Text: 2 Kings 5:1-14
Reading the Bible can be intimidating. Many translations use peculiar terms that are difficult even for clergy to define. The depiction of God, humanity, and the world is clearly from another time—specifically thousands of years ago. Then there’s the rampant symbolism, the stories that seem to have no specific purpose, and sayings and teachings that don’t make any sense. We sense an apparent disconnect with our contemporary world. And I haven’t even started on the OT yet!
Our apprehension (I feel) is tragic. Because if we listen for the Holy Spirit as we read and consider the texts and stories of the Bible, we will discover our own story.
As foreign as it seems, as archaic and distant from our world as it appears, I believe we each can find a part of ourselves and our faith journey in our OT lesson today.
Were this text made into a movie, it would have to be a western. The opening scene is the classic spaghetti western opening: a stranger comes to town.
That stranger is Naaman, played by Clint Eastwood, who keeps to the shadows. He clearly hides a secret, though no one knows what it could be. Naaman will not allow anyone to get close enough to find out.
He is looking for someone, of course, as we expect from the setup. He carries a letter, which he routinely fingers nervously, and in his bag are many gold coins. Is he a bandit? Where did the money come from? Who is he looking for? Why has he come to town?
Speculation runs rampant in this dusty, has-been mining town as all are simultaneously drawn to and withdrawn from the stranger who stays in the shadows…the stranger who has yet to speak.
After getting a room and some food & drink, the dark stranger Naaman drops in on the Sheriff, played by Henry Fonda. Their eyes meet and something fearful passes between them. Without speaking, Naaman tosses the wrinkled envelope on the Sheriff’s desk. The Sheriff’s eyes widen upon seeing its seal; they flash back to Naaman again. The Sheriff opens the letter and scans the page (though we cannot see what it says). He stiffens, quietly exclaims “O God,” and the scene ends.
Flashback montage: some time before.
Naaman is a powerful military man, responsible for many battles and well respected, not to mention wealthy. But Naaman also has an illness, a wound. Time and again we see Naaman traveling to see a different doctor, who prescribes some sort of snake oil or lets some blood, and who takes his money. None of it brings him any healing, and most of it introduces more pain. He travels to and sends for every doctor within a hundred miles or more—all of them are happy to relieve him of his money but none of them bring him any healing relief.
Naaman becomes increasingly desperate, willing to try anything, pay any sum of money. Much to the chagrin of those who respect him, Naaman even begins looking beyond the traditional answers.
Within his household is a young Indian girl, who was captured in one of the conflicts where Naaman fought. This servant girl, who doesn’t even get a name in our movie, suggests that there is a medicine man in her village who could give Naaman the healing he desires.
Naaman obtains a letter from the governor instructing the local authorities to do everything in their power to facilitate Naaman’s healing. Cut scene.
We are again standing in the Sheriff’s office, where we left Naaman and the Sheriff, letter still in the Sheriff’s hand. For the first time, Naaman slowly and silently reveals his wounds by removing his hat…his outer garments…his shirt… Standing before the Sheriff, he breaks the silence with his first words of the movie: “Where is he?”
The Sheriff, of course, has no idea where the healer is, though he has an idea of how to get a message to him. Every month or so a few of the tribe’s leaders come into town to trade for supplies. As movie luck would have it, they are due any day now, and the Sheriff promises to point them out to Naaman.
Now the next part of our movie involves waiting for the Indians to show up, as well as the predictable confrontation between the locals and the Indians when they do, on account of prejudice and cultural differences. The Sheriff is more interested in keeping the town together than he is in keeping his promise, but when Naaman comes to the aid of the Indians, he earns their respect. They will not permit him to return to the village with them, but they will carry his message to their healer.
This segues into a video montage, alternating between panoramic scenes of the West as the Indians ride to their village, and cloistered, dark scenes of Naaman waiting. Upon arriving in their village, the Indians approach the shaman, perhaps played by Iron Eyes Cody, who mysteriously already knows what they are going to tell him. He dispatches a rider to return to Naaman immediately with his message.
The rider tells Naaman the Shaman’s words: he must bathe in a muddy tributary nearby where cattle are watered; then he will be healed.
Naaman is furious and lashes out:
Why couldn’t the Shaman be bothered to come himself or allow Naaman to come to him?
Bathe in that filthy, stinking creek? If bathing is needed, there are cleaner, better places to do it.
And where is the ritual? the magic? It has to be more complicated than bathing.
Naaman roughs up the Indian messenger, mutters some unmentionable things under his breath, grabs his bag, hops on his horse, and rides home.
Naaman doesn’t speak in the next few scenes, which depict life as normal for Naaman. But he has again experienced the devastation of expectation, of returning from failure to a life filled with pain and empty of healing.
Some of those in his house—perhaps the same Indian girl—try to reason with him. “Why not try it?” they ask. “What’s to lose?”
After a few days and movie moments of soul searching while a heart-wrenching ballad fills the soundtrack, Naaman is again on his horse, riding through the desert, eventually wading through a minefield of cow-pies and mud into a dirty brown, stagnant-looking creek. After submerging himself, he breaks out of the opaque water into the crystalline sunshine, muddy brown clinging to every inch of his skin and he knows, as somehow do we, that he is cleansed…he is redeemed…he is healed.
Perhaps this telling is too Hollywood. Perhaps I have taken too much “artistic license.” But I want you to see it anew, fresh. Sometimes we have to have new eyes to recognize what God is showing us.
Like Naaman, we are all hurting. We may not have leprosy in a literal sense, but we are hurting just the same, and we may sense a stigma attached to our pain. There is something that eats away at each of us: greed, lust, envy, revenge, regret for actions, you name it. Like Naaman, we are hurting, and whatever it is, it hurts badly and it will not go away. Like Naaman, we may have exhausted our imagination trying to heal our hurt on our own, to no avail.
Some of us, recognizing that we cannot heal ourselves, eventually go to God in the way that Naaman went to Elisha. And we want “the same kind of quick and glamorous healing that Naaman thought he deserved” (Jones, Feasting on the Word, 340). But usually, like with Naaman, God asks us to do something we resist.
Naaman resists Elisha’s instructions because they didn’t meet his expectations. Naaman has tried too many things to accept easy answers, so he is skeptical of something so simple. Elisha’s advice doesn’t make sense to him—it is in conflict to his own thinking, his own opinions, which would suggest that there are better places to bathe, that there can be nothing special about this river.
And like Naaman, when God does not conform to our expectations, we can get angry. We invest so much in the outcome we expect, that we feel betrayed when God does something unpredictable. And God frequently does something unpredictable.
This is a story of hurting and healing. It is also a story of expectation and experience. In this community of faith, both stories are particularly appropriate right now.
This is a painful time for all of us. It is a time of transition, a time when our expectations aren’t panning out, a time when trust seems violated, a time when we have to admit God is doing something unpredictable, a time when we come to terms with our own need for healing.
Our initial response is much like Naaman: We get angry: angry for getting our hopes up, angry for wasting our time, angry for being misled, angry for trying so hard; angry at God, angry at each other, angry at ourselves.
When God seems to turn the tables on us, especially when we are so vulnerable, we resist with everything we have.
So it is with gratitude that we encounter others, as did Naaman, who help us see through our resistance. The Bible is unclear about who it is that talked Naaman into following through on Elisha’s instructions: perhaps it was his wife, perhaps his best friend, perhaps it was the same Israelite servant girl, as I suggested earlier.
Sometimes the voice of reason that we hear is our spouse, our best friend, our pastor or mentor, a song on the radio, something heard on TV, or even a stranger passed on the street—but whoever it is, they help us see through the artificial barriers we put up.
The voices of reason for Naaman argued from the perspective of results: “You wanted healing, right? If he is promising healing, why not give it a try? Heck, didn’t Elisha guarantee that this would work? What do you have to lose?”
And you know what? It worked. Even though it didn’t happen the way Naaman expected. Even though there wasn’t enough “ritual” to make the “magic” work. Even though there was nothing special about the river. Even though the instructions didn’t make sense. Even though Naaman could think of a hundred ways to do it “better,” it worked.
Now I fear I’ve been a bit erratic this morning, so I want to close by condensing all this into a three-point sermon.
At the end of the story, Naaman is throughly cleansed and redeemed. Assuming someone out there wants to be cleansed and redeemed too, I suggest Naaman experiences healing because of three behaviors in which he participated (Carl, Feasting on the Word, 343):
First: Naaman “went to a place he had never been before.” Healing in your life will probably take you places you’ve never been. We should expect this: After all, if we could be healed by going to the places we’ve already been, we would have found it on our own already.
Second: Naaman “listened to subordinates who knew better than he did where he could get the help he really needed.” I don’t think God has ever really liked top-down models of operation and information flow. I usually find God working in a subversive bottom-up kind of way. Be prepared for God to work & speak through people who are less credentialed, less experienced, and less expected.
Third: Naaman “agreed to do what God asked him to do to allow God to cleanse him completely.” Naaman went somewhere unexpected and new, and he listened to unorthodox voices, but Naaman never experienced healing until he agreed to do what God asked of him. We must fully agree to what God fully desires if we want to be fully cleansed. You can’t argue with the math.
I suspect our healing will take us to a place we have never before been. I suspect the journey will require listening to all voices, especially those that we have not actively pursued. And I am confident that God will cleanse us and heal us completely if we agree to do what God asks of us.
The outcome we desire—healing and restoration—can be had; God just may defy our expectations about how that will come about. Just ask Naaman if you want a witness.