2 Kings 5:1-15
Chilmark Community Church
July 3, 2016
Rev. Vicky Hanjian
Jesus loved a good story. And he didn’t hesitate to use a good story to make a point. It is curious that he used the story of Namaan the Leper as a reference point in one of his first public encounters after he came out of the wilderness following his immersion in the Jordan. One has to wonder why. Perhaps Jesus had an affinity for quirky stories.
Namaan was a chief commander in the Aramean army. Aram was one of the ancient names for Syria – mortal enemy of Israel. Namaan was the Syian general responsible for the death of the Israelite king, Ahab, whom we met briefly as one of the antagonists in the story of Elijah and his muddy run for the mountains a couple of weeks ago. Once that bit of tribal warfare was over, Namaan came home with military honors and a lot of booty, including “a young girl captive from the land of Israel” (5:2 NRSV). He also came home with leprosy. The first of the quirks – – a powerful general, honored and respected, brought low by, perhaps, the most stigmatizing disease of all – a very visible skin affliction called leprosy.
The second quirk – – a nameless, young, female slave, essentially invisible and voiceless in her slave status, an Israelite, puts forth the possibility of healing for her master – maybe he could go to see Elisha, the great prophet of the Israelite God – the prophet who inherited a double portion of divine power from Elijah, his predecessor.
Quirk number 3 – Namaan actually listens to her! – and acts on her recommendation! He goes to the king of Aram and gets a letter of introduction to the king of Israel – the sworn enemy of Aram. A letter asking a personal favor -please see to the healing of my general, Namaan. How quirky is that?
The request causes a bit of a freak-out for the king of Israel because he is sure he is being set up for another battle with Aram because he has no way of personally healing Namaan. But Elisha emerges from the background and says he will attend to Namaan’s search for healing
It is rather fun to imagine this mighty general, Namaan, riding up to the hut of a rather wild and wooly prophet – – dressed in his military might and finery – -carrying all kinds of gold and silver, expecting a dramatic healing ritual – lots of hand waving and incense and prayers etcetera, etcetera – – and all Elisha says is “go wash yourself in the Jordan river 7 times -and you’ll be healed.” Bathing in the Jordan to be cleansed is a quirk all by itself. For all its significance in the biblical narrative, the Jordan is a frequently shallow, very muddy, often slow moving river. I once heard an Israeli tour director say that people would never ask to be baptized in it if they knew how many water-borne parasites made their home in the river. – Perhaps another quirk in the story. The rivers back home in Syria were much cleaner and made more sense.
At any rate – Namaan overcomes his indignity at the behest – again – of his servants – who point out that this is such a simple solution. If Elisha had asked him to do something very difficult to be healed he surely would have acquiesced.
All he is asked to do is to immerse himself in the river 7 times in order to be healed of the leprosy.
Namaan bathes in the Jordan, and his skin is restored to wholeness “like the flesh of a young boy, and he was clean.” (5:14)
The climax of the story happens when Namaan comes and stands before Elisha, the man of God, and declares that “Now I know that there is no God in all the earth except in Israel.” (5:15).
So we have a quirky story of a powerful Syrian general struck with a humiliating skin condition that separates him from the rest of society, advised by a slave girl, sent to an enemy king for healing, passed along to the quintessential man of God, encouraged by his servants, healed by immersing in a muddy river, returning to exclaim his awareness of the God of Israel.
In an article in The Christian Century (June 20-27, 2001, p. 12) Peter Hawkins wrote: Why do I love this story? Servants telling their master what to do. Enemy kings doing one another’s bidding. Elisha’s moxie. Namaan’s injured pride overcome by his desire to be made whole. The backstairs conversations between servant and mistress, the official missive from one king to another, the “dis-ing” of the River Jordan.
It is full of quirkiness – – It’s the stuff of TV drama! But beyond that it is a rich and useful story about the quirky places where we find God at work in the world. A voiceless, anonymous slave affects the direction of the story. Enemies collaborate in the movement toward healing. Pride of place is subverted in the service of healing. A grudging trust replaces skepticism. The least likely place becomes a place of healing. The uniqueness of God is affirmed. Perhaps, as quirky as anything, is the story teller’s skillful play with the politics involved in the whole situation – – somehow, the thing that transcends is the power of God to heal -in spite of the political enmity between Israelites and gentiles, in spite of the low status of the servant actors -in spite of the resistance of kings and generals. God hides in the quirky details.
Peter Hawkins writes further: In his first sermon in Nazareth, Jesus caught some of this extraordinary richness. In fact, he used Namaan’s healing by Elisha as the ancient Hebrew warrant for his own ministry to the gentiles – the outsiders: “There were many lepers in Israel in the time of Elisha the prophet, and none of them was cleansed except Namaan the Syrian” (Luke 4:27) Jesus plays with the politics implicit in the story, making good use of the perennial tensions between Jew and gentile, us and them. He exploits the essential edginess of the tale, and as a result, pays a price in that Nazareth congregation: “when they heard this, all in the synagogue were filled with rage. They got up, drove him out of town, and led him to the brow of the hill on which their town was built, so they might hurl him off the cliff.” (4:28-29).
Quirky stories can get you into trouble. Funny that these stories are ones that often reveal the movement of the Holy One. The divine message that gets transmitted is that God will be what God will be – – and our human resistance to the great unfolding of the Holy cannot thwart it. Jesus trusted all the power that was poured out on him when he went through his own immersion in the muddy Jordan. He heard and trusted and internalized and lived out the words he heard when he came up out of the water: “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” (Luke 3:22)
As I was sorting through some files this week, I came across a quote from the late Alan Rickman, perhaps best known for his portrayal of Professor Snape in the Harry Potter movies. I have cited him before, but his words seem quite appropriate again this morning: “It is a human need to be told stories. The more we are governed by idiots and have no control over our destinies, the more we need to tell stories to each other about who we are, why we are, where we come from, and what might be possible.”
Our stories connect us with where we come from, for sure. Jesus seemed to know that. He drew upon one of the most intriguing stories from his own past to make a point to his audience in Nazareth. He wanted to remind them of their own heritage – – of how God works in, not only mysterious, but occasionally in mischievous ways, to keep the great story of God’s people moving. Lepers and kings and slaves and prophets and muddy waters are the stuff of God’s story. Jesus used stories to create newness and hope and transformation. Sometimes his stories were subversive – – they undermined the status quo and made people uncomfortable. Jesus’ stories almost got him thrown off a cliff and eventually got him crucified. But his story goes on.
As we come together once again to share in communion, we are called to remember the stories – – all of them – – stories about the way the Holy One flows and weaves throughout our holy history – sometimes hidden -sometimes revealed – but always in motion. We are called to remember that the love and power of God is a love that seeks wholeness, a love that embraces and celebrates diversity, a love that transcends ancient enmities, a love that reverses social classes, a love that permeates all the quirkiness of our lives. All of that is present as we share in the bread and the cup. May we feel our connectedness with our deep roots in the story of God as we break bread together. AMEN