II Kings 5 (Selected Verses) (The Message)
Naaman was a general of the army under the king of Aram. He was important to his master, who held him in the highest esteem because it was by him that God had given victory to Aram: a truly great man, but afflicted with a grievous skin disease… So Naaman with his horses and chariots arrived in style and stopped at Elisha’s door. Elisha sent out a servant to meet him with this message: “Go to the River Jordan and immerse yourself seven times… ” Naaman lost his temper. He turned on his heel saying, “I thought he’d personally come out and meet me, call on the name of God, wave his hand over the diseased spot, and get rid of the disease. The Damascus rivers, Abana and Pharpar, are cleaner by far than any of the rivers in Israel. Why not bathe in them? I’d at least get clean.” But his servants caught up with him and said, “Father, if the prophet had asked you to do something hard and heroic, wouldn’t you have done it? So why not this simple task ‘wash and be clean?” So he did… Then Naaman and all his attendants went back to the man of God. He stood before him and said, “Now I know that there is no God in all the world except in Israel… But there’s one thing for which I need God’s pardon: When my master, leaning on my arm, enters the shrine of Rimmon and worships there, and I’m with him there, worshipping Rimmon, may you see to it that God forgive me for this.” Then Elisha said, “Everything will be alright. Go in peace.”
This is one of my favorite passages of Scripture… And it reminds me a lot of a television show I had been watching recently called "The Good Place." In case you haven't seen this show before "The Good Place" tells the story of four individuals who end up in "the good place," aka heaven. However, they soon discover that what they thought was "the good place" is actually the "bad place" and they try to better themselves to escape. Each person had to come to the realization that life is not as clear cut as we want it to be. Sometimes our morals, our ethics, our beliefs, conflict with the complex nature of life.
Now I'm not an all-knowing judge who can make a declarative statement of who is in the so I can't say whether or not Naaman was a bad person, but I can imagine that he was probably carrying some baggage of his own. As a commander in the Syrian army, Naaman received quite a lot of respect, and we actually discover that God, the same God who is the God of Israel, helped Naaman win a battle for Aram. God seems to works in mysterious ways, ways that go beyond our comprehension, that exceed logic and reason… Just imagine a scenario where God was helping one of your enemies or that person who is a thorn in your side… I don't think we would be thrilled at God helping that person out, but it highlights the truth that God proves that the world doesn't revolve around us.
So we may assume Naaman is so "great" that no one, or nothing, can ever touch him. But we will discover that Naaman soon becomes a man who is "unclean," an individual who no one will approach out of fear. In Israel, it was common for people to be quarantined for a least seven days if they were found to have a disease that was not adequately treated. What a surprise it must have been then to see someone like Naaman riding into Israel, a foreigner, a stranger, a sick man, Naaman did not fit the mold when it came to blending into as he tried to seek out help from the prophet Elisha.
At one point nearly all of us has felt leprous, marginalized from at least one group we would like to have desperately been a part of. So maybe we can begin to feel Naaman's pain as we see him slowly being pushed out of his society to the margin… Perhaps we can empathize with Naaman, maybe we can see how we have pushed others our to make ourselves "clean." The pain, the conflict, the sense of loss that we all have experienced are essential, but they should never take such a priority in our lives that those feelings then justify our need to keep people out who are so desperately looking for healing of both the body and the soul.
I can't imagine what it must have been like to have been in Naaman's situation. The kind of situation where desperation hits so hard that it pushes you to look for answers in unusual places. When I look back at my father who was diagnosed with cancer, I remember how many people gave advice on how it should be treated and how he should change his lifestyle during the process… And at that moment where we realize we have no control over the outcome, I imagine that is the kind of desperation that Naaman was feeling. It is the desperation that drives some people onto the black market in search of medicines our society doesn't sanction. It's the kind of desperation that sometimes drives lonely people to marry abusers and materially poor people to take out rash loans and then become victims of an oppressive system.
Naaman is at his wits end! He has tried to find healing and a solution to his problems but has come up empty-handed. In the act of desperation, Naaman succumbs to following the advice of his wife's slave who told him that there was a man in Israel who could relieve him of all his afflictions. Naaman must have been in a pretty lousy place… Maybe we've been in a situation like that as well, a place where we have tried all of the options that we could find, but ended up having to seek answers from an unlikely source. That takes a heart that humble and willing to admit that they aren't always right.
We find out that humility takes more than just asking for help… It takes a solid action, a step that genuinely shatters our sense of importance. Naaman was a military commander, a high ranking official, a pseudo-celebrity… So when he came seeking help from Elisha, he was expecting to be healed in a way that suited a person of his stature… It must have been humiliating than to hear that Elisha's only prescription for his situation, his disease, was to go and wash in the Jordan River! There were so many other options that would have been suited for a man of Naamans stature, but this simple task of bathing to be clean almost tripped up Naaman… I think that when we think about the work, Christ has given us we often get tripped up on the straightforward tasks of what it means to be disciples (i.e., love one another and be humble).
The Jordan River would be comparable to the Hudson River in New York City… I'll admit that I wouldn't dare swim in the Hudson, and the Jordan River was just as bad. The Jordan River wasn't even suitable to cleaning if you are trying to imagine just how dirty the Jordan River really was. But it's down at that riverside, its when we gather at the river that we discover that the waters of the Jordan River represent more than just a dirty river. It's when we gather at the river, we come to understand that God does not care about our social status, our wealth, our education, and our accomplishments, but instead cares about whether we are going to take a leap of faith and surrender all of those things in order to pursue a new purpose that is not centered on the characteristics of this earth.
Part of this story about Naaman that wasn't included in this morning's reading is that Naaman bottles up soil from Israel to bring it back to Aram. It might sound strange for us today, but again then gods and other deities were viewed as social beings… Each god, each divine power, had its own territory. So in collecting soil from Israel Naaman was making a statement and a rather profound statement. After being healed Naaman had a radical shift in his religious values, one that takes him from believing in a pantheon of gods to just think that there is the only one true God of Israel… It is what allows Naaman to say, "Now I know that there is no God in all the world except in Israel." Have you ever had a moment of clarity like Naaman? Perhaps it doesn't have to be that profound, but maybe you've had a time where something just clicked into place, and things began to make sense.
At the end of the day, who here doesn't feel a sense of conflict between their life and their faith?!? Naaman knows this feeling and openly admits it to Elisha and asks, "Now I know that there is no God in all the world except in Israel… But there's one thing for which I need God's pardon: When my master, leaning on my arm, enters the shrine of Rimmon and worships there, and I'm with him there, worshipping Rimmon, may you see to it that God forgive me for this."
Now Elisha could have taken the hardliner position when it came to Naaman's request… Elisha was under no obligation to pardon Naaman or anything like that, and it would have been easy for Elisha to say, "You know what Naaman? You are either for us or against us." But Elisha doesn't answer any of those things… And instead, Elisha turns to Naaman and says, "Everything will be alright. Go in peace." "Go in peace, shalom, be whole, be still, and know that God is with you." If we were in Elisha's place, would we have offered such words of love and grace to Naaman? Or would we have taken that hardliner position? I would hope that we would realize that our lives have not always been perfect, that there have been times when our faith and our lives were at such conflict with one another we have had to compromise on certain things. But at the end of the day, we still know that God is waiting for us with an understanding heart.
I find that we often get hung up on "the good place" and "the bad place," and as a result, we end up with some convoluted point system that we continually run through our heads. What we find this morning is that our actions, while they are essential, are not the only thing God cares about… I believe that we see that God cares more about why we do things and what exists and the heart of our very being. We may not have leprosy, we may not have found that we have been marginalized or excluded, but we find that we treat others as though they have leprosy. And it's at the Jordan River, that good ol' dirty river, where we gather together to experience the healing grace that only God can provide.
So shall we gather at the river? So that, "On the margin of the river, Washing up its silver spray, We will walk and worship ever, All the happy golden day." Amen.