Let’s catch up. There was Christmas, the Feasts of St. Stephan and St. John, the horror of Holy Innocents, (not over yet. Think U.S./Mexican border), and we have Circumcision and Epiphany yet to go. But now it is just plain “Saint” Monday. Let’s look at 1 Kings 17:17-24 and John 4:46-54. They are both healings. The first by Elijah, the second by Jesus.
At the end of 1 Kings 16 we are introduced to King Ahab, who fell from the religion of Israel, worshiping Baal and Asherah. Enter Elijah, 1 Kings 17, who issues a warning that in God’s name there will be a drought at his discretion. As a result God warned Elijah to run for the hills where there was a stream in a ravine, and God would send him food via ravens. When the seasonal spring dried up Elijah was sent to Zarephath where he met a poor widow. He asked her for water, which she could barely supply, and bread from the tiny bit of flour she had left. She was ready to go home to her son and wait for death of starvation. Elijah assures her all will be well, and in a trope still familiar in fairy tales, the woman’s flour and oil jug never emptied. Elijah stayed with the woman and her son. At some point the boy became ill to the point of death. The widow first reacts with self-doubt. What are these sins which she fears have brought on this punishment in the face of the gifts of steady food and hospitality to a stranger? And then she scornfully turns on Elijah. What sort of man of God are you to let this happen? So, without a word about hearing God’s voice for instruction, Elijah takes the initiative and carries the dying, perhaps dead, son to the upper room, lays him on a bed and performs a healing.
Now we have the elephant in the room. By today’s standards an adult male lying on top of a minor child three times, praying or not, would bring social services and arrest. And this opens up a greater issue for our own times. Body contact, sexual or not, is a way of engaging the Spirit of life. We lay on hands. We absolve with a hand. We greet each other in God’s Peace, either with a sincere hug, or a nervous handshake. Women were wearing gloves until a few decades ago. Don’t touch. Don’t feel the living warmth of another being, another soul, another made in God’s image. But nobody was there to complain, and Elijah challenges God. He doesn’t beg. He doesn’t wait for God to offer. And the boy is restored to life. This is more akin to teachings of Jesus that whatever the righteous ask for will be given. And was the boy dead? Resurrection has a particular meaning to Christians, but what meaning did it have to the Jewish people who first received this text? The mercy and power of God, yes. In 2 Kings 4, Elisha, Elijah’s protégé, raises the son of the widow of Shunem. But these resurrection stories are odd, and such things rarely happen. In the Gospels there is the Widow of a Nain’s son (Lk 17:11-17), or perhaps Jairus’ daughter who was “only sleeping” (Lk 8:40-56). And Lazarus. But for us it is all about Jesus, and the total expression of the abundance of God’s love.
The second healing is about belief and faith, but the physical touch of this world is missing. Perhaps it is the universality of the Spirit of God that carries the touch, the sign of Jesus’ power bestowed by his Father. In the Gospel of John, far more than any of the Synoptics, the focus is upward, toward the eternal. By John 4 we have already seen Jesus traveling back and forth between predominately Jewish land and places where Gentiles or mixed populations lived. This reading refers to the previous marriage at Cana where, goaded by his mother Mary, Jesus provides enough wine for the wedding and a small army. The first sign and one of abundance. But before this reading and after Cana, Jesus has spent a Passover in Jerusalem, scourged the Temple, which appears much earlier than in the Synoptics, taught Nikodemus about a second birth, met the Samaritan woman at the well and converted her whole town, and has traveled again to Galilee. There he is sought out by a royal official in great need. We know nothing about this royal official, if he is Jewish, observant or not, or a Gentile hire. We only know he traveled at least one day, maybe more, leaving a dying son, to find this remarkable healer. He begs Jesus to do something, save the boy. But Jesus is almost offhanded and complains they all want signs. No pity. No tears. The man answers that he just wants to save his son, his beloved son. That should have resonated with Jesus. Finally Jesus waves him off telling him it has been taken care of. The man believes and heads home. When the man nears home his slaves tell him the boy is on the mend, and that it began at the hour when Jesus acted. The man and his household convert and believe in Jesus’ power and authority. What was that all about? For one, it is John, so the care of the poor and needy is not as explicit as it is in, let’s say, Luke. In John it is all about looking up, glorifying and obeying the Father.
Jesus is already on the run to some extent, just as Elijah was. He is already aware of the power his Father has allowed him to command. And he doesn’t need to touch to heal, although he does do that as well. Elijah has lived in this woman’s house and knows her and her son in ways that are more embodied than the notion that Jesus knows people’s hearts and souls by looking at them. We know he does from the prophetic dialogue with Nathanial and the Samaritan woman. But Elijah knows how she chops vegetables, sweeps the floors, sews a seam, all the little things that make up a person’s unique personality. There is an intimacy, a shared communal life. In John, Jesus tends to stand alone, even amongst his close friends, until the farewell discourse and the Great Priestly prayer. But John calls the long distant healing of the official’s son Jesus’ second sign after he came from Judea to Galilee. Why is this so important? For one, it is Jesus not just as the Savior of the Jewish people, the people who are in Covenant with God, but with all the world. Secondly, signs are not miracles, magic acts for show, but point to Jesus’ purpose in doing his Father’s will. Perhaps it is the lack of direct touch that is important. Isn’t that the way we pray? In Jesus’ name we pray to the Father for friends, strangers, the anonymous needy. We don’t need to touch. We lift up our hearts. We serve the needs of the Kingdom in a love which may be blessed by ekstatis, or the Gift of Tears, or upwelling of laughter, or even erotic passion for our Bridegroom, our Abba. Or they may be business-like chores, playing out the signs of God’s love as God’s normal purpose for us. Two healings. One with personal affection and human need. One through and by the power of an abundant and loving God. And we need both.
Dr. Dana Kramer-Rolls is currently at Good Shepherd Episcopal Church, Berkeley, California and earned her master’s degree and PhD from the Graduate Theological Union, Berkeley, California.