The story of Naaman is great dramatic material just waiting to be put on stage; it has colorful characters, vivid contrasts, and a surprise ending.
There’s Naaman, the great warrior, commander of the Aramean army; a man who has made a name for himself in many victorious battles.
There are two kings, one with a great deal of power thanks to his fine general, the other with very little power thanks to that same general.
The list of characters continues with Elisha, the man of God, a bit of a wild man like his mentor Elijah.
There’s Naaman’s wife; her role is crucial for the plot development but she doesn’t have a speaking part. We don’t know her by name, only as Naaman’s wife, always ready to play in a supporting role.
There are several slaves and servants who remain nameless as well, but without them, there would be no story. Without the anonymous slave girl who has compassion on her master, there would be no cure, no happy ending. Whoever writes the score for the movie, Naaman of Aram, needs to make sure that the theme, the melody line that ties everything together is introduced when her face first appears. She is the one whose compassion opens a window in a hopeless situation, and while we may never know her name, we will always remember the melody of grace she embodies.
The first scene opens with Naaman, commander of the army of the king of Aram, a great man in high favor with his master. This is an important man, a four-star general, highly decorated, somebody who knows the battlefield as well as the high art of talking to the press without stepping out of bounds. We are looking at a man of great accomplishments and considerable power, when the story takes an unexpected turn: this hero of many battles, this officer of superior strategic skill, used to being in charge, this man has a secret. No, he didn’t take bribes or tell his staff he was hiking the Appalachian trail. Hidden under layers of shiny armor and fine, expensive clothes is a terrible truth: the general has been rendered helpless by a disease that is blind to power, wealth and status. Underneath the surface of his public persona he’s just a suffering human being.
Now the second character enters the stage. She is a slave, a young foreign girl he brought home from one of their raids into Israel. She is as small as Naaman is big. She is an outsider as much as Naaman is an insider. Everything he is, she is not. She is not at home, nor is she free to go home. Her life is in his hands. She is property.
But she knows the one thing that the general on his many raids into Israel didn’t learn: she knows where hope and wholeness can be found. “If only my lord were with the prophet who is in Samaria,” she tells her mistress, “he would cure him of his leprosy.” Who knows why she cares about the man who carried her far away from her home, her family and her people? Who knows why she doesn’t act strategically and propose a deal to secure her freedom in exchange for the information? Who knows how she is able to see only a suffering human being and show compassion?
Naaman is desperate enough to listen to a slave girl. He goes to his lord to tell him what she said, and the king of Aram assumes that if there is any healing power in Israel it has to be at the king’s disposal. He gives his general a letter for the king of Israel, and Naaman departs with chests of gold and silver and bundles of priceless garments.
The king of Israel reads the memo from his powerful neighbor, and tearing his clothes he cries out, “Am I God, to give life or death that this man sends word to me to cure a man of his leprosy?” It is always good for a king to remember that he is not God, but what can he do when his well-armed neighbor tells him, “This is what I want, you make it happen,” asking for the impossible? Now the king of Israel is about as desperate as the general from Aram.
Enter Elisha, the man of God. He sends word to the king, “Why have you torn your clothes? Let him come to me, that he may learn that there is a prophet in Israel.” With that, the king drops out of the picture, and Naaman and his chariots and horses and gifts of gold and silver head to Elisha’s house.
In the next scene, the contrast is again stark. On one side, Elisha’s little house, made from mud bricks, a hole in the wall for a window, and on the other side there is Naaman with his entourage and his caravan of camels and horses carrying everything a superpower has to offer. For a moment the action just stops; the general is waiting, and you can tell he’s not used to waiting.
And Elisha doesn’t even come out of his house. He sends somebody with a message for the general, “Go, wash in the Jordan seven times, and your flesh shall be restored and you shall be clean.”
Well, Naaman isn’t used to this. He is somebody. He is accustomed to speaking with the king’s inner circle, not the receptionist. Who does this prophet think he is?
“I thought that for me he would surely come out, and stand and call on the name of the Lord his God, and would wave his hand over the spot, and cure the leprosy.” Doesn’t the esteemed general of the king of Aram deserve a personal audience with the prophet rather than some secondhand, servant-delivered prescription? And what kind of prescription is this, “wash in the Jordan seven times”? Are not the rivers of Damascus better than all the waters of Israel? I didn’t come all this way to wash in some river.
In a rage, the commander turns and goes away, angry enough to start another raid.
Now his servants approach him. They know how to speak to their master; years of experience have taught them how to reintroduce some reason into situations where arrogance and wounded pride have ratcheted up tensions. “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?’”
He listens to their counsel. He gets off his horse, goes down to the river, and he steps into the water, not just knee-deep, he goes all the way down, immersing himself seven times according to the word of the man of God. And when he emerges from the water that seventh time, his skin is smooth and flawless like the skin of a young boy, and all is well for Naaman.
He was so sure he knew what he needed, he almost refused God’s gift of healing and wholeness. Almost, but God has servants who help move the story forward to its joyful conclusion. The word of hope comes from a complete outsider, a slave girl who dares to believe that the God of Israel desires life in fullness not just for her people, but for all. The wise counsel comes from servants who find a way around their master’s wounded pride and help him come down to the level of our shared humanity and trust in God’s word. It is the servants that move the story forward, not kings and armies.
Naaman made a name for himself in the kingdom of Aram, but in the kingdom of God he is remembered together with the slave girl whose faith and compassion opened a window for the power of God to be revealed. The path to wholeness crosses borders and makes unexpected turns, and it takes us all to the place where we listen for and dare to trust the word of God, not just knee-deep.
When Jesus came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, he went to the synagogue on the sabbath. He read from the book of the prophet Isaiah, and preached about good news to the poor and release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, and all were amazed at the gracious words that came from his mouth. But then he talked about the days of Elijah, when there was a severe famine over all the land. There were many widows in Israel, yet Elijah was sent to none of them except to a widow who lived across the border, in Sidon.
They didn’t like where that proclamation was going. Then he talked about how many lepers there were in Israel in the time of Elisha, and how non of them was cleansed except Naaman the Syrian.
He talked about the path of wholeness crossing borders and including the ones we habitually exclude, and they were ready to hurl him off the cliff.
The path to wholeness crosses borders and makes unexpected turns, and it takes us all to the place where we listen for and dare to trust the word of God, not just knee-deep. How long will it take to heal our prejudices and jealousies, our broken hopes and promises? About as long as it takes for a Syrian general to listen to an Israeli slave girl. About as long as it takes for a mighty man to get off of his horse and into the water of a river he’s never heard of. About as long as it takes you and me to realize that the path to wholeness is not ours but God’s.
Today we celebrate Independence Day and we hum the tunes of John Philip Sousa with pride and gratitude for the vision of freedom and justice, and the rule of law.
Today is also Sunday, and on Sunday we learn to hum the melody line we hear in the compassion of a slave girl and in the faithfulness of Jesus. I pray that we hum it until we know it by heart and sing all our songs to its simple, beautiful tune.