Naaman, the David Patraeus of Syria, is a “great commander,” says 1st Kings, and is adored by his king. He can do no wrong, and there’s nothing he can not do, until, one day he’s afflicted with an unspeakable skin disease. And any skin disease, was considered reason for banishment from the community, back then, sort of like how we treat those with mental illnesses, all too often today. There were strict social expectations and special laws spelling out the way you were to dress and present yourself as a class of people we might call, the walking dead. It was a way of saying, ‘to me you do not exist!’
Now, God had given Syria, Israel’s enemy, victory, literally, salvation, thru Naaman, and in that battle, he had taken a young Israelite girl captive, who now serves Naaman’s wife in their home. As the skin disease became an issue in the household, the young girl speaks up and tells the commander’s wife, “If only your husband were with the prophet [Elisha] who is in Israel! He would cure him of his leprosy.”
So Naaman makes plans to go to Israel’s hospital where the famous doctor, Elisha practices. Coming from Syria, Naaman’s not, of course, In Network. But that’s not a problem, he brings cash, and lots of it: “ten talents, or 750lbs. of silver, and six thousand shekels of gold,” which probably says more about his ego than the cost of health care. But instead of going to the hospital, he tries to check in with the Insurance Provider first. Naaman shows him the letter from his king, which all but demands a cure, and, the Insurance provider becomes defensive and hostile. ‘Who do you think I am? I can’t cure anyone, I just take your money.’ But Naaman, unfamiliar to a health care system of seemingly unnecessary middle men, wants to pay the doctor directly. He’s ready to put up a fight and do battle with the Administrator, but thankfully, Elisha steps in and invites him to come directly to his clinic, and bloodshed is averted.
So Naaman takes his silver and gold, loaded on his chariots, and resets his GPS for Elisha’s clinic in Samaria. As he walks in, a nurse greets him, weighs him in and takes his vitals, and then gives Naaman Dr. Elisha’s prescription: “go, wash in the River Jordan 7 times, and your flesh shall be restored and you shall be clean.” But this seems too easy to Naaman, who “becomes angry,” it says.
Some people think they know better than the doctor! In my first parish in northern MI it was Stanley, the most stubborn guy I’ve ever met. In his later days he was a pussy-cat, but when he was younger he was totally impossible! Once, after waiting too long, he went in to see Dr. Koivonen at our little rural hospital for an unspecified gastric distress problem, and Dr. Koivonen, after checking him thoroughly, told him to “go,” go and eat better – you need a healthier diet! But Stanley was incensed, and went and found another doctor, who agreed to give him one pill after another, none of which ultimately helped him. Finally, Stanley went to the larger regional health care facility, which, after giving him lots of personal attention and diagnostic tests, convinced him to get off the many medications he had been taking, and suddenly, he felt much better. Stanley had spent boat loads of money all for nothing, because a simple diet seemed beneath him, he expected something more extravagant, and he had to be in control.
Naaman nearly walked out of Elisha’s Clinic to look for another doctor too, any other doctor, who would do it Naaman’s way. “I thought that for me Dr. Elisha would surely come out,” and meet me face to face, said Naaman, “and would wave his hand over the spot, and cure the leprosy!” And as for bathing in the Jordan, he said “Are not… the rivers of Damascus [in Syria] better than all the waters of Israel? Could I not wash in them, and be clean?” And “he turned and went away in a rage.”
But Naaman’s servants talk him down, using a little reverse psychology on the “great commander.” “If the prophet had commanded you to do something difficult, would you have not done it?” they asked. “How much more, when all he said to you was, ‘Wash, and be clean’?” Maybe too, Naaman remembers the “young Israelite girl,” in his household, and her confident words about Elisha’s healing powers. And so he went and dunked in the liberating waters of the Jordan seven times, and came up from this baptism, with “his flesh restored like the flesh of a young boy.”
Naaman is transformed, and he tells Elisha, “now I know that there is no God in all the earth except in Israel.” And in thanksgiving Naaman offers Dr. Elisha the gifts of silver and gold he brought. But Elisha tells him, “As the LORD lives, whom I serve, I will accept nothing!”
Now, if I thought I could get one over on you, I’d say this was the perfect example of universal health care – Free treatment for all! But I know you can tell that this is really the plot of European socialists!
But seriously, I think as a people of faith, we do need to begin talking like we believe that access to health care is a fundamental right, of all, in our society. What Elisha does for us, is model the care for our neighbor, that goes beyond divisions of race, ethnicity, and ability to pay, in his healing of Naaman the foreigner. The outsider is welcomed and cared for, just like an insider! And if you don’t think this is central to the story, keep reading, and you’ll find how Elisha’s own servant, who secretly goes after Naaman to falsely illicit part of his large stash of cash, is the one who becomes the outsider. Because when Elisha finds out about his servants extortion, he inflicts the leprosy of Naaman, on to him, who receives the curse of the walking dead, and banishment from community.
Jesus – who in our gospel story healed a man with a skin disease – is often compared to Elisha in the gospels. Jesus too is from the rural north, is a wonder worker, and doesn’t accept payment for his cures; and most notably, he gives salvation, the ultimate cure, as a gift, free of charge, to all of us, in giving his life on the cross. Jesus brings the outsider in, in order to unite us all. He reveals to us the one creator-God of the whole world, manifest in the complexity of many peoples, various colors and creeds, diverse sexual orientations and gender identities, rich and poor.
And finally, what is revealed, is that the Spirit of Christ is what empowers us, to overcome the stigma between insiders and outsiders, and provide the gift of forgiveness and grace to our neighbor in the balm of healing, that can unite all people together. Like Naaman, we must learn to give up our stubborn and controlling ways, and let the simple, yet profound cure, of the waters of baptism, wash us clean.