Wash, and be clean
| 2 Kings 5
|Sun, February 13, 2000
Rev. Ed Searcy
|A return to the beginnings. That’s what Epiphany is for us each year. It is a return to the beginnings of Jesus’ ministry. This year we revisit Mark’s telling of the preaching and the healing that came in the person of Jesus to the region of the Galilee nearly two millennia ago. Next year at this same time we will be visiting Luke’s version of the story and there we will happen across the tale of Jesus’ first sermon back in his home town of Nazareth ... the sabbath day when he reads from the scroll of Isaiah and proclaims “the year of the Lord’s favour”. It is a sermon that first elicits enthusiastic praise from the congregation as they shake his hand and slap his back after worship. But then Jesus begins to expound on precisely what he means by it all. He mentions how Elijah didn’t help Jewish widows during a famine but instead went to the aid of a Lebanese widow. He reminds them of the prophet Elisha who bypassed many Israelite lepers when he healed Naaman the Syrian. “When they heard this,” reports Luke, “all in the synagogue were filled with rage.” (Luke 4:28). Jesus mentions Naaman the Syrian ... and the congregation is enraged.
I imagine that for many ... maybe even most ... of you mention of ‘Naaman the Syrian’ brings more curiosity than rage. It is hard to imagine a congregation like this one being infuriated at the mention of his name. Well, we’ll see. We’ll see because, as you must already have discerned, this morning we are attending to the story of Naaman the Syrian ... the very one that enraged Jesus’ own townsfolk. To be honest, it is not a story that we have paid all that much attention to over the years. Surely it could not do us any harm to stand under it - to ‘understand’ it - this once. Then again we can never be sure what kind of trouble we may find ourselves immersed in when we play host to the God who is met in stories like this one.
And is this ever a story ... make that a yarn ... maybe even the basis of a wonderful chancel drama. In fact, by the conclusion of our weekly ‘Text to Sermon’ study this past Wednesday morning the group that had gathered to read the story of Naaman was practically commissioning Arla Pinton and Bill Buck to write and stage a dramatized version of this chapter. It has everything. Plot twists. Ironic turns. Fascinating characters. Humour. Greed. Transformation. I have spent the rest of the week trying to imagine who from our number would best be cast in the various roles.
Let’s see ... there is Naaman’s wife and the young Jewish servant girl who Naaman’s own army has captured on a raid into Israeli territory. Little does powerful Naaman know that his future will be forever changed because of the arrival of this seemingly powerless young immigrant child . Then there are the kings - the kings of Aram (ancient Syria) and of Israel. Two potentates who don’t have a clue what they are doing ... and whose bureaucratic bungling almost results in the failure of Naaman’s search for a cure ... not to mention nearly starting another international border dispute. The Israelite king - not surprisingly - suspects the worst of his diplomatic foe. More than that, he doesn’t perceive what a young child can see - that there is a prophet in Israel with the power to heal Naaman. There will of course be plenty of bit parts for Naaman’s huge entourage ... and work for people behind the scenes in collecting the props: ten talents of silver (make that $100,000 worth), six thousand shekels of gold and racks of garments made from the finest Syrian damask ... all gifts to repay Elisha when he works his magic.
Speaking of Elisha ... I wonder who might portray this mysterious figure who remains out of sight for most of the drama. Even when Naaman pulls up at the prophet's door step with his horse drawn limousines Elisha pays no heed. Instead, he sends out a messenger with the simple advice: “Go and wash yourself in the Jordan river seven times”. Naaman can’t believe that he’s come all the way to the backwoods of Samaria in Israel only to be told to take a bath! He’s seen healers before. They always go through some kind of ornate magic ‘hocus-pocus’ ritual. This sounds fishy to him. And he says so. Again, the bit parts in the drama have important roles to play. It is servants who, once more, advance the plot. Naaman’s servants convince him that this ‘silliness’ of washing in the puny Jordan River (when compared to their beautiful rivers back home) can’t hurt ... and just might help. It is after this ... after Naaman finally immerses himself in the Jordan ... that we meet the prophet Elijah’s successor Elisha. Elisha who refuses to accept any of Naaman’s generous gifts ... who won’t take any offerings ... won’t issue a single tax receipt.
Oh ... and there is one other fascinating character to cast (in case you haven’t heard your part described quite yet). It is the one that appears on the scene after the conclusion of this morning’s reading. He is Elisha’s greedy servant Gehazi. Gehazi thinks that Elisha’s budgeting is terribly faulty. He sees that Naaman is just waiting to give something in return for his new found health. So he follows after Naaman and persuades him to give something to the cause, after all. In the end, however, Gehiza is found out ... and winds up cursed with the very leprosy that Naaman has been cured of. So, the story begins with an ‘outsider’ who suffers leprosy ... and concludes with an ‘insider’ who has earned a similar fate. Curtain. Lights. Applause. It is a natural. Auditions to be held soon.
But I don’t envy those casting this drama one critical decision: who will play the part of Naaman? Naaman - the successful, accomplished commander from Syria who does not realize that his success is the result of Yahweh’s handiwork. Yahweh - the God of Israel - is (of course) the unseen character who this drama revolves around. And Naaman’s illness is to be the means by which he will discover this unseen One’s power. Naaman’s illness is key. He has leprosy. But not the kind of leprosy that we imagine. Naaman does not have Hansen’s Disease - the debilitating, flesh-eating leprosy which slowly eats away at those who suffer its effects. ‘Leprosy’ is instead biblical speech for any one of several skin afflictions which, according to Leviticus chapter thirteen, can be very difficult to diagnose. ‘Leprosy’ in the Bible is an uncertain state ... one that calls for the expert diagnosis not of a doctor but of a priest. The term ‘leper’ is then - and now - as much a social and cultural designation as it is a medical one. It identifies one who is ritually and socially ‘unclean’ ... one who shows evidence of being infectious ... impure. A leper is one whose presence may put the whole community at risk.
On top of all of this, of course, Naaman is rich and powerful, arrogant and rude ... not to mention, he is an enemy of Israel. Not exactly the kind of role that members of the congregation are likely to be eager to portray. Naaman is, in many respects, the Other. He is not ‘one of us’. He is the successful outsider ... the powerful competitor ... the sibling who has made it ... and who has no room for the kind of ‘weak-kneed’ faith of a community like this one. Except that he has a nagging problem ... an incurable defect ... a noticeable limp, an obvious flaw, a sick compulsion, an inexplicable syndrome that puts him beyond the pale ... that marks him as one who is impure. And this is a story about what happens when a little servant girl from the people of God - a secretary in the office of the President, perhaps, or a daughter-in-law newly married into the family - uses her low estate to speak truth from the margins to the powerful but needy one . This is a tale about how she starts in motion a chain of events which results in the amazing conversion of one who never imagined that he would bow down before the God of Israel. Namaan is, you see, a proselyte ... a convert. And his is a story of conversion ... of proselytism. Maybe this is why Jesus gets in trouble for reminding his own people of Namaan. It certainly lands him in plenty of hot water these days in these parts!
So maybe we need to go outside of the congregation to cast Namaan. Maybe we should be keeping a close eye on those strangers who arrive here, unannounced on a Sunday morning to see if they, like Namaan, have come looking for healing. After all, it will be critical that whoever plays the part of Namaan can understand his motivations, can ‘get into’ his part. I wonder how often we consider what profound need brings a stranger into our midst. I have the suspicion that too often we think not of what need brings people to worship but rather of what gifts they have to offer. We are especially tempted in this season of the Annual Meeting and of preparing a Nominating Report to be on the lookout for those who can play the parts of Committee Chairs and Board Members and Envelope-givers. In keeping our eyes open, instead, for a Naaman in our midst we will be on the watch for those who arrive here hopeful, but barely believing, that there is healing for what ails them in this place.
Of course, there is another obvious problem with the notion of mounting this story as a chancel drama (not to mention the problem of what to call it: “Naaman the Syrian”? I don’t think so. “The Cure”? Sounds a little too much like a Stephen King screenplay). No, the problem that I have in mind is the set. How will we stage the climactic scene of the drama - Naaman’s sevenfold immersion in the Jordan River? It is the critical moment in the entire story ... the time when this great and mighty foreign commander obeys God. It is a humbling moment. He can not pay the prophet to make him clean. Naaman cannot control his own healing. For once his life is out of his own hands. He assumes that he knows how the script will unfold ... what will happen when he shows up with his cheque book and his request to be made well. But the script is not his to write. Naaman is an actor in the drama, not its creator. The script is God’s ... and it leads him into the River Jordan seven times. Seven times? Yes ... seven. Seven, it seems, is the recommended dose for a cure from leprosy (or so say the prescriptions in the fourteenth chapter of Leviticus). Just as the doctor requires that a patient take the complete course of antibiotics, so Naaman is required to bathe seven times in the healing river. If only we were a Baptist church ... and had one of those full immersion baptismal tanks ... then we would have the perfect set for the staging of this chancel drama. The font could double as the Jordan River.
That’s it, isn’t it. The font does double as the Jordan River. And we have one right here ... every Sunday ... placed where everyone: friend and foe; neighbour and stranger; oldtimer and newcomer cannot worship God without walking around it. Do you see? We have been performing the story of Naaman on all of these Sundays for all of these years without even knowing it. In fact, the casting of Naaman is not nearly so difficult as we had imagined. How many here already know what it is to be a ‘leper’ ... in their family ... among their peers ... at their work ... even in the church? How many of us have come here at one time or another because we had nowhere else to turn for our healing ... because we were responding to some small seemingly insignificant voice that said: “There is One in Samaria, near the Galilee who can heal you”? Who among us has come to this font of life not just once ... but seven times over ... to be made clean and whole? How many Naamans make up a congregation like this ... how many who succeed on all of the world’s terms ... and yet are not whole ... not acceptable ... not well?
To be honest, I am convinced that each one here has what it takes to play the part of Naaman. There are those among us who already know the healing of the cleansing waters of the Jordan ... who have spontaneously sung the lyrics of this morning’s Psalm in their own words: “O Lord my God, I cried to you for help, and you have healed me ... You have turned my mourning into dancing; you have taken off my sackcloth and clothed me with joy, so that my soul may praise you and not be silent” (Psalm 30:2,11-12). And then there are those others here who long to know what it means to be healed ... to know that they are accepted and acceptable to God and to others ... who long to belong and not to be passed by or forgotten or cast out.
They are like the young boy named Bevel in Georgia author Flannery O’Connor’s short story ‘The River’. Brought from a broken home by a neighbour to hear a preacher at the riverside, Bevel finds himself in the arms of the preacher who says to him: “If I baptize you ... you’ll be washed in the river of suffering, son, and you’ll go by the deep river of life ... You won’t be the same again ... You’ll count.” Then, writes O’Connor, “the preacher held him under while he said the words of Baptism and then he jerked him up again and looked sternly at the gasping child ... ‘You count now’, the preacher said. ‘You didn’t even count before’.” Lepers like us are healed when we are no longer discounted ... we are cured when we count for something because we fit ...because we have a purpose ... because we have become actors with a role in God’s adventure series called: “Abundant Life”.
Will Willimon has said that all preaching is baptismal preaching. By this he doesn’t mean that every Sunday is to be a baptismal Sunday. What Willimon means is that all preaching is either spoken for those who have been baptised and who now must figure out what that means for their lives ... or it is preaching given to those who have not yet been baptised and who wonder how much giving up the old familiar gods will cost them when they step into the river. Perhaps you are struggling to make sense of what it means that you have been washed ... healed ... made clean ... wondering at the changes that such a new born life is leading you to inevitably make. Perhaps, like Naaman, you wonder what it will cost you to serve Yahweh when you return to work ... where the over lord who is your boss takes it for granted that you will serve other gods who, you now see, are all frauds. Perhaps you can hardly believe that you are healed ... and find that you continue to live as if you are dirty in the sight of God and of others. Or perhaps you are standing on the verge of the Jordan, wondering if you dare abandon the world’s script and, instead, perform your role in the script given by God’s prophet ... the one whose fame has spread from the regions of Samaria and Galilee here to the banks of the Fraser and the shores of the Gulf of Georgia.
The season of Epiphany is waning. The beginning of the story is giving way to Jesus’ inevitable journey to the cross. Now we turn as a community to the time in our life when we prepare those who have been baptised to renew their baptismal promises ... to re-immerse themselves in the river of life and of suffering love during the season of Lent. At the same time we focus our collective attention on the preparation of candidates for baptism and confirmation here on Easter Sunday morning.
We are standing on the banks of the river of healing. With Naaman we are given an invitation and a command: “Wash, and be clean” (II Kings 5:13). As it turns out, there is no need for Arla and Bill to create a new script based on this ancient story or to spend time worrying about what to name the new chancel play. In truth, we are already actors in this healing plot ... our life together is a risky improvisation of this most holy of scripts. A script which not only portrays the cleansing and conversion of a disbelieving Naaman into a servant of Yahweh, the God of Israel ... but a sacred drama whose final act promises to tell the story of our own healing and of our conversion to the ways of the God made known in Jesus Christ. It turns out that, like Naaman, our lives and our life together are the creative handiwork of the Author of Heaven and Earth who shapes an improbable ending which seems too good to be true ... but not so improbable or impossible in the eyes of the creative Word of God who sees such reborn peoples and says: “Good ... it is very good”.