Woman, You Are Set Free

Children walking through a labyrinth near the author's home


Recently, I preached from Luke 13 about the woman whose “spirit had crippled her for 18 years.” She was bent over and unable to stand up straight when Jesus calls to her, saying, “Woman, you are set free from your ailment.”

The story unfolds with religious leaders complaining about Jesus healing on the Sabbath. Jesus calls them out for treating their own animals, which they give water to on the sabbath, better than this daughter of Abraham. The story ends this way— “the entire crowd was rejoicing at all the wonderful things he was doing.” There are so many ways to read this story, but what stood out for me was the idea that in order to be set free, we need first to know and then name what we are in bondage to. 

I began to explore that question, rolling it around in my hand like dice. Saying to myself, “you are set free.” I said it over and over. For weeks. I held the story close—the importance of my voice as a woman, the invitation to stand tall, and of course, the promise of freedom. But I still wondered. What did I need to be set free from? What was I in bondage to?

More recently, for our apprenticeship gathering, instead of teaching, or praxis, we were given space for rest and renewal. If it felt right, we were encouraged to take a walk and work through a guided set of questions. Not far from my house is an Episcopal church with a labyrinth. As I headed in that direction, I felt the heaviness of the roles I play—mother, wife, pastor, daughter, friend, spiritual director, and on and on (and on). I couldn’t clear my head enough to focus on the reflection questions in our guide, and I noticed that my body was tensing.

As I slowly made my way around the path of the labyrinth, I rolled my shoulders, adjusted my posture, and stretched my neck as I prayed. As I rounded each corner, I let go of the overwhelm just a little. I felt more and more present and connected—both to self and God. As I neared the center, I realized that the tightness was loosening. I could feel my body relaxing. And then, the story of the bent-over woman in the temple came to me. I could see her; I imagined Jesus calling to her and bending over to meet her eyes. But then I stopped; I could not for the life of me remember what it was he said to her. Why couldn’t I remember? It hadn’t been that long since I turned those words into a mantra.

I continued to walk, and after some time, a wave washed over me, and I recalled Jesus’ words: “woman, you are set free.” And at once, I felt it. The freedom of those words. I laughed out loud! I was surprised and delighted—I felt free. The burden of the roles I play cleared out, even if only for that moment as I heard it again “woman, you are set free.”

When I returned to the group, I shared my experience, and someone pointed out that Jesus called her—called me—woman. Yes, I am a mother, a friend, a pastor—but first, I am a woman, a person. First, I am me.

I don’t have these types of experiences often, and even in writing this, it’s hard to recall the details — did I really laugh out loud? Had my body really tensed and then relaxed so quickly? I suppose the details don’t matter, as much as my response. Will I choose to live as a person who has been set free? 

What am I in bondage to? Everything, I suppose. The groans of creation. My overwhelm and stress. The fear of using my voice, fear of what others might think or say, fear of not using my voice, but mostly the inability to believe I am set free.

So I write the words on a Post-it and stick it to my desk, I type it into a note on my phone, and I think about where I might tattoo the words — all in hopes of not forgetting them so quickly next time. When I go back to fear, when I hunch over in shame, when I tense up and forget who I am, may I remember those gentle words of Jesus — you are set free.


Author photo of Holly Phillips sitting in the labyrinth described in the post.
Photo credit: Whitman Phillips (the author’s son)

Holly Phillips is part of the Anam Cara Apprenticeship and comes to it with a background in church ministry. She feels called to walk alongside others and help them find the sacred in the ordinary. After years of wrestling with her place in the church and overthinking life with God, Holly has found new ways of encountering the Spirit through simply being. She currently serves as Co-Pastor at a small church in Austin, Texas, where she lives with her musician husband, their three kids, and a backyard full of birds. If you’d like to connect with her, you can do so through her Substack here.