Good Touch: Healing Touch

[This message was delivered at Perinton Presbyterian Church on July 11, 2021, based on Luke 8:43-48. It can be seen and heard on the Perinton Presbyterian Facebook page. That version has some differences from the manuscript below, omitting some parts and adding others.]

Touch has become a touchy subject. When I was a child, my mom hugged me frequently. Since my mother was full Italian, touch was common. I thought my facial cheeks would be permanently disfigured for the thousands of times an Italian relative reached down, pinched my cheeks, and said in Italian, “che bello.” I knew it was loving touch. My father was German-American from Midwestern farm country. He and his family just didn’t do that kind of thing. Maybe a handshake was sufficient or the briefest peck on the cheek. I always knew good touch.

Then, somewhere in my adult years, there was a shift. My young daughters in elementary school were learning about “good touch/bad touch.” And I was learning with them. We now know that scores of our country’s best female gymnasts were sexually abused by a doctor’s touch, the doctor that was charged to keep them healthy. He is now in prison for the rest of his life. The legendary Penn State football program came to a grinding halt when it was revealed that their defensive coach had abused many young athletes and boy children with inappropriate touch. He is now in prison for the rest of his life. Many church leaders, Roman Catholic and Protestant, have been charged with bad touch and brought shame and disgrace to the church.

Growing up and into my adult life, I have experienced only good touch. But it is not so for millions. About a quarter of all American marriages have abusive behavior, usually physical, almost always done to the women.

In Gary Chapman’s classic book, “The Five Love Languages,” physical touch is one of the five. I believe in good touch, even as I admit that bad touch is rampant. I have learned that there are some guidelines to help us honor good touch. In translating the writings of Paul, when he says to several churches, “greet one another with a holy kiss,” J. B. Phillips showed his thoroughly British reserve with this translation: “Give each other a hearty handshake all around….” (Romans 16:16, “The New Testament in Modern English”.) Sorry, but that is too British. “The Message” catches it better: “Holy hugs all around!” Indeed, Christians through all ages have greeted one another warmly, with good touch. I suggest these guidelines for the church today, when wanting to share a holy hug or holy kiss with a sister or brother in Christ:

  1. Ask permission.
  2. Keep it brief.
  3. Keep it modest.
  4. Keep it public.

Luke 6:19 describes how the crowds were responding to Jesus: “And all in the crowd were trying to touch him, for power came out from him and healed all of them.” We believe in healing touch. With virtually all Christians, we lay hands on the sick when we pray for healing. When we ordain people to church offices—deacons, elders, pastors—we lay hands on them, signs of affirmation and blessing. When Isaiah was given a dazzling vision of the holiness of God, one that silenced him, God’s messenger touched my mouth… and said: ‘Now that this has touched your lips, your guilt has departed and your sin is blotted out.’” (Isaiah 6:7)

Jesus frequently use human touch to mediate God’s healing power to others. We have about a dozen occurrences in the Gospels where that happens. And then we have one that reverses the process. In one case, a woman needing healing reaches out and touches Jesus. She has had an issue of bleeding for 12 years. And she is a woman.

Jesus has this amazing way of connecting with women, in a time and culture in which women were commonly understood and treated as second class people. Luke has a special eye for this. He begins his gospel account by focusing on two women: too old Elizabeth and too young, Mary. Both become pregnant against all odds. Their two children will change the world. In Luke 8, where we meet this woman with the hemorrhaging, women are noted several times. As Jesus is traveling with his 12 men disciples, there are many women who travel with them and provide for them out of their resources. Later there is a 12-year-old girl dying. Her father pleads with Jesus to go his house and touch his daughter. When Jesus finally gets to that house, the girl is dead. Jesus takes her by the hand—physical touch—and raises and restores her.

In between Jesus hearing about that girl so ill and the time he gets to her house, a woman with 12 years of bleeding touches him. Her circumstance of bleeding makes her unclean. Leviticus 15:25-30 makes that clear. She is unclean in three ways: first, she is physically unclean; second, she is socially unclean; and third, she is ritually and religiously unclean. She is an outcast. To make it worse, anyone she touches becomes unclean. It is like a treacherous game of tag. She is a spreader and this crowd in Galilee is about to become a super-spreader event.

I love how Jesus responds to strong, courageous, and bold women. Jesus sees women as full participants in his what God is doing. He makes women the heroes of some of his parables. He is never put off by a woman speaking to him in public. He seems to relish it. My life and my faith journey have been shaped by strong women, women of faith and courage. From my mother, to my wife, to my two daughters, to the women I have served alongside in church life—I have been shaped and formed by wonderful women, women of valor, courage, faith, and substance. What about you?

“She comes up behind him and touches the fringe of his clothes….” What courage this takes. She is standing at a distance, aware of her uncleanness. She sees an opening in the crowd. She has a direct line of sight to Jesus. Can she snake through without touching anyone? No way. But she sees Jesus and she knows that she must make contact with him.

She takes her physical/social/spiritual need right to Jesus. Our bodies matter to God. We are not souls stuck in bodies for a while. We are unitary beings: body, soul, and spirit all wrapped up together inseparably. Jesus does not come to us as a spirit stuck in a body, but as a unitary being: body, soul, and spirit all wrapped up inseparably. He lives just as we do: eating, sleeping, getting tired, getting bruised, touching and being touched. He dies bodily; he is raised bodily; he appears to his friends bodily.

She inches closer. Will the religious leaders call her out and stone her to death? Will Jesus pretend he doesn’t see her? She gets close enough to touch him. She reaches out and just barely touches the fringe of his garment. He couldn’t have felt that, but he did. And he stops. The disciples stop. The crowd stops. Everything stops. It is as if the universe stops. “Who touched me?” Peter has the smart answer. “Look Master, there is crowd here. Everyone is bumping up against you.” But Jesus says, “Someone touched me; for I noticed that power had gone out from me.”

The woman’s cover is blown to bits. She knows that she is the one. She knows that Jesus knows. She will hide no longer. I mentioned earlier that when an unclean person, like her, touches someone else, like him, the uncleanness spreads to the one touched. Now Jesus reverses the process. When she in her uncleanness touches him, he in his cleanness cleanses her. Heals her. Restores her. Lifts her. Washes her. Changes her life.

“Jesus said, ‘Daughter, you took a risk trusting me, and now you’re healed and whole. Live well, live blessed!’” (Luke 8:48 in “The Message.”)

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