~ Matthew 26:6-13 ~
COVID19 took a while to show up in New Zealand. It is an island, after all. So, we were about two weeks behind everything going on here. As we attended church services in Wellington in early March, we were somewhat aware of the practice of social distancing that was already in place here in San Francisco. But it made for awkward encounters. How automatic it is to extend your hand to shake hands. It’s almost instinctual. It’s what we humans do. Of course, if you are a Noe Valley Ministry human it’s instinctual to hug – everybody.
In this time of social distancing, we’ve become quite aware of the sense of touch. Or, in this case, the absence of touch. And we miss it. The proverbial handshake, a pat on the back, a hug. Of course, with the good comes the bad – the unwanted touch, the inappropriate touch. And then there are metaphorical touches. Negatively, one might talk about someone who is “touched in the head.” But more often we encounter sentimental touching – “That was very touching, thank you.” And there is being touched spiritually. My roommate in Bible school back in the 60’s was known around campus for his signature song – he sang it often:
He touched me, O he touched me.
And oh the joy that filled my soul.
Something happened; and now I know,
He touched me and made me whole.
Making people whole is what Jesus did. He was a healer. And, more often than not, when he healed a person, he touched them. The gospels are replete with accounts of Jesus touching people to heal them. He touched the eyes of two blind men, says Matthew in an earlier chapter, their eyes were opened and they followed him.
In light of our current situation, I find this account of Jesus attending a gathering in Bethany to be quite compelling. For here, Jesus does not so much touch as he is touched. But first, notice where this is. It is at the house of Simon the leper! Talk about social distancing protocols. In the ancient world people were expected to maintain a safe distance from lepers and they, likewise. Today, leprosy is called Hansen’s Disease, an infection caused by bacteria that deadens nerve cells resulting in the loss of the sense of touch and pain. Once thought to be highly contagious, we now know that it is very hard to spread and easily treatable. But the people of Jesus’ day and those who gathered at Simon the lepers house didn’t know that. So, evidently Simon must have been cured, maybe even by Jesus’ touch in the days previous. For there they all were, including this unnamed woman who pours oil over Jesus head. Of course, for Matthew (and the other gospel writers for that matter) the incident is about the disciples getting mad about how much the ointment costs and Jesus saying, “…you always have the poor with you” and as a symbol of preparation for his burial. I get all that. But today I am intrigued with the fact that Jesus even allowed this unnamed woman to touch him. He not only allows it but commends her to all of history: “Truly I tell you, wherever this good news is proclaimed in the whole world, what she has done will be told in remembrance of her.” To me, the whole scene speaks to being made whole by Jesus: Simon restored to society after decades of being declared “unclean,” this woman being lifted up as a paragon of faithful discipleship and Jesus violating all the rules of social distancing. Didn’t he realize how dangerous that was?
We take our sense of touch for granted. I know I do. But if we think about it, our skin, that largest of bodily organs, is how we feel touch. OK, to be precise it is nerve cells just below the service of our skin that allow us to feel. Coincidentally, as we find ourselves in the midst of a pandemic, I’ve been reading Bill Bryson’s latest book, The Body: A Guide for Occupants. The chapter on skin is most interesting and quite pertinent, especially about all the critters that live there. When we look at our skin, we might not realize that the outer surface is made up of entirely dead cells. And we shed those dead cells copiously, some twenty-five thousand flakes a minute, over a million every hour. Bryson notes: “Run a finger along a dusty shelf, and you are in large part clearing a path through fragments of your former self. Silently and remorselessly we turn to dust.” And living there are tiny critters, microbes, lots of them, about 100,000 per square centimeter of skin. As a bread baker I am well aware that the process of growing a sourdough starter is based on microbes getting into the flour and water to ferment it. Most of those microbes are from me!
Trillions and trillions of these microscopic critters call you home. By far, the vast majority are good for you, like breaking down foods for calories and digestion and extracting beneficial nutriments. Only a tiny portion make us ill. Of the million or so microbes that have been identified, only 1415 are known to cause disease in humans. However, those 1415 tiny critters cause 1/3 of all the deaths on the planet. They are vicious.
And then there are the viruses. They aren’t really alive but they’re not dead either. Outside of living cells, they are inert. They don’t eat or breathe. They can’t move on their own; rather they hitchhike. They attach themselves to us as we go about our day – off door handles or handshakes or drawing in breath. Most of the time they are lifeless until, that is, they get inside a living cell. Then they burst into action, reproducing massively. And they spread amazingly fast and thoroughly. A group of researchers did a study where they “infected” a fake virus solution with traceable elements on a door handle to a research facility. It took only four hours for the “virus” to spread through the entire building, infecting over half the employees and turning up on virtually every shared device like photocopiers and coffee machines. Viruses are insidiously effective in getting around. And, yes, as we know all too well now, some viruses can be deadly.
The solution is what we’ve heard over and over in the past weeks – wash our hands. At some level we’ve all known it was a good practice but it took something like COVID19 to drive home its importance. Even medical professionals can be lax. Atul Gawande, the author of Being Mortal, says: “The greatest difficulty is getting clinicians like me to do the one thing that consistently halts the spread of infections: wash our hands.” But we are learning, aren’t we? As one Facebook meme puts it: Now that we are all learning how to wash our hands, the lesson next week – turn signals!
You might be asking at this point: What does all this have to do with Palm Sunday? Well, the spiritual lesson for today is – wash your hands. But seriously, we find ourselves in an unprecedented time when it really is the spiritually right thing to do to stay physically apart. Social distancing is a spiritual discipline. Or, as I heard someone suggest – distant socializing. And, because we have this wonderful technology, unimaginable in former times, we can be with each other from a distance. And, even as we do communion today in a most unusual way, we experience community and we experience the presence of Christ. So, let us continue to check in with each other and…wash your hands. Amen.