St. Philip Lutheran Church
3 July 2022 + Lect. 14c (Pentecost 4)
Rev. Josh Evans
“Praise to you for your saving waters,”
we pray at the font:
“Noah and the animals survive the flood,
Hagar discovers your well.
The Israelites escape through the sea,
and they drink from your gushing rock.
Naaman washes his leprosy away,
and the Samaritan woman will never be thirsty again.”
Naaman – a character whose story I never remember hearing about in Sunday School or confirmation – gets named, right there, along with such biblical epics as Noah’s Ark and the Exodus.
It’s a story that seems to be so embedded in the collective memory of the Israelites that, even years later, when Jesus alludes to it in the synagogue at Nazareth, it’s enough to fill the crowd with rage, drive him out of their town, and try to hurl him off a cliff.
Why the intense rage? The answer might lie, in part, in the other stories our liturgy names alongside Naaman:
Hagar – a slave to Sarai, Abram’s wife, with whom Abram has a child when Sarai cannot, a source of such intense jealousy and tension that it drives Sarai, full of bitter resentment, to force Hagar and her son Ishmael away, into the wilderness, on their own.
The Samaritan woman – forced to come draw water at high noon, by herself, away from the scrutiny of her neighbors, unable to bear the shame thrust upon her because of her status in the community.
And then Naaman himself – commander of the Aramean army, “a great man,” “in high favor,” a military hero among his people, “a mighty warrior” who is able to get on-demand audiences with kings and has servants subject to his command. This is clearly someone loaded with privilege – and yet, for all that privilege, this skin disease (“leprosy”) nearly negates all of that, threatening to undermine his standing.
Hagar – a foreigner, a slave, and an outsider – discovers God’s well and mercy in the wilderness.
The Samaritan woman – an outcast both among her own community and her Jewish kin – is given living water and will never be thirsty again.
Naaman – a foreigner, a political enemy of Israel, and a leper – washes his disease away and his flesh is restored.
God seems to have a knack for working with and through outsiders.
This healing happens because of outsiders who stand at every turn of the story and without whom there would be no story worth telling.
It is the unnamed Israelite girl, slave to Naaman’s wife, who has absolutely no reason to help her oppressors, who first speaks up about this prophet capable of curing Naaman of his leprosy.
So where does Naaman go? Straight to Elisha the prophet, right?
The convoluted chain of communication is almost comical: Naaman goes first to the King of Aram (his boss), who sends him to the King of Israel (his enemy), whose own ego and insecurity manage to somehow make this all about himself. Only then, after all this, does Elisha the prophet, an outsider of his own kind, chime in: “What are you doing? Why have you torn your clothes? Just bring him to me.” Just like the girl said.
But wait, there’s more: When Naaman does finally get to Elisha, he’s so turned off by the seemingly mundane solution to his ailment: Just go wash yourself in the Jordan River.
Seriously? That’s it? As if the means weren’t “good enough” – so Naaman refuses to participate. Think about that: He would rather continue to suffer from his disease than take the word of a foreign prophet who tells him to wash in a dingy foreign river in order to be cured. For no other reason than it’s not a grand enough solution.
It finally takes the proactiveness of Naaman’s servants to talk him down from his rage and reason with him. And when Naaman finally caves, sure enough, he’s healed. Just like Elisha said.
From a slave girl no one listens to, to a prophet pitted against his own king, to servants who risk speaking up: This is a healing story happens because of the outsiders.
Naaman would’ve never found out about Elisha, this man capable of healing him, were it not for his wife’s slave. And Naaman wouldn’t have given Elisha a second chance were it not for the prodding of his own servants.
These outsiders get it. They are the ones who drive the story forward and become catalysts of grace.
Story after story in our scriptures, Naaman’s included, reminds us of God’s unending concern for those with whom the world is not concerned. Those whose voices are ignored are amplified. Those who are lowly are lifted up. Those who have been made to take the role of outsiders… themselves become the locus of God’s grace. Even those whose own inflated egos get in the way are humbled and opened and changed.
While not exactly the stuff of a Sunday School flannel board, Naaman’s story is powerful. This is more than a story about how Naaman washes his leprosy away. This is also a story about those around Naaman – and God’s work in and through them – that make it possible.
Surely, this is good news for those who are outsiders: that God’s grace is not only for them but also empowers them to be catalysts of that grace for others.
And for the insiders, it’s a wake-up call.
Naaman and the kings of Aram and Israel listened to all the wrong voices. In their echo chambers of power and privilege, they listened to the voices that they assumed had all the answers, the voices they had always listened to before – so why change now? But in so doing, they missed the voices they needed to hear.
And when they actually paid attention to those voices, things changed for them. Naaman washed his leprosy away. God’s grace found its way across established boundaries of ethnicity and ego alike.
Those boundaries don’t go down without a fight sometimes. At least not before the enraged crowd tries to drive the outsider voice out of their town and hurl them off a cliff. It seems like the crowd in the Nazareth synagogue hadn’t evolved a whole lot, still entrenched in the same stubbornness that initially prevented Naaman from experiencing the healing and wholeness that was being freely offered to him.
And when we listen to the same voices we’ve always listened to, the voices where we’ve long found the answers we want to hear or like listening to, we risk missing the voices we need to hear.
Maybe other voices have something to share with us that is worth paying attention to.
Maybe those voices we least expect, or actively resist, are inviting us to a wider experience of grace and wholeness.