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Naaman's Tale

A Homily from II Kings 5:1-14

© The Rev. C. Joshua Villines

Virginia-Highland Church

February 16, 2003 (Sixth Sunday after the Epiphany)

As many of you know, in my opinion one of the key functions of preaching is passing on the key stories that define our identity as people of faith. From the pulpit, we recite the names and deeds of our greatest heroes and villains, and sometimes the supporting characters as well, so that we will remember. Every once in a while we come across one of the real classics – one that might make a top ten list of “Stories Every Christian Should Know.”

Today’s text from 2 Kings is one of those. Our gospel lesson offered some complex theological questions – and it might have been intriguing to grapple with some of those today. But the lesson from the Hebrew Bible is like To Kill a Mockingbird. It doesn’t matter what else is on. It doesn’t matter that I know half the dialogue by heart. If it’s on, I’m going to watch it.

And if the lectionary texts include 2 Kings 5, that’s what I’m going to preach from the pulpit. As a result, I may owe some of you something of a disclaimer. If you grew up in a baptist church, you may have had this text beaten to death (or it may have been used to beat you into the baptistery). There is an elegant simplicity to this text that can tempt us into focusing on the plain message of God’s mercy while ignoring the complexity of trying to live within that gift. Many of us may remember a sermon or two that did just that.

As overplayed as this text might be for some of us, it is still one that deserves hearing (and one that many present may not know). If it’s old hat for you, I apologize for the repetition – but promise not to treat the story too casually or flippantly. If any of you have flashbacks to tent revivals or fire-and-brimstone sermons of days past; we’ll have trauma counselors available during the offertory.

For those of us who have not met him before, our story starts with a mighty general – Naaman. I was tempted to break with Southern tradition and refer to him as his name is given in Hebrew: /nah-ah-man/; but Tim looked at me funny when I called him that so we’ll stick with a more recent transliteration and call him /nayman/. Naaman is the commander of the army of Aram, a nation that neighbored Israel and shared a long history with them.

In Naaman’s time – as it had in the past – that history had turned hostile. Naaman had recently lead a successful campaign against Israel, and his king was very pleased with him. Naaman is the very picture of achievement and pride, He is at the top of his profession, a complete success, with access to every symbol of wealth, prosperity, or power he could imagine.

There’s only one problem – Naaman has a skin disease. Older translations refer to it as “leprosy,” but we now understand that it probably wasn’t anything we recognize as a modern illness. Although the exact details of the disease are not known; we do know what happened to those who had it. They were the victims of a highly visible and greatly feared plague; and it was not unusual for their friends and families to cast them out. Even a mighty general like Naaman was likely to be looked upon – not as a gifted leader – but simply as “that leper.”

Human beings are always suspicious of what they cannot control, and always eager to find reasons to attack, belittle, or segregate others (especially when they are successful). In the ancient world, leprosy provided the perfect excuse to mock an accomplished leader like Naaman. Despite all he had achieved, the wounds on his skin were probably more painful emotionally than physically; and any time someone saw them Naaman’s pride most likely turned to shame.

There was no cure for the disease, and neither Naaman’s soldiers nor his powerful political allies have any solutions to offer him. The answer, in fact, comes from a young slave girl whose name – sadly – is lost. There is no social position in modern society as low as that of this girl – she’s a captured Israelite taken into Naaman’s household to serve his wife. She has no reason to want to help Naaman, no reason to think he would believe her, and certainly there was no expectation on Naaman’s part that the foreign slave who lived beneath his notice would offer the solution to his greatest sorrow.

But Naaman receives his first lesson in mercy from the young girl. Perhaps she sympathized with the loss his disease had brought him – a dramatic reversal of fortune not unlike the one she had experienced as a captive. Perhaps she was a genuinely kind person, or a genuinely pious one who would not withhold the miraculous touch of God from anyone – even an enemy. Whatever the reason, the young captive becomes the hero’s hero and tells her mistress that there is a prophet in Samaria who can heal Naaman.

That prophet is Elisha, and our Scriptures are full of stories of his miraculous acts – dramatic events which even included the raising of the dead. When Naaman hears of Elisha, he immediately goes to his friend and liege – the King of Aram. In short order, Naaman is on his way to the King of Israel bearing a letter from his master and an astonishing panoply of gifts.
This is perhaps the first of many signs that Naaman is a bit thickheaded. His slave girl sent him to a prophet in Samaria, so he goes to the king in the capital instead. It’s an easy mistake to make. In Naaman’s world (one not unlike our own) kings and generals are the people who made things happen. Their word is law, and at their command mighty deeds are accomplished swiftly.

Naaman hasn’t figured out that power is not what he needs, and that no amount of human effort is going to heal him. What he needs is a miracle, and miracles rarely co-exist with monarchs. Hope and humility do not take root well in hubris and self-sufficiency.

So Naaman stands before the king he had so recently defeated on the battlefield and presents a letter from his own monarch. It’s content is straightforward: “When this letter reaches you know that I have sent to you my servant Naaman that you may cure him of his leprosy.” This is not unlike the President sending the Secretary of State to Iraq and saying, “Here is my friend – I expect you to make him grow wings and teach him to fly like an eagle.” with the implied understanding that if he can’t do it; he’ll be invaded again. I hope no one from the White House is listening, because they might actually try that.

The King of Israel is horrified. The Arameans have already proven that they can defeat the Israelites on the field of battle. Now they are asking the impossible of the king, and he has no answer to give. In his fear and grief, he tears his robes. Imagine the sight! The King of all Israel quivering on his throne in shredded finery while the mighty general stands before him diseased and shamed.

Surrounded by wealth and power, accustomed to their own efficiency, it never occurs to them to follow the simple advice of the captured slave girl. Seek out the prophet.

Fortunately Elisha hears of their confusion, and tells the King to send the mighty general to him; and that’s where Naaman went – with his entire entourage. Chariots and horses, wagons laden with treasure, servants and soldiers all thundered across the plain to present themselves at Elisha’s doorstep.

With such a grand arrival, Naaman clearly expected that the humble prophet would come out and greet him. Instead, Elisha’s sends out one of his own servants with an almost dismissive, one-sentence command: “Go, wash in the Jordan seven times, and your flesh shall be restored to you and you shall be clean.”

Clearly this is not what Naaman expected. Perhaps he thought that the holy man would step outside, and in a whirl of incense and incantations perform a complicated (and maybe even painful) ritual. It’s another reminder that things have not changed much in several thousand years – what we think we need is rarely what we actually need.

Naaman gets angry. “We have rivers at home far nicer than the ones in Israel! Wouldn’t I get much cleaner in them than I would in the muddy Jordan?” He’s right, in a sense. He might indeed get a type of cleanliness back home, but Elisha is offering him something much more valuable: true healing and restoration; not because of what’s in the water but because Naaman was willing to be obedient.

Again, the mighty general has missed the obvious, and again a servant points it out to him. Perhaps with no small amount of fear, the man steps forward and says “If you were told you had to do something hard to receive this gift, wouldn’t you do it? Why, then, aren’t you willing to do something easy. All he said to you was, ‘Wash, and be clean.’”

If it were hard, then you’d do it – but you refuse when it’s easy? Right there’s the water…wash and be clean!

This image has carried obvious weight with Christians of every generation. The waters of the Jordan are reproduced in baptismal pools and baptismal fonts and even in shallow creeks and deep rivers around the world. Broken and afraid, feeling separated from the mercy and love of God, people seek every possible source of hope and healing. Our sins and weaknesses glare out at us as obviously as the marks on Naaman’s skin. We cannot imagine that anyone could love or forgive us, and we certainly cannot imagine that a holy Creator would be willing to accept or heal us.

There’s the water…wash and be clean.

Naaman did just that. He went under the water seven times, and when he came out of the Jordan his skin disease was gone. Miraculous, graciously, Holy God had healed him completely. All he had to do was accept the gift that was offered him.

In some ways, it hardly seems fair. I’ve watched loved ones suffer with terminal or debilitating illnesses. Why didn’t God miraculously heal them? Centuries later, Jesus even points out that there were many lepers in Israel at the time and Naaman, the foreign conqueror, was the only one healed [Luke 4:27].
There is never a good answer to that question, except to say that no amount of physical healing changes the reality of our mortality. A colleague recently suggested that a seminary student do some hospice work as a chaplain, saying that working with the dying would be a good part of her training. Another colleague piped up with the cheerful reminder that, “That’s all of us. We’re all dying.”

As much as we desire it, the physical healing that Naaman received is not what we really need. There is a brokenness inside us, an emptiness that can only be healed by the mercy and love of God. We try to fill that emptiness with the things that look like they should fix it, particularly the ones that make us feel good; when what we really need is to know that the one who made us sees us as we really are and loves us still.

That kind of healing is eternal. There’s the water…wash and be clean.

In a sense, that sounds too easy – and it is. The gospel is not a one-note song, and throughout the Bible there are strong warnings to those of us who would be cocky in our faith. We are reminded that carrying the cross of Christ demands much of us. Those are sermons for another time, however.

This text is for those of us who have stood with Naaman – shamed, hopeless, and searching. For those of us who are accustomed to relying on our wits or skills to fix our problems. For us, the message is simple: quit looking elsewhere, quit trying to do this yourself, quit making things more complicated than they are. The mercy of God flows as freely as the rivers in springtime. There’s the water…wash and be clean.

There’s no complicated theology we have to memorize, no catechism to learn. There’s no secret handshake to get in the club. In fact, after he is healed Naaman doesn’t even understand how to respond to the God who transformed him. He thinks that gods can only be worshipped on their native soil; so he wants to carry a couple wagonloads from Elisha’s garden back to Damascus with him. He just doesn’t get it.

Yet God healed him anyway – despite his continued pig-headedness. It’s a reminder to those of us who sometimes take theological wrangling and debates a bit too seriously. Bad theology can hurt people, and theological ignorance has been the force that has driven many good people from the Church. Those battles are worth fighting; but it is not good theology that saves us. It is the mercy of God, the unlimited, freely given mercy of God that heals people – not right theology.
That’s a dangerous thought. Imagine the arrogance of God to think that our consent and our insights are not necessary to heal people! Imagine offering mercy and hope to people who don’t even understand what they are getting!

That’s not all there is to a life of faith, but that is the heart of it. What we really need, we cannot provide. What we’re looking so hard for, we will never find. Unless we take what is freely offered. There’s the water…wash and be clean.