The Easter service was over, and the young mothers approached our row of women with shy smiles on their faces and babies in their arms. As they came near, we shook hands and they held their children up close to us. Many in our group reached out to place our hands on the children’s heads or hold their little fingers.
One mother stopped directly in front of me, and her little girl stared at me with big eyes. In an instinctive “mom” move, I gently placed my hand on her and kissed her on the forehead. It was something I would have done with my own children, but I quickly glanced at the mother, wondering at her reaction.
This was not familiar territory. My husband, son, and I were with a church group on a mission service trip in Vietnam. With special governmental permission, we had worshiped with other Christians on Easter Sunday at a Vietnamese Catholic church. As you can imagine, 23 people of mostly European descent were hard to miss, and not only because we looked different. The women in our group had chairs to sit on in the back of the congregation, while the men stood behind us. This was special treatment we appreciated, because the hundreds of local worshipers had sat Vietnamese style—on their haunches with feet flat on the ground—for most of the long outdoor service. After the service the local women sought us out.
In this unusual setting, I looked in the mother’s eyes to see if she would be shocked or offended at my kissing her child. Had I committed a cultural error? But she returned my gaze and gave me a gratified smile, while the next mother eagerly moved forward and held her child up so I could touch and kiss her baby as well.
At this point I heard a sharp intake of breath to my left, and turned to see a panicked expression on the face of the woman who stood next to me. She was looking at the baby I had just kissed as the mother smiled and held it forward. Suddenly I realized that this little girl, like many of the children, had probably been sitting or playing on the ground near her mother during the long worship service. Her little face and hands were smudged with dirt that I had not noticed.
Gingerly my American friend reached out and patted the baby’s head. As I leaned forward and kissed the next baby in line, I thought to myself that I was not doing this lady any favors. The smudged and dirty little ones were touchable for me in that moment, but she was not feeling quite so free about it.
Let me describe another scene from this trip. Our group included some couples, singles, and other family groups from the English-speaking church we attended in Hong Kong, and at one point we visited with some local people in the walled-in yard of a home in one of the villages. In the universal language of children, our middle school kids and the younger Vietnamese children were chasing each other around the courtyard in an informal game of tag. As we adults looked on, a friend of mine leaned over to me and said, “I wonder if those are bug bites or a rash on that one little girl.”
I froze, and there may even have been a sharp intake of breath, because “that one little girl” was playing with my son. I soon responded to the situation with another instinctive “mom” move, taking my boy aside and quietly telling him not to get too close to the little girl, and not to touch her, since we didn’t know what had caused her rash. He glared at me, but he knew I was serious.
Later that day, my husband related that our son had indignantly reported me for my insensitivity. “Mom told me not to play with that little girl. She thinks I might catch something from her!” Another parent might understand my reaction and concern; he did not appreciate my fear. A little girl with a rash on her arms was touchable for him in that moment, but I could not allow it.
While we may not even be able to explain our reasons, we each have situations in which we find other people to be untouchable. For me, there is usually something about a person that I fear, don’t understand, or can’t control that makes me discreetly put my hands behind my back. Apparent dirt and germs may trigger a “hands off” reaction, but sometimes I just stay away because a person is different.
Oh—and I can point out any number of things that make a person different! People who are not from the same place I am from are different, of course—whether they come from another country and speak a different language or from another part of town and I understand them just fine. Or they may be different because of their approach to life, of what they do or fail to do, of real or perceived injustices and slights that they don’t seem to regret and “should,” of the things they believe and value, of other people they associate with, of their hostility to me or in general, or of an overbearing or unreceptive personality that I cannot approach. The list is long and you only have so much time to read this. And in the same moment that I may proudly point to all the people I AM willing to touch, pat on the back, hold hands with, embrace loosely or hug closely, my behavior can also say that different people are just…untouchable.
Less than two weeks ago we celebrated Easter again, rejoicing in the glorious resurrection of our Savior, Jesus. Jesus is God but came as a man into a world full of rules about not touching unclean things or people and he touched them all—he touched the sick, the unwashed, the outcast and even the dead. He allowed others to touch him because they believed in his power to heal with his touch. He approached the unapproachable and laid his hands on them.
These were not hesitant, fingertip touches. Jesus essentially leaped into the cesspool of evil, disease and guilt that is the world we live in, and he stayed immersed in that filth to take hold of us and lift us all out by his own suffering and death. He actually became untouchable in our place, and thereby purchased for us the great gift of forgiveness. Easter means that before God Jesus has made us pure, clean, and touchable.
And in a seriously miraculous turn of events, Jesus’ death and resurrection mean that our eternal well being is locked up—untouchable by any force of evil—as we trust in Him, the living Savior. These forces that we encounter and give in to every day may win many battles, but Jesus has won the war.
My cousin Becky once related a story from her travels to Africa that has stayed with me for over a decade. Her work often took her to places where there was a clear contrast between her very light skin and the very dark skin of the local people. She especially enjoyed being among the children, who (as I recall) would surround her and were fascinated by her lightness. In one instance, a young girl reached out and took her hand. Becky described it as a simple and powerful action, which we might do well to emulate—“If someone’s different, hold their hand.”
This is what Jesus did. How “different”—how untouchable—I was. Yet He took hold not only of my hand, but of my very self. How different—how untouchable—others can seem, but the eternal touch of Jesus also brings a different perspective. His grace and forgiveness allow me to see beyond my fear of people and situations I can’t control.
Each day I am reminded that Jesus has work for me to do that means I sometimes touch—literally and figuratively—untouchable people. Each day I pray that by the power of His Spirit it will be my instinct to hold the hands and touch the lives of people who seem different—perhaps an instinct as familiar as reaching out to kiss the forehead of my children, or a baby in Vietnam.