2 Kings 5:1-14
October 11, 2015
Chilmark Community Church
Rev. Vicky Hanjian
A few years ago, our son had the experience of a sudden and frightening plummet from robust health into being in a hospital bed while literally dozens of practitioners teamed up to try to figure out what was wrong. Multiple tests, several different diagnoses over the period of several days, surgery, vague answers to dozens of questions – – – he had crossed the boundary from health to disease – – the boundary between wholeness and brokenness.
All of us will experience life in the borderlands between wellbeing and sickness at some point in our lives. That’s what happened to Naaman – a strong military leader in the service of the King of Aram – – a valiant soldier. The story doesn’t tell us how long he may have suffered with symptoms – perhaps he was too busy – – too engaged to pay attention. There are just the terse words “…he had leprosy.” It is a slave girl who starts the referral process when she says to Naaman’s wife “If only he would go see the prophet in Samaria – he would cure him!” To do this Naaman has to take a leave of absence from work so he goes to his boss, the King of Aram, and gets a letter of introduction to the king of Israel. As occasionally happens, the referral isn’t quite the right one. The king of Israel can’t do anything to help Naaman – and, indeed, feels like someone is trying to trap him by referring the leprous man to him. Enter Elisha, the prophet, who is willing to take on the case. Elisha gives Naaman a prescription: “Go and wash seven times in the Jordan and you will be cleansed” – -you will be OK.
And – again, as sometimes happens, Naaman is skeptical about the prescription – – even angry. What? No extensive treatment? No soothing ointments? No rituals? – – -Naaman wants a lot more drama from Elisha the Prophet – – not just a bath in a river far from home.
Curiously, it is the servants, again, who bring a bit of wisdom. “My father, if the prophet asked you to do some great thing to be healed – – maybe an expensive sacrifice or a huge donation to the king’s treasury – – wouldn’t you do it? All Elisha is asking is that you go bathe in the river seven times. Naaman follows the prescription and is healed of his skin disorder.
The story is a story of moving about in the borderlands between illness and health – – and it is about the grace that may inhabit those moments in life that constitute the boundaries that we cross when we get a diagnosis that requires life changing and life affecting treatment.
Long ago, in another life, I was a nursing student at a small community college in NJ. In an introductory course on how to interface with a patient in a hospital the class was asked to imagine what it would be like to cross the boundary into a foreign country. The first thing that would happen as we passed the boundary into this strange new world would be having our identity taken away and being given an impossible- to- remove -bracelet with a number on it. From then on, whenever we needed anything, that number would be our ID. Next –all our clothing would be taken and we would be given ill-fitting garments that would not keep us warm and indeed would not protect us from indignity. After a long uncomfortable wait, we would be prodded and poked by strangers who spoke in a language we would be expected to understand- – even though we had never heard it before. Terms like BP, and OR, and CBC and URI and UTI and MRI would fly rapidly around the room. Strangers would enter our rooms at any time demanding more information, extracting our blood, bringing us unpalatable food, asking us questions we had already answered for the fifth time. Getting our bodily needs met would depend on someone else’s schedule. Our nights would be punctuated by strange sounds and frequent unscheduled visits by another group of strangers. We had crossed the boundary from health to sickness.
Crossing the border, crossing some boundaries, can be a terrifying thing. One wonders how Naaman felt, having to go to a strange land, to obtain the services of a strange king only to be referred elsewhere to an equally strange prophet who told him to go take a bath!
Samaria and Galilee were traditional enemies. Jesus moved along the border between the two domains. Ten people with leprosy saw him and asked him for help. They were outside the boundaries of participation in family life, in social interaction, in meaningful employment. Their skin condition marked them as outcasts. It seems Jesus will see people without a referral. All the men ask for is compassion. Jesus ignores the social borders between himself and the 10 men. He flows into the space marked by the social boundaries and extends his loving and healing grace toward them. There is no account of any ritual, any sacrifice, any special incantations – – just “go and show yourselves to the priests” The difference between these 10 and Naaman, is that they go without question – — except for one – – the double outcast – -the leprous Samaritan who turns around to say “thank you.”
We might wonder why Jesus asks the one who turns “Where are the other nine?” –After all, aren’t they doing exactly what Jesus instructed? – – heading off to find a priest who will declare them cleansed and ready to be back in society again? We might imagine the 9 to be running toward the temple, overjoyed at the prospect of returning to normalcy again.
What is different about #10? What is different about the one who is outcast on many levels – – a mistrusted stranger in foreign territory, a traditional enemy on the wrong side of the border, a person with leprosy, a person without an identity grouped with others by their disease?
It may be that through the experience of living in the borderlands between health and illness, between enemy territories, between trust and mistrust,
#10 has learned to see the world differently. When we have to move back and forth in those strange border lands, we sometimes learn to experience life from a new perspective – perhaps at last seeing the gifts that may be encountered – – the gracefulness that might appear in the little things: The admissions clerk who calls us by name. The housekeeping person who asks after our comfort. The nurse who tracks down information for us. The physician who sits down and takes time to answer our questions in a language we can understand. When we are on the receiving end of these ever so mundane courtesies, we are also on the receiving end of compassion. We may feel more seen and heard and understood – our humanity is returned to us – – the boundaries begin to soften – – grace happens – we begin to heal. Most often, our healing and our return to wholeness is due as much to the graceful caring that emerges in unexpected places as it is to the drama of complicated tests and treatments implied by all those cryptic initials.
The borderland between two enemy territories is an unlikely place for healing and grace to happen. In real time, we witness daily the horrors, the risks, the fear, the pain and suffering that so many human beings endure in their attempts to make it through the boundaries from the brokenness of their lives to something more whole. Boundaries can be frightening, dangerous and difficult places.
Yet, that is where the story tells us that Jesus does his work of healing. Jesus meets us on the boundaries. Indeed, the powerful grace of God may do its best work in those uncomfortably ambiguous spaces in our lives where our future wellbeing is uncertain – – but like #10, we may have to learn how be able to feel and see that grace in action – to see what the Holy One is doing. And when we do, we are able to come back and say thank-you. We begin to heal – to become whole – in spite of the time we have spent in the borderlands of illness and pain and suffering.
We may not ever go back to who we were before crossing the boundary into illness, but we may return and be renewed in ways we could not have imagined. A kind of death and resurrection happens. It can be amazing – – but this is the way grace works. May we have the eyes and ears and the heart to see it and give thanks.