I love it when a Bible story tells itself
and there is nothing left to say.
So all I am going to do
is unfold that story about Naaman
and invite you to take it home with you, as in:
take it inside yourself and take it home
and let it just sit there and speak.
Naaman was a powerful man.
Naaman was a great man.
Naaman had a direct relationship with the king.
It wasn’t just a professional work relationship either.
The king loved Naaman.
The tragedy in the story
is that even with all the power and authority
and connection to high places that Naaman had,
he lost his power.
Even though the king didn’t want him to lose his power
he lost it any way because no one could stop it.
Naaman had leprosy.
In the social climate of his time and place,
amidst the frailty of economic life in the ancient world,
coupled with the absence of modern medicine
and the absence of even a rudimentary social safety net,
leprosy was a cliff from which its victims fell;
all of its victims, sooner or later.
So Naaman went from the White House
to the outhouse.
Overnight the great man,
the powerful man,
the big man
was reduced to living on the margin of society.
But this is not a story about the fall of a powerful man.
This is not a David Cameron
or Richard Nixon,
a Woody Hayes
or even a John Edwards story.
Honestly, Bible stories are never
the story of powerful men.
They are stories about the difference
between authentic power and coercive power,
not about the men or women that use them.
Now notice please,
who delivers Naaman from his misery?
It is a slave woman.
She was a prisoner of war,
an Israelite captured by force
then taken from her home
and made a spoil of war
for the great man Naaman.
There can be little doubt
she had been raped and abused
and enslaved to work
for Naaman’s wife.
So think about that:
If Naaman was on the margin,
this slave woman was so far gone that she had no hope
of ever having a life worth living again.
So we can only speculate about her motives
for helping the great man, Naaman.
Perhaps she recognized that her fate
was inextricably tied to Naaman’s fate
like it or not.
So she whispered into his ear
about a certain prophet in Israel.
But let’s not miss the irony here –
and there is a lot of irony throughout this story.
She whispers into the ear
of the commander of Aram’s army
and Aram was a nation at war with Israel.
Imagine that Joseph F. Dunford, Jr.,
the Marine Corps General who is now Chairman
of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff,
was told to go seek the help of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi,
the top imam of ISIS (if he’s still alive).
“All you have to do, Joe, is go over to Syria
and track down Abu Bakr al Baghdadi with a drone,
or however you can find him,
and ask him if you can talk with him for a few minutes.”
You see how difficult that whisper in Naaman’s ear was –
for both Naaman and the slave woman?
She was telling him to cross over the border
of hate and vengeance
in order to preserve
his very life.
Next up is a sneaky little device in the story
meant to really punch the moral home.
The hopelessly marginalized slave woman
voices the hope in this story,
and tells her master to go see the prophet in Israel.
But the great man Naaman,
the powerful general
and his even more powerful king,
both assume she meant that they were to go see
the king of Israel in order to find the cure.
Why, when clearly the slave woman said “prophet”
would both of those powerful men hear, “king?”
Because people with power
look to other people with power
and right past everyone else.
This error on their part
leads to a complicated encounter
that almost ends up in disaster
with the Israelite king thinking that Naaman
has been sent to insult him or something.
But fortunately for Naaman,
the Israelite prophet, Elisha,
recognizes a huge opportunity.
He figures that healing Naaman
will get the attention of the whole nation of Aram
and so provide an opportunity
to introduce all of them to Yahweh, their God.
What could be better than having your enemy
encounter and become devoted to your God?
Well, the rest is, as they say, history
even it this story never happened.
But there is one scene left.
Naaman comes riding in on his chariot
surrounded by horses and cavalry
looking elegant and powerful even in his leprosy –
it’s easy to picture dust swirling with a huge commotion
as the military contingent arrives at what they expect
will be a castle or temple
as impressive and magnificent
as the great prophet is powerful.
Only they discover Elisha lives in a little hut,
so small as to be momentarily obscured
by the cloud of dust.
What is even more embarrassing
is that Elisha never even comes out to see Naaman.
He sends a messenger instead!
“Go wash seven times
in the Jordan River and you will be made well.”
But Naaman freaks out.
There are bigger and better rivers where he comes from
and if he wanted to wash in a river
he would have done it already.
The great man roars with bitterness and resentment
that he had expected
that surely the prophet himself
would come out of his hovel
and wave his arms
and make him well
with personal attention.
But no, he sends a messenger with a stupid instruction.
Naaman gallops off in a rage.
The poor once-powerful man is
humiliated by a prophet who lives in a squalid hut
that won’t even come outside and speak to him.
Now, once again we should notice the intentional ironies
laced into this story.
Who saves the day?
Naaman’s other servants.
They come to him quietly,
bowing in great deference
so as not to get beaten if he is angry.
They offer him the gift of eloquently simple logic.
“If the prophet had asked you to do something difficult,
like standing on one hand for three days
and then eating the hindquarter of a hyena,
you would have done it, right?
Well this is simple.
Why not try it?”
It is not only Naaman’s arrogance that is the problem.
It is his pride
because it evokes in him both shame and humiliation
at the thought of publicly displaying his disease,
and therefore, his dire need for healing.
He does not want to make his need public.
He does not want to acknowledge his brokenness
in front of other people.
He wants a direct path to power.
He wants direct action that fixes the problem.
He wants it all done behind closed doors.
You see, that is how powerful people fix problems,
out of view from ordinary people
and among other powerful people.
So this is not a simple healing story
about a great and powerful man restored.
The ironies and the voices
tell us what the story is really about.
WHERE is our healing to be found?
across the scar tissue of historic hostilities;
across the limits of class;
across the barriers of race;
across the differences of culture;
across the presumptions of power;
across the arrogance and pride of religion.
In WHAT is our healing to be found?
In the public waters of mutual need;
in the ordinary waters of human pain;
in the nearby flow of common brokenness,
ours and everyone else’s.
From WHOM is our healing made known?
From those at the margins;
from those who see us from the bottom up;
from the very people we least expect;
from people who are often
the victims of our abuse of power;
from people on whom we have perpetrated
crimes against humanity
that we have not even recognized as crimes
and rarely accepted as our crimes.
Where is our healing to be found?
In what is our healing to be found?
From whom is our healing made known?
This odd little story
about a leprous general
and in the midst of it,
we discover it is a story about
and from whom
our healing comes.