Some years ago following the death of Pope John Paul II, the media ran many series of videos and still photographs encapsulating the late pontiff’s career. Again and again what we saw in all that was the fact that no matter where the pope went, the one constant was the fierce desire people had to touch him. The New York Times published a particularly wonderful photo that showed this. It came from a visit the pope made to this country and specifically an appearance he made at a cathedral in Newark, New Jersey. The picture had clearly been taken from the balcony and showed the pope from above and behind as he proceeded up the church’s center aisle. John Paul had both of his arms extended outward to the side. And from the pews lining the aisle were the extended hands of dozens of people stretching and reaching so that their hands could brush against one of his hands.
For some reason, with charismatic leaders, we feel a desire to touch. Robert F. Kennedy exuded a similar attraction. According to Bobby Kennedy’s aides, there were many times after campaign appearances in 1968 when Bobby had to throw away his shirt. So many people clutched and clawed to touch him that Bobby’s hands would be scratched and a bit bloody even as his shirt sleeves became tattered to shreds.1
Jesus was no stranger to the phenomenon of touch. Rarely did He go anywhere where the crowds weren’t pressing in on Him, wanting a piece of Him. In the Gospel we just heard from St. Mark, we see Jesus being pressed in on once again, everyone eager to touch Him, when out of nowhere a man asked not to lay hands on Jesus but for Jesus to come and lay hands on his dying daughter.
Interestingly, in a reading that seems to scream for it, our lectionary actually leaves out what happened on the way to see Jairus’ daughter, another touching episode (or really another episode of touching). As it happened, while Jesus was on His way to Jairus’ house (and you’ll remember this story), a woman who had a “bleeding problem” reached out of the crowd and touched the hem of Jesus’ robe. This was a problem. The woman’s bleeding problem was a female problem, a hemorrhage she had had for a dozen years. This problem made her ritually unclean, she was not allowed in the Temple and anyone who touched her wasn’t allowed in the Temple for a week. In all reality, she was an outcast, and for the common good, she shouldn’t have been in a crowd at all. Anyone she touched that day in the crowd was made unclean, unable to touch others or go to Temple, and she could be punished for putting others in that situation. Technically, she could have been stoned to death for jostling her way through that crowd, but she was eager, desperate even, to just touch the Lord.
Of course, as the story goes, the woman did get to touch Jesus, or really she just grabbed onto his cloak for a moment. She is healed, but the surprising part here is this grab and duck method actually worked. “We ordinarily resist seeing Jesus as some kind of magic charm. We’d prefer to think that the miracles Jesus worked were done deliberately and as an act of his will. Reading this story for the first time, you wouldn’t expect this anonymous touching of Jesus to be effective. Yet it is.”2 It seems that there is objective power in the Person of Jesus, that reaching out to touch Him is not only not against His will, but just as much a part of His will as Him reaching out for you.
Of course, this whole episode was just an interlude on the way to Jairus’ daughter, who by the time of the healing of the woman, had died. “The role of touch comes in again in that Jesus takes the little girl’s hand as the prelude to raising her from the dead. The little girl is restored to the community of her family, and Jesus’ swift urging that they feed her is a symbol of the kind of communal joy and sharing he desires for all people. There is no better symbol of life’s vibrancy than when we share food and drink with each other.”3
What we have here are the stories of two dead women; one dead to the world, and one dead altogether, who, by the healing, life-giving touch of Jesus, are restored to life. We have one woman whose life was restored by reaching out for Jesus, and one woman whose life was restored because those who cared for her reached out for Jesus. Jesus is always reaching out for us; who amongst us is reaching for Him? Who is not amongst us that we need to tell Jesus about?
1Scott Hoezee, This Week