In today’s lesson from John, Jesus asks a man who has been ill for 38 years if he wants to be made well. What is interesting is that the man doesn’t say “yes.” Instead, he makes excuses for why he is not yet well. “Sir, I have no one to put me into the pool when the water is stirred up; and while I am making my way, someone else steps down ahead of me.” He has been sick for 38 years, and yet he has not been able during that whole time to get himself into the waters that he believes will heal him? Hmm.
Do we do this? Sometimes it is hard to take the steps towards healing that we need to take. Sometimes we become used to the way things are, even if they are painful and difficult, and choosing to step forward into new life, into something different is so frightening that we simply cannot do it. Change is hard for all of us, even if we know it would be better for us in the long run. It is so hard that sometimes we are even willing to die with the way things are rather than changing things to what they might be.
I’ve mentioned to some of you before that I volunteered for a while on a crisis line for battered and abused spouses. And what I heard again and again was that despite the threat, not only to their bodies, but to their very lives, these women could not leave their spouses. They just couldn’t. Help was there – we had a secure and hidden shelter that led into retraining programs, job counseling, help finding places to live, therapy for the children and women, and legal help in getting divorces and restraining orders. But still, most of the women we counseled could not or would not leave their spouses. Even when their children were being threatened or harmed it was extremely difficult. And it wasn’t that they couldn’t leave because they were afraid of being hunted down. It also wasn’t so much that they loved their spouses, though sometimes this is the reason they would give. In my experience listening to these women it was more that the idea of change was so hard, the idea of trying something new was so daunting, they had gotten used to the life they had and just could not envision something different. Changing was too hard, too scary. But I think it was even more than that.
We hear about this in church communities as well. People say they want things to be different: they want more children and more young adults in the church, for example. But often times they aren’t actually willing to do anything that will change what they know even if it would successfully bring in those people. We say we want change, we want things to be different, but it is hard to be willing to make the changes that will make things different. One of my good friends is currently pastor of a congregation that is facing what many congregations are facing – his congregation is experiencing a slow atrophying death due to lack of growth and loss of financial support. They have explored the possibility of being a church without walls because it is their building that is costing them so much strain and difficulty. But again, they can’t do it. They would rather become what is becoming more and more known as a “chaplaincy church”, a church that has made the decision to stay the same and to simply die out rather than trying something different. Another friend was pastor of a church that was in the process of joining with another congregation and made the decision to close instead. It was easier to close than to envision being church with other Christians, other Presbyterians, other... And again, we ask, what is that really about?
In the passage from Luke we have a story in which 10 lepers are begging for Jesus’ help, but when he heals them all, only one returns to give thanks. Our first tendency on hearing this story is probably a bit of righteous outrage. Why wouldn’t they thank Jesus for turning their lives around? For saving them? For healing them? We can imagine these people today, as modern day lepers – those whose lives have been consumed by their “illness” or situation. Today those “lepers” might be drug addicts, prostitutes, people from the middle East, homeless persons, people with a mental illness like schizophrenia, gang members, ex-convicts, immigrants, Muslims – in other words, anyone who might make us feel uncomfortable or who we might fail to see as anything other than their condition, situation or other quality, or fail to include because of one of these aspects: those would be today’s lepers. We can imagine what it would be like if Jesus came to them today and offered them healing. He would be offering to them a place back in society, he would be offering them acceptance once again into their communities. Why would anyone not want that? Why would anyone not be grateful for that? The ten lepers in today’s passage were healed. Shouldn’t they be grateful?
The question is, what makes these changes, even these really positive changes, so hard to embrace, to accept, and to be grateful for? I think at the deepest level, at the deepest level, we come to accept what is into our beings in a way that not only becomes familiar, but actually comes to define who we are. Our very identity becomes mixed up with those things that are part of our lives, or that are part of our daily living. We do this to other people and we do it to ourselves. Whenever we refer to a person by a label we are doing this. I saw a sign in a women’s restroom recently that said, “be aware of purse snatchers”. And it struck me that by calling them “purse snatchers” we claim that as the whole of their identity. It wasn’t “be aware of people who snatch purses.” It was “be aware of ‘purse snatchers’.” That, then, is who they become for us. They aren’t mothers or fathers who are potentially in need. They aren’t people who are struggling like us, to find their way. They aren’t people who have lives outside of snatching purses. They aren’t children of God. Instead they are “purse snatchers.” We can do this with anyone with whom we are uncomfortable. People without homes become “bums”. People who struggle with addictions become “addicts”. People who join gangs become “gang members” or “juvenile delinquents” or “thugs”. It becomes their identities. For us, and even for them.
In both of today’s gospel lessons, it wasn’t just that others had applied these labels to the “lepers” or those who were sick. The people in today’s stories applied those labels to themselves. Jesus actually didn’t. He refers to them as “people with leprosy”, “people with disease”. My guess is that their identity, though, became tied in to their illnesses, to their struggles, to their societal labels. Is it any wonder, then, that these things that defined them would be hard for them to give up? Who are we when things change? For the battered and abused spouse, who is she once she leaves her home? She is no longer the married woman, she is no longer living in the same house with the same friends or company. Often an abusive spouse separates his or her partner or spouse from his/her support system, so often the person who finally has the courage to leave is left with no other support people to ground them, to care for them. Who, then, do they become? Sometimes there is no choice about this change in identity, but that doesn’t mean the change in identity is any easier. A spouse dies and we are no longer “the wife” or “the husband” of so and so. Instead we get a new identity “widow” or “widower”. We get divorced and for the rest of our lives on the forms we fill out, we are not “married” or even “single” anymore, but “divorced.” We get a new identity, one that is not so very attractive.
In the movie, Pleasantville, the characters are stuck in sameness, in black and white, in a life that is calm, expected, “pleasant”, but in a life that is also uninteresting and not lived to fullness. They are “languishing” or failing to live life deeply, to live a life that has any excitement or real meaning in it. But things begin to change in Pleasantville and some people begin to live with passion, with intensity. With it, though, their identities change. And that change in identity is shown as they become “colored” – or rather, they go from being black and white to having the normal colors that we associate with life, with living. This becomes extremely threatening to many of the people to whom the old identity is so important that they cannot face the possibility of change, even when it means adding passion and interest, real LIFE to their living. They cannot do it.
This is what happens in both of today’s stories. Jesus comes and offers healing to the one man in John. And that man has all kinds of reasons why he has been unable to accept healing. But my guess is that it is a deeper issue for him. He has been sick for 38 years. Who will he be without his illness? Who will he be if he is really cured? It is easier to come up with reasons to not step down into the water, to find reasons why he hasn’t been able to do it than it is to take the step that means his life will be completely changed. His life would be changed for the better, we know, but he may not be so sure. Who will he be? And the same for the lepers who were cleansed. Why did they not return to give thanks? Well, my guess is that for some of them, they weren’t thankful. Maybe the gifts they thought they sought came to them and they realized they no longer knew who they were or how they would be after the healing.
Still, Jesus doesn’t leave us there. We are challenged to grow, we are challenged to heal, we are challenged to find new ways of being in the world. The man in John never said to Jesus that he wanted healing, but Jesus gave it to him anyway. The lepers said “Have mercy on us” which was the phrase used to ask for alms. They, too, were not actually asking for healing. The gifts of healing, the gifts of challenge and change may change our identities, or rather our sense of who we are. But God loves us too much to leave us with identities that are less than wholly who we are called to be. God loves us too much to leave us without opportunities to work towards healing. God loves us too much even to leave us “comfortable” when God can bring transformation, shalom, and wholeness. Will it be hard? Of course. But it will be healing. And it will bring us closer to the whole people God calls us to be. Amen.