Lenten Noonday Preaching Series
Calvary Episcopal Church
Memphis, Tennessee
March 8, 1999


A Wounded Healer
The Rev. Dr. John R. Claypool
Rector, St. Luke's Episcopal Church
Birmingham, Alabama

That we may leave this place less of what we used to be and more of what we ought to be. Through Christ we pray. Amen.

Experts of the art of human communication have all suggested that surprise is a very important element in the effective connecting of one person with another. There’s something about the unexpected that attracts our attention, that makes a more lasting impression. There’s an old saying that "familiarity breeds contempt." I think it is also true that familiarity breeds dullness and a kind of apathy. This is nothing new. Jesus obviously understood this during his incredible life upon this earth. And as you know, his favorite teaching device was the parable: the story that started out as a picture about somebody else and then turned into a mirror and you saw things about yourself. Again and again in the parables, surprise is a very constituent element. Therefore, in the three days that it’s my privilege to be here again with you at Calvary, what I’d like to do is take three of the most surprising of Jesus’s parable stories and hold them up before you in the hope that in the unexpected can also come the redemptive. And perhaps they can become mirrors for us in which we can see more deeply what it is that God would have us be and how God will provide the grace for us to become that.

Today I would like to begin with the most familiar of all his parables. Namely the one about the good Samaritan. I want to ask the simple question, Why do you suppose it was it this individual and not the priest or Levite who stopped to help the stricken man? Well obviously there are several options that we could offer. The most obvious revolves around the reality of courage. Perhaps the reason it was the Samaritan and not the priest or Levite was that , of those three individuals, he happened to be the bravest. The details of the story would support this interpretation. When Jesus said a certain man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, he was speaking quite literally. If you know anything about the typography of Palestine, you may know that Jerusalem is the highest point, 2,300 feet above sea level, and Jericho, down by the Dead Sea, is at the lowest point, 600 feet below sea level; which means that in a short span of miles, there’s this precipitous drop of altitude. The mountain roads, of necessity, are curvy and circuitous, and therefore this road made a perfect context for the kind of violence that Jesus describes, because it would be so easy for thieves to hide behind a curve, ambush some traveler, beat him still, and disappear back into the desert.

For centuries that particular stretch of road was known as the “red” or “bloody” way, because the kind of violence that is part of the story happened again, again and again. It was conventional wisdom back then that you did not make that journey by yourself. You’d wait for a caravan or perhaps some pilgrims going up to a festival in Jerusalem. If you had to walk that way by yourself, the one thing you did not want to do was to stop and to stoop over and get yourself in a position where you could not defend yourself. And that way, it is entirely possible that as the priest and Levite made their way and rounded a curve and suddenly saw this man who’d been the victim of violence, their first impulse was compassion, because remember we are made in the image of a caring reality. But no sooner had they sensed compassion than another emotion crowded that out, namely the emotion of fear. They may have found themselves saying, “How do we know if we stop that the same thing that happened to him is not going to happened to us?” Or maybe even, “The stricken man is a decoy put here by thieves to very cleverly get us to stop.” Therefore, it is entirely possible that something happened in that movement of compassion to fear that has happened again and again in my own life. And that is that fear casts out love. I began to think only of my own safety, and therefore forgot about everything else. So it could be that out of fear, the priest and Levite, seeing the man but thinking more of their own safety, hurried on by and tried to forget the whole thing.

The Samaritan, on the other hand, may have looked at reality differently. He may have realized that there was more at work in him and the universe than just what he saw happening there. That is, instead of fear casting out love, he may be in touch with the fact that love is the most profound of all realities, and therefore there was enough; so he could cope with whatever the threat. When love cast out fear, he was able to act on his compassion, and that is why it was he, the Samaritan, and not the priest or the Levite. Of course, nobody can say for sure. But if that is the explanation, I think it well for us to remember that the way we behave in concrete situations is a reflection of what we believe at the deepest level about the structure of reality.

I had an old teacher who said to me once, “There are only two realities. The reality of fear and the reality of love. Fear,” he said, “is the suspicion that there isn’t enough, never has been, never will be, and therefore you’ve got to get as much as you can, and what you get you’ve got to protect at all costs. If you look at the world through the lens of scarcity, there is always going to be that sense of threat; therefore you are always going to be on the defensive.

“On the other hand,” he said, “love is the confidence that there is enough. Always has been, always will be. That this creation comes out of the bottomless abundance of an incredible and generous being. And therefore because there is enough, we can cope courageously. We can believe that there is nothing as big as the Holy, that God is in a category all by God’s self.”

It could be the Samaritan looked at life through the lens of love, rather than the lens of fear. This is why he was able to act as he did. And I have to ask myself, as I ask you this morning, down at the bottom of your perceiving of reality, which way do you choose to view it? Do you view reality through the lens of scarcity, or has it ever dawned on you - as all the biblical evidence, it seems to me, suggests - has it ever dawned on you that there is only one God, nothing else is as big, and that love has the power to cast out all things that are fearful?

But there is another possibility as to why it was the Samaritan and not the priest or the Levite. He simply may have been more realistic about his agenda, more realistic about the things he had agreed to do in the future. You need to realize that the priest and Levite were officials of the temple. That meant that they had services to perform; they had schedules to meet; they had appointments that were already a part of the life that they had planned out for themselves. And so perhaps when they saw this stricken [man], they had these feelings of compassion, but then they remembered that they needed to be a certain place at a certain time. They remembered that there were so many things already on the calendar that they simply did not have the opportunity to respond to the unexpected. And so out of agenda anxiety, they moved on hurriedly. Whereas the Samaritan was more realistic about his limits; he did not crowd his life too full. Therefore he had margins that enabled him to respond to the unexpected.

Years ago I read about an interesting thing that was done by an ethics professor at Princeton Theological Seminary. He was trying to ascertain what factors make for loving actions and what factors militate against it. He recruited 15 of his graduate students, offered them special credits if they would meet him at 2 o’clock in his classroom, and said they would be told what to do after they came. When they met that afternoon, he divided the group into three controlled groups. He gave the first five students sealed envelopes. They opened them and the instruction was: “You have 15 minutes to get from here to the other side of the campus. You don’t have any time to loiter or do anything else. If you get distracted, you will be late and your grade will be docked.” They were labeled by the professor as the “High Hurry Group.”

The next five opened their envelope and it said: “You have 45 minutes to get from here to across the campus, plenty of time, but don’t let yourself get diverted,” and they were labeled the “Medium Hurry Group.” The last five opened their envelopes and it said: “Anytime before now and 5 o’clock this afternoon report to this place across the campus and you’ll be told what to do.” They were labeled the “Low Hurry Group.”

Unbeknownst to any of these 15 would-be ministers, he had arranged for some drama students from Princeton University to be situated along the path that they had to take, and these drama students were simulating great obvious human needfulness. One of them was sitting on a bench crying hysterically. Another one was face down, as if he had had some kind of seizure and therefore was unconscious. Another was going through all kinds of convulsions that were calling for some kind of help. All three were obviously human beings in great need.

The interesting results of the test are not surprising. None of the High Hurry Group stopped to see what they might do to help. Two of the Medium Hurry Group stopped, and all five of the Low Hurry Group stopped. The conclusion: Pressure is a moral category. I don’t care how good your intentions, how compassionate your heart, if you don’t realize that limits are a part of the gift, if you get so overloaded with things to do and places to be and appointments to make, that can crowd out even the most [fundamental] feelings of compassion. It could be that that was what happened to the priest and Levite - they simply had too many entries into their date book. They did not have time to do what their hearts called on them to do. But the Samaritan was more realistic. He knew that limits are a part of the gift. He had not over-scheduled and therefore he was capable of responding. And if that is the case, I have to ask myself: How good a steward am I of this limited amount of strength and time that has been entrusted to me as a person?

But there’s a third suggestion, a third alternative as to why [it was] the Samaritan and not the priest or Levite, that I find, frankly, the most compelling of all. It is not original. Walter Wink of New York City was the first one to open my eyes to this possibility. He suggests that it was the Samaritan, and not the priest or Levite, because this one was a Samaritan, and a very special Samaritan at that. You need to remember that Samaritans were the racial half-breeds of first century Palestinian life. It went all the way back to the 8th Century, when the Assyrians had come in and captured the northern section of Israel. They had deported many of the citizens and then brought in foreigners to take their place. And as the centuries unfolded, the Jewish people who were left intermarried with these non-Jewish people, and therefore lost the racial purity that was so important to ancient orthodox Judaism. The people who were pure Jews never did forgive those Jewish people who had dared to pollute themselves by inter-marrying with non-Jewish people, and the Samaritans were the historic product of that kind of prejudice that was so deep, particularly among the Judean Jews. This means that a Samaritan born of a mixed marriage found himself or herself in a place where neither dominant [group] completely accepted them.

You know as well as I do from here in the South and our experience with the mulatto, that people who come into the world with that kind of beginning always have a very, very difficult time and are often the objects of discrimination. “Because Samaritans were human,” says Dr. Wink, “they tended to respond to this in one of three ways. Most of them just gave up in despair -- saying, what use is there to try when this thing I have no responsibility for at all, the way I was born, is used against me so prejudicially. A smaller group,” he said, “went to the opposite extreme. Instead of despair, their [response was] radical anger. They were the revolutionaries who struck out against those who were so oppressive.” We have records of Samaritans uprising against the Jews and against the Romans. The problem was, there were so few Samaritans in relation to these other groups, that when they tried to use the sword, they always wound up being wounded by the sword.

But Wink said, “There was a third kind of Samaritan, the smallest percentage of all, who instead of giving up in despair or blowing up in anger, rather chose to take their experience of historic injustice and the pain it created and somehow convert that into compassion.” These were the people who took what had happened to them that was so unjust and said in effect, “We know what it feels like to be treated this way. We don’t want to do this to other people because we see how it hurts.” Therefore they had accomplished that incredible alchemy of taking an experience of their own suffering and turning that into sensitivity and compassion. And Wink’s suggestion is that the reason it was the Samaritan who stopped was that he saw that man beaten by the side of the road, and he knew exactly what it was like to be in that condition because that had been the Samaritan experience and because he had allowed his suffering to make him more sensitive and more compassionate. He was the one that saw, and he was the one that was moved to act because he had found a way to become a wounded healer. He had found a way to take his story and turn it into something that could be a blessing to somebody else.

The first time I read that I remember putting down the book and thinking: Of all the things that I can do with my days and nights, of all the things that I could become, I can’t think of anything that I would rather become than a person who takes my own wounds and instead of letting them immobilize me in despair or turn me into a walking bomb of anger and bitterness, [allowing them] to make me more sensitive and more compassionate to the other people who are suffering by the side of the road. I find myself greatly, greatly attracted to this ideal of becoming a wounded healer. That alchemy of taking suffering and turning it into compassion. And when you ask, “How do you do that?” of course we could spend the rest of the week talking, because it is a vastly complex subject.

But let me close this morning by making one suggestion out of my own experience of how it might be possible for us. All of us have experienced pain of some kind. We might not have suffered like the ancient Samaritans or the African-Americans in this country or the Native Americans, but every one of us has had losses, every one of us has been knocked to the ground by circumstances. If I could get everybody’s story this morning, there would be enough grief in this room to more than fill up to this high ceiling. Now, the question is: Is there a way that those of us afflicted with suffering, is there a way that we can turn that into something constructive and not let it continue to wound us? Well, my one suggestion would be, and it grows out of my own experience, my one suggestion would be for you to simply ask, “How did I ever get born into this world? Did I come into aliveness through entitlement? Did I earn my [way] in? Or was life given me as an incredible, generous gift, given me beyond deserving by another who wanted me to be? If you look at life as gift and not entitlement, then the sheer wonder of getting to be alive is so overwhelmingly marvelous that the particular hand you are dealt circumstantially is secondary to the wonder of getting to be in the game at all. And my sense is that the way to become a wounded healer is to stand in astonishment at the fact that birth is windfall and life is gift, and be so grateful that you are simply here that the things that are done to you are not nearly as significant as the gift you were given the day you were born.

I have a minister friend in Texas who tells about a wonderful family in his parish that had three children that they loved and cared for very beautifully. And so everybody in the family was excited when a fourth child, it was announced, was about to be born. They all went to the hospital the night the mother went to give birth. They waited anxiously and in due time the doctor comes out and says to the father, “You have a beautiful new daughter.” He says to the siblings, “You have a new sister.” But then he says, “For reasons I cannot account for, this child is perfect in every way save one; she was born with no arms and no legs. A genetic abnormality for which I cannot give an account.” Of course the family was stunned. They had no idea that that badly disabled a child would be born into their circle. But my friend said they were the kind of people who were more interested in what they could do to be constructive rather than in [thinking] why did this happen to us?

So the whole family began to work to give this child every opportunity they possibly could. She lived for 21 years. My friend said she grew into a magnificent person, a brilliant mind, aesthetically sensitive. Though never in her 21 years did she do what most of us took for granted this morning. She could not move herself, bathe herself, or feed herself.

About a year before she died, her brother brought home a roommate from college on Easter Holiday, and this young man watched for three days the kind of life that this woman had to live with this tragic disability. When he was getting ready to leave, he said to her, “What keeps you from blowing up in anger at the kind of God who would let you be born with such deformities. Why don’t you explode in rage against the injustice of it all.” And my friend said that girl looked him dead in the eye and said, “I realize that when compared to what most people have, what I have may not seem like much, but listen. I have been able to see, and thanks to my family I’ve looked on incredible beauty. I have been able to hear, and again because of my family I participate in wonderful conversation and heard magnificent music. I have been able to taste, to smell, to feel. What I have may not seem like much, but when compared to never getting to be at all, I wouldn’t have missed being born for anything.” Where did she get the courage to pick up that kind of hand and play it with that kind of relish. Somebody had let her in on the secret that life is gift, that birth is windfall, that we are here out of incredible good fortune. And if that is your point of perspective, then the interpretation of the particularities of your life will be secondary to the sheer wonder of getting to be at all.

Which brings me back to where I started. Why do you suppose — why did Jesus surprise them by saying it was the Samaritan and not the priest or Levite? Well nobody can say for sure. It may have been courage. It may have been a more realistic assessment of his gifts. Or it may have been that that one saw deep into the nature of reality and saw life as gift, and therefore he was able to take even the worst of historic injustice and transmute that into compassion and sensitivity. He may have stopped to give the gift of himself to another because he realized, in the deepest sense, that life itself was a gift to him. I repeat. Of all the things that I could do with my days and my nights, becoming a wounded healer is my highest, highest aspiration. And you?

Copyright 1999 The Rev. Dr. John R. Claypool

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