The Power of Touch

Today’s scripture readings:
Isaiah 40:21-31
Psalm 147:1-11, 20c
1 Corinthians 9:16-23
Mark 1:29-39

Every time I step foot in a public place these days, I am hyper-aware of how tight my mask is on my face, how close I am to others, and whether the people around me are being as vigilant as I am or are carelessly flouting the rules. It is exhausting. Like so many others, I am quick to pass judgment on those who show up at grocery stores and refuse to wear a mask and those who continue to gather in large crowds as though this is all a big joke. But when I stop to think about it, it’s actually heartbreaking how this pandemic has taught us to so carefully avoid physical contact with others and even to shun those who defy public healthy guidance—people who, I have to imagine, simply long to maintain the kinds of physical contact and social connection that are such a fundamental part of our human existence.

There was a long article in the Guardian newspaper back in December examining the impact of all of this on the human psyche. One psychotherapist says she misses waiting in line at lunchtime at her local sandwich shop. She says, it used to be that they were all waiting to pay for sandwiches that they’d each just be taking back to their desks, that “it was a sort of group activity even if [she] didn’t know the other people in the group.” These days those lines of people waiting together at the checkout have become “a series of regularly spaced people being processed by a wayfinding system.” That rigidly organized and carefully directed line-up process creates a sense of alienation and even rejection, as we’re made to keep ourselves apart from one another. “Further rejection occurs if a pedestrian steps into the gutter to avoid you, or when the delivery person you used to enjoy greeting sees you at the door and lunges backwards.” She says, “It provides no consolation to understand cognitively why we repel others. The sense of rejection remains.”

What is the cost of all this? It turns out our bodies have certain kinds of nerves that are “concentrated in hard-to-reach places such as the back and shoulders. They wire social touch into a complex reward system,” so when we are touched, hugged, or patted on the back, a hormone is released that lowers the heart rate and limits our bodies’ stress response. In other words, just the occasional subtle physical connection with another human being keeps us on an even plane.

At a time when so many of us are going without regular human contact, neuroscientists have begun to study the ramifications of a prolonged loss of physical connection. What they are finding is that the “loss of the connecting power of touch triggers factors that contribute to depression—sadness, lower energy levels, and lethargy.”

That psychotherapist who misses waiting in line at the deli says it’s like we’re becoming sort of non-people. “Masks render us mostly faceless. Hand sanitizer is a physical screen.” It’s like there’s “a barrier, like not speaking somebody’s language.” Human contact, physical connection, loving touch, are essential—and without it, our lives are severely diminished.

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Simon and Andrew bring Jesus to their mother-in-law’s home, where she lies sick in bed. This is not the first time I’ve read this Bible passage, but this time around, in the era of COVID-19, this scene struck me a little differently. I assume none of them were wearing masks, much less shields and gowns and gloves. And I don’t get the sense they were adhering to social distancing protocols or proper hand hygiene. It gets even worse in the next scene, when Mark describes all the sick people in town gathering outside Jesus’ door seeking healing. At this point, all the COVID warning alarms are blaring. Jesus has created, I am certain, a super-spreader event.

This entire Gospel lesson takes place over only eleven verses, but there’s a lot to unpack. You’ve maybe begun to notice that Mark doesn’t spend a lot of time beating around the bush; he gets right to the point, and each verse is dense with material for us to consider. So indulge me for a moment in a little Bible study.

First, did you notice that Mark never names Simon and Andrew’s mother-in-law? Partly this is probably the patriarchy at work. In Mark’s Gospel, only a few women are named—only the “important” women. Simon and Andrew’s mother-in-law? Not important. No name necessary. Yes, you should be offended. But the fact that this woman isn’t named also tells us something significant about what’s going on in this story. You would expect important people to have access to great medical care; in the story the world tells, important people find healing. But here in Mark’s Gospel, it’s this not-very-important person, an unnamed woman who the ancient world saw as a nobody—she is the one who is healed. And not only that, but this act of healing brings Jesus into an intimate space—into this woman’s bedroom. He stands at her bedside and touches her. He takes her by the hand and lifts her up. Oh—and “lifts her up” here in the biblical Greek is the same verb used to describe how Jesus is raised from the dead on Easter morning. Jesus raises this insignificant woman from the dead and restores her to life.

Later that evening, swarms of sick people come to Jesus begging for healing. Here in this first chapter of Mark’s Gospel, Jesus is just beginning his ministry in the region of Galilee, the northernmost part of Israel. The religious and political elites who lived down south in Jerusalem looked down on these backwards Galileans up north. Biblical scholar Ched Myers notes that “economic and political deterioration had dispossessed significant portions of the Galilean population”; these crowds of Galileans were among the poorest people in Israel. “Disease and physical disability were an inseparable part of the cycle of poverty (a phenomenon still true today despite the advent of modern medicine).” For these people, “illness meant unemployment and instant impoverishment.” These are the people who gather outside Jesus’ door seeking healing—and Jesus is there for them. Putting this all together, first Jesus raises up a not-very-important woman, and then he heals an entire crowd of people who had been left behind.

Some have pointed out that Jesus doesn’t spend any time asking these sick people about their symptoms or trying to determine a diagnosis. He’s not a doctor; he’s not practicing medicine. The point isn’t really that Jesus finds sick people and makes them feel better. Jesus encounters people who have been pushed down and lifts them up, raises them from death, restores them to life. At a time when illness was perceived to be the result of sin, and being ill therefore meant you were shunned by the broader community, being healed didn’t just mean getting over an illness; it meant being restored to one’s community.

And that is work that requires touch—that requires intimacy. Pastor P. C. Enniss puts it this way: “The power of touch, of intimacy, of nearness, to make whole: Jesus must have understood that which we are too often too slow to comprehend. Love not expressed, love not felt, is difficult to trust. Theologically speaking, that is the reason for incarnation. God knew the human need for nearness. Jesus is the incarnation of God’s love.”

+++

A doctor named Richard Selzer tells a story about the miracle of touch. He writes, “I stand by the bed where a young woman lies, her face post-operative, her mouth twisted—palsy, clownish. A tiny twig of the facial nerve, the one to the muscles of her mouth, has been severed…. To remove the tumor in her cheek, I had cut the little nerve. The young husband is in the room. He stands on the opposite side of the bed, and together they seem to dwell in the evening lamplight, isolated from me, private…. “Will my mouth always be like this?” she asks. “Yes,” I say, “it will. It is because the nerve was cut.” She nods and is silent. But the young man smiles. “I like it,” he says. “It is kind of cute.” He bends to kiss her crooked mouth, and I am so close that I can see how he twists his own lips to accommodate her, to show her that their kiss still works…. I hold my breath and let the wonder in.”

This pandemic that has forced us to keep our distance from one another and avoid physical contact with others has given me a renewed appreciation for human touch. And it has given me a whole different lens through which to read and interpret stories about a Jesus who shows up at our bedside when we are feeling worse than ever, takes us by the hand, lifts us up, and embodies God’s love for us. We worship a God who knows what it takes to make us feel whole and well, who is determined to raise us to new life and restore us to our communities. God will lift us up and raise us to life. May it be so. Amen.


Resources consulted:

Paula Cocozza, “Has a year of living with Covid-19 rewired our brains?”, in The Guardian, December 13, 2020, accessed February 2, 2021, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/dec/13/covid-19-rewired-our-brains-pandemic-mental-health.

P. C. Enniss, “Mark 1:29-39: Pastoral Perspective,” in Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary, Year B, Vol. 1, eds. David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2008).

Ched Myers, Binding the Strong Man: A Political Reading of Mark’s Story of Jesus (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 1988).

Richard Selzer, quoted in P. C. Enniss, “Mark 1:29-39: Pastoral Perspective,” in Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary, Year B, Vol. 1, eds. David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2008).


Featured image for this post is from Toa Heftiba on Unsplash.


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