Sunday, February 12

Sixth Sunday of Epiphany

Get in The Water Already!

No one, it seems, is particularly impressed with Naaman.

Some of my seminary friends remembered him, but not with any great excitement.

Other friend suggested that the story about Naaman is just dull.

The historical commentaries i read to prepare for this sermon gave him a bare mention. He's just some guy that Elisha healed. Perhaps he was an important military leader for a time, but eventually Syria would be conquered and all of Naaman's heroism would be for nothing.

But here he is in the reading for today. Really, there are twenty-seven verses committed to the story about Naaman. Given the state of scholarly and popular opinion, it is no wonder that the lectionary committee shortens Naaman's time in the scriptural limelight is whittled down to fourteen verses. But what an amazing fourteen verses! We learn a great deal about Naaman.

He was a great military leader. He was well known, and feared, feared enough that the King of Israel, trembles at the announcement of his visit. He rends his garments, tears his own shirt off his back in fear, frustration and anger. Unlike the scholars I read, the King thinks a great deal about Naaman. You could say that He was quite impressed.

Elisha's response is more in keeping with the scholars I read. When Naaman arrive, Elisha sends a messenger. He does not go out to meet with Naaman himself. Perhaps there is a safety concern. He does not want to contract the disease himself. But then it doesn't say much about Elisha that he would then send his servant in his stead!

Maybe he simply cannot be bothered with Naaman. He is not as impressed as the King. Perhaps Elisha knows something we don't. Unmoved by the man's greatness, he simple sends his servant with a a simple message. “Go to the Jordan and take a bath.”

Naaman is enraged. He has been slighted by this prophet. Remember. Israel is a conquered land. The King fears Naaman because Naaman's people have beaten many other powers in the area. The servant who told Naaman about Elisha was an Israelite slave. He has been slighted by an Israelite. And if that were not enough, the task set before him is beneath him. Bathe in the Jordan? Naaman is not impressed.

The Jordan is unimpressive.
The rivers in Damascus run clear. The Jordan dries up in the summer.
The task is unimpressive.

That Elisha sends his servant is unimpressive.

Naaman is impressive. He wants you to be impressed with him.
And he wants to be impressed. He wants a great task.

He wants to be remembered.

Like Hercules.

Like Gilgamesh...

...or Beowulf...

...or Wolverine from the X-men.

This is what his servant guesses at least.

“Father, if the prophet had commanded you to do something difficult,
would you not have done it?”

Yes, please. Give us something difficult. This is what many of us might least I know I would. Give me a challenge. Instead all any of us hear is “Wash and be clean.”

It's so simple. “Wash and be clean.”

These, if we are honest with ourselves, are terrifying words. “Wash and be clean.”

So welcoming...

“Wash and be clean.”

So generous...

“Wash and be clean.”

That's all.

That is all you have to do to be healed.

But don't you want me to do something, Lord? I've been to good schools. I have studied with wise professors. I associate with the right people. I am ready, primed and ready to do something great! Give me a challenge.

But no, says God. No.

The thing that Naaman did that was so great...the thing that Naaman did that made his story worth 27 verses of scripture, worthy of remembering, is to actually heed the advice from his servant...his societal lesser.

Let all of those things go, Naaman.

God does not need you to fulfill some great task.

No, God requires the heart*.

So, Naaman, what are you waiting for? Get in the water already.

Don't you want to be healed?

Get in the water already.

And this is what tells us who Naaman really was. He was the man who was able to hear those words...and from his servant no less. He went to the Jordan river and washed the disease away.

What makes him worth remembering is that Naaman was ready. After all of those accomplishments, all of that work, all of that grandeur – Naaman was ready.

He was ready to let it all go.

All of those things that defined him, that were to preserve his memory...
in the end they meant nothing.

The reason why we remember Naaman at all is because he was ready. Naaman was finally ready to hear the invitation and respond. He was ready to get in the water.

This is the great puzzle about God's healing grace and is not that God is unwilling to heal us or heal the world. No. God sent his Son for this very purpose. But this is a constant question is it not? Why are some healed when some are not? Why do bad things happen to good people? Many of us have spent time mulling this over.

One of the pieces to the conversation that I believe is neglected when we speak to spiritual or emotional healing is someone's readiness. Is someone ready, as Naaman was to hear such an invitation? Is someone ready to respond?

In 12-step jargon it is referred to as a “bottom.” It is that moment of clarity, when you have sunk so low that disillusionment is a gift. It is the moment when the words “You have a problem” finally hit home an are heard. For some people the bottom can be really low. They could be in jail or in a hospital. Their spouses could be divorcing them and their kids no long want to talk with them. Sometimes it takes someone else's death to bring the addicted person around to see reality for what it is. But by then, of course, it is perhaps too late.

Some people never hit their bottom. They never have that moment of clarity no matter how low they get.

I like to think that Naaman hit his bottom. Here was a guy on top of the world. Then one day he contracts a disease that will leave him outcast, enshrouded in rags, living off the scraps that others leave for him. This is what Naaman has to look forward to. I imagine this reality played into his ability to hear the words of the servant. Get in the water already.

Not only individuals hit bottom.
Communities can as well.
Entire countries can. Perhaps even the planet can.

I guess most people have heard about the uproar by now. A Danish newspaper printed cartoons depicting the Prophet Mohamed. It took about four months for word to get around, but now there are riots. People have been killed. Embassies have been attacked. Companies have been boycotted. And in every corner, someone has something to say about it. Myriad bloggists have been speaking out. Every possible position is being articulated to one degree or another. The media speaks out proclaiming the right to a free press. Governments speak out against one another. Liberals call for understanding. Conservatives call for retaliation. Moderates call for patience.

Many people are rending their garments over this. We know one another by reputation. We fear one another for good reason.

But have we not yet had enough?

Aren't we done with all of this?

Perhaps not. Maybe we have not yet hit bottom.

We are not yet ready...

...not ready to get in the water.

Nonetheless, Naaman stands before us today. He is at the door.

His story is for us. “Wash and be clean.”

Get in the water already.


*These are words introduced to me by Sister Marie Goldstein, a sister of the Sacred Heart of Mary.