A few years ago my teenage children and I traveled with Pastors for Peace on a mission trip to Cuba. We delivered medicine and humanitarian aid to several institutions there. One of these facilities particularly touched my heart. At the breath-taking coastal location, tides from the Gulf of Mexico broke over a coral reef. But, the ancient building at the site belied creation’s wonders.
We had come to visit a lepers’ colony, leprosy being a disease we all associated with biblical times, not the late twentieth century. Leprosy is a skin disease which is highly contagious and eats away at parts of one’s body. Those having the disease are shunned and separated from their respective communities.
I was amazed at what we saw within the walls of that facility! It reminded me of a hospital plucked out of the early twentieth century, and maybe it was. Furnishings were dilapidated, and medical equipment was sorely lacking.
In today’s first lesson Naaman, a high-ranking Syrian official, has leprosy and is referred to the Prophet Elisha for healing. Naaman does not want to follow Elisha’s orders, but is pressured by his own advisors. Naaman then dips himself into the Jordan River seven times, and his flesh is made clean by God’s healing power.
Our gospel lesson also deals with a leper who seeks out Jesus in order to be made clean. Moved with pity, Jesus heals him.
These healings are sacramental in nature, reminiscent of baptism by the actions of water and the Word. God has cleansed us by our baptism, so let us live as new men and women. Christ will heal our brokenness and restore us to life in community.
2 Kings 5:1-14
In this legendary story concerning the prophet Elisha a foreigner, an enemy of Israel is healed. Namaan, we are told, was a great commander in the royal army of the King of Aram (probably modern-day Syria). Namaan suffered from leprosy. A young girl captured from her home land of Israel by the Arameans is now a servant in the Namaan’s household. The servant girl, apparently concerned about Namaan’s leprosy, approaches his wife and tells her, “If only my Lord would go to the prophet Elisha who is in Samaria, he would cure him of his leprosy.”
Trusting in the servant girl’s report Namaan goes to his King and tells him what the girl has told his wife. The King responds immediately by sending his commander to the King of Israel replete with gifts and a letter conveying to the King of Israel that he, the King of Aram, sends his commander to him to be cured of his leprosy.
The King of Israel is immediately seized by fear, fear of the powerful Aramean King.
“Am I God to give life and death that this man sends word to me to cure a man of leprosy?”
Elisha, hearing that his King is tearing his clothes in fits of fear, sends a message to him. “Send him to me and I’ll show him there is a prophet in Israel.”
Namaan goes to Elisha. Elisha does not even ask the man to come in for a cool glass of water! “Does he know who I am? How rude this rough prophet is!”
Namaan must have thought to himself. Namaan was told to go wash himself seven times in the muddy waters of the river Jordan so that he might be healed.
Namaan was angered! He went away in a rage!
What was Elisha thinking Namaan fumed to himself? “Does he know who I am? Commander of the great and powerful Royal Army of King Aram that is who I am. And this smelly, ignorant nobody of a prophet brushes me off with ridiculous instructions to bathe in a dirty little river. In Aram, north and south of Damascus, we Arameans have the magnificent Abana and Pharpar Rivers - they are better than all the waters of Israel.”
Are we not all more like the commander than we like to admit? Don’t our egos, what Thomas Merton names our false selves, demand that others see us for the complicated, deep characters we imagine ourselves to be. A complicated being like myself demands, subtle complex solutions to my unique set of problems. Right?
Thich Nhat Hanh, the wonderful Vietnamese Buddhist monk thinks not. He has a simple recipe for coping with our psychic demons:
Breathe in and say to yourself, “Calming.”
Breathe out and say to yourself, “Smiling.”
Breathe in and say to yourself, “Present moment.”
Breathe out and say to yourself, “Wonderful moment.”
I find it wonderfully effective. I find myself smiling more and being more peaceful.
My circumstances usually don’t change but I certainly cope with them much better.
Please, like a good Buddhist, don’t take my word for it. Try it yourself. Try it for 21 days.
It’s as simple as bathing in a river. But be warned: it’s simple, but it’s not easy. In fact it is desperately hard to do consistently.
So, Namaan, encouraged by his servant, went down to the river, immersed himself seven times in the muddy Jordan, as the man of God had instructed him. His flesh was restored like the flesh of a young boy, and he was clean.
May you breathe and find your smile and your serenity restored – even in the midst of muddy waters.