2 Kings 5:1-14; Galatians 6:1-6
A friend of mine is in ministry at Watrous, Saskatchewan. She was telling me that right near Watrous is Manitou Beach, on a lake fed by a mineral spring that has healing properties. This is not a pretty lake: it’s muddy and rather disgusting looking, but there are so many minerals in the water you float without trying. Many have found the mineral water soothing to the skin and body. She told me that a young girl she knows who had terrible eczema has experienced a complete recovery thanks to regular visits. Some of you know that the Dead Sea is said to have similar properties – or at least, that’s what all the people who’ve tried to sell me lotions and potions made with Dead Sea water tell me.
The Jordan is different. It’s an estuary running from the border with Lebanon down to the Dead Sea. It’s been so heavily used by humans that long stretches are muddy and marshy, and it ends in dry salt flats, though one section has been kept pristine for baptisms. There’s no special healing power in this river water.
So the command to Naaman to bathe in this water has nothing to do with the water itself. The skin condition he has is not going to be cured by mineral-rich water. The command to Naaman has nothing to do with the water and everything to do with humility. It is a lesson to the great and powerful that there is a will and a wisdom greater than his own. It is a lesson that God may use the last and least to accomplish what the great cannot. It is a lesson that God’s power is not limited to one nation nor one people. It is a lesson that God’s grace and mercy cannot be bought for any amount of money or influence. These messages are repeated by all the prophets, whether in their own writings or in the stories told about them. The stories of the prophet Elisha are no exception. Repeatedly, it is those who are poor, or enslaved, or servants, or vulnerable, who teach the proud and the mighty what it is to encounter God.
I’ve been in the church a long time; and many of you have been in the church even longer. It won’t come as any surprise to you when I say that we all have our ideas of what is right for the church. It could be about what our worship space looks like; it could be what kind of music we sing or play; it could be about how we make decisions or who makes them; it could be about what the role of the lay folk is and how the minister’s job is defined; it could be about what good preaching or what good children’s ministry would be; it could be about whether local ministry is more important than national or international mission, or whether it’s more important to look after the people who are here or more important to reach those who are not. We all have our ideas; and I’m guessing that many of us are pretty sure that our ideas are the right ones. But we may also think that because of our work experience, or our church experience, or our education, or our hours put in at the church, or the amount of money we donate, or our status in society, that our opinions have more value than the opinion of others.
That’s when we find ourselves in dangerous territory. The Bible calls those kinds of attitudes pride, and clearly names this kind of pride as sin. It is sin, because it keeps us from listening to God. It is sin, because it keeps us from listening to one another. Sin is what breaks community and alienates us from God; sin is what hurts our inner being and keeps us from wholeness. Sin is sneaky, because it can take our virtues, and turn them into vices. So, for example, the pride in our ability to do our share of God’s work as mentioned in the letter to the Galatians, can become a negative – something that breaks community, rather than strengthens it. Most spiritual traditions have some version of this truth – that what is best in us, or most admired in us by others, often has a shadow side that can get in the way of our spiritual health.
Whether we’re talking about the life of the church, or our own lives, we can’t let our egos get in the way; we can’t let our life experience, or our accomplishments, or our education, or whatever it is that keeps us proud and centered on our own ideas keep us from listening to the will of God. We can’t let it keep us from being able to engage in God’s mission together. We certainly can’t let it keep us from an encounter with the living God.
Naaman was brave man: a warrior, a leader, a success by most standards of the day. But as in many people who are strong leaders, he wasn’t so good at following directions. He wanted to experience the healing possible through the will and power of God, but he wanted it to happen his way. He was told by his wife (who is nameless), who was instructed by her slave girl (also nameless), that healing could be found by seeing the prophet Elisha. But instead, he went to his ruler, who sent him to Israel’s ruler, to ask that he be healed. And of course, the King of Israel figured that the other king was trying to pick a fight with him! Somehow word got to Elisha, they got it sorted out, and Naaman went to see Elisha – and then refused to do what Elisha asked him to do! It’s not like it was hard, really – wade into the water, dunk yourself under and have a wash! But Naaman’s dignity was offended; he wanted something fancy perhaps – maybe some chanting or sacrifices or laying on of hands or magic passes – something impressive. It took the calm reason of a group of servants – again nameless – to get him to do what Elisha asked him to do. So off he went, to wash in plain, old, muddy water – and he was healed.
Boy, we can sure get in our own way, can’t we? We have a dream, a vision, a longing, that we bring to God; but then we keep putting up barriers to ensure that it doesn’t happen! We do this in the church, and we do it in our own personal lives, too. Perhaps you can think of instances when you wanted something so badly – maybe even needed it! – and you took that prayer to God, only to find that you didn’t get the answer you were looking for. Then, a few months or years later, you looked back on that time, and realized that the answer to your prayer had been staring you in the face – but you couldn’t let go of your own agenda long enough to see it!
Sometimes, we just have to let go. We have to listen to the voices of others who may have a different perspective from our own, and see if there is some wisdom speaking to us in their voices. Sometimes we need to check in with a friend who we know has a deep spiritual life, and ask them to pray with us and to help us discern what our next choice might be. Sometimes we need to just stop doing, and planning, and organizing, and see what emerges when we stop. It’s not that our planning and our education and our life experience and our time and talent given to the church aren’t important…of course they are! But sometimes we need to hear an outside voice, a voice from the margins of our lives or our church, a voice that brings a perspective different from our own. Often…VERY OFTEN…in Scripture, this will be the voice of God calling us to new life, new hope, new healing. A little humility, a little openness, a little willingness to listen – can change our lives.
Now, let’s just flip this whole thing on its head. What if you could change SOMEONE ELSE’S LIFE for the better? What if, for someone, YOU are that outside voice? What if you have something to say that they need to hear, but you’ve convinced yourself your voice doesn’t matter? What if we are the friends who can pray and help another figure out what comes next? What if we are “the nameless ones”, the ones who seem so unimportant but without whom the story can’t unfold? What if?
Is it possible that God has something to say to you, something to offer to you, that you haven’t been able to hear or accept? What would it take for you to hear, to be open? What do you need to let go of?
And on the other hand, do you have something to say, to offer, in God’s holy name? Can you point the way to some healing or some hope for someone who needs it? If so, what’s holding you back?
May God guide us always as we seek to walk a path that leads to life. Amen.