October 29th – Steve Jungkeit – with audio
Texts: Mark 6: 54-56; Luke 8: 43-48
“Somebody Touched Me”
The life was seeping out of her. Some rupture in her life, some wound within her body failed to close, and the blood just kept draining from her in a slow drip drip. At first, it terrified her, for it seemed as though something external was draining her of vitality, slowly robbing her of her will, her drive, her very spirit. In time, over the course of twelve years, her condition became more or less permanent, a constant and unwelcome companion. There were days that she wasn’t able to get out of bed, for the energy to do so just wasn’t available. There were other days that she did manage to get up, rallying for a brief instant to find help from a healer. She delivered herself to doctors, and she delivered herself to those promising cures by alternative means. She delivered herself, and she delivered vast sums of money, but it was for naught. The life kept drip, drip, dripping away, until it was all she could do to perform the basic tasks of existence. Friendships, like her vitality, began to drip away. Family stuck around longer, but after a while, they too kept their distance. The woman understood why, for there were long passages of time in which she tired of her own company.
Still, she nurtured some tiny reserve of inner strength, given to her from she knew not where, a small and fleeting resolve to recover a sense of vitality. Perhaps it arose from memories of the way life had been prior to the rupture, prior to the continual hemorrhaging of blood and of life. Perhaps it arose from fantasies of what life could become if she could stop the bleeding. When rumors of the healer from Galilee began to circulate, and when they reached her ears through the kindness of another woman bringing food, something arose within her, like a tiny rebellion. If only, if only she could get to him, something might change. It wouldn’t need to be much – not a procedure, not an exorcism, not a spectacle. It would be enough simply to touch the hem of his robe. Doing so might restore to her that which she grieved the most, that which she missed the most, that which she longed for most, which was touch. Of all that had been drained from her, it was ordinary touch, contact, that she missed most, reminders that she didn’t dwell beyond the living in the land of the shades, a reminder that she remained human, that she hadn’t become a ghost, not fully, not yet. It was touch that she craved above all, for it would serve as a recognition, not least to herself, that she did in fact exist, that not everything had been drained away.
And so on a morning when the healer is said to be near, she leaves her house, shrouded and veiled, so as not to be recognized, and shunned. She slowly, ever so slowly makes her way toward the center of the town, where the merchants sell their wares and where the rabbis and the learned speak. She finds there a great throng, at the center of which is a figure who must be the healer. It’s all she can do to move. But she does move, lowering her head so as not to be noticed, but inserting herself into the throng all the same. The healer begins to move, and the crowd moves with him, crowding and pressing in upon so that even he becomes agitated by the claustrophobia. He moves in her direction, even as she presses toward him, and then she freezes, uncertain about what to do. He’s near, his entourage is with him, they’re trying to whisk him away, but they pass by her, and instinctively, without thinking, as if someone else was doing it, she reaches out her hand and she grasps his robe, just for a second. She tugs it, and then lets go. It’s as if a burst of electricity passes through her. The healer stops. He turns and he searches the faces of those near him. “Somebody touched me,” he says. “Was it you?” he asks, gazing at her downturned face. She raises her eyes and returns his gaze. “It was me.” “Your faith has made you well,” he says in response. And then he is gone.
It’s worth imagining this woman’s story in detail for several reasons. First, she’s a figure who represents each one of us at certain moments throughout life, who feel our vitality being sapped away by forces beyond our control. Second, she’s an exemplar of a holy desire, stirring within her like a hot coal in a cooled fireplace. She offers instruction for those of us who chase healing, or wholeness or the fullness of life in ways we don’t fully comprehend, in ways that lead us to confront that which diminishes us. But third, I believe we can read this courageous, and yet nameless woman, as an avatar for the women throughout the world right now who have felt the life being drained from their lives and from their communities, and who possess the courage to risk finding a source of healing, to risk contact, to risk touch with those who may make a difference. Let me say a word about each of those areas.
First, the hemorrhaging. I wonder how many of us, male or female, can recognize ourselves in this woman’s struggle. To do so, it helps to understand her condition as a metaphor for those periods in each of our lives when flourishing seems beyond us, when for emotional reasons, or material reasons, or because of some complex chemical reasons beyond our control, a sense of well being seems to drain from us in a steady drip drip drip. It can happen as a result of a sudden rupture or trauma, like a powerful wound that never heals. But it happens in all sorts of other, more subtle ways as well. Illness or pain can do that to us. The loss of mobility as we age can do that to us. A steady infusion of unbearably painful news can do it, in ways that I don’t think many of us fully comprehend as yet. Fractured relationships can do it – the sense of having screwed up in friendship or marriage or with one’s children. Guilt can do it, and shame as well, steadily draining us of our sense of value or worth – I don’t deserve whatever good is out there, we sometimes think. I’m not really worth it, we think. And depression…that unbearable abyss into which so many of us slide – it threatens to drain us of every last drop of vitality. I know that there are many among us at the moment confronting life situations that seem remarkably akin to the hemorrhaging woman, feeling the life drain from us moment by moment, and wondering how or if we’ll ever emerge.
This story, which all three of the synoptic writers repeat, is a way of speaking into that situation. It’s a way of describing an all too familiar part of the human condition. And it’s a way of encouraging each one of us to trust that in ways we can neither schedule nor predict, relief will come. Trusting, as I do, that Jesus both lives and finds ways to touch us in the places that hemorrhage life, I believe the story of the woman and her encounter with Jesus is an indication that there is healing and wholeness to be found for each of us. That doesn’t mean that our struggles will cease outright. It doesn’t mean that life will never drain from us again. It does mean that in God’s own way and in God’s own time, a touch of grace will restore to us the sense that we do not carry our burdens alone. It means that in ways we may not comprehend as yet, we shall be given the power to endure, and to move forward with our lives.
But there’s another important part of the woman’s story that we should attend to. It has to do with that ember kindling within her which pushes her to extend herself, propelling her out of her bedroom, out of her door, into the streets, in search of that which will make the bleeding stop. I think of this as a holy desire. And here too this woman in search of life becomes our guide. In my estimation, religion is about nothing if it’s not about desire. All of theology can be summed up as the working out of a desire that burns within our hearts, moving us, stirring us, drawing and luring us out of our stasis and toward that which we dare to name God. Sometimes that fire within roars hot, and we know exactly the direction we need to go if we are to flourish, and sometimes, like the woman in the story, the fire cools to a faint ember, so that it must be fanned a little bit, brought back to life. Sometimes our desire gets away from us, and we wind up chasing the wrong things, that which we thought would bring life but in truth only draws the life out of us. To have faith is to undergo a therapy of desire, examining what’s worth desiring and what isn’t, what brings life and what doesn’t. It might be that what you’ve been chasing for most of your life isn’t bringing you life at all, but is leaving you as drained as the woman suffering continual hemorrhaging. It might be that your career is killing you, draining your soul. It might be that a particular relationship is destroying you. It might be that the success you’ve been taught to desire is a vampire, eating you alive. And it might be that something within you, in the midnight hour or in moments of unguarded truth, is stirring, saying, is this it? Is this all there is?
In a hypercapitalist society such as ours, nearly everything is seeking to activate our desire – billboards, radio ads, flashing windows on every website we open, television ads, magazines, everything. I remember years ago finding myself at a professional baseball game in Cuba. I’ve been to plenty of ball games in my life, but this one felt both similar and utterly strange. The game was played exactly as it is here in North America, and I sat for a while trying to figure out why it felt so different. And then I realized: there are no advertisements here. There’s nothing flashing, nothing blinking, nothing blaring, nothing that’s seeking to stimulate my desire beyond the game itself. There were no ads for donuts or office supplies or gasoline or sports equipment, nothing. Say what you will about Cuba and its policies, but I have to tell you that that absence of assaultive stimulants felt really, really good. Most of us no longer notice or appreciate how immersed we are in such coercive environments. We no longer notice the way our desires are being worked upon in minute detail nearly every waking moment until we step out of such environments, and experience something utterly different. We’re suddenly invited to consider that which is worth desiring and pursuing, and that which isn’t. The baseball game in Cuba didn’t reorient my life. But it did serve as a reminder that perhaps the human heart contains desires that can scarcely be heard amidst the voices that compete for our attention, our dollars, our values, and ultimately, our lives. It was a reminder that perhaps there is a faintly glowing ember of desire underneath all the ash, still pulsing with life.
And isn’t church, at its best anyway, about precisely that? About thinking through what sorts of things really are worth chasing? Isn’t it about being reminded of a world of touch, a world of connection, a world where healing and hope and flourishing can and do occur? If church is about anything, isn’t it about reminding us of that which is worth desiring – things like compassion and hospitality, forgiveness, generosity, and mutual support in the journey of life? Much of the time, we exist in the world as those akin to the hemorrhaging woman, having the life drained from us. Meanwhile, something does kindle and stir within us. Meanwhile the Bible and theology and the very Spirit of God draws us toward moments of touch, moments of tender embrace with one another and with those unlike us, who live in places unlike Old Lyme. The woman in our story is a reminder to stir those embers, to blow on them, and to let that holy passion stir within us, lest our lives slip away. The woman in our story is a reminder to notice and to cultivate that holy desire that stirs within us, that which leads us toward what exists beyond us, and then to find the courage to chase it.
Finally, this. I believe the bleeding woman provides a framework by which we can read a powerful change occurring throughout the world. In one of his Beecher lectures down at Yale, Allan Boesak shared that it’s women who are actively changing the world right now. He used the story of the Hebrew midwives in the book of Exodus, and how it was they, far more than Moses or Aaron, who organized the uprising of the Hebrew people in that book. The same is true today. From the Women’s March in Washington, D.C. to Black Lives Matter, and from some of the best work occurring in Palestine and among First Nations peoples, some of the most important social justice work taking place right now is conducted by women. It’s not that men are uninvolved or unimportant. We’ve just been slower to respond. Meanwhile, like the unnamed woman in our story, it’s women who seem to sense the hemorrhaging of the world around them, of the people around them, and they’ve chosen to do something about it. They’ve roused themselves and they’ve sought out help. Like that unnamed woman, they seek to touch and to make contact with those who have power, forcing them to say, “Somebody touched me. Was it you?” They seek to make the bleeding, the hemorrhaging, stop.
A recent documentary was made about women in Haiti who are doing just that. It’s called Poto Mitan, and it documents the way women in sweatshops are circumventing male dominated unions, and male dominated bosses, to change the living conditions of workers in free trade zone sweatshops in Haitian cities, where much of our clothing is made. A Poto Mitan is the central post or column within a Vodou shrine, at the foot of which an altar is set for the spirits to be honored. It’s said that the spirits travel down through the poto mitan as individuals dance around that column. The poto mitan is thus the portal by which spirit enters the world. So it is with these women. They’re the central pillars by which spirit enters the world to say, “I am here. Notice me. I exist. We exist. Help us to stop the bleeding.” Is that what it means, finally, to be spiritual? To let the cares of the world flow through us, thereafter animating us and all those around us? Is that what it means to catch the spirit? It is in the film about these remarkable Haitian women.
That emphasis on spirit is a part of the Tree of Life program we’ll be hosting later this afternoon, entitled Courageous Women of Resistance. Madonna Thunder Hawk and Farouz Sharqawi are two such courageous women who have kindled an ember of holy desire within them, a pulsing flame that they have nurtured into a fire. Like the woman in the story, they have known the hemorrhaging of their communities, whether in Palestine or on the Plains of the American West. And they possessed the courage to rouse themselves, in hopes of making the bleeding stop. We’re among those privileged to hear their voices. We’re among those who may yet feel the tug upon our own garments, the tug upon our own hearts, so that we too may stop and say, “Somebody touched me. Somebody made contact with me. Was it you?”
In truth, I think that’s what many of us desire most of all. We long to be touched. We long to make contact. We long to have our energies drawn toward that which is significant, and real, and meaningful. Because in truth, we occupy both roles in the story, the hemorrhaging woman and Jesus himself. Sometimes we’re the woman, trying with everything within us to stop the bleeding and find resources that will upbuild and sustain our humanity. But sometimes we stand in the role of Jesus too, those who possess resources, and who wish to be touched, who wish to offer what life we have in service of another. Sometimes we’re both.
If you’re bleeding a little bit today, if you sense the life being drained out of you by something or other, I want you to know that Jesus is there for you, awaiting your touch. If you’re the one who has the capacity to offer healing, to offer your presence, to share what gifts or resources you have within you, then I want you to know that the hemorrhaging woman awaits you, in all her many guises. May we all have the courage to nourish the embers of desire burning within us. May we all have the courage to reach out and touch the beating heart of the world, whether sitting right next to us, or dwelling half a world away. We long to be touched, and we long to make contact.