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Ten green bottles…

I’ve written this for my sermon today, it’s the story of the ten lepers who were healed by Jesus where only one came back to say thankyou.  I started wondering what it would be like to tell the story from the perspective of one who didn’t go back to say thanks.

Simple costume (towel headband, no stole) to identify character

It’s hard, being caught in the middle like that. Neither one thing nor the other.  We used to joke about it! We had to joke about it, we would have just given up otherwise.  There were ten of us, ten outcasts, ten refugees, ten…nobodies. Ten green bottles, went the joke – which of us would fall first?

I remember when I first realised what was happening. The rash which led to the stares which led to the avoidance, which led to the exile.  I had been happy, I had a good job, a lovely family, it was all taken away so quickly.  The problem is that once you’ve got that label you can’t shift it. That’s how they define you – you’re an outcast, an untouchable, one of “them”  So we had to stick with our own kind, our new own kind.

There were ten of us, some from Galilee, some from Samaria and we hung about in the scrubland between the two regions.  They hated each other so not many people crossed between them which suited us just fine.

The great irony is that before all this I had treated the Samaritans just like my people were now treating me!  I’d kept my distance, I’d told jokes behind their backs, even laughed about ‘Samaratianitis’ being infectious. Now that I think about it I was proper horrible to them.  The Samaritans in our group are just normal people, once you get your head round the accent they’re no different from the rest of us.  So there we were, ten nobodies, living a half-life in no-mans-land.  Ten green bottles, waiting to fall.

Then we started to hear the rumours. Rumours of a healer, Rumours of a Rabbi who wasn’t afraid, Rumours of a way out.  Now these kind of rumours fly around our community all the time so you have to take them with a pinch of salt – people with no hope will take whatever crumbs of hope they can get.  But these rumours wouldn’t go away so, without anything better to do, we kept an eye out for this itinerant young Rabbi.

One day the ten of us were sat in the dust, trying to find whatever shade we could behind the old wall when we saw movement in the distance.  There was someone coming towards us, heading South towards the village. I’m sure he spotted us about the same time we spotted him but, unusually, he didn’t turn away.  He just kept plodding on through the heat towards the village.  When he got close enough to hear us we began our usual begging routine: “Spare some change mate?”

Now usually there are three types of responses to this.  Some chuck a few coins towards us before scuttling past, some look guilty but walk on by anyway, and some just walk past like we weren’t even there.  This guy was different, he didn’t ignore us but he didn’t get any money out either. He just…stood there, like he was waiting for us to say something.

What was that Rabbi’s name? Joshua? Jairus? Jesus! “Jesus!” We called out. He smiled.  “Jesus! Master! Have mercy on us!” we cried, like our lives depended on it, which, I guess, they did. “Have mercy!”  He took a step forward. Instinctively we took a step back.  “Go!”, he called out. Our hearts began to sink. I’m not sure I could cope with yet another disappointment. “Go…and show yourselves to the priests”.  We all knew what that meant, the priests were the only ones who could say that we were better, say that we were no longer unclean, no longer outcasts, exiles, refugees.

Excitedly I looked at my hands, expecting them to be miraculously better but…they weren’t.  How many hours, how many long, angry hours had I stared at those scars, willing, wishing, praying for them to disappear, all to no avail. And now it was like those same scars were draining away the surge of hope I had felt. How could I show myself to the priests looking like this? They’d laugh me back out of town!

“Go on”, he urged, more gently this time, “go and show yourselves to the priests”.

To turn and make that first step was about the hardest thing I’ve ever done. They talk about stepping out in faith but I’m not sure how much faith I had left by this point.  It was more a case of stepping out in desparation but I managed it and once I’d taken that first step the second seemed a little easier.

I heard my mates just behind me so I inched ahead. If we were doing this then I was going to be first. Soon we were all running full pelt towards the village where we knew there was a little synagogue.  As I ran I felt my muscles getting stronger, I felt my fists clench tighter, I felt more alive than I had done in years! I didn’t dare look at my hands again, I couldn’t cope with another setback so I just concentrated on running and let the wind do its work.

When we finally made it to the synagogue we banged on the door and as the priest opened it we tumbled inside.  I don’t know how he made sense of our ramblings but eventually he got the gist of it and, after inspecting each of us he pronounced us all clean.

Then he got some parchment and started handing us notes to confirm this. 1..2..3..4..5..6..7..8..9. Nine? But there were ten of us? Who wasn’t here? One of the samaritans. Maybe he’d gone the other way, into Samaria? No that wouldn’t make sense. Maybe he’d not been healed? No he was definitely with us. What had happened to him? I staggered to my feet and stuck my head out of the synagogue door.

In the distance I could see two figures. One was out on the road, walking slowly towards the village, the other was running away from the village towards him. As they met, the second figure threw himself on the floor at the feet of the first. In an instant I realised what was happening – he was saying thankyou! I had been so caught up in my own feelings I’d barely thought about thanking the man who had transformed my life!

I turned back to my friends in the synagogue and told them what I’d seen, said that we should go back and say thankyou as well but when I looked back towards the road he was gone. There was just the solitary figure of our companion making his own journey towards the synagogue.

My life was completely changed after that day. I went back to my home town, complete with my certificate proving that I was ok, that I was clean again.
I was welcomed back into my family, I got a new job, picked up the pieces of my life again. But I was never quite the same.

Whenever my mates started making fun of the Samaritans I’d make them stop, I’d tell them that we shouldn’t fear people just because they are different from us – we are more alike than you know.
Whenever I saw someone sleeping on the streets I’d stop and talk to them, look them in the eye.

And even from a distance I kept an ear out for news of Jesus.
I heard rumours that he’d been rounded up and killed by the Romans for associating with people like me. I heard even stranger rumours that he was seen alive again afterwards.

And although I never got to say thankyou to him in person I make sure that I never take what I have for granted. That I am thankful every day for the new life that God has given me.

A roof over my head, a meal in my belly, a hug from a friend – these have taken on a whole new meaning for me. They are no longer ordinary, everyday things.

They are blessings from God, who lifts up the downtrodden and comforts the brokenhearted.

Blessings from God who turns mourning into laughter and tears of sorrow into tears of joy.

Blessings from God, whose mercies are new every morning, even when the night has been long and dark.

And for that I will always be thankful.

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