II Kings 5:1-14 July 3, 2022
How did you learn to swim? I wanted to learn swim without getting wet, get my strokes down and then zip out into the water like a dolphin. However, my first swimming “lesson” involved two camp counselors tossing me into the deep end of a pool. I struggled to the surface, spluttering, eyes stinging, dog-paddling till I could grab the edge. Then they threw me out further. I made it to safety by the force of outrage. I wanted revenge more than survival. At age six, that did not go well for me. The endgame involved laughing teenagers and third toss in the pool and probably other things I have repressed. So, when my parents suggested swimming “lessons,” I was not a fan. I went arms crossed and pouting. Most of the lesson involved playing Simon Says. “Simon says get your toes wet. Get your shoulder wet. Simon says get your hair wet.” The “reward” was supposed to be a trip down the water slide, which was terrifying. I held onto the slide and inched my way down it while the line behind me told me to move it. Over time I conquered my fears, joined the Y swim team, and became a reasonably mediocre competitor.
This story shows my lifelong learning style. My first response is to read about something, learn all I can, practice out of the spotlight, and trying to master the skill before actually doing it. In other words, I want to be an expert before I get wet. You know this does not work. Most of my important life lessons came from a plunge into the deep end of reality. Learning to preach, fly a plane, speak a foreign language, get married and become a parent all involved a dive into active learning. Vulnerability, fear, humility, curiosity, survival, and blind luck were all necessary factors. I now reluctantly embrace getting wet as a part of growing.
I understand Naaman and his resistance to go to the Jordan River to be healed. This is a classic story of a great hero who must become vulnerable to become whole. Naaman is at the highest levels of achievement and competence, a victorious general of great renown, but he has leprosy. Superman, the man of steel, is susceptible to kryptonite. Achilles is might in battle but vulnerable where his mother held his ankles while dipping him in the River Styx. These stories remind us that vulnerability is a part of being human.
Naaman had leprosy, which was more than a health problem. Social and moral implications were also in the mix. A wide variety of skin conditions were lumped together under the term leprosy, and Leviticus outlined guidelines for priests to examine people to decide if they were contagious or not. (Yet another thing I did not learn in seminary!). Leprosy was seen as a curse or the result of sin. Of the 61 defilements in ancient Jewish laws, leprosy is the second most serious, after contact with a dead body. People with leprosy were forced to stay at least 6 feet away from physical contact to avoid contagion. (Sound familiar!).
I bet leprosy created rumors around Naaman. Is the general guilty of some secret sin? Can we go near him? Is he competent to lead us in battle? Will we lose God’s favor in the next war? This skin condition had national security implications.
Who is going to solve this problem? A Jewish slave girl, captured in a border raid, speaks of the great prophet Elisha, known to cure diseases. The Hebrew text emphasizes she is a “small slave girl.” She may be the least powerful person in all of Aram (Syria). Her suggestion went from Naaman’s wife, to Naaman, to a conversation with the king about asking a foreign prophet of an adversary to heal their great general. This simple suggestion from a small voice will involve careful international diplomacy.
The political leaders of the two nations completely botch the negotiation. The king of Aram sends a letter and a caravan of gold and silver. The letter reads, “When this letter reaches you, know that I have sent you Naaman, my servant, that you may cure him of his leprosy.” Crucial information is left out, like finding Elisha the prophet. Israel’s king freaks out, rips his clothes, and says, “I am not a God. I don’t have the power of life and death and healing.” It’s a trap. When he doesn’t heal the general, the invasion will come. It is fascinating the author of the book of Kings is showing us that two kings are incompetent to deal with something as simple as one man’s chronic health problem. II Kings is not a narrative glorifying kingly power and wisdom. The king of Aram thinks money and wealth will solve the problem, but gold does not heal. And Israel’s king sounds anxious, paranoid, and cowardly. Notice that neither king gets a name in the story. They are just as nameless as a slave girl.
Elisha is the non-anxious hero needed to sort out a crisis. Step one for any leader in trouble is to deal with your fearful emotions first. Remember this next time you are in a problematic situation. Great leaders manage themselves first. Elisha sends a message to the king, “Why have you torn your clothes? Let him come to me, that he may learn that there is a prophet in Israel.” What a confident gangster-like move! “Why are you tearing your clothes, king? That was a terrible press conference! Elisha doesn’t bother to show up. He sends a messenger to the king and says, “Hold my beer.”
Naaman now travels to Elisha’s house with his chariots, war horses, silver, and gold. This display of wealth and power is supposed to awe Elisha. But what does he do? He sends a messenger to say, “Wash in the Jordan River seven times, and you will be healed.” Naaman is insulted by this ridiculous suggestion. In his mind, Elisha should come and face him, wave his hand over the leprosy spots, and heal him in a ceremony worthy of his importance. And why the Jordan River? It’s a small muddy river when Aram has beautiful, mighty rivers of sweet, clear water. Why can’t I just go home and wash in our rivers?
Elisha’s cure is psychologically brilliant. The powerful general who has conquered many lands must be humble enough to wash in the little muddy river of a minor rival. It’s terrible publicity. Few people look good after being dunked in water, wet hair clinging to their face, clothes stuck to their body, lips spluttering. Naaman must do this seven times. He must be baptized in a foreign river. A baptism is an act of humility. You must be washed and made clean. You are submerged in a unfriendly environment where you can’t breathe. The hope is you emerge as a new being, healed by grace to be who you are meant to be in God’s eyes. Martin Luther said remember your baptism every day. Remember it every time you wash your face. You live by grace. You must get wet.
No wonder Naaman just wants Elisha to wave a hand over him and be healed. I wish every peace deal, every act of Congress, or divided Supreme Court decision required leaders to dunk themselves in the rivers of their opponent seven times. Putin must be submerged in the Dnieper River outside Kyiv (shirt optional). Zelensky must go to the Volga. Congress should have an annual day to humbly walk out into the Potomac, or every state governor must go wade into the river of a state governed by the opposite party. Maybe every voter too. Elisha says the way towards healing is to swim in your opponent’s river. You must get wet.
Who will save Naaman from his pride? Once again it is a lowly servant who saves the day and convinces him to go. It’s not his king telling him to do whatever is necessary and get back to work. It’s not a trusted advisor. It’s a servant who is humble all the time who sees what must be done and says, “Naaman, if the prophet told you to do something hard and courageous, you would do it. All you must do is bathe in the river. Isn’t your healing worth it? I don’t see any better options.”
Finally, Naaman takes the plunge, and dips himself seven times in the Jordan; and he emerges a new man. It is not only his skin that is healed. This effects his soul. Naaman understands God in a new way. His awareness of God is opened, as he sees that other rivers, other peoples, are just as sacred as he is. This God works not through kings and generals but small servants, strange prophets, and acts of humility.
So where is your river this morning? Where are you called to take a step into a vulnerable place. You don’t want to do this thing, but you need to for wholeness, to be your best self. Where do you need to see a conflict from a different point of view, or deal with an old resentment? What life change do you need to be healthy? What important goal or decision have you been putting off? What river must you wade in? Friends, claim your baptism. Live in grace. Whatever it is you must do, God will go with you. Just remember, you must get wet.