The Hebrew grammar is unclear. Is Naaman’s weakness his leprosy or his self-importance? He is introduced by both of these things and perhaps they are tangled up together. Naaman is a Syrian general, confident about his military status while haunted by his deepest insecurity. His flesh invites curiosity, disgust, and distance.
A young girl had been taken captive from the land of Israel and served Naaman’s wife. She was either shrewd or merciful when she spoke out of turn and offered up a long shot solution. There was a prophet in Israel known to cure this disease. If he went to see Elisha, he might be healed.
But healing does not always happen on our terms or leave the rest of our body unchanged. Healing often requires trauma, humility and recovery from the rest of our being. Naaman went to Israel hoping for a miracle that would cure his flesh, drawing him further into relationships and society than before.
Naaman’s king sent a caravan of pomp and circumstance to the King of Israel with a letter asking for healing and life. But kings and politicians and courts could not provide. Instead, they were rerouted to the outskirts of town where Elisha lived. When their horses and chariots pulled up, they expected Elisha to come outside, ready and impressed. But Elisha did not emerge. Instead, he sent a simple word:
Go, wash in the Jordan River seven times.
Your flesh shall be restored and you shall be clean.
This was not what Naaman hand in mind. The river was more like a stink ditch. A bath would be so humiliating, his tormented flesh laid bare for all to see. Submersion in the silent spotlight of expectation – again and again and again and again and again and again and again. It would be too physically simple. Too emotionally embarrassing.
His pride and fear twisted up in the pit of his stomach. Naaman turned to go, angry and muttering all of the reasonsthis was beneath him. Until his servants stopped him.
If it required muscle and conquest, you would have done it.
This is another kind of sacrifice.
This is strength born when you shed your layers and show up as yourself.
Show up as yourself. Bare the one you wish away, you label with weakness, you try to control with apathy, violence, or distraction. Reveal your secrets and shame. See what happens.
So he let go and stepped out from behind his chariot. Thanks to a foreign slave girl and a band of patient servants and a quirky prophet, the Syrian general dared to take off the layers of soldier, commander, and man. And once undressed, he waded into the murky mess of his truest self: a beloved child of God. The mud squished between his toes and the water smelled foul in his beard.
It took seven times to lose himself in the hope of wholeness and healing. When he stumbled out of the tide, he seemed lighter and less self-conscious. And his flesh was clear like that of a young boy just learning how to live. Surrounded by witnesses and still dripping, Naaman stood before Elisha with a whole hearted confession…and a present.
But Elisha reminded him that this grace cannot be bought or bribed or rewarded. It is free. It is relational. It is enough for God to see him returned to his truest self. Naaman’s presents were refused until he finally agreed to return home. His infections and transactions had been washed away in the filthy beauty of a God who gets up close, who speaks truth to power, who peels back our layers to reveal our truest selves.
- An Interpretation of 2 Kings 5