The Power of Touch – sermon on Mark 5:21-43

Mark 5:21-43
21When Jesus had crossed again in the boat to the other side, a great crowd gathered around him; and he was by the sea. 22Then one of the leaders of the synagogue named Jairus came and, when he saw him, fell at his feet 23and begged him repeatedly, “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.”

24So he went with him. And a large crowd followed him and pressed in on him. 25Now there was a woman who had been suffering from hemorrhages for twelve years. 26She had endured much under many physicians, and had spent all that she had; and she was no better, but rather grew worse. 27She had heard about Jesus, and came up behind him in the crowd and touched his cloak, 28for she said, “If I but touch his clothes, I will be made well.” 29Immediately her hemorrhage stopped; and she felt in her body that she was healed of her disease. 30Immediately aware that power had gone forth from him, Jesus turned about in the crowd and said, “Who touched my clothes?” 31And his disciples said to him, “You see the crowd pressing in on you; how can you say, ‘Who touched me?’” 32He looked all around to see who had done it. 33But the woman, knowing what had happened to her, came in fear and trembling, fell down before him, and told him the whole truth. 34He said to her, “Daughter, your faith has made you well; go in peace, and be healed of your disease.”

35While he was still speaking, some people came from the leader’s house to say, “Your daughter is dead. Why trouble the teacher any further?” 36But overhearing what they said, Jesus said to the leader of the synagogue, “Do not fear, only believe.” 37He allowed no one to follow him except Peter, James, and John, the brother of James. 38When they came to the house of the leader of the synagogue, he saw a commotion, people weeping and wailing loudly. 39When he had entered, he said to them, “Why do you make a commotion and weep? The child is not dead but sleeping.” 40And they laughed at him. Then he put them all outside, and took the child’s father and mother and those who were with him, and went in where the child was. 41He took her by the hand and said to her, “Talitha cum,” which means, “Little girl, get up!” 42And immediately the girl got up and began to walk about (she was twelve years of age). At this they were overcome with amazement. 43He strictly ordered them that no one should know this, and told them to give her something to eat.

I’ve kept a diary or journal, off and on, for most of my life. I got my first diary as a birthday present when I turned 7 and have gone through it and probably 25 more journals in the many years since then. On those handwritten pages, I spilled out my heart and my secrets… but let’s be honest, it was mostly about my crushes. For those of you who’ve kept a journal, have you ever gone back to read your old entries? What was that like? If you’re anything like me, it can be a cringe-worthy experience that you don’t want to dwell on any longer than necessary.

I recently saw a documentary, Mortified Nation, that showed me I’m not alone in the obsessive crushes, the naïve fantasies, or the other embarrassing aspects of my high school experience. Apparently there are venues across the country where people show up to read from their teenage selves’ diaries—out loud—to an audience. Anyone who has ever had a diary—or, really, anyone who has ever been a teenager—can probably imagine why these shows go by the name, “Mortified.” It sounds absolutely insane. Your teenage years included more than enough embarrassing moments on their own… why in the world would you want to relive them in front of strangers?

The surprising truth, though, is that instead of feeling more embarrassed, participants in these shows actually feel much better after reading their diaries out loud. Because, for the first time in their lives, they can show their most vulnerable, honest, true self and be accepted in spite of—even because of—exactly who they are, quirks and all. And it turns out that those feelings we’ve all had, where we feel so different, so alone, so misunderstood, and think we have no one we can share that with… those are probably the most relatable, universal feelings of all!

Now, teenagers tend to be a little extreme in their emotions and the way they react to them, and we’ve all been there. But the thing is that even as adults, we are not immune to these feelings of not belonging—even if we sometimes think we are or wish we were. It’s true that our wish to belong doesn’t tend to manifest itself in quite the same ways anymore, but we still have those times when we desperately want to fit in. Acceptance and belonging are human needs as much as food and shelter, but too often there are doubts or external reasons standing in the way. Apart from maybe journaling, what are we to do when we’re feeling lost, excluded, hurt, or ashamed?

In our Bible passage today from Mark 5, we see a woman who feels all of these things and more. Like so many women in the Scriptures, she goes unnamed and is often referred to as the Woman with the Flow of Blood or the Hemorrhaging Woman. We call her this because she is described in the text as having suffered from bleeding for the last 12 years. She did everything she could and spent all of her money seeking out medical treatment from all the doctors she could find, but her bleeding only grew worse. So at this stage in her life, she’s been bleeding for over a decade, is still sick and in pain, and doesn’t have a penny to her name.

We don’t know the exact medical cause of this woman’s bleeding, but to Jews at the time it was seen as equivalent to extended menstruation. And therefore, for the entire duration of the bleeding, the woman would be considered ritually unclean by Jewish law. A ritually unclean person could not touch a ritually clean person without contaminating that person and making them unclean as well. So it was common practice for menstruating women to seclude themselves completely until their bleeding stopped. But what if the bleeding lasted for 12 years instead of a few days? It is likely that this woman had not felt human touch or had meaningful interactions with anyone for 12 whole years! Can you even imagine? If she had family or friends, they wouldn’t be able to visit her without contaminating themselves, and they probably eventually gave up on her after she was still unclean so many years later. The isolation she must have felt is staggering.

Understandably, then, this woman was desperate. Desperate to belong again. Since all of her social and financial problems stemmed from her medical condition, it makes sense that she would focus her energy on finding physical healing. It was all she could think of, so she spent everything she had trying every doctor in town. When that didn’t work, though, she stopped playing by the rules and did something crazy. Audacious. Rude. In a culture where any touch, even brushing against someone by accident, held the power to spread her ritual uncleanness, she did the unthinkable: she joined a jostling crowd. Even trying her hardest, it would be impossible for her to avoid touching the people around her and thus contaminating them according to the purity laws. But she did it anyway—all for the chance that she could get close to Jesus. She wanted nothing more than just to get to touch the hem of his robes, for she believed that even that simple touch would heal her ailment and allow her to live a normal life.

You see, she had heard about this teacher from Nazareth. She heard of this Jesus, a man who brought healing wherever he went. Despite not having seen or met Jesus before, this woman has the faith, or perhaps the desperation, to believe fully in his healing power and to do everything necessary to get just a small share of that power. What the woman doesn’t know is that, at this very moment, Jesus is on his way to heal someone else: the daughter of a synagogue leader named Jairus.

Although both are in need of healing, the contrasts between the bleeding woman and Jairus’ daughter are striking. One is old and weak, the other young and at the prime of her life. Jairus’ daughter is the precious only child of an elite leader in the synagogue. She lives in a house with servants, part of a highly respected and well-off family. She is so dearly loved by her father that he swallows the pride of his high status and falls at the feet of a lowly traveling preacher in order to beg Jesus to help his daughter. The woman is poor, alone, and an outcast, with no family and no one who will advocate on her behalf. Jairus’ daughter is gravely ill, with the threat of death at any moment. While certainly ill herself, the woman’s condition is not life-threatening. And most striking of all, Jairus’ daughter is 12 years old, at the age to begin menstruation and gain the ability to produce life through childbearing—something that the other woman’s constant bleeding has made her unable to do for 12 years. This girl’s entire lifetime, filled with comfort and love and hope, has been the same 12 years that were for the bleeding woman full of pain and isolation and despair.

If you were in Jesus’ place, with these two individuals in need of healing, who would you prioritize? The young, vibrant, respected, and well-off girl who will die without immediate attention? Or the poor, haggard woman no one knows, who may be in pain but will certainly survive another hour, week, or month without treatment? The obvious answer, by any worldly measure, is to treat the girl first. Her need is more urgent. Plus, her father came the “right,” respectable way to ask Jesus for help. The bleeding woman didn’t get in line or ask politely; she spread her uncleanness to the people around her and came up from behind to take the healing for herself by reaching out to touch Jesus’ cloak.

But, in typical Jesus fashion, he does the unexpected and heals the woman first. To be fair, the healing was a surprise to him as much as anyone, as he felt the power surge out of him through the woman’s fingertips. Realizing this, he could easily have continued on his way to Jairus’ house without pause, glad that yet another person had been healed along the way but intent on completing his mission to heal the dying girl. Yet this is not what he does. I believe it is because Jesus knows the depth of this woman’s suffering—the physical bleeding was only the tip of the iceberg, as much as it may have consumed her thoughts, and she is emotionally wounded from her many years as an outcast. She may have been intent only on obtaining physical healing, but Jesus sees the hurts under the surface that go much deeper. He stops immediately and asks, “Who touched me?” It sounds almost accusatory at first, but then we see that what he really wants is to meet this woman face-to-face so that she might be spiritually and emotionally, not just physically, healed.

At his question, the woman comes forward to kneel at Jesus’ feet, trembling with the fear of knowing she has wrongfully burdened Jesus with her ritual uncleanness. But something, perhaps the expression of genuine care in Jesus’ eyes, perhaps her long years of having no one to share a simple conversation with, makes her pour her heart out to him. She tells him her whole sad story, like he is the non-judgmental diary she never had. He listens patiently—more concerned with getting to know this woman than he is to continue his journey—and when she is finished, he does something more meaningful even than her physical healing. He says to her, “Daughter, your faith has made you well; go in peace, and be healed of your disease” (v. 34). This woman with no family to speak of, no friends, no supporters, no advocates, and no money has now been declared a Daughter in the kingdom of God. She is as beloved to Jesus as the young girl is to Jairus. No longer the outcast with no one to support her, the woman has been welcomed into a family where she can finally belong and be loved.

What started with a simple touch, a stolen moment of connection, has turned into a relationship. In her desperation, the woman comes seeking an end to her illness but receives a healing that transforms not only her body but also her spirit. Where others looked and saw despair, Jesus sees the potential for new life. Where others looked past her as a faceless body in the crowd, Jesus looks into her eyes and sees a child of God. In their conversation that day, the woman is moved from despair to hope, from being a nobody to being a somebody. By giving her that brief touch, that listening ear, and the loving name of “Daughter,” Jesus has given the woman a whole new life. No, she was not about to die like Jairus’ daughter, but her life had lost all joy and all but the last glimmer of hope. Jesus restores that life that used to be—and more. In her newly healed body and her newly bestowed identity as “Daughter,” the woman can indeed go in peace to live a life of meaning and joy.

But what of Jairus’ daughter, who was so close to death? In the midst of Jesus’ conversation with the woman, messengers come with the news that the girl has already died. Jairus must have been heartbroken, and probably furious with Jesus for having stopped for so long to talk with this woman. What is Jesus to do now that he has failed? How can he respond when death has already taken claim on Jairus’ daughter’s life?

If he were anyone but God, he could do nothing. But Jesus is God—the God whose distinguishing characteristic is resurrection. The God whose love and power overflow so much that God brings life and hope out of the deepest brokenness and despair. Later, Jesus himself will suffer death on the cross and rise, resurrected, to demonstrate God’s ultimate victory over death. But on this day, when confronted with the premature death of a 12-year-old girl, he gives us a foretaste of that life-giving power. At the news that Jairus’ daughter has died, he responds, “Do not fear; only believe.” Another translation reads, “Don’t give up. Trust me.” Indeed, so often we find ourselves in predicaments where we see no way forward. Our calculations and reasoning tell us that hope is gone. But hope is never gone when we have a resurrecting God on our side.

In spite of the news of the girl’s death, Jesus perseveres. He goes to her, rebuking the paid mourners outside her house as he tells them that she is only sleeping. He approaches the bed of this dead child, and reaches out his hand to hers. Like in the case of the bleeding woman, one touch is enough. Suddenly alive and well, the girl stands up and walks around. The text doesn’t say this, but I imagine that she walked straight into the waiting arms of her parents to embrace each other in gratitude and joy. Life is restored once again.

In the stories of Jairus’ daughter and the bleeding woman, both healed and restored out of despair to new life, we see the resurrection power of our God on display. For the girl, her needs were solely physical; once she was healed, she could go back to being the beloved daughter of her well-off parents. For the woman, despite the magnitude and diversity of her needs, Jesus touched them all and gave her the chance to experience the abundance that life has to offer.

In our world today we see people in need, near and far. The needs are not always visible, as the bleeding woman’s story demonstrates, but they are all around us. In our community, nation, and world are people who need a healing touch. Some suffer from physical or mental ailments or the pain of grief, some have emotional wounds, and some long for a day when they don’t have to worry about how to afford their next meal.

It often takes an interruption to make visible the pain already around us. We’re so good at hiding it from everyone except perhaps our own diaries. Or we’re so concerned with our own struggles that we can’t see the suffering of the people we meet. Even for Jesus, the bleeding woman’s tragic situation would’ve gone unseen and unaddressed if it hadn’t been for her decision to interrupt his journey with a desperate touch.

I can’t help but feel as a United Methodist that the shooting at Mother Emanuel AME Church in Charleston last week was that kind of an interruption for us. The AME denomination is part of our Methodist family and heritage, started by black Methodists in 1816 due to exclusionary practices by our predecessor Methodist Episcopal Church. It is but one of many sad examples of racism in our history as a denomination and as a country. Thankfully, violent extremists like this shooter are relatively rare. However, they are just a symptom of a larger and ever-present problem. Our cultural heritage of racial inequality has not yet left us, and people of color suffer every single day because of it in ways large and small. Here in South Dakota where our population is less diverse, that suffering can be harder to see. But that doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. We live in a country where policies, systems, and attitudes produce unequal opportunities for and disproportionate aggression against our African American brothers and sisters—a huge portion of whom are part of our Christian family and need our loving support.

As I was reflecting on the story of the bleeding woman this past week, I believe it has two lessons for us today. First of all, in Jesus we have a savior whose healing power is deep—not limited by time constraints, feasibility, or eligibility. We see in this story how attentively and patiently he cares for this most unlikely recipient, healing and restoring her beyond her wildest hope. If he shows so much compassion for someone who comes from behind to steal his blessing without permission, we can rest assured that he will extend us grace when we but reach out to receive it, no matter how unworthy we feel.

Second, we see that sometimes the most important thing needed is a shoulder to lean on. Yes, the woman in the story needed to stop bleeding, but what she needed even more than that was the knowledge that she mattered to someone. You and I can, and should, do everything within our power to offer healing and hope to people in need, but we won’t be able to heal every ailment. Sometimes, the only thing we can do is listen, and care. And as powerless as that might make you feel, it makes a tremendous difference.

Like the woman who went from being an unloved nobody to a welcomed member of the family, like the people from “Mortified” who felt relieved after having read their embarrassing diary entries out loud to a crowd, people who are in pain can find enormous comfort in knowing they are not alone. So in those times when we wish we had Jesus’ miraculous healing power but don’t, we can still do something. We can offer our shoulders, our hands, our eyes, and our ears to those who feel like no one cares that they’re suffering. There are many people who need to feel that love and support—from as close as our family members or pews to as far as the other side of the globe—and it is our calling as followers of Christ to be those shoulders, hands, eyes, and ears to them.

And after the interruption of the tragedy in Charleston last week, we can see more clearly the pain being felt by our fellow Americans. And now that we see it, we must also reach out our hands to the black community. Like the bleeding woman, they have been in pain for years and years, with no one to listen to their cries and show them that they matter. Now, as we grieve alongside our black brothers and sisters for those nine precious lives that were lost at Mother Emanuel Church, we must do so with our eyes and ears open so that we can be a part of a greater healing. A national deliverance from racism that can only begin through our willingness to listen and to hear. To let our fellow Americans of color know that their lives do matter to us, that their grief is our grief. And that together we can move forward in the audacious and unending hope that comes only through our God of resurrection. Amen.

Artwork by Sharon Geiser, from scholia.net

Artwork by Sharon Geiser, from scholia.net

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About carissalick

United Methodist deacon, ESL teacher, wife, learner, mom
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One Response to The Power of Touch – sermon on Mark 5:21-43

  1. Rebekah says:

    Love it! Well-said. Thanks for sharing. 🙂

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