Scripture: II Kings 5:1-15
I am going to tell you a story. Once upon a time, in a faraway land, there lived a young princess named Aris. For whatever reason, perhaps because of the misdeeds of her parents, she found herself betrothed to a fearful dragon. When the king and queen told her, she became frightened for her life. But recovering her wits, she went out beyond the market to seek counsel from a wise old woman, who knew the ways of dragons and humans.
The wise woman told Aris that she indeed must marry the dragon, but that there were proper ways to approach him. She then gave instructions for the wedding. In particular, she bade Aris to wear ten beautiful gowns, one on top of the other.
The wedding took place. A feast was held in the palace, after which the dragon carried the princess off to his chamber. She then said to him that she would remove her first dress, but that he must at the same time remove one of his layers of scales.
Taking off the first gown, the princess watched as the dragon shed his outer layer of scaly armor. Though it was painful, the dragon had done this periodically before. But then the princess removed another gown, and then another. Each time the dragon found he too had to claw off a deeper layer of scales. By the fifth gown the dragon began to weep copious tears at the pain. Yet the princess continued.
With each successive layer the dragon’s skin became more tender and his form softened. Then finally the dragon released the last vestige of dragon form and emerged as a man, a fine prince whose eyes sparkled like a child’s, released at last from the ancient spell of his dragon form. And in true fairy-tale protocol, Princess Aris and her new husband lived happily ever after.1
This is a Swedish fairy tale, and although we know that stories like this are not true in a literal sense, they nevertheless contain deep truths underneath. This is a story that reminded me a little bit of our scripture lesson today, of a General named Naaman.
He was a great Warrior, but because he had leprosy, many people of his time believed he had sinned and therefore had been put under a curse from God. Unlike the dragon in our story, however, he knew he didn’t want to be covered with this diseased skin, he knew he wanted to shed those scales to get back to his unblemished, healthy, whole self. What he didn’t know was that his disease, was more than just skin deep.
The Warrior Naaman, just like all of us, had, throughout his life, built up layer upon layer, or we could say, scale upon scale, of self-identity and beliefs. His sense of self-worth was caught up in being a mighty military leader, a victorious fighter, a rich and powerful man. He was from the great country of Aram, a country that was stronger and therefore had been able to defeat the lowly people of Israel. He was a man used to giving orders, not taking them. But because he was afflicted with leprosy, because of his desire for a cure, he would have to shed some of those layers that he thought made up his identity.
The ones who would help him find his way to healing were not your typical heroes: not a beautiful princess, not a magic sorcerer, not the wise woman beyond the market place. No, the various people who stepped into his life were the unexpected, and each one made him remove a layer of his false self to help get him to his true, most authentic, deepest self.
The first person aiding him on his journey to wholeness was the servant girl in his household. She was a foreigner, one of the spoils of war, as it were, considered no more than a piece of property. Yet she was a person of truly open and generous heart, and she suggested that perhaps her master could be healed by visiting the prophet who lived in the very land the general had conquered. Well, that was rather startling, that someone as lowly as this foreign child would have a meaningful, significant insight. Naaman had to humble himself and shed his belief in his own superiority to others in order to take advice from this girl.
But before he could follow her recommendation, he would have to humble himself even more. He needed to let go of his belief that his country and his people were greater than those he had conquered. He had to go to his King, the King of Aram, and request that a letter to be sent to the King of Israel, who was probably not going to be too happy about granting a favor to someone coming from the land that conquered them.
The letter was sent to the King of Israel, and Naaman went there, taking along money and gifts galore, secure in his knowledge that his wealth would be able to buy him anything, including a cure. Not surprisingly, the King of Israel got angry upon receiving the letter with the request for healing, thinking this was some kind of a trick. He didn’t have the power to cure Naaman, but if he didn’t do it, it would be considered a slight, and maybe could even trigger another war. It wasn’t money or power that remedied this situation, but instead the intervention of the prophet Elisha. For Naaman, discovering that money and gifts would not buy his cure was another supposition shattered, another layer shed.
Next Naaman found himself traveling to the house of the unpretentious prophet Elisha. Naaman was a man of great importance, so he expected Elisha to be honored by his presence, to be bowled over by his wealth, to be flattered and impressed that a mighty warrior would even consider traveling to this humble house, and bring such extravagant gifts. But, yet again, Naaman who had brought down plenty of people in his life, now was himself brought down a few notches. Elisha did not even deign to come to the door. He just sent his servants, his servants! to tell Naaman what to do. What? How dare the no-count prophet diss this important General? Who did he think he was?!
Then, adding insult to injury, Elisha’s instructions were to go to the piddly little Jordan river and wash seven times. Naaman had traveled all the way to lowly Israel and had to endure taking orders from Elisha’s lowly servants, and now he would have to subject himself to bathing in a lowly river, when there were much broader, bigger, better rivers where he came from. This was the last straw. He would not stoop this low, would not subject himself to this indignity.
But then, his own lowly servants intervened. They dared to suggest that maybe, since he was already there, after all, well, what harm could it do? What did he have to lose, except for maybe a little pride, and maybe also his leprosy? So, again, Naaman humbled himself, leaving his clothes and his dignity behind, and washing in the river seven times.
Just like the dragon, Naaman shed the scales of his skin, the scales his disease, layer by layer by layer, until he emerged healthy, whole, and soft and tender as a young child.
Both the dragon’s story and Naaman’s story offer us great insights into healing. In our own lives, isn’t this the way healings usually happen? The healing waters of God’s love work on us little by little, layer by layer, until we at last also come to what is at the core of who we are, until we have nothing left of ourselves but the soft center, the truth that tells us that we are a beloved child of God. Letting go of all the rest, standing naked before God, in complete surrender and vulnerability, takes trust, takes a willingness to let go, takes a lifetime to get there.
There are ways we shed our scales, our false selves, our narrow beliefs and ideas voluntarily. Naaman gives us many examples of how we might re-think the worth of people different from ourselves. Franciscan priest Fr. Richard Rohr’s suggestion for breaking free from the hard shell we sometimes put around ourselves, the impenetrable bubble we might enjoy living in, is this:“[G]et out of your homogeneous group. Make some black friends, some gay friends, some Mexican friends. Until you move out of your homogeneous world, all it will be is ideology. . . .” He says, “We do not think ourselves into new ways of living. We live ourselves into new ways of thinking.”2 His point is that until and unless we are willing to share in the experiences and the lives of those who are different from us, we will never shed the layers of privilege, of pretentiousness, of pride that so blind us to the truth of other peoples’ real struggles and pain. Naaman had to do this, had to acknowledge the deep dignity and value of people that he otherwise would have just passed off as worthless. God used the unexpected voices, the unexpected wisdom and love of those Naaman would normally have considered expendable. It was humiliating, humbling, but in the end, also freeing and healing. Richard Rohr also says of his own life, “I have prayed for years for one good humiliation a day, and then, I must watch my reaction to it. I have no other way of spotting both my denied shadow self and my idealized persona.”3 I’m not sure this would ever be my prayer, in fact, I’m sure it would NOT be- after all, who would ask to suffer humiliation every day, but we can see what he is getting to with this statement. It is so often those very humiliations and our reactions to them that enabled us to see ourselves more clearly, more honestly. For Naaman, it was one humiliation after another, until he finally surrendered and entered the healing waters.
He had to change his belief that his identity and worth were in his power, his authority, his status, his wealth. To be healed, all these had to be stripped away from him. And Naaman also had to shed something else. He had to let go of his resentment and anger towards Elisha. This man who had treated him with disrespect made him furious. But his holding onto that outrage would have kept him from his healing, just like our own anger and resentments can often keep us from ours.
Sometimes this letting go, this breaking free from those layers can be intentional on our part. But oftentimes, it is involuntary. How often is suffering and loss thrust upon us by circumstances over which we have no say, no control, no choice. We lose a spouse, a child, a job, our house, our health, our dreams. These devasting defeats, they feel like deaths. Just like when the dragon lost parts of himself, we cry copious tears of sorrow and pain. But so often, it is these very struggles and losses that take away the layers of our false selves, and strip us down, beyond our ego, to our true selves.
Little by little, bidden or unbidden, life has a way of washing away the layers and layers of the identities and ideas that we think define us. And then we come to the core, the very center, there is this and only this: We are each a beloved child of God. That is the deepest truth of our identity. It is no wonder that Naaman became like a child again once he was healed.
Healing is painful. Shedding parts of ourselves that we are attached to hurts so much. But alongside our pain and our tears, God’s love supports us and flows through us, washing us, soaking us, nourishing us.
This morning, if there is something you are feeling called to shed, something you desire to let go of, a layer that is keeping you from knowing yourself deep down as a precious, beloved child of God, you may express that on by writing or drawing on the sheet of soluble paper in your bulletin. There is a bowl of our own healing water, gathered from a multitude of places throughout the world, including the River Jordan, on a table in the Narthex. Then dissolve that paper in the water after the worship service. Also, if you would like a healing blessing, I will be in the chapel with more of our holy water, and you can come in to be anointed and blessed.
As we seek to be shed of our scales, to be freed from our false selves, and to know ourselves fully and deeply as the beloved children of God, may we humble ourselves to let go of all that keeps us from that truth. May our tears, and the waters of God’s love, cleanse us, heal us, and make us whole. Amen.