“Sharing Bathwater and Other Acts of Discipleship”
Psalm 30 & 2 Kings 5: 1-14 ~ Northwood UC ~ July 3, 2022 ~ Rev. G. Scott Turnbrook
Have you ever thought about switching places with someone? Switching places with a famous celebrity? You might imagine living in a beautiful mansion, eating foods you can’t even pronounce, and travelling in a private jet to tropical destinations. Or perhaps switching places with a wise sage? Having deeper levels of insight; grasping deeper levels of understanding of life and meaning. These are interesting considerations, aren’t they?
But let me ask you, would you consider switching places with a person experiencing tremendous pain and trouble? Would you consider trading places in order to understand their reality and their experience? What about our sisters and brothers in Ukraine? With the unfolding of this horrible situation, we have been praying for these people. We consider their pains, their fears…as their future seems in so much peril. It was deeply moving to gather at Northwood a few months ago for a fundraising benefit; as we welcomed a number of people from the Ukrainian Orthodox and Catholic community; as we sang and offered thoughts and prayers to this war-torn land. Would we switch places to find a deeper understanding of their pain and suffering? Would you switch places with a Ukrainian to understand the challenges of their situation? As we are well into the 3rd year of the pandemic, we know that many countries without the same access to health care and vaccination; there are many who living in areas with rapid spread and high death rates, and they are living in deep fear and uncertainty. Would you switch places to understand their struggle and pain?
The text this morning reminds us that we continue to live in a world ruled by harsh separations and divisions. And the thought of ‘switching places’ was as unappealing then as it is now. In the time of Jesus, there was a divided world between Jew, Gentile, slave and free. In our focus text, the divisions notes were between countries: Arameans and Israelites. The main characters in this drama, Elisha the Israelite prophet and Naaman the Aramean army commander, lived in very different worlds. And, as we heard, the thought of ‘switching places’ was incomprehensible. We like to think that our world is more sophisticated and evolved today; however, I would suggest that these separations continue. Real life divisions back then: Aramean and Israelite, Jew and Gentile…Today they are alive and well. We all know them well…they are based on economic status, ethnicity, religion, gender and sexuality. And as these divisions continue, the wisdom of these ancient teachings continue to inform us today. Moving to the text, in the story of Naaman’s healing, we are invited into a world with many similarities to our own. The differences really matter. Two different countries – Aram and Israel; the different status of kings; the power and entitlement of a Aramean military commander over that of an Israelite slave girl. In one of their military raids on Israel, a slave girl (without the dignity of a name) is captured, brought back to Aram, and eventually becomes a servant to Naaman’s wife. Naaman is one of the King’s great military commanders. While Naaman held much power and prestige in Aram, all was not perfect for him. He suffered from a horrible type of skin disease – leprosy. The servant-girl, coming to know the needs of the family she serves, offers the hope-filled possibility for the healing of Naaman. “If only my Lord were with the prophet who is in Samaria, he would cure him of his leprosy”. As readers, we think… ‘how wonderful…A cure!’ What a wonderful turn of events for Naaman! Naaman travels to meet Elisha; he greets the King bringing gift offerings in appreciation for the anticipated cure ~ ten talents of silver, six thousand shekels of gold and ten sets of garments.
However, this story is not so simple. It is steeped with expectation and privilege. It is a story about ‘switching places’, and as we know, no one likes to ‘switch places.’ Naaman arrives expecting to be greeted as royalty. He is, after all, the Aramean commander. He wants the biblical equivalent of a day at the spa that leads to healing. He feels eentitled to a complete recovery from his affliction. Surely, they know who I am? (he mutters) The prophet Elisha offers a prescription for healing to Naaman. The same prescription as he would to any person seeking cleansing: “Go wash in the Jordan seven times and your flesh shall be restored and you shall be made clean”. Naaman is appalled. The filthy Jordan! How can I be expected to bathe in your dirty rivers when we come from the pure Aramean rivers? Can I get an exemption? I’m special you know. I am one of the king’s mighty commanders. Perhaps you have forgotten who I am? No such exemption is offered. What is offered is a call to ‘switch places’. A call to bathe in the Israelite waters. A prescription to cross boundaries and bathe in the foreign waters of the Jordan. Naaman is challenged to open his mind to a foreign culture. And so, following the prophet’s teaching, Naaman crosses over these boundaries to the waters of a new land. He listens to others ~ speaking different languages…coming from different cultures…and learning from them. And as he does this, he is not just healed of his leprosy, he is enlightened to a new reality that unites them in their shared humanity. As he immersed himself in the foreign river of the Jordan, he was restored with the flesh of a young boy and was healed.
Could we become willing to switch places with others? Are we willing to go outside of our comfort zone and experience ‘the other’ and be healed to a new depth of understanding…to have our eyes opened to their reality…and to allow boundaries and divisions to be torn down? In this passage, we meet a God whose healing occurs through the daring action of one’s crossing over to the ‘other’s’ reality. The immediate faith question that comes out of this is text is: what would we have done if we were Naaman? Would we have protested? Or would we have humbled ourselves and followed the words of Elisha and bathed in the Jordan? Are we prepared and open enough to immerse ourselves in the foreign rivers…in all ways that are odd and foreign to us?
Could we dip a toe in? Or is this just too hard a call? You see, I don’t think we necessarily need to pack up our worldly belongings and literally move into a new reality; however, the story asks us: are we prepared to begin to understand the many differences and separations that make life so very complex? I think that our experience in supporting the Hammoud family coming to Canada as refugees from Syria is a good example of how this text may be lived out. Through this ministry, we have been granted a deeper understanding and awareness of ‘another’ ~ another culture, another family, different ways, different food tastes, a different religion. We have ALL grown through the process and we have been ‘healed’ in ways we didn’t imagine. This text asks: are we ready to move from an ‘us versus them’ mentality; towards a reality that invites us to view ‘the other’ as not ‘other’ but rather a beloved child of God, as neighbour, as friend?
Taking this story as a metaphor, what would be the equivalent for you of bathing in the River Jordan seven times? How odd might it be to share someone else’s bathwater? Sharing bathwater is an odd thing to consider isn’t it? We know the temperature that is just right for us; we like a certain amount of bubbles; our favourite bath sponge; everything our way. I recall precious moments of bathing my two kids together in the bath. Those days when you would draw a bath with just the right temperature…and add just the right amount of bubbles…and plunk your two children in to splish, splash, and enjoy their bath. But as they got older, something happened…they didn’t want to bathe together any longer. ‘You want me to bathe with HIM???’ … ‘I’m not bathing with HER!!!’ And so, separate bath times were established, and the divisions began. And ever since then differences begin to form.
The differences our world assigns to keep each of us out of one another’s bath water. There have been eras when drinking fountains were segregated based on race…times when we were separated by religion, and ethnicity…and gender. Today, one’s human sexuality seems to be the divisive point for some. We keep to ourselves; we stay in our pool…we stay in our own bathwater. Naaman, the great commander, thought he was too good to bathe in Israel’s lowly waters of the Jordan, even when a cure for his leprosy was promised. The very same waters in whom our Lord Jesus would, generations later, be baptized in. Yet a cure would be found as he ‘switched places’ and immersed himself in the new way of a new culture. I wonder if the actual cure was found as much in the magical waters as they were in his decision to cross over the separations and divisions that were represented in his leprosy and shared the foreign bath waters of an Israelite. Because Naaman’s action of crossing over was that moment that he met a God whose bounds of love extended beyond any division the human mind can focus upon. Naaman met a God whose love was for all.
Indeed, summer can be a time for reflection, for pondering, for thinking of God. Summer is also a time when we regularly get dirty from summer activity. Sand between the toes from a sandy beach; grass stains on our bottom from sitting on the grass; salty and sweaty from another hot summer day. As we come in from the day to wash up and reflect, perhaps we are being called to bathe, not just in the familiar, but in the foreign experiences of the other. Perhaps we are called to bathe in the Jordan and be made clean again and again and again.