As most of you know, Marc and I are fans of the UT women’s basketball team. We’ve been fans of the Rockets for years. But recently, I’ve been paying attention to more than the game itself. I’ve been noticing how often the players touch each other, not as they actually play the game, but in support of each other.
It begins even before the opening fanfare. As warm-ups come to a close, the team gathers in a circle, arms around each other’s shoulders. They conclude with a prayer and a short cheer, and then high five each other as they return to the bench. Then, as each starting player is introduced, she’s met by another player with some kind of physical contact, whether it’s a simple handshake or an elaborate, unique fist bump. It used to be that the opposing teams would shake hands with each other as they lined up at center court to start the game. Unfortunately, COVID put an end to that.
Throughout the game, the players routinely touch each other: a hand extended to help a teammate up. A sympathetic pat on the back after a bad call or a missed shot. An encouraging high five as a player moves into position to take a foul shot. As a player moves out of the game, she and her substitute touch hands. Before COVID, the players of both teams ended the game by touching the hands of their opponents, in a sign of respect for a game well-played and their shared commitment to the sport. Finally, the home games finish with the playing of the alma mater, with the players standing arm in arm.
The Rocket coaches feel that touch is so important that they actually track how often the players touch each other in supportive ways. (The Warriors and the Spurs of the NBA do this, too.) A “Spark of the Game” award is given to the player who offers the most encouraging touches in each contest. For the Rockets, touch communicates support, confidence, consolation, camaraderie, respect, and good sportswomanship.
For all of us, touch can express those things and more, including love. Last week, we reflected on the power of affirming words to express God’s love for us and our love for God and for others. This week, we add a second “love language”: the love language of touch—physical touch.
Author Gary Chapman, in his book The Five Love Languages, actually addresses this language last, and perhaps with good reason. Touch involves our bodies and the bodies of others. When we touch someone, or they touch us, it’s different from touching an inanimate object. Chapman says, “Whatever there is of me resides in my body. To touch my body is to touch me.” We need to take care in how and when and whom we touch, because we touch so much more than a shoulder or an arm. We touch the very essence of who someone is.
Maybe that’s why touch is such a “touchy” subject. We’ve become acutely aware of how destructive touch can be, as we’ve heard from people who’ve been harmed by inappropriate and even violent touch, and found the courage to tell their stories. We’ve heard from women who endured touching by those with power over their professional lives, from victims of clergy and doctors and others in authority, from survivors of domestic and parental abuse and, on the world stage, from those whose bodies were violated as war crimes. We hear many disturbing accounts of touch used as a weapon.
But, touch is also an essential part of who we are as human beings. We need to be touched. Being touched in the right ways makes positive changes in our bodies. The right kind of touch lowers our blood pressure, and our heart rate, and the levels of harmful chemicals in our bodies. Touch stimulates the part of the brain that is crucial to memory. It prompts the release of chemicals that produce positive feelings.
Touch is so important that when we’re not touched in positive, caring ways, we can actually suffer from what author Helen Colton describes as “touch malnutrition.” Just as our bodies can’t survive without nutrients from food, our bodies require the nutrients we get from touch—the chemicals that nourish our blood, muscle, tissues, nerve cells, and organs. Without this stimulation, Colton says, we can starve, just as we can starve without the right kind and quantity of food.
Our spirits can starve, too, especially if touch is our primary love language. So, it’s not surprising that we find so much loving touch in Scripture. From the very beginning, God handles us with care. In the second creation story in Genesis, we read that God “formed Adam from the dust of the ground” and then “took one of his ribs and closed up its place with flesh” to create Eve. Imagine the hands of a potter, carefully forming a work of art, or the hands of a surgeon, skillfully opening and exploring the depths of a human body. Perhaps the psalmist was picturing God’s touch when he sang to God, “it was you who formed my inward parts.”
In Isaiah, we hear God assure Israel, “I the Lord your God, hold your right hand.” Through Hosea, God says, “It was I who taught Ephraim to walk, I took them up in my arms…I was to them like those who lift infants to their cheeks.”
I love the very center of Michelangelo’s painting, “The Creation of Adam.” It’s just a small part of a huge painting on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, and it’s given rise to many debates about its meaning. But, what I see is God reaching out to touch Adam—the divine reaching out to touch the human. Our God is a tactile God—a God who is willing to touch us in love.
Nowhere is this more evident than in God coming to us in the human form of Jesus. Imagine Jesus—imagine God—being lifted to the cheeks of his parents and grandparents, his infant body being gently bathed and diapered, held tenderly in Mary’s arms as he nursed at her breast.
Jesus was a human being who, like us, needed to be touched. No wonder he was moved when, as Luke tells us, an unnamed woman crashed a dinner party in order to wash Jesus’ feet with her tears and dry them with her hair, kissing them and rubbing them with ointment. Her love for Jesus was communicated through her touch, and he knew it.
Our God knows what physical touch feels like and what it can convey. Appropriate touch expresses solidarity with someone who feels alone. It expresses confidence in someone who feels insecure. It expresses welcome to the outsider and respect for the overlooked. The love language of touch expresses sympathy for the grieving, celebration with the joyful, apology to one we’ve the wronged, and forgiveness for the one who’s wronged us. At its best, touch expresses love.
Jesus communicated with touch. His touch offered rescue, as it did when Peter began to sink beneath the waves and Jesus reached out his hand and caught him. His touch conveyed encouragement and comfort, as it did when the disciples fell to the ground in terror at the transfiguration, and Jesus touched them and said, “Be not afraid.” His touch expressed tenderness, as it did when he washed the disciples’ feet.
Most often, Jesus’ touch was a healing touch. He touched his own friends, healing the fever of Peter’s mother-in-law. He touched and healed lepers. He touched ears and eyes and tongues, restoring hearing and sight and speech. He took a little girl by the hand and raised her to life. He touched those who needed healing, and he allowed them to touch him.
But Jesus’ touch conveyed much more than physical healing. It also conveyed healing for the spirit. Our passage for today tells the story of a woman who, according to Luke had had a spirit that had crippled her for eighteen years. She was unable to stand up straight. Her body was bent over, so that she could see only her own feet and the ground they stood on. We often read in Scripture of people who suffer as a result of a demon. But here, Luke tells us, the problem is a spirit.
The Greek word Luke uses for spirit is sometimes used to refer to the Holy Spirit. Or, it can be used to describe a being without a body but which has the power of knowing, desiring, deciding, and acting, for good or ill. Or, it can refer to the human spirit: that force within us that fills our souls and is the source of our emotions and desires. It’s possible that the woman Jesus encountered had a simple medical condition, which her peers might have attributed to a foreign spirit troubling her. But I think it is just as likely that the troubled spirit was her own.
What so burdened her that her body could no longer bear its own weight? What so bound her spirit that she couldn’t stand up straight and look others in the eye? Perhaps she felt alone—cut off from the world around her. Maybe she had committed a sin that she felt could not and should not be forgiven, or had suffered a hurt she couldn’t forgive. Maybe a life of poverty or struggle that had resisted her best efforts to overcome had sapped her strength and her will. Maybe the less she could see of the world, the less the world saw her. Years of suffering from the wound in her spirit just wore her down until she couldn’t stand up straight.
But then, there’s Jesus. The story doesn’t say that she sought him out. It says she appeared in the synagogue where he was teaching. And what does Jesus do? He sees her. He calls her over, and he lays his hands on her. He touches her. The effects of this love language were immediate. She stood up straight, and she began praising God.
What did his touch convey in that moment? That she had been seen. That she was accepted and invited into Jesus’ presence. That she was freed from whatever had been holding her down and holding her back. All this, done with a touch.
Did you notice what Jesus did next? He followed up his use of the love language of touch with the love language of affirming words. In the presence of the leaders of the synagogue who were criticizing him for healing this woman on the sabbath, and in the presence of the entire congregation and in her hearing, Jesus called her a “daughter of Abraham,” deserving of healing. The healing of Jesus’ touch was compounded by the healing of Jesus’ words, affirming her dignity and worth.
Touching someone with loving kindness demonstrates our acceptance of them. It affirms that we are connected to them. It shows that they are valued members of our circle—whether that circle is made up of family and friends, others in our community or church, or the circle of the entire human race. To refuse to offer appropriate touch, or to accept it from another, is to reject that person’s humanity. Jesus used touch to include and affirm. He used it to invite people in. So should we.
We can’t experience the physical sensation of Jesus himself reaching out to hold our hands or touch our bodies with healing, forgiveness, and love. But by the power of his Spirit, we can experience those things through the touch of others. And, we can give them to others with our own touch.
If you feel most loved when someone touches you, or that giving someone else a hug is one of the best ways to show how much you care about them, your primary love language is probably the language of touch. But if it’s not our primary language, how can we become more comfortable in using this language which Jesus used so freely?
One way is to broaden our ideas of what touch can be. The touch “love language” doesn’t speak only through hugs and kisses and romantic intimacy. Be generous with a warm handshake, a pat on the back, or those high-fives the Rockets give so often. Choose to sit close to someone on a bench or a pew or the sofa. It will communicate your love and concern and your desire to connect with them.
Touching is especially powerful when it is offered to someone who is unused to others wanting to touch them in love—someone who has felt like an outsider, someone who has been rejected. A person doesn’t need to be a leper to feel as though they have no place in a community. But a touch offered with the love of Jesus can be a means of affirming their worth and dignity.
Of course, we need to be sensitive as to whether or not someone wants to be touched. If touch is not their love language, or if touch brings back painful memories, our touch may not communicate what we intend. If you’re unsure about whether your touch would be welcome, just ask. “Could you use a hug?” May I sit next to you? Even if the answer is “no,” the other person will recognize this sign of your care for them.
And if your primary love language is touch, but it’s a foreign language to those you love? We can try Chapman’s advice to use humble words of request to ask for the touch we so desire. We can revel in the touch we receive from others who speak our language. And, we continue to heed Paul’s words: Love is patient and kind. Love doesn’t insist on its own way. Love believes and rejoices in the expression of love in any language.
We have been given the gift of touch as a love language, and it speaks to us in the deepest parts of us. Even if touch is not our primary love language, we still have an essentially human need to touch and be touched. If the pandemic has taught us anything, it has taught us that. Those long, dark, lonely months of not being able to touch each other brought our need for physical contact front and center—not just in the face of illness and death, but in times of celebration and joy.
God speaks the love language of touch through Scripture. Jesus spoke it each time he placed his hand on someone with healing, forgiving, accepting love. If basketball players can freely express their connection with their team mates and opponents through touch, surely we, as members of Jesus’ team, can do the same. When it is welcomed and appropriate, we can touch the bodies of others with the love of Christ, and in so doing, we can touch their very souls. Amen.
~~ Pastor Carol Williams-Young