Happy Summer! What a fruitful season: a time for celebrating and playing outdoors. My family and I are so grateful for our brief and lovely vacation last week on the Oregon coast. At home now, we are enjoying time in our backyard, barbequing and playing badminton. Do you ever play? I’ve loved it since I was a kid; hitting the feathered shuttle up into the air and over the net. Only, sometimes it doesn’t go over. It ends up stuck on our side. Are you the kind of person who still rushes over to the other side to get it and help your opponent continue the game? Or are you able to wait and allow them to do their own work on their side of the net? Do you sometimes expect someone to do the work for you?
Seems like that was what was happening for our friend, Naaman, in this morning’s reading from the Book of Kings. Naaman was large and in charge in Syria: a great man, in high favor, a mighty warrior who had lead the troops to victory. He expected that even the King of Israel would do what he asked; after all, he had the King of the Syrians himself to write a letter, and he added plenty of riches to sweeten the deal. And when the King, and the King’s prophet, Elisha, didn’t hop right to it, Namaan, he was rather put out, wasn’t he? Didn’t they know who he was: he was the greatest warrior, of the greatest country, he could do anything. Except. He couldn’t heal himself. He needed help to cure his leprosy.
Now, it’s important when we read stories about Biblical healing that we understand just what was meant by “leprosy”. This was not the disease that we now call “Hanson’s Disease”. The condition in Hebrew called zara’ath referred to any number of skin maladies, from a discoloration to a rash. The reason it was so important, that it rendered someone “ritually unclean”, was because of how the people of the Ancient Near East viewed the importance of the skin.
To them, the skin served primarily as a boundary: it kept the right things in and out of the body. When the skin showed signs of a “breach”, it meant that the person affected was out of balance, physically and spiritually. Today we look at the skin differently. But what about “boundaries”? This is an important topic in world affairs today. What about in our own lives? How do we differentiate between ourselves and “others”? And what do we do when our boundaries become less clear? Do we build walls to keep others out? What is the work that we ourselves must do in order to come into balance again?
Elisha did not rush out to help Naaman; he didn’t do some magical incantation, as Naaman expected from him. Rather, Elisha asked Naaman to do some of his own work. Wow. How does that make us feel? In our relationships, in our government, in our Church? Are we willing to participate in our own healing? Or do we expect others to do all of the healing for us?
There is another player here, behind the scenes: Naaman’s servant girl. So unimportant that we do not even learn her name, a slave captured from Israel, a Jew. And yet, it is she that turns the story around, by evangelizing. It must have taken some courage to share her faith with Naaman’s wife, with the household, with her master. But because of her influence, Naaman changed his mind; and that changed his life. He was restored to a “spirit of gentleness”, and was healed.
We hear the Gospel story of the “great Commission” today; our hymn makes it sound like another military campaign, sure to win victory. Yet, Jesus sends the apostles out simply, humbly: with nothing to offer but their faith, their words. No magical incantations, no riches, no quick fixes. And not everyone was down with that; Jesus warns that these evangelists would often know rejection, and disappointment. The work was not all theirs to do; the people with whom they spoke had to be willing to change, and to allow God to do the changing.
In our Christian tradition, we begin our transformation – as children or as adults – with baptism. This tradition actually began with the Jewish practice of mikvah, or immersion in a pool of holy water, to be used when someone had been rendered unclean, or made a profession of their faith. John the Baptizer built on this practice when he first baptized people in the Jordon River. And Naaman – dear, proud Namaan – struggled with submitting to such a humble practice.
Sometimes simple things seem most difficult, don’t they? We want to step over and do someone else’s work, or have them come and do the work for us. The King of Israel knew that he did not have the power to heal Naaman (it seemed so obvious to him, he was worried that the King of Aram was trying to start a war!); as we read the story, we understand that it is God who does the healing. We sometimes miss, though, that God needs our participation. Jesus, too, often asks those whom he heals to take action: to go and to wash and be made whole.
So, today, what are we being asked to do to heal the breaches in our lives, in our Church, in our community, even in our Nation? What cleansing actions are needed in order for us to be returned to a spirit of gentleness? I understand that many of us do not “like change”; it makes us uncomfortable. We want to just have things go along as they are, thank you very much! Or even better: to return to the way things used to be. But consider this: what would have happened if Naaman had just said, “forget it! If that prophet is not willing to do what I want him to do, then I will just find another prophet who says what I want them to say!”? He would have continued to be unwell; he may even have died. What would have happened if those first 70 disciples had said, after Jesus left, “You know, things were easier before we had to go traipsing around everywhere, meeting people who are not like us, and not knowing from day to day what was going to happen! Let’s just go back to the faith we used to have!”? The Jesus Movement would have died.
God offers us healing, and life; abundance and blessing. God offers it to all of us: no matter who we are, what we own, how we have sinned or how we have succeeded. All God asks is that we participate in it, that we bathe in the waters of our own transformation. That we take the risk to try something new, to meet someone new, to have the gentle humility to welcome the Holy Spirit in the waters of Life. Then will God lift us up, change our wailing into singing, and clothe us in Joy!