“The Space Between Us” by Benjamin Smith

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Listen to the sermon from Sunday, July 1, 2018, titled “The Space Between Us” by Pastoral Intern Benjamin Smith.

In our story this morning, we’re invited to picture a stressful scene. Having just returned from other side of the sea where he had healed a man possessed by a demon, Jesus enters chaos again as a crowd of sweating people presses in on him. Suddenly, through the commotion, there appears a frantic leader of the synagogue, whose name we are told is Jairus; he throws himself on the ground in front of Jesus. Jesus pays attention.

He begs for help. “My daughter!” he cries. “My daughter is at the point of death. Come and lay your hands on her, so that she may be made well, and live.” Asking no questions Jesus begins to follow him, instead of his intended path. As the pair make their way toward where Jairus’ daughter lay, our story is interrupted again, this time by Jesus, who, after feeling that somebody has touched the hem of his cloak, stops, whirls around, and asks, “Who touched me?”

Annoyed, his disciples complain, saying, “You see the crowd pressing in on you; how can you say, ‘Who touched me?’” But before he can answer a woman emerges from the din, trembling in fear, and confess what she has done. We know from having just read the story that our woman has been suffering from a menstrual disorder for twelve years and that no doctor has been able to cure her. Perhaps indifferent to what may happen to her, the woman has risked it all in hopes of getting well. In the dust before Jesus, she feels her bleeding dry up and knows that she is healed. Jesus acknowledges her, saying, “Daughter, your faith has made you well; go in peace, and be healed of your disease.”

Before the woman can say anything, however, another twist of events shapes our story. A group of people from Jairus’ house comes to report that, while Jesus was talking with the woman, the child has died. “Why bother the teacher any further?” they say with resign. With his typical ambiguity, Jesus says, “Do not fear, only believe.” Having confused everybody, Jesus walks toward the house and enters the room where the girl is lying, where he declares with seemingly equal silliness, “The child is not dead but sleeping.” The mourners in the room laugh at Jesus, and so, with that no-nonsense attitude that we sometimes know him to have, he kicks them out! When they are gone, he takes the little girl by the hand and says in his native language, “Little girl, get up,” and immediately, we are told, the girl gets up and walks around. People are amazed. Jesus leaves quickly, and tells them to be sure to give her something to eat.

It’s a pretty inspiring story, cherished by Christians from across time and traditions, but it may not be as simple as the women finding healing and being free, as nice as that would be. The woman’s disease has disappeared, which is wonderful and inspiring, but we must acknowledge that her suffering has not. Jewish law required that no one touch her during the time that she bled, which, as we know, lasted for twelve years – not to mention the poverty she inevitably faced after having poured all her money into the medical profession, which Mark tells us. Neither form of poverty is easy to recover from and, with no one to help her out, and a dozen years of solitude from which to move on, the woman faces a bleak future.

In a similar way, Jairus’ daughter will grow up not only also a woman, but the daughter of an un-wealthy religious leader whose authority in the synagogue has just been undermined by his profession of faith in Jesus. All in occupied Palestine! The two have a lot going on and, despite having experienced the end of their most pressing ailment (death, in particular, being a pretty big deal), their suffering is far from finished.

So what happened in these encounters such that, despite life’s hardship persisting, these women suddenly became filled with enough life to tackle the rest of the journey? I don’t have the answer to it, but I have a story about it.

At the end of my first semester of seminary, I was overcome by a mental illness that seemed to descend on me out of nowhere. Probably triggered by stress, this illness overtook my life with the speed of just a couple of weeks and, before I had had the insight to know what was wrong with me, it had debilitated me. I called off plans I had made to spend the summer in Massachusetts and, instead of celebrating the end of my first year in graduate school, I found myself knee-deep in the wreckage of two incomplete classes with my brain under siege. I felt unable to control my life.

On a particularly dark day, I called one of my best friends who, after I explained in a frantic mess what had been going on, dropped what he had been working on and rushed over to my house to pick me up in his car for a drive. Walking to the driveway where he stood waiting for me outside his car, I began to cry in lonely overwhelmedness. And then, offering no words, he wrapped his arms around me and pulled me to him. We stood there in mutual touch for a little bit, and a soft rain had begun to fall. The clouds were crying, too, and, even though my suffering felt the most insurmountable it had been, and would get worse for a while before it got better, something happened in the space between us, such that, despite the mounting misery of that moment, I felt relief from my pain.

I would go on to have a tough summer, working a challenging job that paid little and would likely lengthen the amount of time it would take for me to get better. But the other side of that encounter with my friend – the side that I now found myself on – as tough and terrible as it was, and despite my weakening faith that I would find healing, had become different from the first side. I’m not entirely sure what had happened between my friend and me, nor do I claim to have later on. All I know is that, afterward, the whole experience had pivoted at an angle that, without redirecting me around my hardship, showed me the end so that I could get through it. This side of the encounter was not the same as the other side of it.

Now, do I think that some bolt of miraculous power flashed from my friend’s body into mine? Not necessarily, but if Christ is able to be experienced in any real way, then I can’t help but point out the bigger story that I see within this story, which is that to heal is to touch.

Here is what I mean. Mark tells his version of this story with a physical focus that Matthew, Luke, and Mark leave out: Jairus throws his body on the ground. So does the woman. The people are “pressing in” on Jesus. A woman is menstruating. The two fall at Jesus’s feet. It’s hot. The crowd is abuzz. There is sweat, which is why most of us don’t attend church outside. We sit comfortably apart from each other on Sundays. We touch only once in our regular worship when we pass the peace, and, even then, so many of us, myself included, especially if do not feel especially chatty, force a smile through it. Sure, we lay hands on one another for special occasions like ordination and installation, but have become so used to touching only family members and partners in this way that must call any occasion where we do differently, special. And while there are, of course, boundaries for touching that we are all wise to observe, we are not especially wise for living with such wide space between us.

Which makes me pause. What if the two women in our story are not so much the victims of physical disease as they are crippled by the distance between them and their neighbors? And what if the real miracle of this story is not the cure, but the healing encounter itself in which the women’s isolation has ended? If so, then the deeper problem with these women is not that they are nobodies, but that they are no-bodies , corpses who have been deprived of the closeness to one’s neighbor so necessary to being alive. Jesus touched a dead girl and a menstruating woman – two gestures which, according to Jewish law, rendered him now unclean, untouchable.

Are we willing to get dirty, too? Are we prepared to roll up our sleeves? What if we washed each other’s feet? Cleaned each other’s wounds? Bathed one another when this kind of task requires help? What if we… prepared each other’s bodies for funerals? Sat by one another’s graves? Or simpler, if we kissed each other on the cheek every time we greet one another, a custom in parts of the world where, by no coincidence, suicide strikes at a lower rate, how then might we change?

Is it gospel if it doesn’t require touch?

Notice how Jesus does not respond to frantic Jairus with words, but, instead, follows him wordlessly to his home. Nor does he console the bleeding woman. Instead, by joining the suffering of these people, so closely that their bodies touched, Jesus narrowed the space between him and them so that God could begin God’s mysterious and miraculous work of healing and resurrection within it. We don’t understand it, nor are we necessarily called to. We are just invited to close that space anew and anew and anew.

At VBS a few weeks ago I’d decided that we would play freeze-tag and, after having drawn the boundaries of our game at either end of the playground, I took a step back and thought that our playing area looked too wide. And so, not knowing what would happen, I moved the boundaries closer to each other so that our playing area would be narrower. I said “1, 2, 3. Go!” And it was utter chaos; I instantly regretted it. We were pressing in on one another. Kids were tripping. Somebody’s toe began to bleed. There was commotion; there was sweat. It was hot. Adults administered BandAids for at least one child inside, and at least twice, a child collided with another child. Somebody got stuck on top of the climbing structure and I had to rescue her four times. And every time I brought her back to the ground, she ran off into the teaming tangle with the energy to keep playing. It was a joyous mess. Would this have happened in a wider playing space?

I’m not saying that this question holds the cure. No matter how many times I lift a child down from a climbing tower, she is bound to get into some other trouble someplace else. And no matter how many times we may be prepared to embrace a friend in crisis, pain will always return. But I am saying that, in that space between two people, when hand and heart touch, Christ does something that, try as we may to understand it, surpasses our capacity to. What mystery we are called to make.

So what does this mean for us right now? It means laugh at the top of your lungs. Dance in the middle of a crosswalk. Hold hands with your child. Lay down next to a grave. Brush somebody’s hair. Hug a friend for longer than twenty seconds. Push a wheelchair. Wash a family member’s hands. Befriend a widow. Change a bandage. Call your friends. Rub a person’s foot. Forget where your body ends, because the less room there is between you and your neighbors, the more room there is for God’s grace.

Years later, when Jesus would reappear to his disciples after everyone believed him to have died, his disciples, unable to recognize him, asked, “Who are you?”. Jesus said to them, “Touch me and see.”

I think we know what we need to do.

Amen.

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