This is a story full of unlikely messengers. (Read the text: Here and listen to the Working Preacher commentary: Here)
Naaman hears about Elisha from a servant girl, a foreigner carried off in one of his raids. It’s hard to imagine a man of his stature, “a man of valor,” apparently busy with the work of war, listening to one of the least important servants in his household, but he does. Namaan himself commands the army of Syria, but the story reminds us that his victories come from God. He has purposes to fulfill for the God of Israel.
Namaan is a warrior, a man of accomplishments on the battlefield, but his particular skills are useless in this battle against illness. The abilities that serve him well in war – quick decisions, energy, moving decisively forward – are useless in this fight. We can imagine the level of his frustration at being so powerless.
When Naaman comes to Elisha, via the king of Israel, Elisha sends out his own messenger. He leaves Namaan standing in his doorway, and asks someone to tell him to wash in the Jordan River. The story doesn’t say why Namaan stomps off in a rage, although we can imagine several possibilities. Perhaps this remote instruction doesn’t seem special enough, or personal enough, or show enough deference. Again, his servants provide the wisdom, and encourage him to comply. To Namaan’s credit, he listens to his servants, and goes to bathe in the river. And to his credit, he returns to Elisha to thank him, and offer a gift.
Elisha won’t take anything, so Namaan asks for some earth from Israel, so he can worship the God of Israel from now on. He even hedges his bets, asking for forgiveness for future times when he has to go to the temple with his boss, the king, and worship there. Namaan is healed of his leprosy, but his identity also changes. Michael Coffey observes that “Naaman needed to reach out for help. He needed healing…The prophet Elisha was a wise man. He knew that Naaman’s healing and transformation were not simply about a cure for his leprosy. Naaman needed to submit, know his weakness and dependence on others, expand his view of who was connected to his life, get naked and humble, and let go and die to his old self…In his acceptance of his weakness and dependency on someone else, in his realization that he cannot live his whole life only trusting in himself, in his encounter with the God who is well beyond his control and manipulation, Naaman discovers his true healing, his transformation into a whole man who can let go and trust others and God.” [Read more of the blog here.]
Elisha’s own servant, who is important enough to merit a name in the Hebrew scriptures, doesn’t fare so well. Greed overtakes him, and he runs after Namaan to ask for the gift Elisha won’t take. Elisha, who was tolerant of Namaan’s pride and arrogance, doesn’t have much sympathy for his own servant’s temptation. Elisha sends the servant out with Namaan’s leprosy. In an ironic twist, the stranger goes away cured, and the faithful servant is now ill.
Some churches will observe All Saints Sunday this week. The sermon might look at the saints who have been messengers in our lives, people who brought truth, or healing or wisdom to us.
Or, it might look at unusual messengers in our lives. When I was a hospital chaplain on the cancer floor, the person who knew best which patients were having a hard time was the woman who cleaned the rooms. She would tell me who had gotten bad news, who needed a visit and who was lonely, and I deeply appreciated her guidance. We all have similarly unusual guides in our lives, just as Namaan has his servants. The sermon could look at people we might overlook, who bring wisdom to us.
The sermon might look at the difference between healing and curing. Being cured of a disease may or may not reshape our belief; we may be healed in spirit and soul, but never cured of the physical ailment. Longtime community organizer Marcy Westerling wrote recently about being diagnosed with late-stage four cancer four years ago, and how she has transformed her life and beliefs since her diagnosis. She observes, “I have noticed many of us with terminal cancer are of good cheer and even invigorated by having no presumption of longevity. We have little choice but to live in the moment; something many talk about, but few can manage. When you live treatment to treatment and test result to test result, there is less room for distraction by petty stresses. We can’t expect to live another year, but if we do survive one year, or five, or ten, we consider ourselves very lucky. My mandate is to live with the shadow of death seated comfortably on one shoulder…” [You can read her entire blog post, reprinted by Yes magazine here.]
Illness is isolating, another point made by Westerling in her blog post. Perhaps Namaan was willing to listen to his servants because he was isolated from other people of his station and status by his illness. Perhaps his circle of friends had dwindled down to his household, if everyone else around him feared his disease. Have you experienced a chronic or acute illness? The sermon might talk about the loneliness of illness, and where we find strength.
What are your thoughts? What do you see in the story? Share with us in the comments section.