There’s an old joke about a man who climbed onto the roof of his house to escape a major flood. The man prayed and prayed to God to send him help as the waters rose closer and closer to the top of the house.
Before long, some people paddled by in a canoe. They cried out, “Come on! Let us get you out of here!” But the man replied, “No, I’m waiting for God to rescue me.” And so the canoe went on without him.
A little later, a family drove by in a motorboat and offered to pick him up; again the man refused. As the waters started to lap at his feet, a helicopter flew down and tried to airlift him to safety, but he stayed put, waiting for divine intervention.
Finally, the man drowned, and when he went to heaven, he immediately marched up to God and pointed his finger in accusation. He said angrily, “I’ve been a faithful Christian all my life, and I prayed for you to rescue me, and you didn’t! Where were you?”
God replied, “Good grief man, I sent you a canoe, a motorboat, and a helicopter. What more did you want from me?”
Naaman is a big man with a big problem, and he wants a big solution. When Elisha gives him the simple task of washing in the Jordan, Naaman is actually offended. “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!”
Like the man on the roof waiting to be saved by a chariot of fire or a bolt of lightning, blinded to the humbler graces sent his way, Naaman wants to be saved—but on his terms. He thinks he and his ailment require and deserve something more dramatic, more complicated, than a bath.
Naaman is not cured by some magical jujumagumbo or even by a complex ritual he must undertake. He is cured by followed a simple command: “Wash, and be clean.”
Perhaps Naaman is insulted because he’s tried this before. I don’t know how often people bathed in ancient Aram—probably not as often as we do today—but I imagine if you had a skin disease, you would have attempted to clean it at some point.
But the cleanness that Elisha is offering goes much deeper. To be clean can mean a lot of different things. In our antibacterial society, we have become obsessed with sterilization, so much so that we are creating antibiotic-resistant superbugs. For a joke to be clean, it has to rated G or maybe PG. A drug addict is clean when her body is free of illegal or addictive substances. And cleanliness can be more metaphorical, referring to clarity or completion or truthfulness, as in clean lines, a clean takeoff, or coming clean.
Elisha says to Naaman, “Wash, and be clean.” The request is so simple as to be insulting. But maybe I’m being too hard on Naaman—maybe instead of being completely egotistical, he realizes that getting clean is just the first step in a long process of healing. Cleaning a wound may be followed by surgery and stitches and months of physical therapy. The addict who gets clean has many hard days of habit-breaking and soul-searching and making amends in order to stay in recovery.
Maybe Elisha’s simple solution isn’t so simple after all. Maybe part of Naaman’s anger is realizing his cure may be not only anticlimactic but also time-intensive. First he is clean, and then his flesh is restored; but how long will it take for him to heal from the scars that remain on his self-image and his ego?
Naaman is an exception in the ancient world in that he has been able to maintain a place of power and authority despite his ailment. Most lepers became outcasts and were shunned by society. Despite the ways in which he overcame, he must have faced a daily tension knowing the precariousness of his position.
“There’s some things that time can’t erase.” A faint stain may be left behind after washing, and even healed wounds can leave scars. Even when no physical scar remains, illness and injury and addiction go much more than skin deep. A flesh wound heals long before the mind traumatized by the event that created it. An addict may be clean for years before she can forgive herself for who she became in the grip of the drug.
I’m sure all of us would love for a prophet to wave his hand over us and cure the cancer, the depression, the infertility, the ALS, the diabetes, the heart disease, the alcoholism, the anxiety, the high blood pressure, the anorexia, the obesity, or the arthritis. We would love to stop undergoing chemo, attempting in vitro fertilization, meeting with our nutritionist or counselor or psychiatrist, attending twelve-step meetings, organizing our lives around a disability, and taking Lipitor or Xanax or Coumadin.
But every now and then, in the process of getting clean, we can find a deeper cleansing. As arduous as a recovery process can be, we can find strength along the road. And all of it leads, one day off in the future but also one day at a time here and now, to a much deeper, more permanent healing and restoration. All of it points the way to a salvation that is not just about our soul. Salvation, in some mysterious, complicated, none-too-magical way, is about our body, our mind, and our skin.
American writer and teacher Reynolds Price understood the complexity of the connection between healing and salvation. In 1984, doctors discovered a tumor entangled in his spine, and although they were able to save his life, he lived out his years in a wheelchair. During treatment he had a remarkable dream that he described this way:
It was the big lake of Kinnereth, the Sea of Galilee, in the north of Israel… the scene of Jesus’ first teaching and healing. I’d paid the lake a second visit the previous October… Still sleeping around me on the misty ground were a number of men in the tunics and cloaks of first-century Palestine. I soon understood with no sense of surprise that the men were Jesus’ twelve disciples and that he was nearby asleep among them… Then one of the sleeping men woke and stood. I saw it was Jesus, bound toward me… Again I felt no shock or fear. All this was normal human event; it was utterly clear to my normal eyes and was happening as surely as any event of my previous life… Jesus bent and silently beckoned me to follow… Jesus silently took up handfuls of water and poured them over my head and back til water ran down my puckered scar. Then he spoke once—“Your sins are forgiven”—and turned to shore again, done with me. I came on behind him, thinking in standard greedy fashion, It’s not my sins I’m worried about. So to Jesus’ receding back, I had the gall to say “Am I also cured?” He turned to face me, no sign of a smile, and finally said two words—“That too.”
As I prepared this sermon, I remembered I had told this story at Roots Revival before. I looked back, and it turns out it was exactly one year ago tomorrow that I shared Reynolds Price’s vision. In that sermon, I told about what Price since said about the years following his initial treatment: “They’ve brought more in and sent more out—more love and care, more knowledge and patience, more work in less time.”
Somehow, without diminishing the pain and the difficulty of his condition, Price was able to find his salvation, not from it, but in it. There was no prophet to wave a hand and make him walk again. But there were family and friends who shared the journey with him, students forever changed by his teaching and his friendship, and a God-given ability to find beauty and pain that allowed him to explore his vocation to an even greater depth.
In the song we’re about to hear, Tom Waits asks the question, “Does the light of God blind you or lead the way home for you?” Sometimes we are too busy burning our eyes staring at the sun to see all that is revealed by its brightness. The light of God illuminates, and it casts shadows, too.
I think of the Joni Mitchell song “Both Sides Now,” where she sings of clouds that can be ice cream castles in the air or block the sun, sending snow and rain. “Does the light of God blind you or lead the way home for you?” Does the water of the river drown you while you wait for divine intervention, or does it wash you clean?
I do not believe that God makes people sick to prove a point or to build their character. But I do believe that our salvation is sometimes found not just in freedom from what ails us but in the very process of healing. As we wash and clean and bind our wounds, we draw closer to a God who knew the weakness of our human state, who embraced it even to suffering and death, and who longs to make each one of us whole in body, mind, and spirit.
I pray that we would all hear God’s voice saying, “Your sins are forgiven.” And I pray that we would all have the gall to say to Jesus, “Am I also cured?” And when the response we get is not a magic trick but rather a command to wash, and be clean, to start the long journey of healing and recovery, may we hear, even if we cannot see the possibility of it through our pain and confusion, this simple but complex response: “That too.”
Sarah S. Howell