Illness often involves physical separation by its very nature. Someone who is sick may simply be unable to get around. It could be from physical weakness. It could be from pain. Even a temporary illness means not being able to get around. You’re lying in bed with the flu or some kind of fever and you hear other people downstairs or outside, and you feel not quite lonely but separate in a way that can be worse. Or maybe you are around people and some sort of ache or pain kicks in and that’s all you can think about. Conversation is going on around you and you try to follow what is being said, but you just can’t focus on anything but the throbbing in your left knee or the feeling that your back is about to spasm again.
A sense of isolation often accompanies depression. There’s a quotation from the songwriter Fiona Apple that’s all over the internet, but always as a quotation and never with a source or context, but it puts her experience of depression this way:
“When you're surrounded by all these people, it can be lonelier than when you're by yourself. You can be in a huge crowd, but if you don't feel like you can trust anyone or talk to anybody, you feel like you're really alone.”
The pain of isolation may be sharpened when it is not a symptom, but something imposed on someone who is already suffering.
At the time of Jesus, people who were afflicted with leprosy found themselves cut off from most human contact. It was a step that was taken for the survival of the entire community, but it was not done lightly or in a knee-jerk way.
The book of Leviticus assigns the care of public health to the priests. Chapters 13 and 14 give detailed instructions on how to evaluate whether a rash is just a temporary skin irritation or an indication of a more dangerous underlying disease, like leprosy, that could endanger not just the individual but everyone around them. The Law specified a temporary period of separation to allow observation before any kind of permanent exile was imposed. And before we condemn that step as uncaring or harsh, we have to admit that we still take same similar steps to prevent one person’s infection from turning into a general contagion. If you have ever gone to see someone in an isolation room at the hospital, you know what it is to use a gown and mask and gloves so that there is always some sort of barrier against infection. In extreme cases, ebola or Marburg virus, the isolation involves caregivers dressed in something like spacesuits.
The Law also made provisions for how to certify when a disease, specifically leprosy, might have somehow cleared up. When that happened, the person had to stay outside the settlement, for safety, and the priest would go to them to do an examination. There would be more waiting periods to ensure that the disease wasn’t simply in remission, but eventually the healthy person could return to regular life. When Jesus told these ten lepers,
“Go and show yourselves to the priests,” [Luke 17:14]
that is the process that he was sending them into. Jesus being Jesus, though, he rushes things. He sent them to the priest before they were healed. Luke says it was
“as they went, they were made clean.” [Luke 17:14]
They went from him in faith, not having seen the miracle, but acting on his assurance. There’s a whole sermon in that for another time.
One of their number, though, was a Samaritan. [Luke 17:16] Under normal circumstances, he and the other nine would have had nothing to do with one another. But if illness often separates people, there are times when it forces them together. There are stories throughout the Bible that include groups of lepers, people who, cut off from regular society, were pushed together by need. It was a matter of survival, and other considerations disappeared. If you cannot use your hands any longer, you are not going to quibble over the ethnicity of the person who is willing to lift your food to your mouth. If you cannot walk without pain, you do not care about social status when someone offers you a shoulder to lean on. And if you have been excluded from all that you have ever known – your home, your family, your work, your friends – there will be at least some shred of comfort that comes from the understanding of those who have shared the same loss.
Now this Samaritan man, one of the ten men healed by Jesus that day, was made physically whole, but could not show himself to the Jewish priests as he had been directed, since the stigma that they attached to his birth would keep them from having anything to do with him. He would be healed and could return to his family and his community, but would go through the process of reincorporation among them under the guidance of Samaritan priests (who shared the same scriptures on this point), and be expected by them to remain apart from the other nine who had been with him in his trouble. Friends were taken from him by his illness and friends were taken from him by his healing.
It’s all the more startling, then, that he returned first to thank Jesus, because he was a Jew. Or maybe he did that first so that no one could tell him not to do it. And it’s also startling on Jesus’ side, not only because he had dealings with a Samaritan – that happened more than once – but because he told this man,
“Get up and go on your way; your faith has made you well.” [Luke 17:19]
The official line would not have recognized this man as having faith or would have said that he had the wrong kind. Jesus saw someone who had already taken a chance on him, and Jesus was ready to return the favor.
Jesus saves. He did then, and he does now. Jesus saves on the basis of faith, which is not a matter of getting every religious ceremony correct or performing exactly the proper number of good deeds. Faith is trust. Faith is hearing the voice of someone who could rightfully and without a shred of hypocrisy send you away in tears but instead offers kindness and compassion that even common sense says is dangerous and inadvisable. Faith is being equally open and willing to take him as he is, so that when he says that he is the way, the truth, and the life, you’re ready to say, “Okay, then show me what kind of life you’re talking about.” All that business about forgiving our enemies flows from being forgiven. All that bit about turning the other cheek comes from knowing that he did that himself. And his promises about eternal life, even when age or accident or some sort of sickness finally does catch up with us? Faith means taking him at his word about that, too, with the added help that his other friends have given us of having seen him return to life himself.
That faith makes us well. I say that not because I have a lot of confidence in people who wave their hands around and then push someone backward shouting, “In the name of Jesus!” I say that because I have seen enough people with deeper problems than even the best doctors can address find a healing of the soul that comes just from the awareness that God is loving and merciful and on their side. John Wesley wrote:
“It is hard to find words in the language of men to explain all the deep things of God. Indeed, there are none that will adequately express what the children of God experience. But perhaps one might say that the testimony of the Spirit is an inward impression on the soul, whereby the Spirit of God directly witnesses to my spirit, that I am a child of God; that Jesus Christ hath loved me and given himself for me; and that all my sins are blotted out, and I, even I, am reconciled to God.”
 Cited in Reuben Job and Norman Shawchuck, A Guide to Prayer for Ministers and Other Servants (Nashville: Upper Room Press, 1983), 403.