A few years ago, my son had been caught up in the Madagascar craze. Starring the voices of Chris Rock, Ben Stiller, and others, it told the story of these Central Park zoo animals who found themselves stranded in Madagascar. There have been several sequels but it also spawned a television show about the fuzzy black and white birds who were always up to some kind of mischief, The Penguins of Madagascar.
One particular episode of the show caught my attention, “Untouchable,” about Barry, the poison-dart frog, who was as mean as a snake. The Penguins spent the episode trying to figure out why he was so mean, only to realize that because of the poisonous nature of his skin, he had never been hugged as a child. So they built a safety suit, and the penguin named Private holds him… and his behavior and attitude changes almost immediately.
Too often, we fail to see the worth of personal touch, of interpersonal communication, of the power of being fully present.
In our Scripture today, Jesus is both fully present and willing to touch someone, and the impact is dramatic, life-changing, life-giving. What can we learn from the example of Jesus in the technologically-advanced, spread out world we live in?
A faithful father, a grieving parent, sets this story of three lives in motion. He’s a Jewish religious leader but he’s forced to recognize that his daughter has died and he has no other hope, no recourse, but to try a last ditch effort: he asks Jesus to come and touch his daughter so that she might live.
Not only is this government/religious official threatening his position, his authority in the town, his place in society, but he’s pitching his hope on the fact that the rumors he’s heard about Jesus are true and that Jesus might actually be able to heal her. Why not? He doesn’t have any other options.
But there’s something else here, too. He doesn’t ask Jesus to come pray over her or to come and say something deep and metaphysical: he just wants Jesus to give her the most casual of attentions, that is, the father wants Jesus to merely touch his daughter. So powerful is his belief in Jesus’ abilities, in his connection to God, that he just wants the slightest touch.
We don’t know what Jesus said back, just that he got up and went with his disciples toward the religious leader’s house. Somewhere on the way, the first miracle happens. Somewhere on his way to being part of one little girl’s solution, he becomes the answer to an older woman’s twelve-year questions and prayers and suffering.
It says that this woman, suffering from a blood disorder for twelve years touches the edge of his cloak. Not Jesus himself, but the faintest amount of his outer garment dragging on the ground. Here’s another person who doesn’t see any other options for how her life could improve, how she could go on living, how she could be healed, than to break a cultural taboo (and potentially threaten her own life) by touching a man in public who she was not married to.
She’s understood to have been bleeding badly enough that she was emaciated. She’s ritually unclean because signs of blood were not permitted in Jewish law: you had to be clean before you could go to worship in the temple. If she touched someone else, they would be unclean until they had a ritual washing as well! She’s ostracized, humiliated, and she can’t even publicly bring it up to Jesus.
“If I only touch his cloak, I will be healed.”
There’s a lot of faith there.
The three Synoptic Gospels present what he said and what she said differently. In Luke and Mark, Jesus stops and asks who touched him, and the woman finally admits that it was her and shares her story publicly. It’s possible this was Jesus’ way of showing that this woman didn’t need to be ashamed of her condition, that others could see the hope in their private, hidden situation. That others might find hope in the midst of their shame.
What we have in all three is that Jesus turns, calls her daughter (bringing her into a familial place), and tells her that her faith has healed her.
One simple touch.
That in itself, giving life, healing, welcoming back into society, seems that it could be enough. And still, Jesus isn’t done.
Jesus arrives at the religious leader’s house (we’ve almost forgotten about him!) and sees that a full funeral celebration is underway. He tells them to “go away”- how is that for kind, wimpy Jesus- and that she’s not really dead! And these people laugh at him, obviously not taken by the religious leader’s faith.
The people want the religious leader to be rational, to accept things the way they are. They want him to be realistic, to not chase something mysterious and miraculous because they expect that he will be disappointed, that his heart will just be broken again. They have no expectation that their lives, that the life of this little girl, could be different.
But Jesus is undeterred (isn’t he always?) and takes the girl’s hand and she got up. There’s no big show, no dancing or shouting or calling out but simply, the touch.
I wonder what we could heal by simply touching. I wonder what happens when we hold the hand of someone who needs prayer or when we provide a hug to someone to show them that we love them. Too often, we get caught up in taboo or in stigma, and we fail to see that we are meant to be in community, that we are meant to love and respect and care.
We get it as kids, don’t we? You fall down and skin your knee, you run into the coffee table and a knot develops. You run to your mom, your dad, your grandparents. You know that there’s something about their touch, their hug, that makes you feel better, that reminds you that it’s going to be okay.
Somewhere along the way, we lose belief in the power of touch, in what it means to have someone be present with us in our struggle and pain.
When I was in seminary, I was in a hospital internship, where I was assigned a hall with a few dozen patients. Sometimes, my patients slept through my visit, but I prayed anyway. And whenever it wasn’t a detriment to their health, I tried to make contact, with a hand on their shoulder or by holding hands while I prayed.
My supervisor called it “the ministry of presence.” It seems so simple, but in the case of these two women, one very young and one very old, one touch from Jesus made all the difference.
What would happen if you reached out and touched someone today?
I think we have to deepen our faith to believe that touch matters, that prayer matters. I think we need to believe that our lives could actually be different. I think we need to come with an expectation that church matters, that faith matters, that loving God matters.
I think it starts with saying that we’ve done everything we can do and frankly, it’s not enough. I think it continues with coming to church and expecting that we’re going to meet God here. That God shows up. I think it means that we’re actually expecting that God will knit us together and make us the body of Christ so that when we, the church, touch something, that grace, and healing, and the miraculous happens.
What would happen if we reached out and touched someone today?
What would that look like?
These women met Jesus after everything else had been tried. Jesus was the last resort. I think that’s how we approach Jesus, too, most of the time. We pray after the diagnosis, or after the struggle really hurts, or after we’ve exhausted all of the other options.
What happens if we reach out and ask Jesus to touch us first?
I believe we are supposed to be the hands and feet of Jesus, going where he would go and serving where he would serve. I think we’re supposed to reach out and touch others in the name of Jesus, to heal their bodies, their hearts, their life situations, their lives. But we have to believe that Jesus loves us and has touched us for our lives to actually reflect that kind of healing. We have to be ready to be put to use as as the body of Christ!
Jesus made it an intimate thing when he told the parable of the sheep and the goats: he said that each of us would be ministering to him when we served someone else in Matthew 25. Dr. M. Scott Peck took the story a step further with his “Rabbi’s Gift” story:
“It concerns a group of monks living together in a French monastery that had fallen upon hard times. One day, they were visited a stranger who asked them for a place to sleep that night. The monks enjoyed his company at dinner, and sensed he was spiritual, even while annoyed at his appearance and smell. As he was leaving the next day, he whispered to the abbot, “I need to tell you a secret that God has given me: “The Messiah is among you.”
When he returned to the table, the other monks asked what the man had whispered. “He said the Messiah is among us!”
When the abbot returned to the monastery his fellow monks gathered around him to ask, “Well what did the rabbi say?” “He couldn’t help,” the abbot answered. “We just wept and read the Torah together. The only thing he did say, just as I was leaving –it was something cryptic– was that the Messiah is one of us. I don’t know what he meant.”
The monks began to inquire among themselves whether it could be this or that monk, but they discounted each other. As they examined the situation, they began to treat each other differently, their expectations changed, on the off chance that one might actually be the Messiah.
The monastery began to change, as the monks focused more passionately on God, on worship, on reading the Scriptures. And they began to grow spiritually. Their prayer took on new life, as did their teaching and service. People began to notice, and pilgrims came to them to leaner wisdom. Soon, new monks joined their ranks to learn from them, and they became alive again. Alive to Christ.”
What would it take to become more alive to Christ, more alive to the movement of God in our lives? Oh, how blessed to have been one who was there to meet Jesus!
I wonder as we’ve worked through the ministry of Jesus heading toward Easter what it must’ve been like to have been someone he spent time healing or preaching to. When they heard Jesus had died, did they recognize that this Messiah, this revolutionary leader, had stopped from what he was doing to heal them? Did they hear the stories about people who had seen him post-resurrection and marvel that the change in their lives was part of this greater mystery?
Do you ever ask those questions? Do you ever consider that you mattered so much that Jesus, Son of God, stopped what he was doing to heal you, to free you, to make you right with God? That your story is part of the bigger picture? And that when we’ve been made right we become part of God’s plan to make others right, too?
Healing can happen. Relationships can be restored. If we’d only believe.
Al Michaels said it best in Lake Placid in 1980: “Do you believe in miracles?!!”