The Simple Salve

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Note: This is the first post in a 10-part series, drawn from Connecting the Mind, Body and Spirit: Reflections on Health, produced by the Clergy Health Initiative and distributed at the 2010 United Methodist Annual Conferences in North Carolina.  Each reflection is tied to the lectionary; we will publish each reflection a week in advance of the Sunday to which it is tied. 

July 4, 2010
2 Kings 5:1-14 • Go, wash in the Jordan seven times, and your flesh shall be restored and you shall be clean.

Commander Naaman was a four-star Syrian general who bore gleaming epaulets on each shoulder and a constellation of polished medals upon his chest. A revered war hero,he was the kind of stern,stoic, no-nonsense chief who made fellow soldiers wear the uniform with pride, and who emanated the aura of command. When ol’ “Stormin’ Naaman” told you to jump, you didn’t ask, “How high?” You asked, “When do you want me to come back down, sir?”

General Naaman, however, had finally come up against one enemy he could not outflank or outmaneuver, one adversary who refused to obey his orders. 

General Naaman’s skin disease began as red spots on his arms, as if it were a child’s case of chicken pox. Before too long the spots got bigger. They turned white and scaly, marching over the whole of his body. His hair began to fall out. His fingernails and toenails loosened.

He knew what would come next: the joints of his fingers and toes would begin to rot and fall off piece by piece. Eventually his leprosy would eat away at his face until the commanding visage that once had garnered so much respect would inspire only the most profound pity.

And then General Naaman would die.

The old soldier was, literally, falling apart. Had he the power, he would have court-martialed his own body for insubordination. Yet his body refused to salute. Naaman’s cavalry arrives (so to speak) in the form of nameless servants, people with no rank or power. First is a servant girl, a young teenager kidnapped from the land of Israel who still could have mercy on her enemies. “If only master Naaman could visit the prophet in Israel,” she tells her mistress.

In his utter desperation, Naaman grabs hold of the servant girl’s comment the way the parents of a desperately ill child might try anything – anywhere – that could save their little one, no matter how unlikely the cure. Severe sickness is the great simplifier. Only one thing matters: being well again.

Soon General Naaman is on the move with a wagon train as long as a winding river, and with more silver and gold than Fort Knox. (Apparently doctors’ bills were just as expensive in Ancient Israel as they are today.) On this visit, however, Naaman comes not as conqueror, but as one conquered. He finds himself standing outside the home of Elisha the prophet as a supplicant, a patient in the waiting room.

Elisha adds insult to illness by refusing even to come out of his abode to meet the powerful Syrian general. Instead, another nameless servant bears the prophet’s prescription: “Go, wash in the Jordan seven times, and your flesh shall be restored and you shall be clean.”

General Naaman is outraged. Has he really traveled hundreds of miles just so some foreign prophet could say what sounds a lot like, “Take two aspirin and call me in the morning?” Does this prophet know WHO NAAMAN IS? Naaman had expected Elisha to offer some obscure herbal cure, to introduce him to the latest experimental treatment, to perform an elaborate ritual of healing. Instead, Elisha says, “Go wash.”

Can the salve really be that simple?

I get sick again. I want a wonder drug or prophet/physician to fix me so that I can get back to work. My doctor tells me: “Try to eat right. Try to get some exercise. Try to rest. Then maybe you won’t get sick at all.”

Can the salve really be that simple?

The United Methodist Book of Worship encourages us to supplement our medical care by sharing in services of healing. I am struck, not by the elaborate ritual of these services, but by their simplicity. The church remembers the promises of Scripture. The church lays hands on the sick person and expresses its love. The  church prays for the sick and anoints them with oil as a symbol of God’s care. That’s it: no miracle potions or religious amulets or incantations, just basic Christian practices.

Can the salve really be that simple?

The nameless servants say to Naaman: “Father, if the prophet had commanded you to do some great thing, would you not have done it? How much more, when all he said was a simple thing, ‘Wash and be clean?’”

The severity of his sickness strips Naaman of the last vestige of his pride. Willing now to take orders from a foreign prophet and a nameless servant, Naaman removes the epaulets, the ribbons, and even the aura of command. Naked, humbled, he washes himself in the muddy waters of his enemies. Suddenly, his scaly sackcloth skin is made as soft at the skin on a newborn baby’s cheek. The leprous leader laughs. He is clean.

The salve really was that simple.

Scripture doesn’t tell us General Naaman’s story to encourage us to visit healing springs or bathe in muddy rivers. Sometimes, however, the salves for our sicknesses are surprisingly simple. Sometimes God sends servants to us whose words point us in the direction of health, if only we would listen. And sometimes a sickness of the body can heal the spirit by stripping away our illusions of command and control.

 <The Rev. Jeremy Troxler is director of the Thriving Rural Communities initiative at Duke Divinity School and an ordained elder in the Western North Carolina Conference of the United Methodist Church.

Questions to Consider

  • Like Abraham and Sarah, Naaman is asked to leave behind what he knows, trusting that the journey will lead to God’s destination. What privileges in the pastorate keep us away from healing? Is there a simple salve that pride or lassitude is hiding?
  • The United Methodist Book of Worship introduces its two Services of Healing with these words, “The greatest healing of all is the reunion or reconciliation of a human being with God.” Should every service of worship at which we preside, in some way, announce that?

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