By The Rev. Sherry Deets
6 Epiphany – February 12, 2012
2 Kings 5:1-14
This morning I want to talk about the passage from 2 Kings – Naaman and his leprosy. This is a wonderful story for many reasons. It is a passage about the breaking down of barriers and the beginning of new life. You know, one of the oldest story lines in literature is “a stranger comes to town.”
In this case, the stranger is Naaman, a powerful commander in the Syrian army. Naaman makes a good protagonist because he is rich and famous and has access to the best health –care system that money can buy. But, the health-care system in his country just is not good enough to heal him of leprosy. Think how many people you know who have something inside that is just eating them away: greed, lust, envy, revenge, regret for previous actions, you name it. But before we allegorize Naaman’s leprosy into some sort of metaphorical sin, we will just say that he was hurting, and whatever it was hurt badly. It also would not go away. That is the thing about sin—once scratched, it always itches.
Which brings us to the first point of this story: when you are really hurting, you will go anywhere for help, even outside your own nation or community. Imagine an Afrikaner in South Africa who even after the end of apartheid still finds racism gnawing at his soul. One day his young son is hurt badly in an accident and has to be operated on by a black female surgeon. The black surgeon is the only one around, and the Afrikaner knows the surgeon can help his son. So he consents, hoping for the best. Here, in this biblical story, Naaman is ready to try anything. He has already gotten second and third opinions from his own doctors in his own country. But no one has been able to help. So he heads to Israel a little chagrined, hat in hand, begging for some help. Naaman even brings gifts to show how serious he is about getting help. But, when the stranger comes to town, all he spells is trouble for the poor king of Israel. The king’s physicians and advisers don’t know any more than Syria’s. Nervous that Naaman’s displeasure might spell doom for him, the king of Israel tears his clothes in a pitiful Academy Aware performance of overacting.
Enter the prophet Elisha stage left to save the day. Notice he doesn’t have the courtesy to speak to Naaman himself, but instead sends an emissary to speak on his behalf, which drives the impetuous Naaman up the wall. This health-care runaround is wearing thin. No more HMOs for him; no more forms to fill out. He just wants the treatment. But when he hears what it is, he nearly freaks out. “Wash in the Jordan? You have to be kidding! I could have splashed around in our rivers back home, if I had known that’s all it took. How could this Israelite water be any better than ours?” A little national pride rears its ugly head here.
Which brings us to the second point of this text: when you are really hurting, you will listen to anyone with a good suggestion—even those at the bottom of the food chain. Remember how Naaman got to Israel is the first place? The young female servant to Naaman’s wife suggested he go find the prophet for help. And he went on the advice of this girl who was a prisoner! Imagine that. But now, later in the story, he is going to do the same thing again. Just as he is getting himself all worked up over having to bathe in the Jordan, one of his own servants, again at the bottom of the hierarchical food chain, says, “Why not give it a try? What can it hurt?” Again, wisely he listens and takes heed. So Naaman listens to the young slave girl and his own indentured servant and heads for the river to take a plunge.
Which brings us to the final point of this text: sometimes God asks you to do something too, especially to help bring about your own salvation and cleansing. Don’t worry; this is not salvation by works. God is still the one doing the saving and the cleaning. But we still have to step forward and admit we need it; in other words, we still have to repent. We still have to step forward and ask for baptism, and then receive it by going under or having the water splashed over our heads. Either way, we are called to meet God, if not halfway, somewhere along the way. No wonder Paul says in Philippians 2:12, “Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling”.
Naaman works out his salvation with fear and trembling, as he takes a dive into the river. Interestingly, the word for salvation in Greek, Soteria, means complete, whole, in harmony and peace and is a synonym for shalom in Hebrew. In other words, salvation in the Christian tradition means the whole person—not just the Greek idea of soul, but all of who you are, as in the Hebrew word for soul, nephesh.
Do you see the powerful baptismal symbol working here? It reminds me of Jonah being spewed up out of the mouth of the fish onto the shore in another baptismal experience. If you are looking carefully, you will see this image in many movies where someone goes into the water and comes up a different person. Think about Russell Crowe’s character, the hard-driving stockbroker Max Skinner, submerged in a swimming pool on his uncle’s estate in the movie, A Good Year; or Luke Skywalker, who nearly drowns under the water as the walls close in on him in Star Wars. Each time they emerge new person altogether. That is exactly what happened to Naaman. He was thoroughly cleansed and redeemed that day.
Why? Because he went to a place he had never been before, listened to subordinates who knew better than he did where he could get the help he really needed, and agreed to do what God asked him to do to allow God to cleanse him completely. Now, if that isn’t good news, I don’t know what is. Amen.
(William J. Carl III in Feasting on the Word, Year B, Volume 1, p.340-343.)
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