When I was younger I had a marked fear of being touched, to the point where, if someone touched me unexpectedly, I would freeze up and be very uncomfortable. This presented some problems, particularly when I visited churches where the peace was exchanged and, especially, some of the continental churches were congregants kiss one another at the peace! There was no particular incident which sparked my problem with touching (incidentally, Wikipedia informs me that this is known as Haphephobia) although, of course, I am aware of the number of people, mentally ill or not, who have endured sexual or physical abuse, and who therefore have an understandable reason for fearing the touch of others. In my case, it just seems to have been something I developed with no reason. Nowadays I am better with it, and I am now probably as tactile as others. Certainly I can deal with hugs in a way I could not before, and with a few selected people, I am quite tactile and will often initiate a hug.
What, you might ask, has this to do with faith? I was thinking of the way in which the Bible talks of acceptable and unacceptable touch – from the prohibition on touching unclean things (e.g. Leviticus 5:2-3; most of Leviticus in fact and also Isaiah 52:11) to Jesus’ miracles of healing. I am particularly interested in the story of the woman with the haemorrhage in Luke 8:43-48.
This is the story of a woman with an incurable illness, who had spent all her money on doctors, and who still had no ease to her suffering. Her bleeding meant that she was unclean, isolated, that she could not enter the Temple and worship, that others could not touch her. I have felt unclean myself, in the depths of my illness, felt as though no one should touch me, for I would defile them. I have hated myself, my body, my presence to the point of rejecting all attempts to touch me – whether metaphorical or real. It is hard to explain how at once insignificant and unworthy it is possible to feel, while at the same time feeling as though your presence is a stupendous blot on the world, that you are the butt of all jokes, that others are always staring and judging, that you are simultaneously nothing, but everyone is watching you. The constant refrain of “I am not worthy” led me to break friendships, distance myself from family, and isolate myself in a way that I know now was only further damaging my already fragile mental health. I was fortunate that I had some friends who made a huge effort to remain with me in that time.
The woman with the haemorrhage is not quite in the same situation as I was, though I hope that should those feelings come on me again I will remember her example. She knew she was unclean, that she had been rejected by others due to her blood, but she came to Jesus. She had nothing when she came to him – she was in financial trouble, (many manuscripts have “and she had spent all that she had on doctors” in Luke 8:43), her health was compromised, and she was an outcast, kept away even from worshipping God. In a way we all have nothing when we come to Christ – part of becoming Christian, to me, was realising that I needed help, that I by myself could not do anything, and that is something my illness taught me. She comes to Jesus, but she did not cry out to him in the street, or demand anything from him. She had faith, such faith that she believed that just touching the hem of his cloak would heal her. I see in this her humility, that she could not believe herself worthy of Jesus’ attention, but that she believed she could be healed almost as a by-product of his holiness.
She was healed, completely and instantaneously. At this point Jesus could just have walked on, but instead he chose to call attention to her, and not to ignore her as either a woman, or an unclean woman. It is also relevant that he would himself have become ritually unclean because she touched him – perhaps another reason why she did not call attention to herself, because she feared he might refuse to touch her. He asked “Who touched me?” and, naturally, the disciples don’t understand, for there are people pressing all around them, but Jesus explains that power has gone from him. Here it is interesting that although there were lots of healthy people around who seem to be following Jesus, they are not touching him, those people do not have the faith of the woman with the haemorrhage, and they do not reach out to him in the way that she does. She comes to him, this time to tell her story. The text says she was trembling, and I’d imagine she was scared, scared of what Jesus might say, what his disciples might say, of what the crowd might say or do. She had, after all, just touched him, which in itself was a serious matter, for Jewish rabbis of the period would not have had much contact with women, such was the status of women at the time (see this interesting blog post) and further, she had just made him ritually unclean. This was a serious matter and I am not surprised she was frightened. Jesus’ reaction is telling, he calls her “daughter” and tells her to go in peace, her faith has healed her. He accepts her and does not reject her, nor does he get angry at what she has done. To me this is how God responds to all of us, whether ill or not, whether he chooses to heal or not – he accepts us and is kind to us, we are all his daughters (or his sons) and from his touch we can be healed, even if that healing is not of the physical kind but instead is a spiritual one, a growth, and a sense of his presence even in the darkest times. No matter how unclean we may be feeling, we are his children, and touching him, even just the bottom of his coat, is a privilege extended to all.