Naaman is a powerful man. He is a powerful general in the powerful army of a powerful kingdom. The Kingdom of Aram has just defeated the Kingdom of Israel in battle, and what’s more, the God of Israel was the one who delivered the victory to Aram. And Naaman, the general, brought it all home. The text says that Naaman is highly regarded in the sight of his king – and that’s just about as high as you can get without being king yourself.
But Naaman has a problem. Naaman has a skin disease. And none of his power and privilege has been able to change that – not his wealth, not his military prowess, not the high regard of the king.
But in one of their military raids, the army of Aram has pillaged Israel, and Naaman has taken into captivity – and enslaved as a servant in his house – a young girl from Israel. This young girl sees her enslaver’s problem, and she says to her mistress: “Oh if only my master would go and see the prophet in Israel (Samaria), the prophet would heal him.” And this word works its way up the chain of power and reaches Naaman, and Naaman takes it to his king, and asks for leave to go and see this prophet.
So the King of Aram writes a letter to the King of Israel (now his vassal) and says “Heal my servant.” And Naaman takes the letter, loads up his chariots with treasure, and heads off to Israel. But the King of Israel doesn’t know what to do. He can’t cure a skin disease. But the prophet Elisha sends word to the king, “Send Naaman to me. I will heal him, and he will know that there is a prophet in Israel.”
And so Naaman and his chariots and all their riches roll off to the prophet’s hut. And there Naaman is, in all his glory, with all his silver, and all his gold – all his shekels – and all his power, and all of his people – standing there in front of this little hut.
And the door of the hut opens, and a servant hurries out with a message from Elisha: “Go wash yourself. Go wash yourself in the Jordan seven times.”
That’s it? Maybe Naaman turned the scroll over to see if there was anything else on the other side. That’s it? And then Naaman gets mad. “Wash myself? In the Jordan? That dirty river. Hah! Aram has much better rivers. We’ve got the Abana and the Pharpar. And who does this so-called prophet think he is, anyway? Not even coming out to meet me. Does he know who I am? I am Naaman – victorious general of the victorious army of the victorious King of Aram.”
And Naaman is done with this prophet, and he storms away.
But Naaman’s servant runs after him – tugs his sleeve, and Naaman stops. And the servant says: “Master, if he’d told you to do something big – wouldn’t you have done it? How much more when he simply says: Wash and be cleansed? Why wouldn’t you do the small thing he asks.”
And something must have registered with Naaman. Because Naaman is hurting. He has a skin disease. And none of his power and privilege has been able to bring him the healing he needs. Not his victories, not his high position, not his shekels, there’s not even a heroic task that Naaman can accomplish to bring about his healing.
Naaman needs a word of healing. He just doesn’t know what or where it is – Naaman can’t just fix this.
We talked last summer about how wisdom begins with not-knowing. We come to the point that we know that we know not. And then we can learn. At some point – Naaman gets it: Naaman knows that he knows not. So Naaman leaves his chariot, and all his people, and all the treasure he’s brought. Naaman leaves all that behind, and Naaman goes down to the river, and he wades on in, stripped of all his power and privilege, and he washes himself seven times, and he comes up out of the river – healed, restored, whole.
And then Naaman goes before Elisha, whom he now meets face to face, and Naaman says, “There is a God. Your God is my God.” Setting aside his power and his privilege, Naaman encounters God and receives a healing word.
Now it took Naaman a while to find this healing word. But it was here in the text all along – moving Naaman toward healing. But where was it? Or better yet, who has the word? Well, the obvious answer is the prophet Elisha – Elisha tells Naaman to go down to the river and wash seven times. But Elisha doesn’t even come out of his hut. Who else really makes things happen here? Well, we have Naaman’s servant – a servant brave enough to tug on his raging master’s sleeve. He speaks a word of healing that convinces this powerful man that maybe – just maybe – he knows not. This servant has neither power nor privilege – just a word of wisdom.
And, there is a young woman, an enslaved woman, right at the beginning of the story – who sets the whole thing in motion. She has felt the brunt of war. The Aramean army has conquered her people, probably burned her village, and in violence, they have taken her captive. She is enslaved in Naaman’s house. She knows what it is to hurt. In the world of this text, this woman has virtually no power and no privilege.
But she has a word. She has the word that will heal Naaman. She has the wisdom. She knows that she knows. In this text, the people who know – the ones who bring the word of healing – they are the people with the absolute least amount of power and privilege. A prophet – but a prophet from a weaker kingdom. A servant. And another servant. And a young woman who is an enslaved captive in a foreign land.
No power, no privilege – but a word that will heal even the mighty.
For Naaman, it is in that place of not knowing, of not relying on his power, his own resources – where he has to rely on others – it’s in that place, that Naaman encounters God and that God brings a word. God brings a word of healing to Naaman, not in his power and privilege, but in his vulnerability – in the honesty that comes from naming his deepest need, and leaning in.
Notice what doesn’t work so well for Naaman. He can’t force his own healing. He can’t wrestle this one to the ground. His power-over is of little use. In fact, he has to let go of that before he can find his way to healing. There’s no grand gesture – no heroic, herculean task he can do. And, it doesn’t work – very much – when he tries to do this all on his own.
I feel for Naaman. I know what that looks like – a lot of times, with life’s problems – big and small – “Just tell me what to do, and I’ll do it. I’ll get it done – I’ll power through. I’m strong, resourceful, and independent.” This imperfect life – I want to believe I can fix it. All. On my own.
Look where Naaman’s journey leads him. Through the mess of all that, down to the river – stripped of all pretense of power and privilege – leaning into the word of a minor prophet from a vanquished nation – and a healing word delivered by a servant – no, actually three servants – those with the least power-over in the story.
They know – what he knows not.
I wonder how far Naaman will let this experience heal and change him. There’s a whole other story that follows this one – and in the wake of this healing Naaman does become generous. But I wonder if he heals enough to now pay that servant who saved his life a meaningful wage. I wonder if when he returns home, that young girl he enslaved – whose word set his healing in motion – will he now let her go free?
They speak the words that will heal Naaman: Set down your power-over and your privilege. Go do a small thing, and you will find God’s healing power there.
Did you know that there is a saint of small things? We don’t talk often of the saints of the Roman Catholic tradition. Maybe that’s because we have a different understanding of saints – Presbyterians and Protestants proclaim the communion of the saints – all of us claimed by God – equally gifted, called, and graced by God – all of us saints. The Catholic tradition lifts up particular saints, and their particular, miraculous lives.
And then there’s Saint Theresa – Saint Thérèse of Lisieux – beloved not for great, heroic feats – but for her embrace of the grace of small things – what she called “the Little Way.” Thérèse of Lisieux lived at the turn of the last century – she lived a hard life, a brief life, and she died at age 24. She lived her life within the convent, and when she knew she wouldn’t live long, she decided, as one person has described it, to “live her ordinary life with limitless love” – as Thérèse herself wrote:
“How am I to show my love? Great deeds are forbidden me. The only way I can show my love is by scattering flowers, and these flowers are every little sacrifice, every loving glance and word, and the doing of the small action for love.”
Kate Bowler writes: “There are many great acts of love that are great because they are massive, monumental, and earth-shattering. And. And, some are great because they are incremental. Each small act adds up to something spectacular. Small acts, great love.”
We are called to great acts of love – to engage the big issues of our day – and help make big change for the good.
Just as often, maybe more often, in our daily lives, we have the opportunity – abundant opportunities – to move ourselves and the world toward healing by doing the next small, good thing.
· Maybe it’s a phone call to someone you haven’t seen in a while, to check in and see how they’re doing.
· Maybe it’s that next postcard that you’re sending in support of voting rights – one postcard to one person, encouraging them to find their voice and helping them to secure their rights – one postcard – one of the thousands this congregation has sent into the world.
· Maybe it’s showing up and doing the thing no one else wants to do.
· In our imperfect lives, maybe it’s extending a bit of grace to someone caught up in the struggle, or extending a bit of grace to yourself.
· Maybe it’s the courage just to get up in the morning, on a day when life has dealt you a lousy, unfair hand, and to grasp the hand of a friend, and take the next step toward healing.
This morning’s scripture has a clear and lovely invitation.
This text invites us to name our deep hurt,
to name – with our sisters and brothers –
our siblings in the faith --
the deep hurts of the world.
This text invites us to lay down our power and our privilege,
our sense that we know the answers, that we can fix things if
we just work hard enough and think hard enough.
This text invites us to lay all that down, and lean into each other,
and into God,
and find the healing we may have overlooked,
in the grace of small things, done with great love.
So the invitation – the practice – for this week is to look for and embrace the grace of small things. Like Naaman, look for the healing in small things that may have gone unnoticed until now. But not just that, embrace