You know how you can read something a hundred times and on the one hundred and first time something will pop out at you that you never really saw before? Every week I read through the lectionary texts in several different translations and I always read through the Gospel text in the original Greek. This week, something in the opening line really jumped out at me:
On his way to Jerusalem, Jesus passed through between Samaria and Galilee.
That is such a curious way for this story to begin. Where, exactly, is this space between Samaria and Galilee? On the map Samaria and Galilee butt right up against each other. There is and was a border that separated the two territories. There was also a very pronounced social, cultural and religious line in the sand separating the Jews of Galilee from the Samaritans of Samaria, a line of intense historical animosity. So what is the writer of Luke trying to tell us when he says that Jesus was passing between Samaria and Galilee?
As he entered a certain village, ten men with leprosy approached him but kept their distance and shouted, “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!” Jesus looked at them and said, “Go show yourselves to the priests.” And as they went, they were cleansed of their skin disease.
In Biblical times, leprosy was a catch-all term for a variety of skin diseases, especially those that created whitish patches of scaly skin such as atopic dermatitis or plaque psoriasis. White, scaly skin can also, however, be one of the first symptoms of true leprosy, what we now call Hansen’s disease, so in an age before microscopes, diagnostic tests and bloodwork, it made some sense to assume the worst when those scaly patches appeared.
The book of Leviticus dictated that persons with such as skin disease had to live outside the town. The leper laws in Leviticus required them to tear their clothes and mess up their hair to make themselves more easily identifiable, and they were required to wear a cloth mask or veil that covered from the upper lip to the chin. They were also required to carry a bell or wooden clapper and to cry out “unclean, unclean” to warn people not to get too close, because the law required them to keep a safe distance from everyone else. The Talmud said that the minimum safe distance was 6 feet, two cubits, on a normal day but 150 feet if it was windy.
These men with a skin disease begged Jesus for mercy from a distance. Their plea had to be loud enough to travel across the space between them and Jesus.
Jesus healed them, but he didn’t lay hands on them. He couldn’t. They were required by both religious and civil law to keep their distance, and in this particular instance, Jesus observed that law, too. The text doesn’t say anything about him praying for them. He simply said, “Go show yourselves to the priests,” which is what Torah required if they were healed. Their healing happened in the space between them and Jesus.
On the face of it, this looks like a simple, if somewhat unusual, story about healing. There is also the noteworthy gratitude of the one man who returns to thank Jesus and prostrates himself before him in an act of worship, so it can also a story about gratitude. But when we look closer, I think there is more to it than that.
I think that Luke is maybe trying to tell us something about the power and importance of betweenplaces, those places and times when we are in neither one place or the other but on the edge or verge of both.
Luke tells us that Jesus was passing through between Samaria and Galilee. Jesus is in a borderland, an in-between space that is both Galilee and Samaria, and at the same time really neither one.
The ten men with the skin disease were also in a between space. They were husbands, fathers, brothers living at a distance from those they loved most in order to keep them safe. They were living on the outskirts of the village, living on the margins of the community in that space where the village ended and the wilderness began. More relevantly, they were also living in that thin space between life and death.
Because their disease had excluded them from all other society, they formed their own small community, Jews and Samaritans bound together by their common affliction in a space where the cultural animosity and antagonism of Jew versus Samaritan was not only irrelevant but could threaten their survival.
Every border, every territorial boundary, no matter where it is, is a testament to conflict. It is a reminder that at some point in history one group of people behaved aggressively against another group of people. Every border is a monument to our human failure to make peace with our differences, a testimony that the space between us is often filled with anger and fear.
When borders are rigidly drawn and vigorously enforced, they sharpen the divide and highlight the differences between the people on one side or the other. They intensify the “otherness” of those who are not from our side of the line, and that, in turn, can stimulate suspicion and fear. When borders are porous and less strictly enforced, however, they become a zone of cross-pollination and fusion between cultures, a place where ideas and feelings are shared, a place where transformation is possible.
The borderlands, the between spaces, are places where meaningful change is apt to happen.
Twenty years ago, Stuart Kauffman, a researcher in theoretical biology and complex systems, proposed a new theory to explain how organisms and systems adapt and become more complex. He called his theory Adjacent Possible Theory or “APT-ness,” and he has suggested that the “adjacent possible” is such a powerful dynamic that it could be considered the fourth general law of physics.
Adjacent Possible Theory suggests that at any given moment there is a space of untapped potential around every complex system—around every organism, around every person, around every institution. That field of untapped potential in the adjacent possible is actually a new field of energy that powers change and transformation.
In other words, you are surrounded by an energizing halo of possibility.
Think about your living room. Most of us have the same furniture, placed in the same spots, for years at a time. When the house gets crowded on game days or holidays, you know where people are going to end up, what the traffic flow is going to be like, where there are going to be “traffic jams,” where the favorite spot to hang out always is.
Kauffmann’s law of the “adjacent possible” says real change takes place when you re-arrange the current configuration of things, opening up a new possibility for movement and matter. Rearrange your living room furniture, and see what happens. Without adding even one new chair or table, the whole feeling of the room is changed. People move about the room differently. They interact with others in new groups. The energy in the room flows in a new configuration. All that just by moving the furniture.
The Adjacent Possible, that halo of possibility is particularly potent in between spaces because the between space is adjacent to two or more differing realities or paradigms and draws energy from both. The “furniture” tends to be in flux.
In many ways the Church is in an in between space. We are in a time, a space, where we are no longer what we were but what we will be has not yet been revealed. The culture is moving us to the margins. We are in a space of transformation, the realm of the Adjacent Possible. The good news is that there is energy in that space, the energy to be made new.
In the original Greek text of Luke’s story of the healing of the ten men with the skin condition, there are three different words for the healing that takes place. The first word is katharizo. It means “to be cleansed.” Catharsis. This is what the 10 men experience as they leave Jesus to go to the priests.
The second word is iathei. It means “to be changed to an earlier, correct, or appropriate state.” To be restored. This is what the one grateful Samaritan experienced. He saw that he was restored.
The third word is sesoken, the active indicative form of sozo. It is often translated as saved, but it also means to be made well or whole. This is the word Jesus speaks to the Samaritan who bows before him in praise and gratitude and he says, “Your faith has made you whole.”
As a church and as a people, we are standing in an in-between place. We are in the borderland of the Adjacent Possible, surrounded by a halo of possibility for transformation.
If we open our eyes, our minds, our hearts to encounter Jesus in this in-between place, if we ask Christ for his healing mercy, then we, too, can experience cleansing, restoration, and transformation. We, too, can be made whole.
We are standing in a halo of possibility… and God is doing a new thing… in Jesus’ name.
Image: Ten Lepers by James Christensen