There are a lot of healing stories in the Bible. A lot. Some people believe that you can simply name and claim the healing, as if we can mentally make God do something for us if we just have enough faith or belief. I disagree.
But I do think sometimes God offers us the path toward healing and we think it is too difficult. That’s the focus for this sermon.
Epiphany 6 — 2 Kings 5:1-17
“Do you want to be healed?”
I remember my spiritual director asking me that question during a very dark time of my life. The difficulties of both my personal and professional life compounded by recent loss at that time had taken their toll on me emotionally and spiritually. I was not at a place of shalom—peace in body, mind and spirit. I longed for something better, for that deep sense of centeredness in my life and relationships. I wanted to be at the place God desired for me.
“Of course!” I said to her.
She waited, patiently. I had been in ministry long enough to know what she was asking. Not just the quick question with the obvious answer but the one behind it as well. “Do you really want to be healed, no matter what the cost?” That question was a little more disquieting. Even when we are tossed around by the storms of life, those storms become horrifyingly familiar. They become the norm and so seeking healing means letting go of that familiarity and heading out into uncharted territory; it means pushing out into deep water. That can be scary even when the result is something we long for.
I took some time to ponder her question again. Did I want to be healed?
We aren’t told much about the beginning of his disease, only that Naaman was a powerful commander from a foreign land and that he had leprosy. We can only guess that this illness not only ate away at his flesh but also slowly gnawed at him on the inside. Leprosy causes lesions on the skin, and these infected spots rob the skin of any sensitivity to pain, heat or touch. A cut or burn doesn’t register any response and can go unchecked for a long time. The extremities need constant monitoring and can— due to repeated injury and infection—sometimes be lost to infection. The disease was one of the most feared at the time, and often lepers were cast out of society. Naaman was the exception. His countrymen were obviously able to look past his disease while he was a great leader. After that point, who knows.
You have to wonder what the conversation was behind closed doors at Naaman’s house. Even though it’s not mentioned explicitly, surely he wants to be rid of this dreaded disease; why else would the slave girl from Israel speak up? She quietly goes to Naaman’s wife and tells her about the prophet of God in her home country. Naaman’s wife in turn tells him, and he heads off to the king requesting to be healed.
Naaman certainly held prestige in Aram because the king sends him off to the king of Israel bearing a great deal of wealth in order to buy his healing. On his arrival the king of Israel figures it’s a set up and rips his clothes for dramatic effect. But it isn’t a sham, Naaman wants to be healed.
Word gets to Elisha, and he messages the king and tells him to send over the foreign commander. Naaman and his entourage and all the stuff he brought to pay for his healing arrive at Elisha’s doorstep. Elisha remains behind closed doors and sends out his servant. This irks Naaman. He’s used to dealing with people of power, so to get the lowest man on the totem pole to greet him is bothersome. “Go wash in the Jordan River seven times and you’ll be clean.”
It seems easy enough, but Naaman wants nothing to do with it. Maybe it was his pride at having the servant boy come out to him, or maybe it was because it wasn’t fantastical enough. “I was expecting the prophet to come out and wave his hand over me and for the leprosy to be gone,” he says. And then he bemoans the fact that it’s in the Jordan that he’s to wash and his national pride kicks in. Surely the rivers near his home are better than the Jordan. But one of his hired men snaps him to his senses. “Master, this isn’t difficult. If it had been difficult, wouldn’t you have done it? How much more then when all he said was wash and be clean?”
So Namaan, awakening again to the reality that he longs to be healed goes to the Jordan. He steps in to the river and baths. He repeats this. And again. And again and again until finally he’s done it seven times. And then as he comes out, his skin is as new as when he was born and the illness is gone.
Every clergyperson is asked the perennial question of why bad things happen to good people. Why do we suffer? Why do some among us get terminal illnesses, or have life altering difficulties with family members, or have their marriages dissolve? Theologians give this question a fancy name—theodicy—to try and reconcile what we know about God and how justice from God is meted out, especially in relation to evil and suffering.
My stock answer is a glorified “I don’t know.” It rains on the just and the unjust, we’re told in Scripture. The nature of a fallen world means that most of us—all of us?—will experience pain in our own lives. Jesus himself experienced great loss at the death of Lazarus and died himself by execution. I don’t for one second believe that God wants to inflict harm on us or that God takes delight in our misfortunes, rather I think it breaks God’s heart. It tears God apart as much as it tears us apart.
I don’t know why bad things happen to good people. But I know at least in my own life that I have a choice in how I respond.
The dark time in my own life that I mentioned led me to the wrong response. I closed myself off. The pain was too much to bear so I clenched my fists, pushed others away and try to muster through it as best I could. Did I want to be healed, yes. I longed for it more than anything else. But to get there I needed to do one essential thing. I needed to open up. And that terrified me.
That may sound too therapeutic to you, or too easy or too weird. I can only say this: often we know what step we should take to put us on the path of healing. We need to start loving our spouses again instead of seeing the negative. We need to listen to our children with open hearts and truly hear them. We can recognize that healing comes in many forms—that maybe what will ultimately bring us shalom is less physical restoration and more emotional and spiritual. We know we should say our prayers, or make that phone call or write that letter, but we hesitate. God longs to bring us peace, healing and restoration, and the first step is there. Go, wash and you will be clean. God desires that for us.
Madeleine L’Engle’s poem “Epiphany” gets at exactly what I am talking about.
Unclench your fists
Hold out your hands.
Let us hold each other.
Thus is his Glory
Do you want to be healed? Do you want to have your relationship restored? Your difficult time heading toward resolution? Then unclench your fists. Hold out your hands. Love. Let God’s glory be manifest in your life. Experience the epiphany that the answer is really as easy at it seems. Walk toward the Jordan, step in. Let the water wash over you. Remember your own baptism and the glory of God coming down on you.
While you may want instant results, I’ve found in life that these are rare indeed. I wish it weren’t so. I wish that the prophet could come out and wave his hand and the pain taken away. But life isn’t normally like that. We need to go down to the river. And wash. And wash. And wash and wash and wash. It takes tremendous effort sometimes, and through the process God slowly changes us and heals and restores and brings peace.
Will you do it? Will I? Do you really want to be healed, no matter what the cost? Do you want God’s glory to be manifest in your life?