Muddying the Waters

  • 2 Kings 5:1-14
  • Fox Valley Presbyterian Church, Geneva, IL
  • Service of Healing and Wholeness

Every once in a while, my two-year old comes up with little theological insights, new ways of explaining church-y things to herself, and one of my current favorites is the “church bath”. It’s what she calls the baptismal font. The place where she sees babies getting their heads wet. I know, at two, she doesn’t get that much about baptism, but she seems to get the clean part: baptism is the place where we get clean and fresh and get a new start.

Naaman’s story is not about baptism, but the pictures and images it carries probably take most of us in that direction: a man dipping himself into the waters of the River Jordan. You read it and start to think about all those Jordan stories in the Bible: the people of Israel crossing into the promised land, John the Baptist standing in the Jordan while hundreds, thousands, stream out of the cities to be baptized. And, of course, Jesus himself coming to his cousin John, John dipping him beneath the waters, the sky opening, and God’s voice declaring that he is pleased with this Son, Jesus Christ.

And in those pictures, isn’t the Jordan deep and wide? You can see the rocks at the bottom, and the sparkle of a few small minnows in the deeper pool. Clean and blue and clear as a bell, water you could scoop up and drink right from the stream. Safe and pure and you’d feel a whole lot holier after a sip.

I’ve heard that the Jordan isn’t as clean and fabulous as we like to think…

When I read this story of Naaman, I get the idea that maybe the Jordan didn’t look so inviting.

And the whole idea of healing is a lot messier than I usually picture it.

Naaman was probably one of the rare people in the ancient world who had access to plenty of good clean water, a guy with no reason t go near a body of water that looked even a little bit suspect.

He was a general, a successful one, a guy who had the ear of the king and a houseful of slaves. I picture him as kind of sleek, with well done hair, and perfectly tailored suits, everything neat as a pin and in its place. He smelled like success…maybe some combination of leather and money and subtle cologne.

And he had to project this slick image on the outer layer, because underneath everything he was itchy. It took all his military discipline not to scratch, because scratching brought attention to the problem: he had this nagging skin disease, and all of his money and resources, connections to the King, every slave who helped salve his rash with oils—only a slave, after all, could be forced to touch it—couldn’t cure him.

Like so many powerful men, he was a little bit aloof and untouchable, and maybe that was what made the skin condition OK in the circles of power. He was so powerful you wouldn’t want to touch him…and you wouldn’t want to touch him anyway, because there was that whole skin thing…

So everyone kept their distance just a bit. They didn’t shake hands, maybe an occasional awkward clap on he shoulder of his fine suit.

And no one dared suggest a new cure. Because Naaman, a man with his position and power, surely he’d tried everything.

But then there was this tiny little slave girl in his wife’s quarters, just a no-name serving girl, who piped up with her strange accent about some faith healer in her homeland. But she said it with so much matter-of-fact faith that the wife took notice, and started to pester Naaman about it.

And after enough gentle pushing, Naaman did what you do if you have the ear of the king: he arranged for a special letter from his king to the king of Israel…a guarantee that he would get the best and brightest of what Israel had to offer. Such a great faith healer would surely be directly tied to the court.

But when Naaman arrives in Israel, donkeys piled high with gold and gifts, servants streaming behind him in a great parade, the places of power are powerless…the King of Aram’s letter bungles the request…skips right over the healer the slave girl mentioned, goes straight to the power of the King of Israel. And the King has no idea what this letter, let alone this visit is about…what can he do for Naaman? It looks like a set-up, a grand power-play between two kings.

Word gets out, and Elisha sends for Naaman.

Imagine Naaman outside of Elisha’s house…just an average place, a little dusty, roof needs patching, just a servant or two. Imagine Naaman. Maybe he’s game for anything. He’s tried everything, right? So some strange, back-water faith healer? Sure. Whatever works. And if it works, well, how good for the healer…fame and fortune. He’ll be the man who healed Naaman. Naaman will leave him with enough to fix up the roof of the house, get some decent furniture, and live well for a good long time. Word will get out. It’s the most Naaman could do if this guy can make his skin good as new.

But Elisha doesn’t even come out. Naaman’s a little offended. He’s Naaman, after all. Everyone knows about him. The little snubs of refusing a handshake he can understand, but what kind of healer is this who’s too scared to come out and talk to him face to face?

And then there’s the messenger’s message: go wash in the Jordan River, seven times.

No healer, no potions, no magic, no one waving their hand over the spot.

Just the advice to go wash in some half-rate, half-dried, muddy foreign stream. They crossed it on the way here. Who knows what sort of nasty bugs are in the water in this little back-water country? Washing in it? A joke! You’d come out dirtier than you went in.

Naaman’s had it. He’s ready to go home.

But his servants have had it, too. They’re sick of walking. Sick of carting around Naaman’s expensive gifts, sick of the salves and the suffering. And maybe a little sorry for Naaman. So they plead with him: just try it. what can it hurt?

So Naaman goes to the river. The muddy little creek. And undresses, exposes the rash, totally open to the world, vulnerable right there in front of all the servants.

And wades in. And holds his nose. And shuts his mouth tight. And goes under, under the water, into the murkiness.

And he comes up a little muddy, a little silty.

The servants yell from the shore: “Six to go.”

He goes again. A little water leaks into his mouth. He comes up and spits. “Five”

He goes quickly, doesn’t open his eyes. “Four” “Three”

He can feel mud in his hair. All he can think about it toweling this water off when it’s over. He goes in again.



And it’s over. He squeezes the water from his hair, feels the sun starting to dry his back, wipes his eyes clean of the silt before he opens them.

He starts to stumble toward dry land. Glad it’s done. Reaches to brush water off an arm, the muddy water comes off…

A slave runs to him with a towel, but he is too shocked to take it. He just stands there, looking at an arm, a leg, his chest, he cranes his neck to see his back, and it is all perfect, under the fine layer of drying silt, Jordan River water dripping off and drying in the sun, the skin of a child

There’s more that happens here…he goes back to Elisha, professes belief in Israel’s God, Yahweh, and even more after that about the gifts Naaman brought, about a greedy servant of Elisha…there’s s much more to this story.

But wait a moment on the banks of the muddy River Jordan. Because this is where the healing happened for Naaman.

It was not what he expected, it was not where he wanted to go. It was not because he had power or connections.

I’m not even sure he went into that water believing, or that he went in for any reason other than getting his servants off his back.

But somewhere in the middle of those seven dips into muddy waters, something happened, and Yahweh got involved, and Naaman came out clean and healed, like he was freshly born.

It’s a story, and it really doesn’t answer any questions. We don’t know how it works, God’s healing. We don’t know how Elisha knew it would work, we don’t know why God healed Naaman, in spite of his unbelief.

We don’t know if it means that we could all be healed this way.

All we know is this: there’s a moment when it’s just you and God in the river.

When you are stripped of your fine suit, the thing that disguises our sickness.

When the power and prestige that you have in the world has done you no good.

When you feel tossed aside by the people who are supposed to serve you.

And the water is not a place we want to go…it’s murky and muddy, and it’s not clear, and we’re not sure how it can get us clean, let alone heal us.

No one goes in with us—they stand on the shore and watch.

But somehow, down there in the mud and the silt, somehow that is where God does something to us.

For most of us here, our “church bath” was a pretty clean affair…the water clear and warmed, just a sprinkle. And once was enough.

Maybe our baptismal water is too clean and clear…because this God of Israel, this God of Moses and Miriam and Abraham and Sarah, of David and Bathsheba, of Elisha and Naaman, of Jesus and Mary, this God gets involved in the muddy messes of the world, and calls us down to the water, down to the river’s edge on our own, to go where we don’t want to go, to do something that just can’t work.

But what if we see the need for healing as a return to that moment: what if we could come back to the river edge again and again, remembering those waters as the place where we were on our own with God, the landmark we can return to when we need God’s power and healing?

Not always coming because we are sure it will work. Not always coming because the water looks clean and clear and makes sense.

But coming because somehow, down there in the mud and the silt, somehow that is where God does something to us?

To ask God for healing: when nothing else will work, even when we struggle with doubt or disbelief or the murkiness of the water.

In our words, our action, and our prayers today, that’s all we do: step into the river, plug our nose, close our eyes, and dip down into the water, waiting for that moment when God will make us new.