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February 8, 2009

No One Knows Her Name

No one knows her name -this mother-in-law of Simon Peter. Like so many other women in the bible, she is not even named. But let's try to imagine some things about her life. Perhaps she was a widow since she lived with her son-in-law and his brother. She obviously had a daughter, but did they look alike? Was she stocky or slender? Blue eyes or more likely brown? She probably worked hard at chopping wood or salting the fish or taking care of her grandchildren. And then one day she became sick and could not get out of bed. Did her daughter put cool cloths on her forehead to bring down the fever? We can only imagine these details because we know so little about this woman.

Everyone knows Simon Peter's name, but no one knows hers. Women and their work were not particularly valued at this time in history and in this ancient culture. Women are often marginalized in Christian history, both past and present. But let's see if there isn't another way to understand this story and see how it can speak to us today.

Let's think about the family relationships in the early church. We know that there were brothers who were disciples of Jesus-Simon Peter and Andrew as well as James and John. Jesus' brothers are mentioned as are several women named Mary who had close relationships with each other and with Jesus. "The early church was very much a family affair which makes sense, because even today it grows through relationships, one person at a time." (1) It is through relationships, through love, through touch, that healing and wholeness are made possible.

Here we have this women, Simon's mother-in -aw, who is lying in her bed, probably delirious, dehydrated and totally helpless. And then Jesus comes into her home and touches her. He takes her by the hand and lifts her up and her fever leaves her. This is a very familiar and intimate thing for Jesus to do-to touch a woman. He risked ritual defilement and he risked catching her disease. It is the sort of thing a family member would do. It is the sort of thing that Jesus and others often do in the stories of our faith. "Throughout both testaments-the angel who touches the hollow of Jacob's thigh; the blind man who Jesus touched-there is one incident after another pointing to the power of touch. It might even be said that in Scripture touch is a metaphor for intimacy, for presence and for relationship." (2)

And then after being touched and healed, the woman got up and began to serve. It is Simon's mother-in-law who responded as so many others have done in the history of our faith. She is so profoundly changed by Jesus' touch that she is completely healed and made whole. And then she reacts by reaching out and serving others. In a sense this unnamed woman was the first deacon, serving out of love. Some might say that this healing just returned the unnamed woman to her place of subjugation in a patriarchal society, but it seems to me that instead she gave thanks in the only way she knew how. "Her life had been saved. At least on that day, her everyday tasks were transformed and became miraculous." (3)

Not to trivialize the theology of this scripture passage, but physical touch and service are two of the ways that couples in a relationship show that they love each other. When I meet with couples that are getting married, I ask them to read the book The Five Love Languages by Gary Chapman. The book is kind of cheesy, but I think it has some wisdom to share. Dr. Chapman says that there are five primary love languages that help us to express heartfelt commitment to our mates. They are-Words of Affirmation, Quality Time, Receiving Gifts, Acts of Service and Physical Touch. In the back of his book are tests for men and women so that you can learn what your primary love language is. When I took the test I had identical high scores for Words of Affirmation and Physical Touch. It's unusual to have two identical high scores and to have two different love languages. I think this just means I am more needy than most people. But for someone to show me they love me I need to hear both words of affirmation and to receive some kind of physical touch.

The best way for couples to learn how to express heartfelt commitment to their mates is for both partners to read the book and to take the love language test. Now many of you know my husband Mark. We have been married for 26 of the happiest years of my life. But getting him to read this book has been impossible. I put it on the bedside table in our room and asked him to read it or at least take the love language test. Two weeks later it was on the bottom of his reading pile-so I moved it back on top. Three weeks later it was back on the bottom and I dusted it off and put it back on top. I tried rearranging his reading material for about six months and then gave up. But being the passive aggressive person that I am, I took the test for him. I felt justified in doing this because after all knowing someone for over 30 years you should have some clue as to how they do or do not express their love-and Mark's way of expressing love is acts of service. And now of course Mark says he never has to read the book because it is obvious how he loves-he serves.

Now remember, the way I want someone to show his or her love for me is through words of affirmation and physical touch. These are not Mark's love languages. So what are we to do? Well, Mark tries to remember that I need to hear words of encouragement and that I like it if we hold hands when we are out for a walk. And I try to remember that he shows his love for me through acts of service. Since I am not much of a morning person, he makes the coffee and brings in the newspaper for me to read. He makes Emma a hot breakfast every morning. He cooks on weekends and has a nice hot meal for me when I get home from church on Sundays. Mark does the grocery shopping which I don't like. And I, after 26 years of marriage, am finally learning that this is the way he shows me he loves me-not the only way of course-but the way that comes most naturally to him. And just so you know that I am aware that a relationship is not all about me, I do acts of service for Mark since that is the way he feels most loved. I try to keep the house clean; I do the laundry for the family, and believe it or not I even cook most weeknights.

Jesus "came and took her by the hand and lifted her up. Then the fever left her." It is the power of touch, of intimacy, of relationships that make us whole. Jesus understood this. "Love not expressed, love not felt, is difficult to trust. Theologically speaking, that is the reason for the incarnation-[for God coming to us in human form.] God knew the human need for nearness. Jesus is the incarnation of God's love." (4) This can make it all the more demanding and perhaps even frightening to realize that for some people, we are the only Jesus they will ever meet. (5)

Physical touch and service are Jesus' love languages. What are yours? Where do you see the need for healing and wholeness in other's lives? Where do you see illness in your own life that keeps you from living a life of wholeness? Where can you reach out and touch someone and be a healing presence and power in their lives? Where are the opportunities for you to serve someone who will know you love them by your service? Where can you be the Jesus that someone needs to meet?

The E-Team or Evangelism Team has made valentines for everyone here today. Please take a few from a HOST as you leave worship today. These valentines are a gesture of love from the Northminster family to its members and to the community. They are a symbol that love is not just romantic, but is an act of Christian kindness. Who knows, just by giving one of these valentines to someone you could improve his or her day through an unexpected gesture of caring.

I once had a seminary professor who said that he thought God created human beings to do the work on earth that God could not do. If we see someone crying, we can put our arm around him and offer comfort. If we see someone hungry we can make a sandwich and feed her. We can do the tangible things that God cannot do. We can be the hands and feet of God and the healing presence of Jesus in a world that is really hurting right now in so many ways.

Jesus came to serve and to give his life for all. The woman whose name we don't even know realized this. She responded to be being touched, loved and healed by acting as a servant. This is what the kingdom of God looks like-touching, healing, loving and serving. She shows us the way. Thanks be to God.


A great deal of this sermon is taken from the Christian Century's "Reflections on the lectionary" for Sunday, February 8, by Lawrence Wood. Quotes 1 and 3 are from this article.

Some of the ideas for this sermon and quotes 2, 4 and 5 are from Feasting on the Word-Year B - the 5th Sunday after the Epiphany-particularly the "Pastoral Perspective" by P.C. Enniss.


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