. This desperate person reached out for help and has already received their healing. Who was it? ˊ”
“The crowds blocked my escape, and I had no alternative but to own up. Crying, I fell to his feet and told him what I had done. I couldn’t tell him everything, but when he lifted me up, he looked at me and I saw he knew. He knew and was not angry at me. I did not transfer my contamination to him, instead, his purity filled me. He touched my cheek, and that was the first human touch I had felt for many years.
“Holding my head between his hands, he said, ˋDaughter, you are free from your long-suffering. Go in peace and live your life well. ˊ with that, he was gone.”
“Have you lived your life well?”
Naomi squeezed my hand. “Yes, I have. I enjoy hugs from my children and grandchildren. Eating meals with my family. Going shopping and sitting with my neighbours long into the evening, talking, nibbling snacks, and enjoying each other’s company. Jesus returned my life to me.
“If that was not extraordinary enough, Simon later told me what happened to Jesus. The Romans killed him, but that’s not the end of the story, because he came back to life. Simon and the others saw him and told us his teachings. I thought he was special before, and now I know he is. He changed me so that I can live my life well. One thing I do, is along with my friend, Miriam, talk to people about him. We talk about how our lives were returned to us. So, Aemilia, write everything down and tell your readers my story. I am no longer ashamed.”
The story behind the interview is from the Bible and is found in Matthew 9:20-22, Mark 5:24-43, and Luke 8:43 -48. The woman is unnamed, and I have called her Naomi and allowed her to speak for herself. When reading the above passages, we find her illness written about in terms of a flow of blood or a haemorrhage, a euphemism for menstruation or the menopause. This was a woman who not only suffered physically but was forced into social isolation for many years. I am honoured to give her a voice.
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Susan Sutherland is the author of Leaving Bethany, a historical and Biblical fiction written from the point of view of Martha of Bethany. She is currently working on the sequel, Return to Caesarea, due out winter 2022.