Sharing one’s deep, inmost feelings is a torturous act. Well, it is for me. The summer after I graduated Divinity School, I entered a program known as CPE – Clinical Pastoral Education. Most Presbyterian pastors complete this 400-hour chaplaincy program – some willingly, some go kicking. I – I went as slow as a sloth not because I was afraid of being in a hospital, of standing at the bedside of patients, but because of what would happen when I wasn’t visiting patients.
Every week, there was something called IPR – Interpersonal relationships. This means that six people who are colleagues are forced to sit in a room for an hour and share their feelings. Ugh. I dreaded those days. My stomach would be in knots, my palms sweaty, my heart pounding – "Please, please, please, no one ask me something personal". It wasn’t that I didn’t have feelings to share but sharing them there, in that setting, felt as if my skin was being ripped off. These were my colleagues – pastors and lay leaders from around the country, whom I felt had no business knowing whatever emotions I kept under wraps. If we wanted to talk about the patients we were visiting or theology – that, I felt, was appropriate. My personal history? Commentary on my parents’ multiple divorces? Discussion on why I was annoyed when people referred to my size? Nah. That was mine and mine alone.
I wonder if any of you’ve ever felt that same way. I pray you’ve never had to sit through a torturous IPR but maybe you’ve felt uneasy at the questions, "How are you really feeling? What is going on deep inside?" To bear our interior struggles is to be vulnerable. To verbally confirm our hurts is to be emotionally naked. This is a risk that many of us refuse to take. Fair enough. It isn’t easy. It isn’t fun. So instead of bearing our souls to those around us, we hold on tight. We internalize whatever may come.
But internalizing our struggles has a price. When tragedy happens – small or mighty, we can feel our bodies harbor the strike. Like interior scars, each hurt, each pain, each crisis leaves a mark that only our hearts can see. From a young age, many of us were taught to keep it like this. "Don’t let them see you cry. Don’t let them know you’re down. Don’t let them think you’re weak." From a young age, many of us were taught that to bear our pain in a public sphere was to mar our identity. So we held on; we held tight to our wounds. Instead of sharing our scars or our stories, we wrapped ourselves in layers of a different kind of narrative. We wrapped ourselves in a narrative of strength and security, in a narrative of falsehood and of "being fine." We began to walk around wrapped up like mummies, the true story of our lives preserved underneath for a day when we were ready to share.
He, too, was wrapped up. Remember with me. There was a great general and mighty warrior, favored by the Lord and favored by the king. His name was Naaman. Naaman was wealthy, honored, strong, married, established, and oh, leprous. Covered in scaly white sores, Naaman’s body bore all the signs of his hurt, his imperfections and unlike our own well-kempt anguish, everyone could see it. And everyone was disgusted. Leprosy was considered the worst of the worse. Throughout the arc of Holy Writ, we hear of how leprosy maimed people and maimed social order. Those struck with leprosy had to maintain distance from all others, according to Levitical Code. God was said to have known the power of this isolating disease, too, and even struck Aaron and Miriam with leprosy to teach them a harsh lesson on racism and family loyalty in Numbers 11. So when Naaman, fancy pants general of the Aram army and man about town is found to be leprous, it isn’t good news. It isn’t even quiet news. Everyone knows about his disease; everyone knows that Naaman is considered unclean; everyone knows that they need to stay away from him if they know what’s good for them.
But yet, they don’t. That’s the key to this story. That’s the absurd key to this story. Instead of avoiding Naaman, instead of protecting themselves, people throughout Naaman’s life put themselves on the line for him. And the people that lead him to his healing are people that have no business meddling in his life – they are the slaves, the messengers, the warring King. But yet, they do. Despite the risk, despite the disgusting mess that Naaman is in, they deeply want to be in community with Naaman and want him to be healed from the inside out.
It began with a young girl. A prisoner of war and Naaman’s wife’s slave, this young Israelite says to her mistress, "If only my lord were with the prophet who is in Samaria! He would cure him of his leprosy." Imagine this child, far from her family, a prisoner held captive by war, giving advice on how to heal her captor. Why should she care? Naaman has sinned against her and yet what she sees is not the layers of Naaman’s sin, not his oppression, not how he is keeping her from freedom but instead, she sees what is really there: another person in pain. This is extraordinary; this is unusual; this is selfless. This is absurd – who would give grace to an aggressor? Who would redeem without reciprocity? But yet, she does.
It continues with a prophet. Naaman goes to enemy Israel at the servant girl’s advice. He arrives at the king of Israel’s throne, hands him a letter requesting his healing. Enraged, the king thinks it a trick and yells at Naaman. His voice so loud it carries through the chamber, the prophet Elisha catches the king’s words – "Am I God, to give death or life, that this man sends words to me to cure a man of his leprosy?" Elisha steps in and calms the king down. "Let him come to me," he says. This is absurd – Naaman is a stranger to Elisha and a man who represents Israel’s sworn enemy and the country that just defeated them in war. But Elisha does not care about all the history piled on Naaman’s shoulders, the story of Naaman as enemy, the narrative of Naaman as warrior or general or man about town. Elisha sees Naaman for who he is – a suffering individual. Elisha has something Naaman needs and instead of hoarding it, Elisha offers to help.
It continues with Naaman’s servants. Naaman tells them to load up all his gear, and help him put on his fancy warrior armor. They head towards Elisha’s house, Naaman hopeful that this is the end to his disease-ridden life. When they arrive, Elisha does not come out and instead sends a messenger to say, "Go, wash in the Jordan seven times and your flesh shall be restored and you shall be clean." That’s it. Go, wash, clean. Naaman, mighty and strong, rich and famous, has just been told all it will take to cure him of his life-sucking struggle is to go dip in a dirty river seven times. Naaman, man who has traveled far with a slew of servants, ten talents of silver, 6000 shekels of gold, and ten sets of garments has just been told that his restoration cannot be bought but instead it can be brought by a simple act. He becomes angry and goes away, screaming about this absurdly simple solution. Stomping about in this foreign land, befuddled that he isn’t being healed how he wants, his servants approach him.
Timid or just weary from Naaman’s rage, they say to him, "It is easy, sir. All he said was wash and be clean." This, too, is absurd – they have no business meddling in Naaman’s choice here. They are his servants. They are the dirt beneath his feet. They are the ones who have carried all these bags of money and trunks of clothes across desert land just so Naaman can now take a bath. They are the ones who will most likely bear the brunt of his anger if this healing doesn’t stick. They’re the ones who are hungry and tired after this journey and the ones who are always hungry and tired and yet, they want Naaman to be clean. So they suggest he simply follow Elisha’s command.
Dumbfounded at their words, he looks around. They nod their heads as if to say, "Yes, Naaman, you can do it. You are capable of receiving healing and we are capable of witnessing it. Choose, Naaman, choose to be made clean." He takes a deep breath and begins. It starts with his armor, the shield that has proven he is strong and mighty. As it falls to his side, he feels the weight of war and pride fall, too. It continues with his elaborate outer robe, the one that has shown his wealth and independence. He unwraps it, embarrassed that what’s underneath is patched linens, hand-stitched by his wife from before they’d made it in the world of the upper echelon. He averts his eyes from his servants but hears one of them whisper, "Its ok, Naaman."
As he begins to walk towards the River Jordan, his servants follow and stop at the pile of debris – the armor, the robe, the undergarments. They gently pick them up, fold them, and hold them to their chest as they watch their now friend ease himself into the humble, filthy waters that promise to make him clean. And as Naaman engages in a most tedious and relational act of being cleansed by primordial waters, made first by the God of Israel and now made new again in his cleansing, his community stands at the shore watching. After each dip, he can see them, their eyes holding him, encouraging him, waiting for him. With each dip, he goes deeper down, freed to believe that he can and will be healed now – now that he is released by his armor, his shield, his pride, now that he can see that he is not alone but yet brought here by people who had no business meddling in his life to begin with but yet, they did.
Remember with me this story, too. The Gospel of Mark tells us that a leper came to Christ begging to be made clean. He knelt at Jesus’ feet, looking at him through tired, worn, and isolated eyes and said in a voice long-silenced and rarely used, "If you choose, you can make me clean." We hear that Jesus is moved with pity but really, in the Greek, we find that Jesus doesn’t feel pity. He’s angry; he’s probably as angry as Naaman was at this disgusting skin disease and the even more disgusting ways it removes the suffering from the fold. Jesus is angry because he knows that this man, this leprous stranger in front of him, had to just traverse a painfully long journey to get to his feet and make the simple request to be healed.
The journey probably looked like this: a man sat on the ground outside the temple gate, outside the walls of the city, outside of any place of shelter. He heard words filter through those layers of land – words of a prophet inside the gate who can heal and make the sin-sick soul whole again. Those words drifted down into his heart, his broken and lonely heart. He wants to go, to see this miracle worker but his legs can hardly stand to move for he has become brittle after sitting there for years, leprosy scarring him from the inside out. He has no one to accompany him on this journey back into a town he once knew for no one has spoken to him in years. But yet, he finds the hope of a promised prophet to be a powerful magnet that he cannot refuse. He stands, dusts himself off, runs his cracked hand through his thinning hair and begins to take tiny painful step after tiny painful step towards the town square. The bottoms of his feet begin to bleed yet he keeps going. He knows he can be kicked out any step along the way for that, remember, is the day’s code. He knows that once he has crossed through all the layers of geography that have kept him from the center where life exists, he could be refused and his leprosy will eventually eat him alive. But yet, he goes. And he sees the prophet, the one with eyes that hold the world in view, and he falls on his knees. And he asks – he asks for help even though it hurts, even though it is a risk, even though he knows not the answer. He asks. And Christ, breaking through all the layers of this man’s pain, fear, isolation, rejection, says, "I do choose. Be made clean!"
How hard it is to hear these words, to hear confirmation that someone else cares, that someone else is willing to help, that someone – despite all our brokenness, our sinfulness, our layers – someone wants us to be healed. Its absurd, isn’t it? It is almost overwhelming enough to want to quickly wrap back up in the layers and pretend as if it never happened. Sitting in our final IPR, as I read my evaluation to everyone, I began to cry. It started in my gut, one of those full-bodied cries and as soon as the tears began to fall, I cursed loudly and stopped reading. I threw my paper in my lap and took a deep breath. "Don’t let them see you cry," I said to myself. But as I looked up, I saw faces of those gladly meddling in my business and I, I chose to let them.
Do you see the same? You are surrounded by people who will stand at the shore, holding all your stuff, nodding at you and encouraging you, waiting for you as long as it takes. If you begin to shed your fear and let your vulnerability rise to the surface, you will hear the echo of Christ’s words – words that cut through the layers of your life that you’ve chosen to present, layers of your self that you keep hidden underneath a story of pride and protection, words that cut straight through what you think is untouchable, incurable, unworthy. Christ said to the leper, "I do choose. Be made clean!" May it be so. Amen.