What a trip Naaman took, from Syria to Samaria. If he had known, if he had an inkling about what lay ahead for him—do you suppose he ever would have left home?
I’m not just talking about the one hundred miles or so, south by southwest, from Damascus in Syria to Samaria in northern Israel. That’s just geography….and surely longer, more daunting journeys have been taken.
No…I’m talking about the whole trip, the entire journey that Naaman went on….a journey down, to the depths….a journey up to the heights….and a journey out into the world again, by a man who was no longer quite himself.
What a journey---down, up and out….not unlike the journey of faith that you and I are on. Think about it.
Naaman took a journey down, not just down from Syria to Samaria, but down into the depths of humility, down to a place where all the pride was squeezed out of him, down to a river where he would die to all that he had been.
Naaman, you see, was a general, accustomed to giving orders and getting his own way. And Naaman was a successful general, to boot. His military prowess had won many victories. He had the confidence of his king. Naaman was, in so many ways, on top of the world.
Except that he was also a leper, which in that day was more than a skin disease. Leprosy brought disfigurement, uncleanness and shame. If Naaman could be rid of that, nothing would hold him back.
But to get rid of his leprosy, Naaman would have to go down, he needed to stoop down, get down, despairing of himself and submitting to the orders of others.
And that meant that Naaman needed to listen to the little people. Three times here in II Kings 5, Naaman the almighty must take his cues from the no-accounts, the servants, the slaves in the story. What a twist!
First there’s the little Hebrew maid, the slave girl Naaman had captured in an earlier victory over Israel, carrying her back to serve as his wife’s house-servant. The first glimmer of hope in this story comes from the slave girl—“There’s a prophet in my homeland,” she told her mistress. “He can heal your husband.”
So Naaman and his whole entourage traipse off to Samaria, the northern Kingdom of Israel. Armed with letters of introduction from the king of Syria, and a veritable “stimulus package” of gifts for the prophet, Naaman heads down to make contact with the man who could heal him.
But the prophet is not in the Israeli king’s palace. To meet the prophet, Naaman will need to bypass the palace and head out into the countryside, to the prophet’s humble home.
I bet Naaman was annoyed by that. Couldn’t the prophet come to him? Apparently not. So Naaman and company headed to the prophet’s hut, and when they got there, the prophet didn’t even bother to make an appearance.
Instead, for the second time in this story, a servant came to the fore. The prophet Elisha dispatched his slave with a simple set of instructions: “Go, Naaman to the River Jordan and bathe seven times and you will be healed.”
Here was mighty Naaman, a general of the Syrian army—standing hat in hand, before the prophet’s house—and the man couldn’t even step out, wave his hands and utter an incantation or two.
Naaman had had enough. He didn’t need this. He turned his face, north by northeast, back home to Syria…
But just then, for the third time in this story, the little people, Naaman’s own servants….came to him and spoke to him a word of pleading and hope. “What have you got to lose, O great one? You’ve come this far—why don’t you give it a try?”
And so again, Naaman relents and “goes down,” this time quite literally, seven times down into the muddy Jordan River….and when he comes up out of the water, his skin is like that of a teenager.
Naaman had to go down, down, down….for that is how God usually has to start with all of us.
Wherever we’re at, God needs to press in upon us, to reduce us, to diminish us, to soften us up and wear us down so that we become useless enough, powerless enough, worthless enough that God can do something great for us.
You and I have gone down like that. Life puts pressure on us. Though we may imagine ourselves in control and doing fine…. God has to recalibrate our lofty estimations of ourselves….and that’s a very good thing….because God needs us to be empty-handed, so that God can do his greatest work.
And what a great work that is. From the lowest of lowly places, Naaman is lifted up to the heights. Having gone down, down, down….Naaman is lifted up, up, up.
He receives more, far more, than the healing of a dermatological disorder. That would be wondrous enough, by rights….but God has bigger things in store for Naaman. As he rises up out of the River Jordan, Naaman receives a healing that is more than skin deep.
More than receiving the skin of a teenager, Naaman “gets it.” The pieces come together for him. Naaman isn’t just cured. He is saved—soul, mind and heart. Naaman is lifted up to the heavenly places where he confesses: “Now I know that there is no God in all the earth except in Israel.”
Isn’t this just like God—to always give us more than we’re asking for! If Naaman’s leprosy had left him and that was the end of it—we’d say that Naaman was cured. His skin disease was cured.
But Naaman was more than cured, he was healed. He received God’s deep healing of the affliction that would have killed Naaman. God healed Naaman’s unbelief. God didn’t just give Naaman a cure. God gave Naaman the gift of himself.
Having gone down….and having been brought back up….there was one more step in Naaman’s journey, though.
God now sent him out, back into the world. And not just anywhere, either! God sent Naaman back to his own country, to Syria, and when Naaman got back there he would have some “explaining” to do!
“How’d you get that peaches-and-cream complexion, Naaman?” Naaman had to explain that, and the only way Naaman could do that would be to name the name of the one true God who had healed him.
This was no fly-by-night, flash-in-the-pan cure Naaman received. He was a new man, inside and out. He belonged now, and he knew he belonged, to the one true God, the God of Israel.
And that’s what those two mule-loads of dirt were all about.
Toward the end of this little story, Naaman, when he realizes that Elisha will accept no gift from him, Naaman asks if he can take home to Syria a gift from the prophet. Naaman asks to bring a little bit of the land of Israel, back to his home in Syria, so that he can worship the true God, on Israeli soil.
That might strike us as superstitious or just plain weird….but in truth, Naaman “got it,” he realized that his new faith in the one true God needed a point of sacramental connection to the place where God had made himself known.
So, Naaman, with his two mule-loads of dirt, would have more explaining to do, back home in Syria….and my sense of this story is that Naaman was eager, as eager as he could be, to do just that.
When we walk with God we are on the journey of our lives. God sends us down….down to wherever it is we learn humility, wherever we come to despair of ourselves. For that to happen to us, dear friends, we (like Naaman) may need to listen to the little people in our lives!
And God sends us down, only so that God can bring us back up, so that God can do for us what we need most, give us the gift of himself, in the person of Jesus Christ our Lord.
But that is never the end of it all. In the end, God sends us one more place. God sends us out, which for many of us simply means that God sends us back home, as Naaman went back home to Syria, a new man. God sends us home, washed in the waters of Baptism’s cleansing flood, new people with baby-soft skin and a faith to share.
This story, like every great story in the Bible, is finally a missionary story. And the missionary back home is Naaman, the missionary back home is you.
Lawrence Robert Wohlrabe was born in Mankato, MN. He graduated from Minnesota State University, Mankato, and Luther Seminary, St. Paul. Luther Seminary awarded him a Doctor of Ministry degree with distinction.
Ordained in 1981, he served parishes in Willmar, MN; St. James, MN; and Moorhead, MN. He was also on the staff of Luther Seminary, St. Paul, and the SW MN Synod ELCA, Redwood Falls, MN. Larry was elected bishop of the Northwestern Minnesota Synod on June 10, 2007. He was re-elected bishop of the synod, to a second 6-year term on June 7, 2013.
Larry's wife, Joy, is retired after working many years as a hospital and hospice social worker. They have two young adult children, Erik and Kristen (married to Aaron) and two grandchildren, Olivia and Micah. Note: the views expressed here are Bishop Wohlrabe's views--not those of the NW MN Synod.