In 2 Kings 5 there is the story of Naaman the Syrian, a powerful and important man, who became ill with leprosy. The least important person in his household, his wife's slave girl, knew of a prophet in her home town, Samaria, with the ability to work miracles and who may have been able to help. Desperate, Naaman took notice of this advice and travelled to Israel and sought out the prophet, Elisha. He took with him lavish gifts of gold, silver and textiles to pay for the services of the holy man, but when he arrived at Elisha's house the prophet didn't even bother coming outside to see him. Elisha refused all payment and passed on a message to Naaman that if he wanted a cure he must dip himself in the Jordan 7 times. Although he was greatly annoyed at the prophet's cavalier attitude Naaman nevertheless took the advice and was healed.
In Luke 8 (and also Matthew 9 and Mark 5) is the story of the woman healed of a chronic menstrual disorder. Because her ailment rendered her ritually unclean she could not possibly ask a holy rabbi, such as Jesus, to speak to her let alone lay his hands on her and heal her. So she resolved to sneak up behind him and touch the hem of his robe. She executed her plan and it worked: she was immediately healed. But rather than allowing this private healing Jesus turned and drew attention to what she had just done. He blessed her and sent her on her way.
In both of these passages the healing of a physical disease was only part of the story. In both cases the true disease of the supplicant for healing was deeper and more profound than either was aware of. Naaman's treatment involved him being humiliated; that is, it involved him losing the grandiose ideas of his own worth that had obscured from view his own common humanity. He listened to a slave and then to a petty king and then to the prophet of some foreign deity. All his wealth could not even secure him an interview with the prophet, and he was asked to demean himself before his entourage by following the orders of the prophet and taking a seemingly silly action. His flesh was restored, like the flesh of a young boy and he was clean; but the loss of his pride and his growth into true humanity was a larger, more significant gift from the prophet.
The woman with the flow of blood was terribly, almost fatally isolated. For 12 years she had endured the horror of separation from her family and friends. Excluded from the temple and synagogue she had lost all sources of spiritual nurture. Unable to work she had lost her place in the world and her self esteem. She had become a burden to others, subject to their pity, their annoyance, their resentment, their distaste and loathing. Jesus allowed her physical healing but also effected a deeper healing. He publicly called her daughter, raised her to her feet and embraced her. In doing this he restored her to her community and ended the social, spiritual, psychological malaise which had been a thousand fold more difficult to endure than the physical one.
We all die, and we all die of something. Illness happens to us all, and one day the illness will be the instrument by which our brief sojourn here is brought to a close. Our bodies become ill and we are healed or we are not, but even if we are healed we will become ill again, of the same thing or of something else. This would be a depressing scenario except that in all of our life, whether sick or well, we are being made: we are being drawn out of nothingness into being. Sometimes, as I think in my own case, serious illness can be a kind of gift; it is an instrument whereby our journey into being is facilitated. But always we are invited to regard our life's journey with depth, and to discern what might be really going on for us. What it is that really needs healing, and what it is that we are being generously invited into, even in and perhaps through the fear and pain of our illness.