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Friday, February 17, 2012

Naaman.


2 Kings 5:1-14.

I.           
            Naaman was a great man: a military commander, advisor to the King of Aram, which is Syria.  He also had been an enemy of Israel; his army defeated Israel and killed King Ahab back in 1 Kings 22.  But for all his power to command soldiers and defeat armies, Naaman had contracted a disease.  The text calls it “leprosy,” but, since Naaman was still permitted to stay in society, it was more likely something like what we know as psoriasis.  When I was kid we used to make fun of that commercial that talked about “the heartbreak of psoriasis,” but I saw some pictures of psoriasis on-line and I can tell you psoriasis is a horrible condition.  (I was almost afraid to touch my computer.)
            In the course of his wars with Israel, Naamans’s wife acquired an Israelite slave-girl.  No doubt she was captured in a raid, forcibly taken from her family, and made a slave.  It happened all the time.  This slave-girl eventually tells Naaman’s wife that there is a prophet in her home country of Israel who could heal Naaman of his leprosy.  Now she could have said it mockingly, in a “my country is better than yours because even though you beat us in a war and took me as a slave, we have a prophet who can heal people and you don’t” kind of way.  Or she could have developed some care for them and so offered this helpful information.
            But the point is that in this story, as in so much of the Bible, it is the insignificant, marginalized people who keep the story going.  The kings and generals are merely along for the ride.  In fact they are pretty hapless and clueless.  But the real actors in the story, that is, the people God uses, are the slave-girl, the servants, and the uncredentialled, eccentric prophet.
            So Naaman hears about this prophet in Israel from his wife’s slave-girl.  And his condition is uncomfortable enough, and he is desperate enough, that he will try anything.  He will even submit to take the advice of a foreign slave-girl and go to a defeated, inferior nation to seek healing. 
            It is like the general has exhausted all the expensive experts at the big medical centers in New York, to no avail.  But his wife has this undocumented Salvadoran housekeeper who says there is an obscure shaman in the mountains of her homeland who can heal him.  We would expect him to roll his eyes and scoff at this suggestion, as if some crazy faith-healer in the jungle can do better than the best medical minds in the world.  We would expect him to say this is just the kind of thing homesick immigrants are always saying about their own countries and their old ways.  Why would he believe there even was such a healer?  And why would he believe that healer would heal him, the general whose helicopter-gunships had dispensed horrible, bloody terror against Salvadoran villages throughout the land?
            And yet, here Naaman makes arrangements to go to Israel.

II.
            So he talks to his boss, the king of Aram, and the king writes a letter of introduction, and Naaman and his large entourage set off for Israel.  They get to Samaria, the capital of Israel and hand their letter to the king. 
            The letter basically says, “Dear King of Israel, Here is my general Naaman.  (You know, the guy who handed your butt to you on the battlefield a few years ago; that Naaman.  I’m just saying….) Please heal him of his skin disease.  Warmest regards, the King of Aram.”
            The king doesn’t know what to make of this letter and visit.  He thinks it is an unreasonable request.  He is only a king.  He can’t cure virulent skin diseases.  He tears his clothes, which was a sign of grief and frustration.  And he exclaims: “Am I God, to give death or life, that this man sends word to me to cure a man of his leprosy?  Just look and see how he is trying to pick a quarrel with me.”  He thinks the king of Aram is looking for an excuse to start another war. 
            These two kings think they have more authority than they really do.  They pompously assume that kings are in charge of everything that happens in their countries. 
            But the king of Israel doesn’t even remember the resources his has in his own land.  Maybe he would just as soon forget about Elisha, since the prophet was almost never in favor of the king’s policies.
            Somehow word gets to Elisha that this has happened.  Elisha no doubt had his sources in the king’s court.  This visit of General Naaman has created a political crisis that may even result in war.  The prophet has to intervene in the hysterics of the court and what must have been the childish posturing of the kings and their diplomats.  Elisha sends a message to the king, saying: “Why have you torn your clothes?  Let him come to me, that he may learn that there is a prophet in Israel.”
            The king must have been overjoyed to be rid of this problem and challenge.  Naaman and his motorcade wind their way into the hills to Naaman’s house.  We are told he was accompanied by horses and chariots.  A whole retinue of retainers, servants, and soldiers arrives there.  In our day we could imagine trucks full of media people, helicopters, black limosines with little flags on them, Secret Service perhaps, police escort, the works.  All driving up to Elisha’s little house in the middle of nowhere.
III.
            Naaman is way too important to actually come to the door himself, so he sends an underling to talk to Elisha, while the great General waits in the chariot with dark-tinted windows.  But Elisha doesn’t come out.  He sends a message through his assistant, Gehazi.  The message is, “Go and wash seven times in the Jordan River, and your flesh shall be restored and you shall be clean.”  That’s it.
            And Naaman feels supremely dissed.  He is an important man.  He is expecting the prophet to emerge personally and deliver some exotic incantation, invoking the name of the Lord with a loud voice, waving his hands, and generally making a spectacular show of healing Naaman.  The indirect, offhand instructions: “Oh yeah, well, just go wash in the Jordan seven times and that should take care of it.”  This is offensive to the important man who traveled so far with so many.
            Like most rich and powerful people, Naaman figured it was all about him.  Naaman as well is very impressed with his own disease and its catastrophic seriousness, and the heroic lengths he will go for relief, even hauling himself down to this nobody healer in the wilderness of Israel.  He wants Elisha to take him seriously!  He wants expensive medicine; he wants exhausting physical therapy; he wants to test the limits of this faith-healer; he wants to be cured in a manner commensurate with his importance!  He doesn’t want to be told to go take a bath in the Jordan.
            Now people who have been to the Holy Land tell me that the Jordan is singularly unimpressive as rivers go.  Not only is it nothing like the Nile or the Mississippi, it doesn’t even compare well with the Raritan or the Navesink.  The Jordan is a meandering trickle of water through mostly scrub desert.  Naaman would have had a difficult time even finding a place where the Jordan was deep enough to immerse his whole body.
            This adds further insult, that he would be sent to the Israelite’s dinky little excuse for a river.  Aram had two real rivers, the Abana and the Parphar.  He says that if it is just a matter of taking a bath in a river why not at least do it in a river with some class?
            Naaman is angry and frustrated at this point.  He suspects this whole thing is a conspiracy by these Israelites to humiliate him and make him look weak, foolish, and gullible.  He may feel they are making fun of him, or at least taking advantage of him, for his disease.
IV.
            At this point we hear from more of the insignificant people who surround the supposedly great and powerful.  The story was set in motion by a slave-girl, the uncredentialed prophet rescues the king’s, uh, lamb-chop, and now it is the servants of the angry general who approach him.  Against the self-righteous indignation of the pompous military leader, the lowly servants respectfully suggest some common sense.  “‘Father,’” they say, “‘if the prophet had commanded you to do something difficult, would you not have done it?  How much more, when all he said to you was, “Wash, and be clean”?’”
            Naaman probably would have gladly taken on difficult instructions.  He would have gone to Tibet, had the prophet instructed him to do so.  That would have been an adventure worthy of his station and his disease.
            But the servants say, “What do you have to lose, except a little dignity, by doing this very simple thing the prophet ordered?  If it doesn’t work out, then you can get angry and commence with the slaughter and mayhem for which you have such a well-deserved reputation.  But it’s just a suggestion; you know best.”
            After he cools off a bit, Naaman realizes the wisdom of this advice, and he mopes suspiciously off in the direction of the Jordan River, entourage in tow.  When they get there, I imagine him instructing all the retainers to wait out of sight.  He would not want to be seen pathetically dipping himself in this brook.
            Perhaps he has only a couple of people with him as he walks to the rocky bank of the river, disrobes and wades out to where he can sit down and immerse himself.  His skin is covered with raw, flaky, and cracking sores of his psoriasis.  Seven times he lays back under the flow of the cool river and lifts himself back up again, exactly as commanded by the man of God. 
            And the seventh time, he emerges from the water and he knows he is healed.  The ghastly rashes all over his skin are gone, replaced by smooth, soft, new skin.  “His flesh was restored like the flesh of a young boy, and he was clean,” the text says.
            At this point I imagine tears of joy, and surprise, from the humbled, healed general.
            The story goes on from there.  Naaman goes back to Elisha to say thank you, offering him a pile of money which the prophet refuses to take.  He becomes then and there a worshiper of the Israelite God, the Lord.  And he will continue to worship Israel’s God even when he goes back to Damascus.  He becomes an early Gentile follower of the Lord.
V.
            For us, Naaman is an example of humility, obedience, and transformation.  His story should remind us of our baptism.  Just as he was washed clean of his disease, so we are washed clean of our sinfulness and restored to newness and originality when we are baptized.  Because of what happens to Naaman’s body, his heart is also turned to the Lord. 
            Naaman’s experience is instructive for us because it suggests to us that, like psoriasis, sin is not a comprehensive perversion of our entire being, but something attaching to our surfaces and exteriors. Naaman needed to be washed, cleansed, and purified.  Beneath his psoriasis there was still a human soul to be set free, liberated, and delivered. 
            When he goes into the water he has to give up his own will and pride.  He has to listen to lowly, common people – the slave-girl, the prophet, his servants – and do what they, not his ego, not the experts, not the powerful leaders, not even his own religion, say.  He has to stop being the pompous, directive, assertive, aggressive, sure-of-himself great man.  And he has to become like a child; not just in doing what he is told, but when he receives the skin of a young boy.  He has a kind of restoration of innocence in which all his corrupting, corrupted, violent, superior, dominating ways are washed away in the gentle flow of the Jordan.
            The Jordan always symbolizes the passage of God’s people from slavery and death to freedom and life.  So it is with Naaman.  So it is with us in our own baptism.  We have been washed clean of our bondage and our bondage mentality.  Even Naaman, who had many crimes to his name, emerges free of them from the Jordan.  He is forgiven in the sense that his sin, that clung so closely so it was manifested in his very skin, falls away.  He receives new, healthy skin, in exchange for the old, diseased skin.
            In the gospel reading, it is not the water of Jordan that heals, but Jesus’ word.  When we immerse ourselves in his word… that is, when we dedicate our lives to following him, obeying his commandments of love and justice, healing and forgiveness, we also find our sin, our violence and injustice, our fear and anger, is washed away.
            And what emerges in us is our original, most profound selves, the person we are deep within.  The person God created and loves and redeems.  The person we see in Jesus Christ.  The Christ within each one of us.  We become who we truly are: a free person of humility and joy.

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