The story of the woman weeping and washing the feet of Jesus with her tears is one of my favourite stories in the Bible. There are so many levels to this story. There is a woman who is ashamed of her sinfulness. There is criticism of Jesus for allowing her to be in the same room as the men. There is plenty of touching happening. There is extravagant love. There is forgiveness. There is compassionate healing. It’s amazing what we find when we delve deeper into Scripture. It is not just a nice story about a woman cleaning the feet of Jesus.
Let me begin by telling you another story. Before she went into ministry, a colleague I know used to work as a PSW, or Personal Support Worker. These people work in long term care facilities, hospitals, hospices. They tend to do the grunt work, the work of bathing people, cleaning up their messes, and generally spending the most amount of time with patients or residents. These people tend not to be highly educated, I believe the course to be a PSW is one year after grade 12. Yet the work they do is invaluable. As in all careers, some are better at it than others. This colleague worked in a long term care facility. She was with a woman she had never worked with before. My colleague was quite young at the time. It was time for the resident’s bath. When she removed the woman’s she was shocked at what she saw. This elderly woman’s feet were so ravaged with arthritis that her feet were quite deformed. Her toes curled under her feet and criss-crossed each other. She had bunions and generally her feet looked very painful. My colleague couldn’t understand how this person could possibly walk at all. After the bathing was over, my friend began to dry the woman off. When she got to her feet, she did one foot at a time and took special care not to hurt her as she dried her feet, with extreme care. When she looked up, the woman was crying, tears streaming down her face. My friend’s first thought was that she had hurt her, so she said, “oh I’m so sorry. Did I hurt you?” When the woman collected herself, she replied, “No. It’s just that nobody ever touches my feet. They look so hideous and nobody will touch them.” My friend was shocked. She asked what the other PSW’s did when they bathed her, to which the woman replied, they avoid my feet. They won’t touch them. My friend and her resident became very close after that. The woman had not been touched on her feet for longer than she could remember. The very act of touching had become something sacred.
This woman had felt shame about her feet and thought this part of her body was hideous, due to the reaction of others. How we react to things that are unpleasant can have a detrimental effect on others.
I invite you to think of a time when you felt that you have been touched in a way that felt sacred. For me, one time was at my ordination. The hands of my mentor in ministry, the President of London Conference at the time, my chair of the Conference Education and Student’s committee and my husband were all upon my head as I knelt in front of them. They surrounded me. The weight of their hands on my head had quite an impact. It was a powerful moment, one that will be etched in my mind forever, I imagine. It felt sacred. Then I felt a finger gently tickling the back of my ear. It was my husband of course. He knew how emotional I must have been feeling and it was his way of gently reminding me that he had my back, he was there for just me. In all the headiness of the ritual of ordination, his little finger was a gentle reminder that everything was okay and it grounded me. The intimacy of that small gesture, that barely discernible touch, helped me to cope with this momentous occasion in my life.
We should never underestimate the power of touch. We are a society that is very aware of touch, especially inappropriate touch. People too often cross boundaries with their touching. Sometimes situations call for touch. Visiting someone in the hospital of long term care facility or hospice are places where touch is almost expected. Sometimes when people lose the ability to talk, or communicate in any other way, touch is the only thing that connects one to the other. Placing a hand on the arm or hand of another person can have a huge impact. It cannot be forced or superficial. It has to be genuine, because what a touch expresses goes beyond words.
We often hear about elder abuse, when touching is inappropriate, not gentle and caring, but hurtful. Any touch that is abusive is obviously wrong, whether it is with a child, a spouse, or an elderly person. Our touch can result in severe damage, both physical and emotional in these cases. But our touch can also heal, as it did in the story of my colleague and the woman in the long term care facility. Even withholding touch can be a form of punishment. We need to be touched to survive.
When a person loses a spouse, they also lose the loving touch of another person. We don’t realize how important touching each other expresses love.
The woman in our Bible story today was aware of it. It was the only way she knew how to show her respect and love of Jesus. Though her action drew criticism from the other men in the room, her need to express her love to Jesus was greater than her fear. Jesus reaches out to people who others won’t touch. If we are to be the hands and feet of Jesus in the world, who are the people we touch that others won’t?
Tony Campolo is a great theologian and preacher and tells the story of walking down the streets of New York when a homeless person was approaching from the opposite direction. This was a well-seasoned homeless man, with a beard that hadn’t been trimmed in years, nor washed for an indeterminant amount of time. The man was smelly, he was filthy with dirt, he was unkempt in every way imaginable, his clothes were ripped and shabby and the soles of his shoes were coming apart from the uppers of his shoes. Tony, on the other hand, was smartly attired in his suit and crisp white shirt. He had his hand in his pocket, ready to give some money to the approaching homeless man. Tony greeted the man first. “Good morning.” The homeless man looked up at Tony and he said, “Good morning to you. What a fine morning it is.” He was sipping from a styrofoam cup which Tony assumed was filled with alcohol. As Tony started to pull the money out of his pocket, the homeless man said to him, “I would like to share my coffee with you this morning. It is such a beautiful day and I have this nice warm cup of coffee. Won’t you have some?” Tony looked at the man, looked at his grimy hands clutching the cup and thought what an insult it would be to deny this man the pleasure of sharing with someone. So keeping his eyes on the dirty hands offering him a drink, he gingerly took the cup from the man’s hands and took a big swig. It was coffee, and very good coffee at that. He thanked the man and handed back the cup. As he did, their fingers touched, and Tony felt blessed. In that brief moment of connection, Tony felt that what transpired between them was a connection, and he looked up into the smiling eyes of this stranger, and knew that God had blessed him.
I doubt I would be able to overcome my fear of disease, or the odour emanating from a person in his condition, to do what Tony did. I don’t know many people who could. We are so germaphobic these days. We are sanitizing our children so that they will never have the immunities that we have in our bodies. They used to say that touching a horse as a young child would improve a chld’s immunities. Maybe that’s an old wives’ tale, I don’t know. But being around animals and touching them can’t be all that bad. Most of the farmers I know are pretty healthy individuals.
My point is, as the woman identified as having many sins, touched Jesus, he was touched by her love. In compassion, he healed her. Being touched and touching others in appropriate ways is healing. Those who judged the woman had not offered Jesus water to wash his feet after a weary journey. The woman washed his feet with her tears, wiped them dry with her hair, and anointed them with oil. She expressed hospitality and extravagant love to Jesus, and He, in turn, healed her with His compassion.
I am not suggesting that you start crying on other people’s feet or drying their feet with your hair. I am suggesting that you not withhold your touch when the situation seems appropriate. Do not be afraid to touch another human being. It is what Jesus would do and you never know when that touch results in healing.