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The River Jordan from LookLex Encyclopaedia and an illustration of Naaman

Healing Naaman

2 Kings 5:1-14
Mark 1:40-45

February 15, 2015

Year B

This morning I invite you to imagine who you are in this story. It is a story of power and privilege. Where do you see yourself in this Old Testament story?

A few minutes ago we heard the story of Naaman the Syrian, whose main claim to fame is that Jesus mentioned him in a sermon once (Luke 4: 27). Today in the Mark text the writer makes sure that we know there is a prophet in their midst and that the people can be healed of leprosy, just like in the past. It’s the Old Testament trickling down into the New Testament. Naaman’s story is found in Second Kings. First and Second Kings, by the way, are just what they sound like a history of the kings of Israel, from David to Zedeliah. Naaman appears in the story about halfway through, in the ninth century before Christ, when Jchoram was king of Israel. Although Israel and its neighbour Aram (which we now know as Syria) were frequently at war, in this story, they are momentarily at peace.

Aram has a better army and Israel knows it. Israel even knew the name of the commander of the Aramean army, since he had beaten up on them more than once. His name was Naaman, which means “pleasant,” an unlikely name for a warrior perhaps – but even his enemies admitted that Naaman was a great man, whom God had favoured in battle.

Think, John Baird, or Peter McKay, only with one important difference, Naaman did not photograph well. He had leprosy, which was not as big a problem for a Syrian as it might have been for a Jew, but having leprosy really bugged Naaman. He was a national hero, for goodness sake.

He had an office with a view at the Aramean Parliament buildings, he hob knobbed with the heads of state. But there was always that awkward moment when he met people for the first time. Some handled their surprise well, but others stared at him, or looked quickly away. He had learned the hard way about shaking hands. He found it was better to offer a slight bow, with both hands clasped behind his back. That way he did not have to watch the other person decide whether or not to be brave when he held out his scabby hand. He was so tired of seeing the question register on their faces. Good lord, is that stuff contagious? Poor guy. It must be awful to have to deal with that. Why doesn’t he just stay home and spare himself this humiliation. But their questions were nothing compared to his own. If God favoured him, then why was he sick? And, why couldn’t anyone in Aram make him well?

Naaman’s help came from a source he never expected. It came from a young Jewish girl who had been taken captive during one of his military raids on Israel. She was the least of the least in Aram, a slave, a child, a girl. The Book of Kings doesn’t even give her a name. But she is the one who leads Naaman to his cure. She did not speak directly to him, he was far too scary for that, but she spoke to his wife, whom she served. “If only my lord were with the prophet who is in Samaria!” she said to her mistress one day. “He would cure him of his leprosy!”

It was a preposterous suggestion. When the king’s own physicians had failed to do Naaman any good - was he to go hunting for a faith healer in Israel on the advice of a pre-adolescent serving girl? It was absurd, but Naaman jumped right on the idea. If you have ever been that sick yourself then you understand why he acted so quickly. Once you run out of respectable doctors, having done everything they prescribed, once you have taken the pills, applied the poultices, practiced the twenty minutes of positive imaging, practiced your yoga, and run 5K and nothing has changed, well then, if some one tells you of a clinic in Mexico with a doctor with a degree in veterinary medicine has discovered a substance that works wonders on humans, there is a good chance that you will go there. It may sound preposterous, but if you really, really want to get well, then you can’t afford to leave any stone unturned, even if the stone turns out to be a holy man in Israel.

As soon as Naaman’s wife told him what the servant girl had said, he went to see the Armean King who was happy to oblige his star general. “Go then” the king said to him, “and I will send along a letter to the king of Israel.” Naaman took the letter, and he went home to pack. Since he had no idea what a cure for leprosy would cost, he emptied his bank account, he loaded his chariots with seven hundred and fifty pounds of silver, and with one hundred an fifty pounds of gold, plus ten sets of fine clothes. Then he kissed his wife goodbye and he set off for Israel, where he presented the letter to the king.

“When this letter reaches you,” it said, “Know that I have sent to you my servant Naaman, that you may cure him of leprosy.”

It was a nice gesture, however misguided. The problem was that Naaman’s boss, the king of Aram, did not understand about real power. He thought the king of Israel was the man to see. He thought that if there were a cure available in Israel, then the king would surely know about it. But the king did not know about it, because the only power he had was political power, and military power. He did not know one thing about healing power, the power of the spirit, and so he was very upset when he read the letter.

The first thing he did, before he told anyone what it said, was to grab his royal robe and tear it right down the middle, then he howled out loud. “Am I to give life or death,” he said,” that this man sends word to me to cure a man of his leprosy?” It sounded like a trap to him. The king of Aram had asked him to do something he could not do so that Aram would have an excuse to declare war on Israel. It was all politics to him; that was all he understood. Word of the king’s distress got around town pretty quickly.

When Elisha, the prophet, whom the little Jewish serving girl knew about, even though the king of her country did not, when Elisha heard about what was going on, he sent a message to the king, asking, “Why have you torn your clothes?” Then he said, “Let him come to me that he may learn there is a prophet in Israel.”

That may not have been a strange message at the time, but it sounds pretty strange now. Who would think of going to a prophet for a cure? For a prediction about the future maybe, or for a hair rising sermon on the righteousness of Yahweh, but for the cure of a skin disease? What a strange idea. But as I said before, when you really, really want to get well, you will try anything. So Naaman got directions to Elisha’s house and he went there.

Once he arrived in a cloud of dust with his eight white horses pawing the dirt and his gleaming chariots sliding to a halt, this would be quite a show. Then he lined up all of his horses and chariots in the front yard of Elisha’s house and he waited for this prophet to come out. What was the protocol exactly? Should he approach Elisha, or should he let Elisha approach him? Was he suppose to kneel, or something? He hoped not; kneeling was really out of the question. He would offer a slight bow, with his hands clasped behind his back. “Good sir” he would say, “I am General Naaman, commander of the army of the king of Arman.” That should set the proper tone. Then he could soften the conversation up a little. “I have heard so much about you and I come with high hopes, and I have quite a lot of money besides. I am prepared to pay whatever you want for your services.”

While Naaman was still rehearsing his speech, the door to Elisha’s house opened and a messenger came out. “Go, wash in the Jordan seven times,” the messenger said to Naaman, “and your flesh shall be restored and you shall be made clean.” Naaman was so surprised he hardly heard what the man said. What kind of shabby welcome was this? Where was Elisha the man of God? At the very least he owed his visitor a seat in the shade and a cup of cool water. Couldn’t he even come out of his house and say hello?

Naamna was furious. He had fully expected Elisha to come out into the yard and to greet him, he expected him to say some grand words, to make some grand gesture. Naaman expected to be cured and to have a large audience watching, no one would ever forget this event. Instead he was being sent away by a messenger to splash in the muddy Jordan River like a five-year-old boy. He, General Naaman, commander of the army of the king of Aram, with nine hundred pounds of gold and silver in his luggage.

It was all too much. He ranted and raved, “Are not Abana and Pharpar, the rivers of Damascus, better than all the waters of Israel?” he spat out. “Could I not wash in them and be clean?” Then he turned and went away in a rage. His servants must have known him pretty well, well enough to know that he was more hurt than angry, because they tiptoed up to him and they convinced him to give it a try. “If he had given you something hard to do you would have done it,” they reasoned with him. So he gave you something simple. So?

It was the beginning of Namman’s cure. He was completely emptied out. His royal connections had gotten him nowhere. His reputation had gotten him nowhere. His bags full of money had been no help. Elisha would not even come out of his house to meet him, and now, he had been given this supremely stupid thing to do. He was going to have to strip down in front of all of his men, and take the world’s longest bath in a river that barely came up to his knees.

But because he really wanted to get well he did it. He left his shoes and his clothes on the bank. He picked his way through the rocks to the deepest part of the river, where the current bumped against his body like soft pillows. The water was greenish and it smelled of fish. There was nothing remotely sacred about it. Naaman found a place to kneel and he sank down for the first time. It was cold under the water but on top it was warm. He did not dare look at his skin. Seven times he made the passage from cold to hot, he made the passage from the water to the sun.

Each time he rose he sucked in air like a newborn. Then he went down again with his eyes wide open so that the sky wrinkled and turned as green as the water. He tried not to think of anything but the numbers. By the seventh time he was winded. He was also very clean. When he looked down at his skin, he saw the flesh of a five year old. It was smooth and fresh, he was well.

Later on he tried to pay Elisha, but Elisha would not hear of it. “Your money is no good here,” he told Naaman. “The work done here is done for free.” So, if money and wealth was the main concern, then it was a cheap cure. All Naaman had to do was follow directions. All he had to do was empty himself out, abandoning the pretence that who he was, or what he was worth, could get him what he needed. All he had to do was strip himself down until his hurt flesh was exposed for everyone to see and then go and play in the water like a little boy.

I could explain this story to death, but I don’t think I will. You may never hear this story again, but maybe the next time you are reflecting on your life, you will remember that great leprous man, Naaman, whose wealth and power turned out to be useless to him in his search for healing and wholeness. Naaman was ready to trade in all of his wealth, but then he experienced a lesson that surprised him and it turned out to be a cure that cost him none of his silver or gold, but what he had to give made him truly free.

Remember that line, “Every time he came up out of the water he sucked in air like a newborn.”

That is an interesting line. I believe it suggests that we are always given the opportunity to be made new, and always given opportunity to take in what we need when we are ready. Naaman moved into that place where healing became a possibility. He slipped down under the water and as he came up, over and over again, he glimpsed each time the healing that was possible. Being made new became a reality for Naaman.

Reflection: Who were you in the story? I invite you to reflect on that choice and how does that play out in your life, or how does it allow you to be changed?
Sharon Ferguson-Hood