2Kings 5:1-14; Matthew 3 (Jesus’ Baptism) July 29, 2018
In the past few weeks we have been to several rivers in the Bible. We have crossed the Red Sea, we have heard about the river of life in Ezekiel, and we have had a story about the Jordan River— when Joshua and the people crossed the Jordan with the Arc of the Covenant. Today we have two more stories that involve the Jordan River, two very different stories about two very different men; but both men walk into the water and know that life will never be the same again.
This is one of my favorite stories in the Bible, and I think it’s because the premise is so familiar. It’s about an important man who has to learn that he’s connected to other people; it’s about a little girl who, in her compassion, desires for her captor to be healed. It’s about a couple of Kings who don’t know where to find answers, and about a prophet that wants to keep things simple. But mostly it’s about all of us who find out that health, or our lack of it, is something that unites us all—we are all susceptible to things we can’t control; there are always ways in which we cannot heal ourselves.
This story actually reminded me of a podcast I was listening to with Kate Bowler. Kate is a professor at Duke Divinity School whom I have mentioned before because she has a recent book out and a blog about her own diagnosis of stage 4 cancer how she’s living into that diagnosis day to day. The part that I was reminded of as I read this story of Naaman again, is how much we would prefer to keep our dignity, our pride, our prestige intact when we are dealing with things that render us vulnerable. Kate says that at each new doctor’s appointment when she meets someone new, she finds herself telling them about her life— about teaching at Duke; about parenting her child; about the book she has written. She does this, because she wants them to see her— to see her as the human being she is; to see her and all that she has accomplished. She wants them to know that it is important that they pay attention and bring their best “A game” to caring for her. In a sense, she tries to put on her identity that is stripped away when we have to put on those blue hospital gowns.
Naaman wants this too. He is frustrated beyond belief that he is sick in the first place— after all he is a mighty warrior! He has won battles against the Israelites! He is strong and courageous and the very picture of health and wealth— except that he has this skin disease that’s affecting his life. In his desperation to find some relief from it, he actually listens to his wife’s servant girl— a girl, who in the Hebrew could be translated as a very little girl. Someone who is the opposite of all that Naaman represents. She is small; she is weak; she is never listened to; she is considered unimportant. But Naaman hears her somehow— hears that she knows something he doesn’t know, which is that there’s a prophet in Israel who can heal him. And so he sends word to his King for permission to go to Israel and seek this cure. But when he finally gets to Elisha— after a huge blunder between the Kings where the Israelite King tears his clothes out of grief that the other King is trying to start another war with him by asking him to heal this man of leprosy which he clearly can’t do; and the other King is sending gifts of clothes to the Israelite King in hopes that he can buy the cure— Naaman finally gets to the right house— to Elisha’s house— and Elisha sends an errand boy out to tell the infamous, the General, the mighty Naaman, to go bathe in the river Jordan seven times.
And Naaman is not just insulted, he’s enraged. Naaman has hit bottom. He’s desperate for a cure, but he’s also disgusted with himself. He had convinced himself that he was invincible until he got this disease. He had considered himself above human illness and weakness and pity. But now, here he is, a stranger in a strange land, a land he has conquered a time or two, and instead of washing in the rivers of his own homeland— rivers that are far purer, far cleaner, far more beautiful than the Jordan, he is told to wash in the Jordan River— a river far too muddy for the likes of him. A river that is so far beneath him, in fact, that he almost goes home without even trying the cure.
It is the same river, that hundreds of years later, Jesus will willingly walk into to be baptized by his cousin John. It is a river that many people before him had been walking into in order to be baptized by John— to repent and turn their lives to God— to give themselves to a new way of life, to a new order of life, to newly prioritizing their life to follow this God named Yahweh. And Jesus walks into that same river.
At some point, we all have to decide who it is we are going to follow. And Jesus makes his claim firmly with the God of John the Baptist— this God named Yahweh who once told Moses no other name than “I AM.” This God who created the heavens and the earth and as each thing was created, called out that it was good. And that goodness wasn’t an inherent goodness in each thing, but rather, in the Hebrew when God says “It is good,” God means the goodness between everything— the goodness in and around everything— the goodness that comes from all of creation working together. This is the goodness that Jesus keeps pointing to time and time again. This is the goodness that not only was Jesus baptized into, as God names Jesus good and beloved and God’s own child; but it is also the goodness that each one of us is baptized into, that connects all of us and makes us who we are so that we can hear God’s voice calling us beloved. But this naming of us as beloved is not a “you are more special than someone else.” Rather, this being beloved is part of God’s love for all creation and for the ways in which we all are part of that creation.
Which is why the miracle that I love in the Naaman story isn’t that once he washes seven times in the Jordan he is cured of his leprosy— although that’s a beautiful thing as any of us know who have been cured. The miracle that I am most interested in, the miracle that seems the most miraculous to me, is the connectedness that Naaman finds. Here is a man who for his whole life believed he was a self-made individual; that he was strong of his own accord; that he had gained all that he had in life by his own two hands; that he had pulled himself up by his bootstraps; and then when illness came, he had to find a new narrative. Instead of being stubborn and seeing his end as a tragedy, Naaman eventually chooses to be connected to other people— to listen to a little girl’s wisdom; to listen to his servants when they encouraged him to do the simple thing Elijah’s servant had told him to do; to humble himself long enough to bathe in the river of his enemies — not just once but seven times— and find new life. As he comes out of the river the seventh time, we are told that his skin is like that of a child’s. But I think his heart is like that of a child too as he goes to Elisha to thank him and to let him know that from now on he will be following the living God.
That is the Kingdom of God. That when we are willing to say goodbye to the lies we have been told and the lies we have been living on, that God will provide truth and life and healing. That when we are willing to let go of our privilege and our power and our might, God will be waiting with better gifts of vulnerability and love and hope and a future. That when we walk into the water and hear God call us beloved, we know in our hearts that we are wholly loved not because of who we are but because of who God is. Our lives are changed forever when we give up the lives we thought we wanted and instead let Christ claim us as his own.
I don’t know what you need to give up today, but I do know that God is waiting for you. I don’t know what lies have been crippling you and isolating you from your family and your friends and neighbors, but I do know that God is waiting for you. I don’t know what keeps you up at night that you need to turn over to God, but I do know that God wants you to put your faith and your trust in Christ so that you can have new life. The good news, is I’m not even going to ask you to go bathe in the Mississippi River seven times! You are invited into new life today, here, and now. Jesus invites you to leave behind what is getting in your way, and to receive the life and healing that God is offering you. Please pray with me:
God of us all, your healing and life are abundant to us, and yet so often we close ourselves off from you— clinging to what we think we want, clutching our pride. Open our hearts today to receive your love. Heal us in the hurts that we have experienced, give us hope in places of suffering, and give us what we need to trust fully in your love so that we can receive new life today. In the name of Christ we pray, Amen.
Bowler, Kate. Everything Happens For a Reason podcast out of Duke Divinity School, 2018. Thorne, Adrienne. onscripture.com, July 3, 2016 Koenig, Sara. workingpreacher.org, October 10, 2010 Harper, Lisa Sharon. Truth’s Table podcast on July 7, 2018. House for All Saints and Sinners Sermon podcast for July 10, 2018 Working Preacher podcast for July 3, 2016