The Presbyterian Pulpit
The Presbyterian Pulpit
A sermon by the Rev. Dr. David E. Leininger

"IF I BUT TOUCH..."

Delivered 7/9/2000
Text: Mark 5:21-43
To read endnotes, click on the the note number, then click on the to return to your place in the text.

Happy ending. Two wonderful healing stories, one sandwiched in the middle of the other.

First, we hear about the little girl, Jairus' daughter. Word had spread that this itinerant rabbi from Nazareth who reportedly had incredible healing powers had arrived in town. Enter Jairus, one of the high muckety-mucks in the local synagogue who happens to be the father of a VERY sick child. Ordinarily, we would not expect Jairus to have anything to do with Jesus, period - after all, the leaders of other synagogues were rather down on this teacher. But biology trumps theology every time, and Jairus wants his sweet baby well (and she would always be his sweet baby, no matter how old she was - any father knows that). That is why the gospel record presents him as dashing up to Jesus and, instead of making a genteel request, falling on his knees, probably grabbing Jesus around the ankles, and over and over, half asking, half crying, begging, "My little daughter is at the point of death. Come and lay your hands on her, so that she may be made well, and live...My little daughter is at the point of death. Come and lay your hands on her, so that she may be made well, and live...My little daughter is at the point of death. Come and lay your hands on her, so that she may be made well, and live."

We have no record of Jesus' response. Just that Jairus' begging works. So they head off towards Jairus' home.

Meanwhile, we are introduced to a nameless woman, a nobody. Not nearly of the same social standing as Jairus. For all twelve years of Jairus' daughter's life, this poor lady has had no life at all. You see, these hemorrhages were not merely inconvenient; in a society that places immense value on ritual purity, they disqualified her (and anyone with whom she might come in contact) from being a part of the community of faith.

This was some spunky lady. As we say, she had survived this misery for a dozen years without giving in. There is no mention of a husband here, but if she had had one, in a day when getting out of a marriage could be for as silly a reason as burning the breakfast toast and was as easy as handing a wife a hand-written notice of intent and saying publically, "I divorce you; I divorce you; I divorce you," he probably had dumped her years ago. No doubt she had tried all the ritual cures - the Talmud itself gives no fewer than eleven of them. Some of them are tonics and astringents; but some of them are sheer superstitions like carrying the ashes of an ostrich-egg in a linen rag in summer and a cotton rag in winter; or carrying a barley corn which had been found in the dung of a white female donkey.(1) No luck. Doctors had been no help - all they had cured her of was her bank balance; now she was so broke that it was all she could do to pay attention. But she HAD paid attention when word came about this healer.

How did she get so close? After all, in a small town, her secret would not have been unknown. No one would have wanted her near. Call out the Secret Service! But this would have been one of those rare times when social convention would have colluded to help her carry out her plan. Her face would have been veiled, as would have been the face of any respectable lady on the street! So off she went.

What would she do when she got to the rabbi? Would she slowly make her way near to him then, with a flourish, whip off her veil and, while townsfolk looked on horrified, announce her desire for healing? Naw. Too ostentatious. She settled on a plan. "If I but touch his clothes, I will be made well." Just reach out and touch. No big deal. And if there are lots of people around, as there surely will be, it will be even easier. Reach out and touch...then steal away into the crowd. As she made her way to her fateful meeting, she kept repeating it to herself. "If I but touch his clothes, I will be made well...If I but touch his clothes, I will be made well...If I but touch his clothes, I will be made well." I wonder where she learned that...the healing power of a simple touch?

We know what happens next. Her chutzpah is rewarded. As the lesson says, "Immediately her hemorrhage stopped; and she felt in her body that she was healed of her disease."

WAIT A MINUTE! "Who touched my clothes?" Uh-oh. If this lady had taken a great leap of faith before, now the desire must have been to find a great leap of escape. Is there a nearby hole to crawl into? Become invisible? She could have stood silent - even the disciples had given her an out: "Gracious, Jesus, you see the crowd pressing in on you; how can you say, 'Who touched me?'" Just keep quiet, dear heart. Would that not be preferable to admitting in front of God and everybody that she had just made this rabbi as unclean as she was by her audacious and selfish touch? And what was the penalty for deliberately making someone else unclean? Did someone say death?

Aw, so what! Why not just admit it? This life of isolation and exclusion, no family, no friends, no love, no care is not much better than living death anyway.

It only took a moment for her to make up her mind. "Who touched my clothes?" With fear and trembling she came forward, the veil slowly falling from her face. Neighbors in the crowd must have gasped when they saw who was coming to confess. UNCLEAN! Haltingly, she began to explain...twelve years, rituals, doctors, money, last resort..."If I could but touch..."

"Daughter, [and this is the only time in the gospels we have record of Jesus addressing anyone this way]...Daughter, your faith has made you well; go in peace, and be healed of your disease." Or in a more contemporary rendering, "Go in peace, and take care of yourself." Wow!

Meanwhile, the business at hand interrupts. That little girl, Jairus' daughter...don't bother Jesus anymore. It is too late. She is gone.

I wonder what went through Jairus' mind. He had heard the woman and her utter confidence in Jesus..."If I but touch..." Jairus himself was convinced - thus, the request to "lay your hands on her, so that she may be made well, and live." TOUCH her. Not now though. According to Mosaic law, three things could make one ritually unclean enough to be excluded from the community: leprosy, uncleanness caused by bodily discharges, and impurity resulting from contact with the dead.(2) No way the rabbi is about to do anything with a corpse. But before such thoughts would have had the time to form in Jairus' mind, and certainly before he would have realized that one of those taboos had already been broken today, Jesus is saying to him, "Do not fear, only believe."

By the time the entourage gets to the house, the weeping and wailing that are a traditional part of the funeral have already begun. Jesus says they have jumped the gun: "Why do you make a commotion and weep? The child is not dead but sleeping." They all give that diagnosis the old hardy-har-har only to have to eat their sardonic laughter in another few moments.

We know what happens: he takes her hand and says, "Little girl, get up!" And she does. The healing touch comes through again. Perhaps the message in these stories is that there is something tremendously therapeutic in touch.

Some years ago, about midnight on a Saturday night near the end of June, my telephone rang. If the phone in the manse rings at midnight, generally there is trouble. And there was. It was the police. The officer was calling to let me know that one of my parishioners had just been killed in a tragic automobile accident, a beautiful fourteen-year-old by the name of Ashley. She was a gorgeous child, one who made many a young heart to flutter. I had just been with her the night before - the youth group had had a swim party. Soaking wet, she had come up to me, wrapped her arms around my neck, and gave me one of her incredible hugs. Yes, I got wet, but I did not care. Ashley was one of God's great huggers.

Over the next several days, I spent a good deal of time in Ashley's home as I tried to offer comfort to her family. While there I noticed something in that universal American art gallery also known as the refrigerator door - it was a piece of paper held by a magnet which Ashley had colored years before when she was only in the third grade. It was entitled HUGS (and I still have a copy of it in my office). It reads:

There is no such thing as a bad hug;
there are only good hugs and great hugs.
Hug someone at least once a day
and twice on a rainy day.
Hug with a smile; closed eyes are optional.
A snuggle is a longish hug.
Bedtime hugs help chase away bad dreams.
Never hug someone tomorrow you could hug today.

That was Ashley. Whether she would ever had put a scientific name to it or not, she knew about therapeutic touch.

At her funeral, I mentioned something I had learned about the massive Sequoia trees of California which tower as much as 300 feet above the ground. Strangely, these giants have unusually shallow root systems that reach out in all directions to capture the greatest amount of surface moisture. Seldom will you see a redwood standing alone, because high winds would quickly uproot it. That is why they grow in clusters. Their intertwining roots provide support for one another against the storms. Perhaps there was a wisdom about Ashley that realized we are all like those giant Sequoias. We need the intertwining... the hugging...the touch...for mutual support. "If I but touch..."

Perhaps you are familiar with the name Leo Buscaglia, the well-known author and guru of the human potential movement. His genius is in taking what is central to the biblical message - forgiveness, love, laughter, faith - and bringing it to bear on a culture where people's lives have become one long suicide. Leo is a big fan of hugging. In fact, he is known as "Dr. Hug."

Buscaglia's penchant for hugging has now been validated by other members of the medical profession. Researchers have discovered that physical contact like hugging can improve communication, pleasure, and health. Specifically, hugging can help you live longer, protect you against illness, remedy depression and stress, strengthen family relationships and even help you sleep without pills. Recent studies have discovered that "when a person is touched, the amount of hemoglobin in that person's blood increased significantly." So says Helen Colton, author of The Gift of Touch.(3) Hemoglobin carries the body's oxygen supply to all its organs. Increased hemoglobin levels tone the whole body, help prevent disease and speed recovery time from illness. Colton maintains that her "fifteen years of research have convinced me that regular hugging can actually prolong life by curing harmful depression and stimulating a stronger will to live."(4)

Churches are slowly learning that. There is more and more of it on Sunday mornings, a lesson that many of us who grew up in another era have had to reluctantly learn. In fact, two weeks ago, as I said my goodbyes to the congregation I had served in North Carolina for the past eight years, the one line I heard over and over and over again was, "But what am I gonna do for my hug each week?" I knew what they were saying. It was not a frivolous question. One of my cyberfriends came across this in a church newsletter called "Touch in Church:"(5)


	What is all this touching in church?
		It used to be a person could come to church and sit in the
			pew and not be bothered by all this friendliness 
				and certainly not by touching.

	I used to come to church and leave untouched.
		Now I have to be nervous about what's expected of me.
			I have to worry about responding to the person 
				sitting next to me.

	Oh, I wish it could be the way it used to be;
		I could just ask the person next to me: 
			How are you?
				And the person could answer: 
					Oh, just fine,
			And we'd both go home... 
		strangers who have known each other for twenty years.

	But now the minister asks us to look at each other.
	I'm worried about that hurt look I saw in that woman's eyes.
		Now I'm concerned,
			because when the minister asks us to greet one another,
				the man next to me held my hand so tightly
					I wondered if he had been touched in years.
		Now I'm upset because the lady next to me cried 
			and then apologized
				and said it was because I was so kind 
					and that she needed a friend right now.

	Now I have to get involved.
		Now I have to suffer when this community suffers.
			Now I have to be more than a person coming 
				to observe a service.

	That man last week told me
		I'd never know how much I'd touched his life.
			All I did was smile
				and tell him I understood 
					what it was to be lonely.

	Lord, I'm not big enough to touch and be touched!
		The stretching scares me.
			What if I disappoint somebody?
				What if I'm too pushy?
					What if I cling too much?
						What if somebody ignores me?

	"Pass the peace."
		"The peace of Christ be with you." 
			"And also with you."
				And mean it.
					Lord, I can't resist meaning it!

	I'm touched by it, I'm enveloped by it!
		I find I do care about that person next to me!
			I find I AM involved!
				And I'm scared.

	O Lord, be here beside me.
		You touch me, Lord, 
			so that I can touch and be touched!
				So that I can care and be cared for!
					So that I can share my life with all those others 
						that belong to you!

	All this touching in church -- Lord, it's changing me!

What was it our audacious friend said so many centuries ago? "If I but touch...I will be healed."

Amen!


1. William Barclay, The Daily Study Bible, CD-ROM edition (Liguori, MO: Liguori Faithware, 1996) used by permission of Westminster/John Knox Press

2. Numbers 5:2

3. New York : Seaview/Putnam, 1983

4. http://www.homileticsonline.com/Installments/jun3091.htm

5. Courtesy of Brian Stoffregen, via Ecunet, "Gospel Notes for Next Sunday," #144, 6/19/97

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