Sometimes I preach. People always seem surprised by this. Possibly because I always verge on saying the sacrilegious thing—possibly because (to my mother’s chagrin) I have no filter when it comes to my language. Most the time I write my sermons in a bar (and if you know me you know the bar) where the owner always gets a kick out of me preaching and sometimes reads over my shoulder as a write. But I preach. And I did. On my body in fact. Which was strange. But after a very long month—here is August’s fulfillment of my New Year’s resolution—another a stranger resolution—to preach on healing.
New Years resolutions. We make them. We break them. We forget about them, until January, 1 rolls around again and in our failure we make them again. That is unless you—I—fatefully tell Catherine your New Years resolution. Because you told her that your resolution this year was to figure out how to preach on healing—to preach from one of the healing passages. She emails your pastor saying you are going to preach. Because she believes that much in your resolution. Because you yourself are trying to figure out how to exist as a body that is sick and a body that believes in God. Because well—because she and I, and maybe we here together, are trying to hold onto this wily faith. And I tell you all this because now here dances the line between preaching good news and dealing with the personal. Then why shouldn’t it? Healing remains nothing but an act of the utmost personal. Whether you watch someone else heal. Or you are healed yourself.
When Bible stories were read to me as a child I took them literally. All you need is the faith of a mustard seed to move a mountain. I went to my first grade school library and looked up how big a mustard seed was. Tiny. Incy-wincy. Not much faith at all. So if you needed that little faith to move a mountain, you probably needed less to move a hill. Mom found me outside after school staring at the tree-lined hills that surround our house yelling, “Move!” After a long explanation about metaphors, I concluded they suck and that sometimes I wanted for a more literal Jesus. Like one who when we pray for a mountain to move would actually move it. Or when we pray for healing—heals.
This became more true after Dad’s MS put him in the hospital and then home care for a while. At the wizened age of 14 I already assumed that the miracles wouldn’t happen. I could pulp the words of our holy scriptures into a paste and apply it directly to his body—as a healing ointment—nothing would change. I could blend them into the solution I learned to inject into his IV every night and their greatest power would be giving him ink poisoning. I overheard the many people who came in and out of our house, placing hands on him in prayer—nothing happened. And I resented every last one of them.
And then it was my turn to become the patient at 15—to partake in the family tradition of chronic disease. Dad taught me how to enter the temples of the high priests of Science. He taught me how to give freely the offerings of my blood and tissues. I took their potions and subjected myself to their wishes. My dad taught me how to find hope in their multicolored-and varied-viscous substances I swallowed, injected, infused. And when that was done Mom would take Dad and me before any pastor or priest who would pray. I developed acne on my forehead from being anointed with oil so many times. I resented them all.
I resented the doctors and their vague answers, the unquenchable desire for more data and test. I resented the nurses who lied and said this wouldn’t hurt. And more so I resented everyone who tried to touch my body to pray—their breathy words falling from their mouths onto my head with vague condemnation of my own sin. I resented their platitudes about looking pretty—becoming a fine young lady “despite.” They questioned how I would go off to college or insinuated that all I needed was to hold out for someone to care for me—“a man.” I resented every sermon that used physical healing as a sterilized life lesson to understand something deeper about God’s love or wisdom. And if there ever was a puddle to be sitting next to, one in which the waters would be stirred up to sooth this body—I felt as though I had no means of getting there.
And time’s movement has provided some wisdom nuggets—watch carefully who is holding anything labeled “holy oil,” it’s alright to be picky about community, it’s ok to tell nice church people no thank you when they ask to pray over you. But as of yet the fear and anxiety of this space with an “unhealed” body has yet to find a quelling. Even as I sit here I am feeling all the ways that my body in this pulpit is different than the bodies who preached the last couple weeks, and those bodies who will stand here in the weeks to come. Sitting feels vulnerable. Feeling my heart speed up and slow down feels vulnerable- I hope not to pass out. (If I do, just get me some salt water?).
And I feel all this because we have a tradition that loves healing. We have a holy text that loves healing—infused within its words are dusty, sweaty, magnificent bodies. Bodies that move and live and speak and act. Bodies that get sick and die. Bodies that are raised from the dead and are healed. A scripture that invites our bodies to clasp the text and move within and around its words. And we wrestle so deeply with so many of those words that require our bodily actions. To place the words on our tongues and feel them form in our mouths and speak them aloud together.
But healing—healing confounds.
I am not talking about healing in the metaphorical sense. That way we talk about healing apart from the body—that kind of healing that TV preachers who write New York Times best sellers talk about. Where it’s really not healing, but a bunch of self-help bull shit that makes pretty fire kindling. I am talking about blood and sinew stitching itself back together. Feeling the limits of our bodies—its strength; weakness, resilience, and precarity wrapped up into the same skin. The aches after that run where your muscles rebuild—the aches after that surgery when your muscle must learn to become one again. Because when Jesus’ body lived—when his body died—when Mary found his body outside a tomb, it was a body. A really real body—with skin pricks and splinters. At least for the Bible tells me so.
A man sat outside the gate by the pool of Bethesda
For 38 years he lived and tired within his body. Known not by a name, but by a serious of diagnoses. When his symptoms started he paid no attention—they were minor. Soreness and fatigue. Maybe the doctor’s tried really hard to diagnose him. Or maybe he avoided the doctor—afraid of the knowledge. Maybe he couldn’t afford the doctor. But whatever brought him to that—the Sheep’s Gate, the pool of Bethsaida, known for their healing, he lay there for 38 years. By a pool. With many others like him.
It remains unknown why the man named by diagnoses sits alone.
Perhaps he feared asking too much—he already felt the malignant rejection of relationships in which he was once so entwined, because his body was too much.
Perhaps he did have a friend here or there, but when symptoms arose—when his body revealed itself as ill—they did not know how to respond. They sent nice texts about how they missed him and wished he would hang out more. They tried to pretend his illness wasn’t there. So he took the hint.
The man of many diagnoses starts to hear the stirring around him. He pays no attention until an unfamiliar voice addresses him.
“Do you want to be made well?”
Stupid question—what does that mean, made well? The heavily diagnosed man contemplates that absurd question and responds with a reasonable answer—“That water over there, that would be so soothing, I can’t get to because I’ve got nobody.”
“Walk,” The unfamiliar voice replies.
Now clearly the text doesn’t say this, but I imagine the man of many diagnoses had an initial thought after that command— and it was “idiot.” Until he felt the neural fibers in his legs make his muscles twitch, which hadn’t happened in decades. And his eyes clouded with light and blurred figures. Healing. The man of many diagnoses now needs a name, because he no longer carried those illnesses in his body.
There was no one to lay him in the therapeutic water. No one. That part of the story sticks in my throat. He said, “I don’t have anyone to carry me.” More than the physical healing—that I find myself a wee bit jealous of—I can’t let go his response. It draws to mind that other Bible story of childhood about friends who so desperately wanted their pal to be healed that they dug a hole in a roof. And this man was surrounded by the people always coming in and out of these gates, and still no one to hold his body—no one to touch him, no one to offer such a small comfort, to lay him in the water for 38 years.
To have no one when everyone is present—when I read healing in this story, part of what I read is a healing from having no one. Maybe it’s my own experience with that profound kind of loneliness, where you are surrounded and untouched, or maybe it’s the way the healed man takes off running and the work of his body gives meaning to Sabbath (to rest). I imagine him running off to another community. Maybe even this one.
I don’t know what to do with a Jesus who claims God as healer—a Jesus who gives us healing in a holy text and leaves us with to reckon with our bodies. And while I (want to) hold God accountable for the ways we are left to feel our unhealing—our atomic fragility—I also thank God that in good measure we are not left to feel it alone. I thank God that I have found a community willing to work through the fears of touching awkward and fragile bodies. We are here to carry one another to the waters, to be those waters.
When I first moved to Durham and found this small community I had a series of ER visits. My first semester of div. school, it was just me and Jane the Cat trying to hold it together. It’s hard to put into words the weight of trying to hold it together and care for a body that at times even resists me, and the care I offer it. But you all without knowing me brought me groceries and invited me to dinner, making me meals to accommodated my ever-changing dietary limitations.
And if I am that one outside the gate—you came and held my body. You wept and swore and kicked the dust with me when it failed again. You picked it up and kissed it—unafraid of it. You fed me soup. You gave me wine. You let me nap on your couches when I couldn’t get home. What I have found here is a community that invited me into your waiting for healing.
If I have “good news” for you today, it’s that being unhealed is made easier by this place.
If I have a message for you: don’t be stingy with that love, and may invite those who need healing to wait with us.