The Gospel of Luke tells us a story in which Jesus heals ten people of leprosy — and only one comes back to thank him (Luke 17:11-19).
N.T. Wright begins his translation of this story like this: “As Jesus was on his way to Jerusalem, he passed along the borderlands between Samaria and Galilee.”
What are borderlands? What is a border? Well, obviously, a border is a location that separates two groups of people. We might imagine the demilitarized zone in between North Korea and South Korea: a 2.5-mile wide strip of land, protected by barbed wire fences, which humans have barely touched in 60 years. We might imagine the U.S.-Mexico border, where so many want a wall to go up. We might imagine simply the door we close to keep others out when we need our space.
So Jesus is passing through the borderlands that separate two groups of people. On the Galilee side are the Israelites, the Jewish people. This is the group to whom Jesus belongs. On the other side are the Samaritans: related to the Jewish people, but their ancestry had diverged, and now they had slightly different scriptures and a different holy site. The differences were enough to dig a deep, prejudice-filled division between the two groups.
The borderlands are where these two groups are divided; it’s also where they touch. And so when Jesus heals a group of ten lepers in the borderlands, at least some of them are Samaritans. We know this for sure because the one person — the only one — who says “thank you” was a Samaritan.
We can hear how unexpected that is in Jesus’ response to the Samaritan: “Is it really the case that the only one who had the decency to give God the glory was this foreigner?” And then he says something that must have been shocking to the Samaritan man: “Your faith has saved you.”
These two men come from two different groups of people who are fiercely divided because of differences in culture and faith. And yet here is Jesus, a Jewish holy man, telling a Samaritan man: “Your faith has saved you.”
The things that are meant to keep Jews and Samaritans apart — the border, the faith — Jesus turns them into means of connection.
Jesus welcomes “this foreigner” into what God is doing in and through the people of Israel: healing, blessing, connecting, loving. Where humans dug pits of division, God builds connection. That’s what God does.
“But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. For he is our peace; in his flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us.” -Ephesians 2:13-14
Many of us are really feeling our own “borderlands” these days. The pandemic has made our “bubble” of personal space wider. Some of us are returning to in-person school or work after over a year apart. Some of us are starting a new life in a totally new place. And these things can make our world seem full of borders and “foreign-ness.” They can make us feel separate and lonely.
All this is on top of the usual borders that divide us, whether we want them to or not; borders like race, class, gender, sexual orientation, career, faith…the list goes on.
When you find yourself passing along these borderlands in these first weeks of the school year, may the Holy Spirit remind you: God is full of the power, creativity, and compassion that turn our borders into places of connection. So go ahead — expect God to turn your lonely borderlands into the site of new community.
God, in Jesus you break down walls and heal divisions. When I feel lonely, separate, different, remind me that that can’t stop you from connecting me to you and to others. Encourage me when I pass through the borderlands, until I feel connected again. In Jesus’ name, Amen.
Sept. 1, 2021