My grandmother always used to say that if bicarbonate of soda, that’s baking soda to most of us, cost a dollar a box (which in my grandmother’s day was a lot of money!) people would flock to buy it for all their ills. But because it was cheap, no one thought it would work. Now my grandmother was a great proponent of bicarbonate of soda and I can remember as a kid holding my nose and drinking down a fizzing glass of water with the stuff in order to deal with any tummy problems I might have. It tasted terrible but it did work! However, I was never a great proponent of bicarbonate of soda, no matter what my grandmother said.
Nevertheless, I do take her point. We often feel that something has to cost a lot of money or have a very fancy name to make it worthwhile. Perhaps even more now in our hyper-consumerist society than in my grandmother’s time, we can be easily convinced of something’s superior quality because of its fancy label or packaging or important sounding name or high price. The tried and true thing that is right in front of our nose is often overlooked or underestimated because it is common or simple. And yet it might be just what we need.
Naaman was a big shot. He was the top general in the army of the King of Aram, present day Syria. Although not a superpower or imperial power, it was a potent kingdom right on the border with Israel and clearly the two nations had been in conflict and the Arameans had taken some slaves from Israel, one of the important reasons to go into battle in the ancient world. A young Israelite woman found herself to be the servant of Naaman’s wife. Now Naaman might have been a big shot but he also had a major problem. He suffered from leprosy which at the time was not able to be cured and as we know from other parts of the Bible, people with leprosy were stigmatized and often shunned in their communities. Naaman was always on the lookout for a cure and he had some buying power behind him to pay for it.
So, when the unnamed Israelite servant girl said to Naaman’s wife that there was a prophet in Israel, meaning Elisha, who would be able to cure his leprosy she had a hearing. We do not know what her motivation might have been. Perhaps she was concerned about her master. Just as likely though, she may have thought this would be her ticket back home, especially if Naaman’s leprosy was cured. And she did know that Elisha was a powerful prophet. Of course Naaman’s wife told Naaman and of course Naaman immediately went to the King of Aram to find a way to convince the King of Israel to allow him, a marauding general from an enemy army, to meet with the mighty prophet of Israel to be cured. A lot of coinage and couture was put into the mix and carried with Naaman when he went to Samaria, the capital of Israel with a letter from his king asking that the king of Israel cure his leprosy.
Well the king of Israel was none too pleased and a little bit distressed to get the letter. As we know only too well, there is a lot of politics in health care. The King of Israel had no idea how he was going to do this but knew that if Naaman was not cured, there would be consequences. He probably wondered how in the world this petition ever got started but of course knew nothing of the unnamed Israelite slave girl who had mad the suggestion. The King of Israel did another thing that was common in the ancient world in such situations; he tore his own clothes in two to demonstrate the impossibility of the dilemma he was in.
Fortunately the great prophet Elisha heard about the King of Israel tearing his clothes in two and he also seemed to know about the request of Naaman so he told the King of Israel to send Naaman to him. And Naaman rode up to the prophet’s door with all his military bravado, his horses and his chariots, no doubt dressed the part with expectations that this prophet would treat him with the proper respect and do everything in his power to cure him, with just a bit of a suggestion that there might be consequences if he didn’t manage to do so. He had come a long way to find the cure and he expected the finest treatment his money could buy.
Elisha did not even come out to meet him. He sent a messenger to him who told Naaman that he needed to go and wash seven times in the Jordan River. It was like he went all the way to the Mayo Clinic to meet with the greatest doctor in the world to treat his illness and he was met in the waiting room by an orderly who told him he should drink a glass of water with bicarbonate of soda. Naaman was none too pleased. He could have done this in the perfectly good rivers of Damascus. He did not have to come all the way here to be humiliated by this enemy who clearly wanted to make him look like a fool. He stomped off in a rage. I’m sure that Elisha and probably the King of Israel were a little concerned about what this general’s next move might be.
Fortunately some saner heads prevailed who decided to try to convince Naaman to go and wash in the Jordan. If the prophet had prescribed a complicated treatment or had come out personally to treat him, would Naaman not have done what he asked? He had come all this way, maybe it was worth going and washing in the Jordan. If it did not work, there could still be consequences. So off he went. He washed seven times in the Jordan as the prophet had directed. And the leprosy disappeared. He was cured. In fact his skin where the leprosy had been was more supple and clean than the rest of him. The plan of the young, unnamed servant girl in Aram had worked.
It’s a complex story, like many of the stories about prophets and kings in the scriptures. There is always a lot at stake. There are always consequences that all of the characters must weigh. But there is always, also, an underlying message of the role of faith in the midst of all of these complexities. The assertion that somehow God is at work. And that God’s power and love and faithfulness will be demonstrated. Through the words of an unnamed servant girl. In the actions of a general who was supposed to be an enemy of God’s covenant people, Israel. In the odd words and instructions of a person who was supposed to be a great prophet but did not seem to have the power we would expect. In a simple thing, bathing in the waters of the Jordan, healing and wholeness was restored and God’s presence was made known.
It’s a good lesson. We cannot deny the complexities of our lives and of our world. You just need to look at the news this week. The outcry and outrage at children being put in prison camps on the border between the United States and Mexico and all of the political complexities behind this. The ongoing protests in Hong Kong over the possibility of citizens being sent to the mainland to face trial. And the global interrelationships that are impacted by these demonstrations. The on-going debates in our own country over pipelines and the use of non-renewable energy. We know only too well the many interests and perspectives that are at work in this debate and the consequences of whatever path is chosen. Maybe it makes the idea of ripping our clothes in half seem like not a bad one.
But for us, people who claim to be of faith, where do we find the simple things that give clarity to our lives and to the bigger issues that loom over us? Jesus’ instructions to his disciples who went out ahead of him on his way to Jerusalem may be helpful. They were not to carry a lot with them.
They were to receive hospitality that was offered to them. And in proclaiming the kingdom of God to be at hand, they were to bring healing and wholeness to those with whom they sojourned. And the Apostle Paul, as he finishes off his letter to the Galatian followers of Jesus reminds them of the simplicity of the message he first brought to them. It wasn’t about complicated and complex works of the law and religious rituals. Instead, they were not to get tired of doing good to all with whom they came into contact, especially those in their own beloved community. And they were to remember that at the heart of the message to them was the cross of Christ. An instrument of torture that had been transformed into a symbol of God’s love for the world. Everything else was superfluous. This was a new creation. This was the sign of the new thing that God was doing through the power of the Spirit.
And we are reminded again today, in the simple meal that we will share here, of the power of God’s love at work in the world. In ways we could never have imagined. In ways we cannot imagine now. But our eyes will be opened and we will see, even in this complex and disturbing world, that God is at work through the power of the Spirit manifesting gifts of love through the simple actions of the most unlikely of people and in the most unlikely of circumstances.
Thanks be to God.