Experiencing the Unexpected: The Healing of Naaman and the Samaritan Leper
2 Kings 5:1-15c; Luke 17:11-19
By The Rev. Dr. Deonna D. Neal
St. John’s Episcopal Church, Montgomery, AL
13 October 2019
May the words of my mouth and the meditation of all of our hearts be acceptable in thy sight, O Lord our strength and our Redeemer. Amen.
In the lesson from 2nd Kings this morning, we have the story of the healing of Namaan, the General of the Syrian army. Naaman also happens to have leprosy, but not such a severe case that it precludes him from military service. (Unlike Jewish law, Syrian law did not require lepers to be banished from society.) Nevertheless, leprosy in any degree of severity is something everyone would want to be rid of.
At the point where we take up the story, Naaman and his army have over run the Northern part of Israel. Custom allowed the victors to take parts of the conquered population into servitude, so Namaan takes a young Israelite girl to be his wife’s servant. The servant girl, quite remarkably, having compassion on her master, informs him that there is a prophet in the land of Israel, in Samaria, which can cure him of his leprosy. Namaan is keen to meet this prophet and petitions his own king, King Aram, to write a letter to the King of Israel and request that he be healed from his leprosy.
Now curiously, the letter did not specify that Namaan had asked to see the prophet for his cure. [And, if you noticed the lectionary leaves out vs 4-6 if you were wondering and might be confused.] The letter to the King of Israel simply said, “When this letter reaches you, know that I have sent to you my servant Naaman, that you may cure him of his leprosy.” The King of Israel is shocked at the content of the letter, because he thinks the King of Syria is asking him to heal Namaan of leprosy. This is why he cried out, tore his clothes and said, “Am I God, to give death or life, that this man sends word to me to cure a man of leprosy? Just look and see how he is trying to pick a quarrel with me!” The King of Israel thought the letter from the King of Syria was sent to mock him and to add insult to injury, after Syria had just conquered them.
Somehow Elisha got wind of the king’s outrage and misunderstanding at the letter and sent a messenger to him which said, “Why have you torn your clothes? Let him come to me that he may learn that there is a prophet in Israel.” So, the king of Israel sent word back to the king of Syria, to tell Namaan to go find the prophet Elisha.
But Namaan, being an extremely important and famous national figure (like a general Eisenhower or Patton, for example), does not go to Elisha by himself. No, he takes an entire entourage with him and shows up on Elisha’s front doorstep, expecting to receive a dignified and grand reception. But Elisha doesn’t even come out to meet Namaan in person. Instead, he sends a messenger to the front door who simply says, “Go, wash in the Jordan 7 times, and your flesh shall be restored, and you shall be made clean.” We might imagine the messenger then shutting the door in Namaan’s face. The Jordan river, by the way, was approximately 25 miles away from Elisha’s house.
Namaan is absolutely furious at the way Elisha treated him. And, to compound the insult, Elisha directed him to wash in the Jordan river, which was notoriously muddy and often warm. Namaan expected that if he was going to need to wash in a river, then surely the prophet would send him to the two most beautiful rivers in Syria, the Abana and the Pharpar, both of which were clean and clear and cold.
Namaan’s pride was so insulted that he decided to live with leprosy rather than to be treated with what he felt was such disrespect. So, he goes back home in a huff. Thankfully his servants, who in this case are more like the trusted advisors of Namaan’s inner circle, see the situation a bit more clearly. They address him gently and deferentially by saying, “Father, if the prophet had commanded you to do something difficult, would you not have done it? How much more, when all he said to you was, ‘Wash and be clean.’? So, finally, Namaan, swallows his pride, takes the advice of his advisors, and decides to be obedient to the directions of the prophet Elisha. He goes back into Israel, washes in the Jordan and is made clean. Not only that, but his flesh was restored to the softness and cleanness of a young boy.
Whether or not he took his entourage with him to the Jordan is unclear. However, the text does say, that Namaan and all his company returned to Elisha, stood before him and proclaimed loudly, “Now I know that there is no God in all the earth except in Israel; please accept a present from your servant.”
Now keep this story in mind as we turn to the New Testament.
In the New Testament reading, Jesus is on his way to Jerusalem and comes across 10 lepers, most likely 9 of which who are Jewish and 1 of which is a Samaritan. The lepers are standing at a distance from both Jesus and the road, which was required of Jewish law. The required distance was at least 100 paces, which is about the distance from the altar to the bench across the street on Madison avenue. Despite being prohibited from getting near him, the lepers call out to Jesus to have mercy on them. Jesus responds to their request simply by saying, “Go and show yourselves to the priests.” He doesn’t say, “Go to the priests and you will be healed. Or, come to me and I will heal you.” No, he simply says, “go to the priests” without any further explanation. The lepers, confident in Jesus’ healing powers, were obedient to his word, and did what they were told. Just like Namaan was finally obedient to Elisha and did what he was told.
Now why did Jesus tell them to go to the priests? He told them to do that because Jewish law required that only a priest could give a leper a certificate of health. Unless the certificate was issued by a priest, the leper could not re-enter society, reunite with his family, seek employment, etc. So, Jesus was simply telling the lepers to go do what the law required. The Samaritan would go find a Samaritan priest to certify him as clean, and the Jews would go to the Jewish priests to certify them as clean. And, as the story tells us, on their way to the priests, they each were healed of their leprosy.
The story goes on to say that only the Samaritan, once he became aware of his healing, turned back, praising God in a loud voice. And, once he was healed and authorized to approach Jesus, he prostrated himself at Jesus’ feet and thanked him. Just like in the story of the healing of Namaan, in this story of the 10 lepers made clean, the person who returned to the source of his healing with the deepest gratitude, was a foreigner. Namaan the Syrian, whose army had conquered Israel, praised the God of Israel to the prophet Elisha. And, the Samaritan leper, one of the most hated ethnic and religious rivals of the Jewish nation, praised God in a loud voice and prostrated himself in front of Jesus and thanked him for his healing.
There are many lessons we can learn from these stories, but one particular aspect of both of these stories has been on my mind this past week—and that is how God continually does things by ways and through people that defy expectations. Do we expect a servant girl to encourage the general who enslaved her and conquered her people to direct him to a healing prophet in her conquered country? Why would Elisha be willing to heal Namaan at all? Elisha defies Namaan’s expectations by refusing to recognize his social standing, meet with him and heal him personally. Namaan expects that a clean, cool and pure river will be the source of his healing, not some warm and muddy river in a foreign country. Do we expect the conquering general from Syria to praise the God of Israel in a loud voice in front of his entire company, proclaiming that Israel’s God is the only God? Don’t we expect Jesus to go up to people and talk to them, not shout directions to them from 100 paces away? Don’t we expect that healing takes place from direct touch or contact with a healer, and not simply by being obedient to the word of God? Don’t we expect our enemies, like Namaan as the enemy of Israel, or the Samaritan as the enemy of the Jews, to be the least likely people to show gratitude? Don’t we expect everyone to be grateful when they’ve received an astonishing and completely unmerited gift, not just 1 out of 9? Again and again and again, these two stories show how the healing work of God, not only the methods, but the people who are involved with it, defy our expectations.
Every Sunday, and three times during the week, St. John’s offers us the opportunity through worship, to show our gratitude to God for the way God’s blessings defy our expectations and work out in astonishing ways. In our public form of worship, we come to praise God in a loud voice, to rejoice, to give thanks, and to sing. We are afforded the opportunity to kneel before God in humility, awe, and thankfulness for all the unexpected blessings and mercies that we receive from God. These blessings are always entirely undeserved and unmerited. It is why our principal form of worship is called “eucharist,” which is the Greek word for “thanksgiving.” That is why we are here.
Sometimes when asked why they don’t go to church many people reply, “because I don’t get anything out of it.” This reply misunderstands what our life together as a community in worship is all about. Our worship is not something that we are “supposed to get something out of.” Like God owes us an experience to consume. That sort of response also leads to the dangerous temptation to constantly change or modify liturgy so that it satisfies people’s individual desires, or to meet whatever is in popular demand or fashionable at the time.
The response of Namaan and the Samaritan leper remind us that the proper response to God’s gifts is that of gratitude. So when we come to church, we are not consuming a product (like a pizza) or attending a performance (like a concert). The point of worship is to afford us the opportunity to gather as a community, to be physically present with one another, and to thank God for all that he has done for us. We are here because we are grateful to God for the forgiveness of sins, for the healing of body, mind, and spirit, and for the strength of fellowship and community which helps us persevere in our life of discipleship.
If someone tells you that they don’t come to church because they don’t get anything out of it, tell them that you don’t either. ☺ Instead, ask them what they are grateful for in their lives. Once they tell you what they are grateful for, invite them to come to church and join you in giving thanks to God for those blessings. Then ask them to reflect on their experience of worship when framed from the perspective of a participant expressing gratitude rather than as a spectator expecting a spiritual product or event.
And, it is in that vein, that I invite all of you today before you come up for communion, perhaps while you are standing in line, or kneeling at the altar rail, to think of the one thing in your life this week that you are the most grateful for and which exceeded your expectations. And, as you are remembering that receive the communion wafer in your hand and recognize that both the unexpected blessing in your life and what the communion wafer represents are unmerited gifts. And, be grateful.