Mark 5:21-43New International Version (NIV)
21 When Jesus had again crossed over by boat to the other side of the lake, a large crowd gathered around him while he was by the lake. 22 Then one of the synagogue leaders, named Jairus, came, and when he saw Jesus, he fell at his feet. 23 He pleaded earnestly with him, “My little daughter is dying. Please come and put your hands on her so that she will be healed and live.” 24 So Jesus went with him.
A large crowd followed and pressed around him. 25 And a woman was there who had been subject to bleeding for twelve years. 26 She had suffered a great deal under the care of many doctors and had spent all she had, yet instead of getting better she grew worse. 27 When she heard about Jesus, she came up behind him in the crowd and touched his cloak, 28 because she thought, “If I just touch his clothes, I will be healed.” 29 Immediately her bleeding stopped and she felt in her body that she was freed from her suffering.
30 At once Jesus realized that power had gone out from him. He turned around in the crowd and asked, “Who touched my clothes?”
31 “You see the people crowding against you,” his disciples answered, “and yet you can ask, ‘Who touched me?’ ”
32 But Jesus kept looking around to see who had done it. 33 Then the woman, knowing what had happened to her, came and fell at his feet and, trembling with fear, told him the whole truth. 34 He said to her, “Daughter, your faith has healed you. Go in peace and be freed from your suffering.”
35 While Jesus was still speaking, some people came from the house of Jairus, the synagogue leader. “Your daughter is dead,” they said. “Why bother the teacher anymore?”
36 Overhearing what they said, Jesus told him, “Don’t be afraid; just believe.”
37 He did not let anyone follow him except Peter, James and John the brother of James. 38 When they came to the home of the synagogue leader, Jesus saw a commotion, with people crying and wailing loudly. 39 He went in and said to them, “Why all this commotion and wailing? The child is not dead but asleep.” 40 But they laughed at him.
After he put them all out, he took the child’s father and mother and the disciples who were with him, and went in where the child was. 41 He took her by the hand and said to her, “Talitha koum!” (which means “Little girl, I say to you, get up!”). 42 Immediately the girl stood up and began to walk around (she was twelve years old). At this they were completely astonished. 43 He gave strict orders not to let anyone know about this, and told them to give her something to eat.
Our text for this morning tells two very distinct stories that have at least one very important similarity. The women in this story, one mature and one just 12 years old, are both in need, and they both need Jesus.
We start this morning with a man named Jairus. Jairus is said to have been a leader in the local synagogue. He was an important person. He had a key to the front door and probably knew the bank account number. He was a part of the daily events at the center of worship for their city.
This important person comes to Jesus with an important request. His daughter is sick and he believes that she is dying so he asks Jesus to come back to his home, to lay his hands upon her, and to heal the little girl.
Evidently people are hearing stories about Jesus healing people. In the first two chapters of Mark we find a number of stories where Jesus heals people like a man with an unclean spirit, many sick people, a paralytic man, a man with a withered hand, and a ceremonially-unclean leper.
This leper comes to Jesus and says, “If you choose, you can make me clean” (v.40). We are then told Jesus “reached out his hand and touched the man. ‘I am willing,’ he said. ‘Be clean!’” And just like that, the man was healed.
In some of these stories Mark makes sure to mention that Jesus touches the person in need of healing. He reaches out and grabs the hand of Simon’s mother-in-law and he reached out and touched the hand of the leper. Touching a leper was not only against the Hebrew purity laws, it also put Jesus in danger. Lepers were quarantined to keep from spreading their skin disorder from one person to the next. But Jesus touched these people, even this unclean man.
So it does not surprise me that Jairus specifically asks Jesus to come and lay hands upon his sick daughter to heal her. They assume that there must be something in his touch that can bring healing.
But as they are traveling to Jairus’s home, the town’s people seem to realize that someone special is among them and a crowd quickly forms. People are pushing and people are shoving. We don’t know what they were all looking for, but we do know that in the crowd there was one woman who was looking for something in particular. She had a disorder that had caused her to bleed for 12 years and she was looking to be healed.
Perhaps it is obvious that her bleeding was not a gush of blood, or she would not have lived for 12 years. But there was some kind of persistent discharge of blood from her body. For most of us this would seem like little more than an inconvenience. Ah, I need to change my shirt again because of this darn nose bleed! But many scholars believe that this was a persistent discharge associated with menstruation.
I know that this is a topic that many of us, regardless of gender, don’t really like to discuss in public—or at all! But it is in the Bible, and we are going to talk about it today. So if it makes you extremely uncomfortable to hear words like “menstruation” and “period,” I suggest plugging your ears and humming to yourself for the next few minutes.
Leviticus 15 dedicates about nine verses to describing how a woman is “unclean” during the time of her menstrual period. If a woman has her period, she is considered unclean, and she is considered unclean for seven days after the end of her menstrual flow. Anyone that touches her at all during that time also becomes unclean. Leviticus specifies that anyone touching a woman with her period must wash their clothes and their body and they will remain unclean until sundown. But you don’t even need to touch the woman to become unclean. If you touch a bed she has laid upon or a seat she has sat on, even if she passes you something and you don’t touch one another you will become unclean and need to wash yourself and your clothes and remain unclean until sundown.
We can only begin to imagine what this woman who was bleeding for 12 years experienced.
In her book A Year of Biblical Womanhood, author Rachel Held Evans tried to live out various teachings of the Bible for one month at a time for an entire year. Some people have criticized her for making fun of some of the biblical teachings, but that’s not how I read the book. She tries to keep things light and interesting, even humorous at points, but she never mocks the Bible.
One month she decided to live out this teaching from Leviticus 15. And let’s be honest, you have to have a sense of humor when talking about this text. But Evans also tells us that some Orthodox Jews continue to keep these teachings to this day. So after developing a relationship with an Orthodox Jewish woman and hearing about how they live out this teaching, Rachel Held Evans decided to try to practice of “niddah,” which literally mean “separate.” When Rachel had her period she carried a stadium cushion with her from place to place so that nobody else would sit where she sat and become unclean. She avoided handshakes, hugs, and high fives. Rachel mentions that she went to a wedding during her time of no contact. She gave an “air hug” to the groom and ducked a few potential embraces. And when people asked why she would not hug them or even shake their hand, she gave them the reason for her anti-social behavior, which got just the kind of response that you would expect. She and her husband spent much of the time at the wedding reception sitting alone.
Even as she attempted to frame this chapter in a humorous way, it was very clear that by the end of her niddah, Rachel was missing something important to us all. She was missing the physical contact of another human being. After a challenging day of work she longed to fall into her husband’s arms and to cry on his shoulder. She missed sleeping in the same bed, holding hands while walking down the street, and just brushing up against one another as they passed in the hall. Her longings were not necessarily sexual, but they were definitely intimate. She longed to simply touch another human being and to feel the touch of another person on her hand, arm, or shoulder. After her quarantine had expired, Rachel went through the ritual washing process and fell into her husband’s arms and just cried.
It had been twelve days.
We are learning more and more about the healing power of touch. When a baby is born, one of the first things that they do, before even cleaning those slimy babies up, is to place them skin-to-skin on their mother’s breast. The touch of a loved one can decrease anxiety, it can reduce depression, fatigue, and irritability. We are wired by God to crave and to need the touch of another human being. It is not good for man to be alone.
For the woman in our scripture this morning it had been 12 years since she had felt the hand of a loved one in her own, since she had experienced the embrace of a family member. She may have missed the opportunity to get married and start a family. And not only that, Mark tells us that she spent every last penny that she had trying to find a cure for her disorder by going from doctor to doctor. She had no money. She couldn’t even resort to prostitution because she was unclean. She wouldn’t even be welcome in a Hebrew house of worship because she was unclean.
Think of it this way. So far we have two main characters interacting with Jesus in our text for this morning. We have Jairus, the leader of the local synagogue, and we have the woman with the bleeding issue. Jairus was one of the most important people in the synagogue. The woman wasn’t even allowed inside. But they both came to Jesus to experience his healing touch.
So this woman, and we never do learn her name, reaches out and touches the hem of Jesus’s garment. All she needs in her mind is to touch the very edge of his coat. Maybe she is thinking that he won’t become unclean if only she touches the tassels or the hem, I can’t say. But we know that there is nothing magical about Jesus’s clothes. After a short conversation Jesus tells her the real reason she has been healed. We find this in verse 34: “He said to her, ‘Daughter, your faith has healed you. Go in peace and be freed from your suffering.’”
Jesus’s interaction with the woman probably didn’t slow him down too much, but the unfortunate news comes to Jairus as Jesus and the woman are saying their goodbyes. Jairus’s daughter has died. Jesus’s service will no longer be needed.
Jesus overhears this conversation and he says, “Don’t be afraid, just believe,” and they keep walking to Jairus’s home. As they get closer and closer they are given every reason to be afraid that the worst has occurred. There are people wailing and crying, mourning the passing of this 12-year-old girl. Jesus seems to make a little joke with the mourners saying, “She’s not dead, just asleep.” And the people mock him. You don’t think we know when someone is dead and when they are asleep? This girl is dead.
But what does Jesus do? He takes the little girl by the hand and tells her to get up.
Me, personally, I don’t like to touch dead things, and I’m pretty sure that I’ve never touched a dead person. God bless the people who work in funeral homes and mortuaries. They serve an important role. But dead things give me – and this is the technical term – the hebbie geebies. But Jesus is again dealing with the Hebrew ceremonial cleanliness laws, and Numbers 19:11-13 tell us this: “Whoever touches a human corpse will be unclean for seven days. They must purify themselves with the water on the third day and on the seventh day; then they will be clean. But if they do not purify themselves on the third and seventh days, they will not be clean. If they fail to purify themselves after touching a human corpse, they defile the Lord’s tabernacle. They must be cut off from Israel. Because the water of cleansing has not been sprinkled on them, they are unclean; their uncleanness remains on them.”
I don’t want to disregard the cleanliness/holiness laws of the Hebrew Bible. I do believe that they served a purpose other than separating people from others who are bleeding or dead. Many scholars believe that the reason for having laws against touching the leprous or dead was a way to prevent the spread of disease. The laws stating a person with a bodily emission was unclean may have had to do with reverence for the loss of potential life. But when Jesus reaches down and touches a leprous person, a woman with a bleeding disorder, even a dead person, he is making a very powerful statement. He is saying, I know that you are sick and that I may be putting myself at risk, but I also know you need to feel the touch of another human being. I know you need someone who won’t avoid you because you are gross or unclean. I know that you need to be loved.
I remember very clearly certain aspects of my years attending Sunday school in Ohio. One of the things that I remember was that probably twice a year we would load up all of the children from age 10-18 and go to the local nursing home to sing to the residents. Part of that experience was exciting because we got to leave the church and ride a few miles to the nursing home. And in the foyer area they had a cage with parakeets, and I thought that it was pretty awesome that they had birds inside. But I also clearly remember that I did not like going around after we were done singing and greeting the residents.
We would go from person to person, say our name, and shake their hands. Many of these residents were in wheelchairs, some were wheeled out in their hospital beds. I didn’t like the feel of the old, boney hands, and many of them had a particularly unsettling odor. I didn’t mind singing to the folks at the nursing home, but I really didn’t want to touch them, or really, even get close to them.
I am not Catholic, but I tend to pay attention to what the Pope does, particularly as he is the leader of the largest Christian denomination in the world. I know that there are a lot of people who don’t necessarily like his teachings or his theology, and that’s okay. But regardless of how you feel about him as a theologian, I think you really have to like him as a person – at least the person that we see in the media.
One of the things that the Pope regularly does is to meet large groups of people, to deliver a brief sermon, and pray a blessing over the congregation. In November of 2013, Pope Frances was doing just that in St. Peter’s Square and they moved into a time where people who were ailing were invited to come forward to receive prayer. One of the individuals who came forward was Vinicino Riva, a 52-year-old Italian man with a rare disorder that caused his entire body to produce large, uncomfortable tumors that often bled or oozed in some way or another. He has the same disease that the person sometimes referred to as “The Elephant Man” suffered from.
Riva shared with interviewers that he does not feel comfortable going out in public. He told the story of getting on a bus once and trying to sit next to a man who yelled, “You can’t sit there. Go to the back of the bus.”
What was the Pope’s reaction? He embraced Riva as he prayed for him, placed his hands on his face, and gave him a kiss right on the bloody, oozing tumors.
Riva was not healed that day, but in an interview he said that he felt 10 years younger. He still suffers from this rare disease, but for a few minutes, he experienced love and acceptance from one of the most powerful people in the church today.
We are still learning about the power of human touch. How might we use appropriate forms of touch to show love and acceptance for others? One thing that I have committed to doing is simply shaking everyone’s hand. People sometimes tell me that they are sick and offer to bypass the traditional handshake, and unless they sneeze into their hand just before approaching me in the line after church, I shake their hand. I say, “I’ll risk it.” When I meet people begging on the street, I extend a hand to them and ask them their name. And when I go to the nursing home, I make sure to shake hands with anyone who will shake mine.
Human touch shows love, human touch shows acceptance. Jesus touched the untouchable, loved the unlovable, and accepted the unacceptable in his society. I hope that we can do the same. Because we never know how much healing we may bring.