The Reverend Robin Sims-Williams
During my training for ministry I had a placement with the chaplaincy team at the local Mental Health Hospital outside Cambridge. I was placed on a low-security ward where I was simply to spend time on the ward with the clients. Almost all of the clients had been sectioned, some for their own protection, some to ensure they took suitable treatments, some because otherwise they would be in jail. The matron was a formidable woman, who cared deeply for every client on the ward. She explained to me when I first arrived that she met with each person in her charge before they were accepted onto the ward. In every case she looked for something in them which she could love. It was based on this paradigm of love and compassion that the ward was run.
Much like for a parent, flowing from this unconditional love and compassion was a willingness to support and encourage those in their charge to aspire to whatever they wanted to achieve. This wasn’t without it’s dose of realism - if somebody described a wish to become a doctor, the staff would help them to think about what they would need to do next in order to make that ambition a reality. This combination of realism and unconditional support helps us each to reach for unlikely goals, even once the individuals who offered that support aren’t around anymore.
A willingness to take a chance and try is so important. Being able to make mistakes and learn from them is so important to achieving our goals. This is really painfully obvious when you are learning something new. If you are so afraid of making a mistake, then it becomes so difficult to learn. This is really obvious to maths teachers who I’ve spoken to - children who put their hand up and tried to answer the question, but got it wrong, were far more likely to learn.
When I was at Airbus I was one of a group of Engineers who volunteered to spend our lunchtime playing maths based games in a local primary school. Kids who were really struggling but could be convinced to commit to a lunchtime a week, were paired up with us. Over a 7 week half-term the progress not only in their maths but in their confidence to try was clear.
Today we have the telling of the healing of the 10 lepers. There are so many stories of Jesus’ healing in the Gospels we can gloss over them. Jesus is travelling and 10 lepers approach, keeping their distance they ask for help. Jesus has compassion and heals them, telling them to go and show themselves to the priests to be declared clean. Only one returns, a Samaritan, and lies down at Jesus feet to thank Jesus for healing him, before being told:
“Get up and go on your way; your faith has made you well.”
It would be easy to read this Gospel as talking about foreigners… a reminder that even somebody who wasn’t born in the country deserves compassion and will recognise how lucky they have been to receive care from God, or even on the NHS.
But even though Jesus describes the as such, Samaritans aren’t foreigners, foreigners were protected by the law, they could enter the temple into the court of the Gentiles. Samaritans weren’t even allowed that far in. To the Jewish people of Jesus’ time they were the great heretic - the outcast. As if being a leper wasn’t bad enough, here we have a character who is both a Samaritan and a leper - talk about persona non-grata. But this is the man who returns. This is the man who recognises Jesus as the author of his healing - the son of God.
Somehow in this exchange the meaning of the story sees a great narrative twist. Like at the end of the Sixth Sense when Bruce Willis’ character suddenly realises that the story isn’t just about him helping the boy, but it’s also about the boy helping him. I don’t want to spoil the movie, if you don’t understand what I mean - go and watch it.
At face value the story appeared to be about Jesus healing some lepers. But, it’s actually about the restoration of a divided people, one person at a time. It’s about realising that God loves and has compassion for us all, no matter what. And it’s about how that love can free us from our own personal prisons.
Much like the love the nurses at that Mental Health Ward helped free their patients from the confines of their mental health issues. And not unlike the way that a loving family can free a child from a fear of getting things wrong. It’s the kind of care we should have for one another. That accepts strongly held disagreements, but recognises our humanity, our nature as God’s children is more important. The kind of love that should set us free, in the knowledge that we are not alone.
The Samaritan realised he’d been healed by a loving God, who loved the world so much he became human and went about among us, in hope that we would be freed by our faith in God. Faith in a God whose nature is to have compassion for each of us.