Naaman the Leper seemingly appears in our midst from nowhere. We read about how he went down to the Jordan River, went into it, and is healed of his illness. Then he goes home. The scripture writers are nothing if not efficient in the way they tell stories. Much of the context that helps us understand the events of the story are buried in seemingly insignificant details, and often the writers are not concerned at all with drawing out a full character. Introspective characters with internal monologues can get in the way of the thrust of the story, and so in the ancient world stories tend to focus on actions and words, not feelings and thoughts. However, a careful reader can pick up quite a bit from what’s at the surface level. The scriptures are highly sophisticated in terms of literary structure and there is always more than meets the eye if we can work from the outside in.
There is much more to this particular story, and happily there is plenty more detail than our Mass reading covers. It turns out that Naaman is a commander in the army of the Arameans, a group of people who were at least occasionally hostile to the Israelites. Naaman himself had a servant girl he had captured during a raid in Israel. It is she who suggests that he go to the Prophet Elisha in Israel to be healed of his disease.
Naaman agrees to go, and he first approaches the King of Israel. Naaman says that he has arrived to have his disease cured, and the Israeli King rips up his robes in frustration. Leprosy was uncurable at the time, and so the King thinks that he’s being set up. He thinks the Arameans are making an impossible demand that, when he fails to accomplish it, the Arameans can use as a pretext to start a war. Elisha hears of the problem and sends a messenger to fetch Naaman, so Naaman goes to Elisha’s house but, when his chariot pulls up, Elisha doesn’t even come out. Instead, he sends a messenger out and tells Naaman to go down to the Jordan River and bath in it seven times. Naaman is furious. He says that a prophet of God should come out to meet him with great prayers and wave his hands like a magician. He expects fireworks, but instead is told to go jump in a river.
And that is where our Mass reading picks up. Naaman decides he has nothing to lose, goes to the river, and is healed. The scriptures say that his skin becomes like that of a youth. He goes to thank Elisha and ends up taking a pile of dirt home with him, which seems odd until you realize that in the ancient world altars were often built of dirt, so what he is doing is establishing a place of worship back home for the one, true God. The miracle causes a total conversion of heart.
The scriptures are full of shadows and echoes. The Bible was written by 35 different authors over the course of 1000 years, and yet we constantly encounter ways in which one part of the scriptures speak to another. These echoes build and build throughout the narrative until, finally, with the advent of Christ, they are birthed into a solid reality. Throughout the Bible, from the very first words, sacramentality, the way that God adds grace to our lives, is coming to fruition. The story of our salvation echoes back and forth through the story as it is gathered up into the one, great spoken Word that God the Father breathes out, the Word, in Greek, the Logos, the logical and inevitable procession of history towards its creator, Jesus Christ. He speaks and we are created.
This is the meaning of the journey we are on as we follow along with the Scriptures. It’s a journey by which we discover how much God loves us and how he brings us into his story. He is speaking to us and even writing it with us. Stories all have a beginning, a middle, and an end. The interesting thing about the Scriptures is that the end is in the middle, and there are ripples before and ripples after, showing how disruptive the great revelation of Jesus Christ our Savior really is. Once God has taken on human flesh and joined creation, nothing can ever be the same. He is the center of history and the heart of the story.
Here’s how Naaman fits in. In the beginning, the earth is born from the waters, which is a metaphor for the womb. Noah is delivered through the waters and into a New Covenant with God. The Israelites escape Egypt through the waters of the Red Sea and into a new life in the Promised Land. The Israelite priests, in order to be made spiritually clean, would ritually bath themselves in water before going to minister in the Temple. Finally, all these foreshadows are revealed in all their glory with the Sacrament of Baptism when Our Lord is baptized in the Jordan River.
Naaman also enters the water and is reborn. So too are we born again in the waters of Baptism. St. Paul is describing baptism when he says, “If we have died with him, we will also live with him.” Namaan is physically healed in a foreshadow of baptism, an act which is revealed by Christ to be much more important, because baptism is a spiritual healing, a rebirth, a cleansing from sin. A person who is baptized is always prepared for worship in the house of God, always worthy to make a sacrifice. The health of our spirit and the state of our eternal soul is much more important than physical health.
The healing isn’t at all what Naaman expects it to be like, and for us this is also true. We expect great, spiritual fireworks when we receive God’s grace, but grace works quietly. It isn’t the water that is magical. It isn’t the priest who is supposed to make a big show. It isn’t how overwhelmed we are by our emotions. It is the fact that we meet Christ in the water, and it is he who makes us clean. The tenth leper who Jesus healed understood this, and he returns to Jesus to thank him. This is the whole point of the sacraments. It isn’t about power, or wealth, or physical well-being, it is to meet Our Lord, to be saved, to be made spiritually clean, have our sins forgiven.
God is telling a story. It is a true story. It’s about how his grace enters our lives, maybe not in the way we expected, but when it arrives, we find that everything around us, absolutely everything, speaks of his love and his healing power.