Naaman Gets Schooled. And So Do We.
It’s story of high-stakes politics, quid pro quo, vast amounts of wealth, and military might. It’s a story of deals between high-powered men in the upper echelons of society. And it’s a saga of international proportions where the fate of entire nations hangs in the balance as war looms on the horizon.
I’m talking, of course, about . . . the story of Naaman and Elisha in 2 Kings Chapter 5.
What? You thought I was referring to the political news of the last few weeks that has captured many of us with fascination and horror? That would be understandable. And it should tell you something.
The story of backroom deals between world leaders, military commanders rattling the sabers of war, and exchanges of wealth and power for personal and political gain is a long-running story. The parallels between the biblical narrative and our own news stories over the last several weeks are uncanny, if not exact matches. In both cases, it’s like we’re watching a made-for-tv saga playing out before our eyes. Day by day, sometimes hour by hour, a new twist, a sudden turn wrenches us in yet another direction, leaving us breathless and dizzy.
Whether it’s the tale of ancient kings and prophets in the Bible, or the modern chronicle of presidents and profiteers, this is not a new story.
The characters may change, the names may be different, but the plot is largely the same.
The account in 2 Kings centers on Naaman, the general of the army from Aram. Do you know where Aram is? It’s the country we now call Syria. Yes, the very same country that is once again in the news as Turkish forces invade the land and our allies, the Kurdish people, are dying in the wake of the U.S. betrayal and withdrawal of troops.
But in the biblical story, the forces of Aram are a threat to another ancient people – the Israelites. Imagine the situation for Joram, the king of Israel, this embattled little tribe always at the mercy of larger conquering nations. The great warrior Naaman comes to Israel with his entourage bearing gifts of silver, gold, and expensive clothing. This in itself is cause for suspicion for King Joram. What kind of quid pro quo is expected here?
When King Joram looks at Naaman, he can see that the great commander has a problem.
He has a disease called leprosy that causes whitening and deformities of the skin in its early stages. In its later stages, it damages the nerves in the hands and feet and can lead to severe injuries and loss of limbs. Naaman is a man in need of healing.
The accompanying letter from the king of Aram fills Joram with dread. ‘When this letter reaches you, know that I have sent to you my servant Naaman, that you may cure him of his leprosy.’
*Gulp* So this is the reason for the unexpected visit. The King of Aram thinks the king of Israel can heal his general? Joram naturally thinks this is a shake-down. He is being told to heal the general, for which he will receive a vast sum of riches. This is, of course, an impossible task for him. So he sees an implicit threat from Aram’s king. Refuse to heal my general, and we will unleash our military forces upon you.
But the letter from Aram didn’t tell the whole story.
In fact, it was wildly inaccurate and left out a key detail. It should have read:
“When this letter reaches you, know that I have sent to you my servant Naaman who has heard from his young Israeli slave girl that there is a prophet in Samaria who can heal him.”
It’s just like men of power and wealth to leave out a key person in the story, isn’t it? They ignore the young, the female, the enslaved. This young girl was captured when the Aram army raided Israel. She has been separated from her home, and, most likely, her family. As the slave of Naaman’s wife, there is no telling what horrors she has endured. And yet, she holds the key to Naaman’s healing. She knows something he does not. She knows about the power of God. And she knows about Elisha, the prophet of God who can cure leprosy.
We don’t know this girl’s name.
None of the men in the story say her name. The writer of 2 Kings doesn’t even regard her as important enough to note her name. But let’s say her name is . . . Miriam. And let’s pause for a moment to recognize the bravery and the compassion Miriam has demonstrated in this story.
Miriam has boldly approached her mistress – that in itself takes courage. Her mistress could have easily had her flogged for having the audacity to speak without being spoken to. And then she speaks of her home country. That, also, could be cause for punishment. Slaves were supposed to forget about their homeland – this made them easier to control. Recalling where she came from and speaking highly of a prophet in Israel would be, at the very least, inviting a backhand across the face.
Even more risky is telling her mistress about Elisha’s healing power.
Anything could go have gone wrong from that point on. If Elisha failed to heal Naaman, or if he refused to even see this general from the conquering army, you know who would have born the brunt of punishment – this young Israeli slave girl. She would be the one to blame for Naaman’s humiliation and lack of healing.
And that very well could have been how the story turned out. Because when Naaman finally made his way to Elisha, the prophet did refuse to see him. Naaman expected the prophet to come out to him, groveling. “O great and powerful general of Aram. May it please your highness that I should call on the name of my God and wave my hand over your leprosy and bring a cure to your malady. Please, O most high commander, allow me to serve you in this way.”
But that’s not what Elisha did.
He didn’t say any magic words. He performed no miraculous incantations.
Elisha wouldn’t even come out to meet the general, let alone speak to him. Instead, he sent a lowly messenger with simple instructions. “Go, wash in the Jordan seven times, and your flesh shall be restored and you shall be clean.”
That’s it?? Naaman is insulted. It was as if Elisha was saying, “I don’t care who you are, or how powerful you think you are. I am not your servant. My God is not going to perform tricks for you. This is not a dog-and-pony show. You want healing? Humble yourself. Get down into the water – yes, the lowly waters of the Jordan – and take a bath like a everyone else. Your wealth, your power, your military conquests mean nothing here. It’s just you and the water . . . and God.”
Naaman, of course, is about to blow his top.This is typical of many wealthy, powerful men, isn’t it? When they can’t get their way, when they feel they’ve been insulted, when their entitlement falls away revealing them to be the empty, morally compromised men that they are, they throw a temper tantrum. He’s ready to fly into a rage and perhaps bring the wrath of Aram’s army upon Elisha and all of Israel.
But once again, something unexpected happens. The courage of the lowly servants saves the day. They approach Naaman, which itself is a risky move. He could have whipped around and killed any of them on the spot. But very calmly, very quietly, they speak to him to try to calm him down and deescalate the situation. “Commander, if the prophet had told you to do something difficult, you would have done it, right? But all you have to do is wash in the Jordan river. Is that really so bad?”
Perhaps Naaman had a moment.
Perhaps he looked down at his deformed skin and had a change of heart. Maybe he even thought back to the words of Miriam, his wife’s servant girl whom he kidnapped from her people, these people right here. We don’t know what made Naaman change his mind. But he did.
He took off his clothes and waded into the Jordan River. Maybe he looked back at his servants for reassurance. And they nodded, motioning him to get down into the water. All the way down.
He comes back out. No change. They remind him that he is to immerse himself seven times. Down he goes – two, three, four, five, six, seven. Like the seven days of creation. Like the seven days until Noah’s dove came back across the waters with a tree branch. On the seventh time, Naaman emerges a newly healed man. His flesh is as clean and smooth as that of a young girl, a young slave girl who waits back in Aram, most likely deep in prayer to the God whom she trusts to bring healing. The God who gives an ordinary girl extraordinary faith.
What Naaman learns is that God does not traffic in shekels of gold and expensive clothes.
God is not impressed by mighty warriors. And God is not taken in by back-room deals, secret communications, and the manipulations of powerful men that can result in the deaths of an entire population.
This is the God of ordinary water and ordinary people. This is the God who heals and renews. A God who cannot be bought or sold. This is the God who is sovereign over even the most powerful and wealthy men.
Further, this God is not bound by the lines that humans draw on maps, the walls they build on borders, or the divisions they make based on culture, skin color, gender, or country of origin. God chooses the people we least expect to be the bearers of grace. And they are often the ones who demonstrate the greatest courage. In Naaman’s story, it is the young Israelite slave girl and Naaman’s servants who are willing to risk their lives and their well-being for the sake of compassion, healing, and the de-escalation of violence. In Luke’s story about Jesus healing the lepers, we see that the person least expected to express gratitude – a Samaritan – is the one who comes back to thank Jesus and praise God.
We don’t know how the twists and turns of our current political and military stories are going to end. So far, it has not gone well. High-powered men are still trading wealth and military might for personal and political gain. The fate of entire nations still rests on the whims of a few entitled men who throw temper tantrums when things do not go their way or they believe they have been insulted. And the violence is increasing, not de-escalating. Our Kurdish allies are being slaughtered. Children are being killed.
But remember this. There are still courageous people out there with great faith and compassion who are willing to do the right thing, even at great cost to themselves.
They are ordinary people like the young Israeli slave girl and the servants of Naaman. People like the man with leprosy from Samaria. Maybe even you are one of those people. The world and the history books might not know their names, but they are there, often behind the scenes, usually overlooked. But God is working through them even when we cannot see it.
And God is still working on people like Naaman, too.
Naaman had a lot to learn. But he finally humbled himself. He got down into the water – the same water we use for washing, for drinking, for baptism. No magic words. It’s just us and the water . . . and God.
This is the God who heals and renews.
A God who cannot be bought or sold. This is the God who is sovereign over even the most powerful and wealthy men, the most powerful and wealthy nations. The God who is sovereign over you and me. This is the God who gives ordinary people extraordinary faith. Amen.
Leah D. Schade is the Assistant Professor of Preaching and Worship at Lexington Theological Seminary in Kentucky. She is the author of Preaching in the Purple Zone: Ministry in the Red-Blue Divide (Rowman & Littlefield, 2019) and Creation-Crisis Preaching: Ecology, Theology, and the Pulpit (Chalice Press, 2015).