“Who touched my clothes?” – The Question of Healing

This is a small story set in a larger story.  You could miss reading it, just like you could miss seeing her.  You could forget about this miracle story, just as easily as the people forgot that she was still around. This is a story about a woman who has no name.  She could be any woman.  This is a story about desperation…. It’s about illness and healing.  It’s a story about a woman who has been hemorrhaging for 12 years. This condition has resulted in 12 years of suffering physically and mentally.  Her condition not only makes her feel exhausted and anemic, it excludes her from all of society.

Her impurity is called “zabah”. Zabah is considered as one of the great impurities (as leprosy). Commentators talked about  “Jewish disease” of the Jewish woman who must follow the prescriptions of the biblical text and the Mishnah to respect the laws of purity. They speak of “Jewish illness” to highlight the physical and psychological suffering of the woman who finds herself truly excluded from her community because of her indefinite state of impurity.

The Zabah woman is forbidden to be present in the Temple and her presence is undesirable in the holy city. She can remain in the community without any interaction with the members of the community. Any contact with her or with her personal things causes a state of impurity. The woman can normally “touch” other people and objects without contaminating them (in some writings she has the status of “untouchable”)

She was permanently “unclean,” not allowed to be in the synagogue, to participate in any religious rituals; she was not married, lived alone – was looked down on, ostracized, marginalized, isolated, alienated – a kind of ultimate outsider.

That’s why she is so surreptitious – sneaking up out of the crowd from behind, reaching out to touch his robe. And it worked. The bleeding stopped – but somehow Jesus knew something had happened and asked, “Who touched me?”

What a strange question to ask.  First of all, there is a large crowd around him, as Peter points out, “um Jesus, there were lots of people touching you.”  No, Jesus says, this was different, someone touched me out of faith and I felt the power go out of me.  This is a strange thing to say, but I think we know what he means.  When you are in a big crowd and your shoulders touch another person’s shoulders, you either ignore it or apologize for it.  Today, we might be a little more nervous and go looking for our masks, for so long we have been thinking about social distancing.  But when someone comes up to you and places their hand on your shoulder with a feeling of love and kindness, you can feel that too.  When this woman touches Jesus, she is doing so with a prayer in her heart and a faith that he will make her well and Jesus can feel that.

Does he know who touched him?  I think we all know he did.  So why did he ask?  Remember a few things. This woman isn’t supposed to be among the crowd.  She isn’t supposed to touch anyone.  She’s not supposed to touch a man, even if she was healthy, and the fact that she is unhealthy means that she could be exposing Jesus to her illness. If she confesses that she touched Jesus, she is in a ton of trouble.  The kind of trouble I imagine could lead to stoning.  Jesus is in a fast-moving crowd on his way to heal the daughter of a synagogue leader.  Time is of the essence as the little girl is dying.  Suddenly he stops and asks, “who touched me?” and the crowd stops and looks around.  Jesus doesn’t move.  He waits.  And waits.  And waits.  He’s in no hurry.  He’s not going anywhere until the person steps forward and confesses.  It’s awkward and painful. The father of the little girl is anxious. The disciples are incredulous.  The crowd is uncertain.  An hour goes by, maybe even two. We don’t know how long he waited for his answer, but finally with fear and trembling she steps forward, that woman, that one they had forgotten about.  They hadn’t seen her for 12 years, or maybe they had seen her along the periphery of the city, but she was unclean and so she was banished and forgotten.  What was she doing here?

She steps forward, her legs shaking, her voice quivering, sweat is beading down her back and her breath is short.  Her voice is so quiet they almost can’t hear her.  “It was me”  She said.

Then Jesus does something miraculous.  He calls her daughter, remember he’s off to save another man’s daughter, but he looks at this woman and calls her his daughter and is if pulling her in under his wing says, your faith as made you well, go in peace and be healed.  Jesus restores her health and restores her into society.

If you had the chance to touch Jesus’ garment and ask for healing, what would you ask to be healed from?  Would you ask for healing of a physical ailment or a relationship?  Would you ask for healing from a feeling of shame or for a broken relationship?  Is there some healing you need so fervently that what makes you brave enough to reach out and touch Jesus’s hem of his garment?

The first time I preached on this text was my first time being vulnerable with a congregation.  I wasn’t sure how much of my personal life to share, but this text profoundly pertained to my life. In September of 2002, I had a nine-month-old baby and found out I was going to have another baby nine months later.  That same month I found out my mom had stage 4 breast cancer.  I had a baby, I was going to have a baby and my mom was about to have a mastectomy.  I was also in my first second or third year of ordained ministry. I remember feeling afraid.  I didn’t know if my mom would live and I was really worried about all of her treatment she would have in the next year so that she would live.  I learned everything I could about breast cancer and tried to control the unknown with knowledge.  That helped, but it didn’t preclude the core reality that she was sick and might die.

In my heart, when read this passage, I see my mom as the woman. Even to this day, now that she is a 18- year breast cancer survivor, I still see her touching his robe and she is made well.  Who do you see?  Whose healing do you pray for?  Who do you put in that place? Maybe it’s you.  Maybe it’s someone you love.

We all have people for whom we pray or have prayed for healing.  We all have had moments when we are brought to our knees and we want to will a miracle out of the universe.  Sometimes we can have all the faith in the world, the prayer we ask for does not come. It’s hard. Very hard, to accept that you can’t control the outcome of every portion of your life or the life of those you love.  It’s hard. Very hard, to trust God with our lives regardless of what happens.

The miracle isn’t the act of healing, the miracle is Jesus himself.  The miracle that God came as one of us and reached across barriers to and , who reaches across all the barriers to touch and love and include those who are lost and isolated and sick – even those who are dying.

I can testify to you, that healing happens.  It may not be the kind of healing we want or expected, but it does happen.  It does not happen in our own time, or in our own way, or on our terms, but I have seen it and I know it to be true, by the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, healing happens.

Kate Bowler is a religious professor at Duke University and is living with bowel cancer.  She wrote a book, Everything happens for a reason and other lies I love to tell myself.  In the book she talks about waking up from surgery.  She writes,

“I remember clearly in the hospital how I felt this strange closeness with God, how I did not feel like dry grass. I was becoming less and less, but I becoming less and less, but I was not reduced to nothing
God’s love was everywhere, sticking to everything. Love was in my husband’s hand on my back, steadying me, a lightness under my feet I flushed with embarrassment when I described this feeling to my friends, stumbling as I tried to explain its sudden appearance (Wasn’t it there before?), that love itself was suddenly more real to me than my own thoughts. Despair was never far away, but somehow the seams of the universe had come undone, and all the splendid, ragged edges were showing.
And they brought me closer than I’ve ever been to the truth of this experiment— living— and how the horror and the beauty of it feels almost blinding.”

Jesus asks the question, who touched me? May you have the courage to say your name.

A Blessing Prayer in Difficult Times
by John O’Donohue

May you know tender shelter and healing blessing
when you are called to stand in the place of pain.
May the places of darkness within you be surprised by light.
May you be granted the wisdom to avoid false resistance and
when suffering knocks on the door of your life, may you be able to glimpse its hidden gift.
May you be able to see the fruits of suffering.
May memory bless and shelter you with the hard-earned light of past turmoil,
to remind you that you have survived before,
And though the darkness is now deep,
You will soon see approaching light.
May this give you confidence and trust.
May a window of light always surprise you.
May the grace of transfiguration heal your wounds.

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