They wanted to touch him. People came to Jesus in great numbers, for he had cured many, Mark says, so that all who had diseases pressed upon him to touch him (Mk 3:10). They had heard how Jesus, moved with pity, stretched out his hand and touched a leper, and said to him, “Be made clean!” (Mk 1:41) and other stories like it.
Mark paints a scene of people being drawn to Jesus from every direction, bodies everywhere. Among them a man who somehow makes his way to Jesus and throws himself at his feet. He’s a synagogue official of some kind, an important man, which is possibly why the crowd gave way and let him through; his name is Jairus, Mark tells us.
But Jairus doesn’t behave like an important man. He’s on his knees, his forehead touching the ground; he can smell the dirt, he can feel the grit of sand and gravel against the tips of his fingers. He behaves like a desperate man, a man on the verge of losing it for helplessness and fear. His daughter is at the point of death, only he doesn’t say “my daughter,” he says, “my little daughter,” the little girl he has known since he first held her on the day she was born and she was barely bigger than his hand. “She’s dying,” is what he’s there to tell the man from Nazareth, she’s dying. Nothing else matters for him anymore; not a thought about propriety or social conventions: his little girl is at the point of death.
I see Jairus in the company of the desperate mothers and fathers at the border fences of the world. They have come from Syria and Yemen, South Sudan and Somalia, Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras, parents whose lives have a single focus: that their children may live.
Jairus is an important man, a man with a name, and love has made him a beggar. She is dying—he says it repeatedly, “my little daughter, she’s at the point of death— and he says, “Come and lay your hands on her.” Come and touch her like you have touched others with healing. Lay your hands on her, he says, perhaps he’s seen it done, perhaps he’s done it himself, kneeling by her bedside, willing to let his own life flow through the palms of his hands to let it be hers, if that was what it took, but he couldn’t give her what he so desperately wanted to give her. “Lay your hands on her, so she may be made well, and live,” he says to Jesus.
He remembers when she was little, how, in the middle of the night when the house was too quiet, he used to get up to make sure she was breathing. He never told anybody, men of status and importance didn’t do such things, but now he is no longer afraid to reveal his love and helplessness in front of the whole town.
In one of his memoirs, Frederick Buechner recalls his own helplessness as a father whose little girl was very sick.
One of our daughters began to stop eating. There was nothing scary about it at first. It was just the sort of thing any girl who thought she’d be prettier if she lost a few pounds might do – nothing for breakfast, maybe a carrot or a Diet Coke for lunch, for supper perhaps a little salad with low calorie dressing. But then as months went by it did become scary. Anorexia nervosa is the name of the sickness she was suffering from.
The hardest part: there was nothing he could do.
No rational argument, no dire medical warning, no pleading, or cajolery or bribing would make this young woman we loved start eating normally again. … The psychiatrists we consulted told me I couldn’t cure her. The best thing I could do for her was to stop trying to do anything. [But] the only way I knew to be a father was to take care of her – to move heaven and earth to make her well, and of course, I couldn’t do that. I didn’t have … the power to make her well.
“My little daughter is at the point of death. Come and lay your hands on her, so that she may be made well, and live,” Jairus begged, and Jesus went with him, Mark tells us. Surrounded by people on every side, bodies everywhere, Jesus suddenly stopped and turned about and said, “Who touched my clothes?”
The disciples were like, “You’re kidding, right? All this humanity pressing in on you — how can you say, ‘Who touched me?’”
They didn’t know what just happened. They didn’t know that a woman — having been bleeding for twelve years, and having suffered greatly from many physicians, and having spent all she had, and having benefited not one bit but rather having gone from bad to worse, having heard about Jesus, having come in the crowd from behind — had touched his cloak. “If I but touch his clothes, I will be made well.” They didn’t know those words had been her mantra as she made her way through the crowd.
That was all the faith she had, a mixture of desperation and magical thinking. She was too tired and poor to be afraid anymore, too single-minded to worry that her condition would render those who touched her ritually unclean. She was determined to touch his clothes and she did. And immediately she felt that she was healed. Immediately she felt that life was no longer slowly draining from her, but filling her. And when Jesus turned around and asked, “Who touched my clothes?” she didn’t just say, “I did.”
She fell down before him and told him the whole truth. She told him of the twelve years of her suffering and poverty, she told him of her loneliness, her shame, her isolation – how life had slowly dripped away from her physically, emotionally, and socially.
And Jesus heard her out and said, “Daughter, your faith has made you well.” He called it her faith, this curious blend of desperation and magical thinking, this unbending determination to touch him because life was his to give and restore and make whole. The single-minded focus she found when she got to the end of her rope, Jesus called faith.
Ruben Garcia works at Annunciation House, a Christian shelter for migrants in Albuquerque. The guests who have stayed there over the years have fled war in Central America, drug cartel violence in Mexico and violent gangs in Central America. They’re seeking a safe haven and increasingly asylum.
“The people that are leaving now are fleeing what is the classic, low-intensity warfare,” Garcia said, adding that their right to file an asylum claim when they arrive at the border and have a judge review their case is protected by U.S. law. In recent weeks, he has escorted a few families seeking asylum through ports of entry because U.S. Customs and Border Protection officers have been turning people away.
“We’re walking up the bridge, and all that I can think of is … they’re the poorest of the poor, and they come to the wealthiest, most powerful country in the world, and look at what we’re making them do … We have no idea what hope means,” he said. “The people who are poor will teach us what it means to hope.”
When Jesus says to the woman, “Daughter, your faith has made you well,” he reminds us that the poor also teach us what it means to live with faith. And he calls her “daughter,” which is such an important part of the whole truth, because she is not just some anonymous impoverished woman in the crowd, but a child of God, a member of God’s family.
And calling her “daughter,” Jesus reminds us that the divine parent’s love for the human family is like Jairus’s for his little daughter. And suddenly we remember the urgency with which that father begged and pleaded, “Come and lay your hands on her, so that she may be made well, and live.”
But live she doesn’t any longer. “Your daughter is dead,” they tell Jairus. They have come from his house, they know what they’re talking about. Nothing anybody can do about it now; too late. End of story. “Why trouble the teacher any further?” they tell him.
But Jesus says, “Do not fear, only believe.” Believe what? What is a man to believe when his whole life has blown up in his face? And before we begin cobbling together answers, we notice that Jairus didn’t ask; he went to his house and Jesus went with him, along with Peter, James and John.
There the funeral was already underway with people weeping and wailing, and when they heard Jesus say, “The child is not dead but sleeping,” they laughed at him, they didn’t know what else to do. They had been there when it happened, he had just walked in the door.
Jesus put them all outside, and then the six of them went in where the child was. And Jesus doesn’t speak to the grieving parents, he doesn’t speak to the disciples who are probably still wondering what he meant by “not dead but sleeping,” — Jesus takes her by the hand and says to her with great tenderness and care, “Talitha cum.”
We don’t speak Aramaic as Jesus and his first followers did, and Mark is kind enough to translate the words for us, so we don’t think it’s some kind of magic spell or secret incantation, but he keeps the words in Jesus’ native tongue in his Greek text, because somebody in that room remembered them, and they take us a little closer to the sound of Jesus’ voice, “Talitha cum — little girl, get up!”
And she did.
Wherever Jesus went, Mark tells us, into villages or cities or farms, they laid the sick in the marketplaces, and begged him that they might touch even the fringe of his cloak; and all who touched it were healed (Mk 6:56). That is one side of this wondrous pair of stories we heard this morning. It is about our desire to touch Jesus, our deep desire to connect with the divine source of life and blessing.
The other side is about God’s desire to touch us. When we are in the place where hope has withered, courage shrunk, where joy is gone and we can barely imagine what it might mean to believe, and when they come and tell us it’s too late — it’s not. It never is. Because Jesus has entered the room where the child was. And he took her by the hand and spoke the words of life restored and renewed, “Talitha cum – little girl, get up!” And she did.
 Frederick Buechner, Telling Secrets: A Memoir (HarperSanFrancisco, 1992), pp. 23, 26