One of my favorite novels is by Sherwood Anderson from 1919. It is named for the town where the action takes place— Winesburg, Ohio. This is the prototype American small town in the years immediately preceding WWI. Sherwood Anderson was, himself, a product of those days, and he was both a keen observer and a gifted storyteller of what he saw.
The model for the fictionalized Winesburg was actually Anderson’s own hometown of Clyde, near Sandusky. When his novel was published it didn’t sit well with the people there because some felt, and probably correctly, that many his characters were drawn from its actual residents. They weren’t flattered.
I went to Clyde on my sabbatical and walked the streets and looked at the storefronts, many of which were there were there when Anderson was. This book, which I’ve probably read 40 or 50 times over the years as well as taught, came alive for me in a profound way as I tried to transpose myself back a hundred years.
In reality Winesburg, Ohio is a series of separate stories with intertwining characters. The tales are reminiscent of the way that lives repeatedly cross in small towns. Anderson has the ability to search the souls of the people he writes about. Even in the space of a few pages we often come to know the secret self of that person. This intimacy is Anderson’s strength as an author and he influenced later writers such as Faulkner, Steinbeck, and Hemmingway.
One story in that book is that of a man named Adolph Myers, though in Winesburg he has the nickname of “Wing.” Someone pinned that on him because, whenever he got excited as he talked, he gestured like a bird in flight. Yet, the people of Winesburg knew little about him and nothing of his life before he arrived there some twenty years before.
Wing was always very conscious of his hands, so that when he caught himself being too expressive he would thrust his hands in his pockets to hide them. His hands seemed, at times, to have a life of their own and one that existed almost apart from him.
Many years before Adolph Myers had been a young schoolteacher in another state. He was liked and respected by his pupils. The author says of him that he was “meant by nature to be a teacher of youth. He was one of those rare, little-understood men who rule by a power so gentle that it passes as a lovable weakness.”
When he was engrossed in instructing a student it was natural for him to touch a shoulder or stroke the hair. We’re given to believe that it meant no more than kindly affection and nothing more. One day, however, an emotionally-disturbed boy received a gentle touch and embellished upon it with a vivid imagination.
Soon afterward a saloonkeeper came to the schoolhouse and beat the young teacher with his fists. That night others came to his home intent to further the harm, but the Adolph escaped into the darkness. He came to Winesburg by chance and there he stayed, unknown and friendless and never to teach again. Although he didn’t fully understand what had happened, he knew that his hands were the key to this mystery.
Touch is an expression of our relationship to others. It can convey the most loving of emotions or it can be destructive in its impact. The same hands that can cradle a child can also inflict pain and suffering. Hands that are capable of bringing life, can also take it away. Our hands manifest the very best of ourselves, but they can also show our very worst.
Our Gospel reading today tells of Jesus in the home of Lazarus, to whom he had restored life. During the meal Mary, sister of Lazarus and of Martha, does a most unusual thing. She brings a jar of expensive perfume and pours it on Jesus’ feet. With her gentle touch she spreads it across his skin. Then she wipes off the excess with her own long hair.
No wonder it catches Judas and the others off guard. What she does is extraordinary, especially for the time and culture in which she lived. A single woman didn’t touch a man other than her husband, nor did she loosen her hair in public—with one exception. Yet, here is Mary applying the ointment with great care to his skin. Others in the room may have been appalled at her breach of convention, but Jesus accepts her gesture and defends her.
The perfume is perhaps what is left over as Lazarus’ body was anointed for burial, a step in the preparation of a loved one who has died or is about to die. She offered a most tender act that mixed the tears of her sorrow with the soothing feel of the ointment.
So the rest at the table are taken aback at her inappropriate and confusing actions. Mary touches Jesus, not as a lover, but as if he is about to die. Her hair is unloosed as an expression of grief, for a woman’s hair could be undone in mixed groups only as a sign of mourning.
Jesus, instead of backing away, receives the overture from Mary while the jaws of the others drop all around the table. She alone realizes what they have yet to discern, which is that Jesus is soon going to his death. He will enter Jerusalem a few days later, then within a week will be executed because he is the Messiah.
I think it’s most interesting to note that women get but little space in the Gospels, perhaps because the books were all written by men in a paternalistic age; however, the women are often the ones who understand what is really going on while the men in the stories are oblivious to even the most obvious signs. So it is here. Mary is the one who sees into the future and reveals what is about to happen through her actions. The touch of her hands in this scene convey what she realizes better than she can express through words.
When we are most human we use touch as a means of expression. It’s a natural thing to do. In the weddings I perform I always have the couples hold hands as they make their vows. At that special moment they need to be connected to each other emotionally, spiritually, and physically. You really can’t promise your life and love to another while standing across the room. It’s a skin-to-skin moment if ever there was one.
When I visit in the hospital I usually try to be in physical contact with a person. Sometimes the members may not be able to articulate any words, but our touch is a way we have of connecting. This kind of contact is not sexual or suggestive; rather, it’s the meeting of two human souls in the most direct way possible. We are there, and together.
Touch, while it is truly one of God’s great gifts to us, must also be seen in its shadow side. When we exceed proper boundaries, or abuse the good it can produce, reaching out to another may be very negative. Not everyone is comfortable with being touched, especially from someone they don’t know well. Good intentions may be misinterpreted, so sensitivity is called for toward others.
Touching another can also make us vulnerable, even as Mary was vulnerable to the judgment of others. We can only determine how touch is given, but not how it will be received or seen. There is a risk. Yet, choosing to be safe by standing at a distance, especially in times of need, results in a failure to give what we are capable of providing to another.
“Wing,” the Winesburg man whose story we began with, was a victim of misunderstanding. His intentions were innocent, though perhaps a bit naïve. We have to show some ability to discern where and how we employ this powerful gift. We have to respect the boundaries that others may establish to protect themselves. We may need to ask permission to hug another or to cross the line of casual friendship in other ways. And that’s OK.
Some say that the eyes are the windows of the soul. If they are, then I think the hands must be the manifestations of the heart. For whatever it is we feel inside of us, it will be revealed through our hands—for good or for bad.
Hands, amazing hands, marvelous hands, creative hands, loving hands, hands in the service of humanity. Hands that link with others to witness for good. Jesus knew the power of touch—to receive it and to give it. And when we put ourselves into God’s hands, we discover that we can truly embrace the world—one person at a time.