When Michelangelo depicted “The Creation of Adam” on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, he chose to focus on the hand of God and the hand of humanity reaching toward each other. God’s hand is active, offering life with the extension of one finger; Adam’s hand seems to willingly accept.
A split second before or after the moment shown, there is touch, and life flows from the Creator to the created.
Touch is a powerful concept throughout the Bible, just as it is a powerful part of our lives. Sometimes God speaks creation into existence, but other times God takes a very hands-on approach, forming man from the dust of the ground, planting a garden in Eden, and taking a rib from the man’s side to fashion a woman. These stories imply intimacy and close, careful attention to detail.
Touch also has been corrupted by sin, however. You see evidence in the Bible; you see it in the news today. I simply have to say “Jerry Sandusky” or “pedophile priests” for you to know what I mean.
The idea of touch is at the core of our text from Mark today. It contains two interwoven stories of healing, and in both cases, healing is dependent on touch. One healing comes from a desperate reach for the Son of God; the other comes as Jesus breaks down barriers erected by sin.
The story begins with the leader of a synagogue—the kind of powerful Jew least likely to seek Jesus—going to the miracle worker in a moment of fear and need. Jairus’ 12-year-old daughter is dying, and Jesus, surrounded by a crowd, is willing to help.
Jesus has healed in other ways, sometimes from a distance. But in this case, the request is specific. “Come and lay your hands on her,” Jairus says, “so that she may be made well, and live.” Life, he desperately hopes, is in Jesus’ touch.
Along the way, the crowd jostles Jesus. A woman makes her way through the crowd, and she is as desperate as the leader of her synagogue. She has been bleeding as most younger women occasionally do, except her menstrual bleeding has gone on nonstop for 12 years—the entire lifespan of the little girl Jesus is going to help—rather than a few days.
That is a bad condition to have in our time. It was terrible in Jesus’ day. Under the Jewish purity codes, her condition made her untouchable. Even the things she sat on or slept on could not be touched. Brushing against her meant a person had to ritually bathe and be unclean until evening. Her effort to slip into the crowd and get near Jesus was in itself dangerous; if her neighbors recognized her, they might not be happy about her presence.
But she is that desperate. “If I but touch his clothes, I will be made well,” she believes. And she is correct. She touches Jesus’ cloak, and knows she has been made well.
Jesus knows something has happened, too. As the disciples note, people are pressing in everywhere, bumping him and his followers. But in one of those touches, the power of life has been transferred, and Jesus senses it.
There’s a lesson here: When a real connection is made—when God’s grace transfers through one to another—it’s going to affect the conduit, too. As a pastor, I sense it when I preach and someone is moved, or when communion changes people, or when I baptize someone. For me, I’m left with what feels like a mixture of exhaustion and elation.
Any of you who work with the poor or the sick in any way will know what I mean, too. Something seems to go out, but you’re left with something new, and you’re happy to have it.
Jesus commends the woman’s faith, expressed in simple touch, and lets her know that her faith is why she has been healed.
The story continues, and it seems to take a sad turn. The daughter has died; the professional paid mourners, sensing a payday, are already at the prominent Jairus’ house, wailing away.
Jesus is cryptic, saying she is only sleeping, an assertion that moves these obnoxious opportunists from weeping to derisive laughing. And oh, how they have missed the opportunity for a deeper understanding of God’s plan for the world.
She is dead, of course, but the one who will go to the cross—the one who will be the first fruits of the resurrection—knows that even death will be undone. And he’ll give them a taste of what is to come, again using holy touch to heal.
In fact, Jesus seems defiant of the rules sin and death have imposed on human behavior. Again, in an attempt to keep separate what is pure and impure, the Jews have rules about contact with a dead body. Any such contact required a seven-day purification ritual.
But just as he made no issue of the bleeding woman’s touch, he makes no issue of touching the dead girl, taking her by the hand. “Little girl, get up!” he says in Aramaic, the everyday language of his people. And she arises, restored to life.
As people who follow Christ, we know the world remains corrupted. We know touch can be used in terrible, wrong ways.
We also know, however, that God’s power is in us. We are, after all, the body of Christ on earth today, reliant on the Holy Spirit for power. Therefore, we can touch rightly, helping God bring healing to a broken world. There are hands reaching out to us, seeking wholeness, healing and comfort.
It is the primary task of the church to reach for those hands, offering the lost and hurting life.