There were two men who found themselves on the edge of the city that day. The first was a leper. He assumed his usual place on the outskirts of the city gate. It was going to be another hot day by the time the afternoon arrived, so he positioned himself strategically next to the last olive tree in the neighboring garden… just enough so the shade would lean in his direction during the hottest hours of the afternoon.
Every day was the same. To sit and to wait. Sometimes it would be his sister or his cousin, who would come with that look on their faces – a mixture of embarrassment and sadness and fear. And they would toss him some kind of food. On a lucky day – also some kind of comfort – a blanket or a new shirt.
But most days, he would sit and wait for the kindness of a stranger – someone who had come from the market and would toss something his way.
Years had gone by this way. It started with the first lesions on his arms. His mother, as advanced as her eyesight was, had known what it was and preparations were made immediately to move out of the house – to leave the only family he had known and to live on the streets, on the edge of the city. Away went his normal clothes, replaced by the tattered uniform of a leper. At first, he could still go and gather food for himself in some of the fields, but as the disease spread to his hands, his feet, his face, as his hands began to curl together and his nose began to collapse – the work of gathering food became nearly impossible.
It had been years since he had seen many of his family, most were too ashamed to come near – and even longer since he had felt the warmth of an embrace, or even the touch of a hand. And in case anyone might come too close or too near, he would have to yell – “Unclean! Unclean!” Outcast and alone. This was his life.
And so he would sit on the edge of the city and he would watch the people come in and out of the city walls.
Most people walked by as if he was not there. When they did look, their looks were filled with disdain, and fear, and judgment.
The second man was a local merchant.
He passed by these gates nearly every week. He was a man of means, for he wore clothes of linen, in fine bright colors. His sandals were sturdy and new and he walked slowly, standing tall and upright, as if each step were taken with thoughtful intention and great dignity.
It was clear that the people in the town knew who he was, for when they came near they would bow their heads in acknowledgement and respect.
Unlike the others, this man did not pass by the leper without looking at him.
He never spoke, but his eyes would look across the road.
And as he gazed upon the leper,
In the merchants eyes was a great sadness, a heaviness, as if he carried in his tall upright shoulders a great burden that no one could see.
And as he passed the leper and met his gaze - he would nod his head.
An acknowledgement even that he also knew something of pain.
Some of us wear our pain and suffering on the outside. But some of us bury it far below – far beneath the surface where no one can see it.
That morning outside the city, both men could hear the hubbub in the air – the people were buzzing about – for the teacher, the prophet, the rabbi – Jesus of Nazareth was headed this way. Both had heard of him and of course, had heard the stories – the stories of lives changed, the stories of forgiveness granted, and most important – the stories of miraculous healing.
The first man felt an excitement – maybe, just maybe – this man – this Jesus could help him. Could heal him even.
It was a desperate long shot – but what did he have to lose?
He knew that Jesus would have to pass by the place where he was in order to enter the city. And so he waited, until he saw him coming – and then he threw himself into the street, literally blocking Jesus’ path and begged him. Please, help me. Sir, if only you will make me CLEAN.
Even though he had asked, he hadn’t really expected this response.
To touch a leper is to become unclean yourself. To risk getting leprosy yourself.
To be cast out of the city yourself for the fear that you would spread it to others.
Jesus would have to present himself to the priest to be declared clean himself.
Without hesitation, this man, this teacher, this prophet – this Jesus – reached out his hand.
And he TOUCHED him.
He touched him. For the first time in years, someone had touched him.
And he said simply. “I will. Be clean”
It happened in an instant, but the shock of what was happening seemed to move the scene in slow motion.
But he had touched him and the lesions had gone away. The curvature of his hands had lightened – his nose returned to its normal form.
Go – directly to the priest he had said. And be declared clean. Make your offering of thanks.
“Your cleansed and obedient life will bear witness to what you have done.”
And he does. With joy, he goes immediately.
The merchant had gathered along with others in the crowd to see what was happening – to see this great miracle that was happening before his eyes.
The man – who he passed by each week at the city gates – the leper was clean. The lesions were gone, the stories were true. This Jesus – was a healer indeed.
And for a moment, just a moment, he wanted to cry out – to fall himself on the ground and say – Jesus – heal me as well. Heal the hurt and the pain and the anger and the fear.
Heal me as well.
Heal my broken heart, my anxiety and my lack of confidence – heal me of the ways I cannot love and the ways I cannot forgive.
Heal me as well.
But the crowds surrounded Jesus – and the moment passed.
There were others crying out for Jesus’ attention – and Jesus soon stole away to be alone himself with God.
And the man, well dressed as always, returned to his village walking tall and dignified, carrying the weight of the world.
I have always really loved this story for a number of reasons. I love the ways that Jesus crosses these incredibly rigid cultural boundaries that were firmly in place at the time. I love that he touches this man and is willing to make himself unclean in the process. I love that he does it in front of everyone. And uses the words, “I am willing.”
It’s a beautiful story of compassion and healing. A reminder to us of the abundance and availability and limitlessness of God’s grace and love for all people.
And yet – when I read this story, I’ve also had trouble finding myself in the story.
I’m not really the leper.
I don’t know the great pain of isolation, or physical suffering that leaves me helpless and dependent on others.
I don’t know the experience of judgment and rejection from so many others.
And I’m definitely not Jesus.
I may be a pastor, but my default mode isn’t to go to the places where the poorest of the poor live. To reach out and touch them. To try and heal them.
The truth is – in the story – I am the observer.
The tall dignified man or woman who watches the scene and wonders whether Jesus can also heal the wounds that are less visible.
Because while we do not wish for people to know. All of us know something of pain and struggle and hurt.
All of us carry that within us – but not where others can see.
And as an observer, I cannot help but ask myself the question – what can I learn from this man – who knelt before Jesus in desperation saying “Please, heal me.” If you are willing.
A man who is willing to acknowledge the hurt and the pain and the struggle
To be vulnerable – and to seek the God who can begin the process of healing.
A process that he is powerless to begin on his own.
The man who was healed of leprosy wasn’t healed overnight – everything in his life – the pain and suffering of years, wasn’t instantly gone.
When he came, utterly vulnerable and exposed – knowing that Jesus was his only hope. That’s when the healing began.
Today we are going to have a special time of anointing. Anointing has long been a practice of healing. A physical reminder that we can bring our pain and struggle before God and find that God’s presence is with us – working to heal the pain within.
So, I invite you to come forward to share what it is that you would like prayer for and to receive the anointing presence and healing of the Holy Spirit.
Whether your pain and struggle are things that are easily visible on the outside or whether you carry them deep within – in a place where no one can see.
We invite you to come.
Right where you are.