There is a concept in story-telling called the liminal space. It is an in-between space: you are between one place and another, or one stage of life and another. And things are always a little weird in a liminal space. It’s not quite like the first place, but you’re not all the way to the second place, either. It’s a strange mix of both, or even something else entirely. Passing through a liminal space leaves one changed.
To give one example: in a fantasy series I read called the Abhorsen Trilogy, there are two kingdoms. One is magical and one is not, and the two are separated by a wall. Around this wall, things are a bit weird: sometimes magic works, and sometimes it doesn’t. Sometimes technology works, and sometimes it doesn’t. It is an in-between space, a bit of both.
And this is why, in stories, things so often happen while the characters are traveling. They meet a talking squirrel, or receive a prophecy, or simply discover more about themselves. It’s because they’re traveling between two spaces; they’re in between.
Now, I’m not trying to become a literature professor. I bring this up because our gospel reading today features Jesus in an in-between space. The very first line of the story tells us that Jesus was “On the way to Jerusalem” from his previous ministry in the countryside, and “going through the region between Samaria and Galilee.” Jesus in between two places when the story starts: between the first stage of His ministry in Galilee, and the more confrontational ministry that He undertakes in Jerusalem. He is also physically between Galilee and Samaria. Galilee, of course, is where Jesus is from: familiar territory, where He knew a lot of the people, spoke the same dialect as them and probably had the same traditions. And Samaria is the opposite: it was almost enemy territory inside Israel. Samaritans worshiped differently than Jews did, without the focus on the Temple, and they were considered “half breeds”; whether it’s true or not, it was said that Samaritans were descended from Jews who married Gentiles after the exile.
Jesus, then, is in a liminal space. He is in between one space and another.
And that’s reflected in what Jesus encounters. Ten lepers approach Him–or, they come as near as they can, anyway. As lepers, they were required to keep their distance from all other humans to avoid infecting anyone, and they cry, “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!” from a distance. Lepers, too, occupy an in-between space, although not by choice as Jesus does. Rather, they are isolated from all human contact but not banished completely from Israel. They see their family and friends, their cherished traditions continuing around them but are unable to participate. So Jesus’ healing restores them to community, to everything they were unable to touch or be near while they were sick.
And here’s where things start to get really weird. Turns out one of the lepers was a Samaritan–despite everything I said earlier, despite how deep-seated such hatreds run, this Samaritan man was traveling with these Jewish lepers. This is strange, even unimaginable. Perhaps they were all so hungry for human contact that they didn’t care about ages-old feuds. But they were traveling together, whatever the reason. And it is this one man, this man who isn’t even Jewish, who turns back to Jesus, who worships Him and praises Him and thanks Him for the miracle of healing. The Jews–the one Jesus explicitly came to save–don’t turn back. They continue on their way, happy to have been healed.
Remember, Jesus didn’t reach out to touch these lepers. He didn’t speak words of healing. He didn’t even promise healing; all He did was to say, “Go and show yourselves to the priests.” Now, this may imply healing; the Law was that anyone who had been healed of leprosy then went to the priests, who certified that the person had been healed and that it was safe for them to join the community again. That is, by going to the local synagogue to find a priest, all ten of them are showing faith in Jesus. They are trusting that they will be healed by the time they step foot in the synagogue or found a priest.
But once he is healed, the Samaritan who is no-longer-a-leper disobeys Jesus. He turns back; he returns to Jesus, praising God and thanking Jesus. And like I said, things are weird in liminal spaces; Jesus is not upset with this man for disobeying Him. He instead praises his faith, and is upset with the other nine men, who did not come back to Jesus full of praise and thanksgiving once they were healed.
So, here in this in-between space, we discover a few things about Jesus. One, He longs to heal us and make us well. This doesn’t always mean physical healing, although sometimes it does. But Jesus wants us to be well and whole and full of reasons to praise God. Two, sometimes blind, literal obedience is not what God is asking of us. Sometimes it’s better to pause, and praise God, and worship–to put a hold on obedience and just rejoice. Just be with Jesus. The local synagogue, the command, the place we’re being sent to will still be there when we’re done. Or maybe it was just the journey that was important, and it’s time to go somewhere else; maybe the Samaritan man never went to the synagogue, only went home to his family and friends and traditions that he could take part in again at last. And three, sometimes Jesus doesn’t make sense. Jesus is God, after all, and God is mysterious and strange and unexpected.
That’s the beauty–and the frightening thing, too–about liminal spaces. We learn new things; we see God in new, expanded way, and we are healed, and we grow in ways we never would have expected.
So, if you are in between today, in between how things were and how things will be, in between an old relationship and a new, in between an old and a new understanding of God or church or yourself, or in between any two things, take comfort in this: new things grow in the in-between space. New, beautiful things sprout in uncertainty, in questions, and God is the one who nourishes them, because God is there, too, in every in-between space, guiding us and offering spaces for worship.
Alleluia, and Amen.