Text: 2 Kings 5:1-19
We regularly include a time for sharing joys and concerns during the worship service, but today, in addition, you are invited to hold all that you carry with you in a little different way. After the sermon there will be an opportunity to come forward to receive anointing with oil and prayer for yourself, or on behalf of another person. I consider this a congregation wonderfully conscious of and concerned about and engaged with the world. So many of you are givers, spending your energy and time on behalf of others near and far. Today you are invited to draw a smaller circle. To pray for and speak to the Spirit on behalf of yourself, your family, friends, those dearest to you. This could very well include an area of social justice or a situation far away, but will more likely involve tuning in to the spaces of your own heart, listening to what you are hearing there, and offering that up to the light. You are hereby given full permission to think small, to think really really local, and to relax into whatever that needs to mean to you right now.
Today the lectionary gives us the story of the healing of Naaman. The Bible contains many healing stories and from our 21st century perspective, it’s not always easy to know how to read them. For those of us used to jumping on WebMD or Wikipedia to read up on physical or mental health conditions and illnesses, these biblical stories come across as remarkably unconcerned about the biological details of healing. If we would tell a story about the healing of Ila, or the healing of a cancer, or a broken toe, or a depression, the story would be laced with references to anatomy and medicines and treatment plans. But in the story of the healing of Naaman, the actual description of the healing takes all of one verse, almost a footnote in the overall narrative. “So he went down and immersed himself seven times in the Jordan, according to the word of the man of God; his flesh was restored like the flesh of a young boy, and he was clean.” It sounds…easy…too easy! We’re not used to healing happening this quickly and thoroughly, in such unsanitary conditions, and we scratch our heads wondering what this story is really about.
When we are introduced to Naaman, we meet a person who is difficult to categorize. He is a wealthy and powerful man, an army commander, beloved by his king. But he’s also an outsider, the commander of the army of the opposing team, the Arameans, Syrians, an enemy people of Israel. He’s a mighty warrior, as the text says, but he also has a dreaded disease: Leprosy, a skin disease that brought with it not only physical debilitations but also all sorts of social stigmas. He’s the top soldier for the other side, and he’s stuck with the one thing nobody wants and everybody fears. Are we sympathetic? Does it serve him right, that marauding menace of a man?
What’s more, he’s defeated Israel in past battles and has taken one of the conquered people into his home – a young girl, an Israelite captured from her family, now his household servant. And it’s a good thing, for him. Because she knows something that can help him, and she speaks up on his behalf. “If only my lord were with the prophet who is in Samaria! He would cure him of his leprosy.”
The problem is that Samaria is in Israel, and so Naaman goes to his king who promises to give Naaman safe passage by writing a letter to the king of Israel on Naaman’s behalf. But Naaman is packing more than just this letter. He takes with him ten talents of silver, which was about 750 pounds of silver; six thousand shekels of gold, and ten sets of garments. Naaman is really wealthy, getting his wealth from who knows where and what spoils of war, and he is making sure he doesn’t miss out on the opportunity to have access to the best health care silver, gold, and garments can buy. He’s got money and a letter of recommendation from his king. He’s a person of privilege.
The first road block he runs into is that the king of Israel, when he receives the letter, interprets it as some kind of trick, some kind of foreign relations maneuver on the part of the king of Aram to have grounds for the next war. The king of Israel dreads that he’s now responsible for healing this foreign general, has no idea how this is possible, and goes into a royal rage anticipating the fallout. “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.”
Fortunately for all involved, Elisha, that prophet from Samaria, gets word of this letter, and being slightly less paranoid than the king, Elisha invites Naaman to come and see him.
The text says, “So Naaman came with his horses and chariots, and halted at the entrance of Elisha’s house.” These horses and chariots would be those same horses and chariots used as instruments of war. We learn a little later that Naaman has also brought a whole entourage of his company with him. This is a highly managed tight security operation, and we can imagine the equivalent of a whole caravan of armored vehicles with tinted windows, security guards barking out details broadcast into the earpieces of their teams, with a helicopter with snipers scanning the landscape flying overhead and hovering right over the entrance of Elisha’s little house. There is nothing subtle about this. The general has arrived, and would like to have his healing now. Please.
Elisha, ehh, sends out an underling, a messenger, to the door who tells Naaman to go take a dip in the Jordan River. The tiny, muddy, Jordan River. Seven times. “and your flesh will be restored and you shall be clean.”
Naaman, as you might imagine, becomes rather angry, and in what is truly the great line from this story, blurts out: “I thought that for me he would surely come out, and stand and call on the name of the Lord his God, and would wave his hand over the spot, and cure the leprosy.” It sounds like Naaman came for a magic show. And if there is to be a river involved, there are rivers in his country way better suited to healing than this dirty little trickle in Israel. “Are not the Abana and Pharpar, the rivers of Damascus, better than all the waters of Israel?” He leaves in a rage, and his entourage with him.
Naaman would not have made the first step of this journey if it were not for an anonymous young girl, a servant in his household, who pointed him in this direction. Now another anonymous servant, or multiple servants, as the text indicates, approach him and speak another word that will keep him on the path. “Sir, 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?’” Sir.
The next verse is that one I read earlier, when the physical healing actually happens.
It might or might not matter that it was in the Jordan River rather than any other river. It might or might not matter that he had to be immersed seven times rather than three, or ten, or forty times; or once facing south, twice facing east, north, and west, followed by reciting the correct prayer in the correct tone in the correct posture. The text certainly doesn’t give a whole lot of weight to how he was healed and seems openly against any kind of magic formula for how healing happens. We can imagine Naaman, perhaps still fuming, perhaps now a little less reluctant, perhaps having even a tinge of hope, leave his horses and chariots, and guards, and silver and gold on the shore, plod through the mud into this foreign creek of a river, and take the plunge, seven times.
Studying this story reminded me of a TED talk given by Brene Brown. For those of you not familiar with TED talks, they are events which are video recorded and archived online in which leading thinkers and doers in their field are invited to give an 18 minute talk that summarizes their best stuff that they have learned. The talk by Brene Brown is one that has received a lot of viewings, over 11 million, and is called “The power of vulnerability.” She is a social researcher and set out to understand all the dynamics that go into the experience of shame. She dedicated six years of her life to this, collecting stories and looking for common themes that would help her parse and categorize and classify and deconstruct her subject. And what she discovered, she says, changed her life. Of all the people whose stories she heard, she kept encountering what she later called “whole hearted” people. People who lived life fully despite experiences of shame. The key to their whole hearted approach to life, she discovered, was vulnerability. People who were willing to be vulnerable with themselves and others were able to experience joy and resilience in a way that those who masked, and medicated, and covered over their shame didn’t. What was life changing for her in her research was that she recognized herself as someone who had been absolutely opposed to any form of vulnerability; and she had a personal conversion into vulnerability that has affected how she goes about her work, friendships, marriage, and parenting. I recommend the talk and will include a link to it on the sermon blog.
Note: To watch the video above it seems you’ll need to press the full screen button at the bottom right of the window. Otherwise only audio will play. Not sure why that is. My tech limitations are now exposed…
I wonder if this Naaman story is just as much about vulnerability as it is about healing. Or, about how vulnerability, even if one resists it at every turn, is a potential companion to healing. There certainly seems to be more effort put into describing the security Naaman had built up around himself than the problem of the leprosy. Dr. Elisha’s prescription is just as much one for the humbling of Naaman as it is for the healing of Naaman.
Jesus references this Naaman story when he was visiting him hometown of Nazareth at the beginning of his ministry. This is the time when he stood up in the synagogue and quoted Isaiah: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me to bring good news to the poor, to proclaim release to the captives, to let the oppressed go free.” It was a popular and maybe even a feel good message until Jesus reminded the crowd that this meant letting down their guard that held in place the order of things, that foreigners and outsiders were included in this good news. Jesus went on to say: “There were many lepers in Israel in the time of the prophet Elisha, and none of them was cleansed except Naaman the Syrian.” Apparently, this was a highly threatening story to be reminded of, because they just about throw Jesus off a cliff for saying it.
The funny thing that happens on the way to healing, and on the way to welcoming the healing of others, even if they are our enemies, is that we become aware of how very vulnerable we are. We want that magic hand to just wave over the spot and make everything better, so we can go about our lives unchanged. But instead, we walk through a whole journey of the soul that shifts the way we relate to ourselves and others and reminds us of our utter dependence on the generosity, care, skill, and hospitality of others. Whether healing comes in the form we were hoping, or not, we are changed.
This may or may not be the time and place to be openly vulnerable. But you are welcome to come forward and voice something for which you would like prayer, for yourself or another person, and receive an anointing with oil and a blessing. You may also choose to simply come in silence or to stay where you are. What you are encouraged to do is to open your heart. To step away from the horses and chariots and armed vehicles and be available to the movement of the Spirit. We’ll begin by singing together “Healing of our every ill,” after which there will be instrumental music and if at any point during the singing of that song or the music that follows you feel compelled to come forward to any of the three of us who will be available, you are welcome. I would just add one note which is that you will be anointed on your forehead, unless you prefer to be anointed on your palm, in which case you can simply hold out your palm to indicate that wish.