Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Reflections on Water

Sermon preached at Trinity Beaver on the 6th Sunday after Epiphany:

This feels SO much better, I was in such pain but now it is so much better.” I hear this day in and day out as I lifeguard in the therapy pool at the Beaver County YMCA. I am constantly reminded of the healing properties of water and sometimes I wonder about the significance of water to God and how He shows forth His goodness through it. So, I was quite excited when I read the Old Testament lesson for today, which is at least in part, about a healing by way of washing in water.

As we dive into the leprosy healing stories, I want us to be thinking about the season of Epiphany as well and ask, “who is Jesus revealed to be in these stories?” For this is the season in which a spotlight is put on Jesus, in whom we see God.

Though Jesus does not, obviously appear in the Old Testament lesson, I think we can start there since the editors of the lectionary saw in good wisdom that these two stories fit together. So, by way of comparing and contrasting, we'll go through the stories together.

We see that Naaman is a Gentile, an Aramite. The leper healed in Mark's story is a Jew of whom we know little else. Naaman is considered a mighty man, who has had several successess in battle. The narrator reminds us that this comes from the Lord, though Naaman doesn't get it. But, Naaman is also a leper, apparently in Aram lepers did not carry the same stigma as in Israel. We get the first clue as to this cross-cultural difference when Naaman appears before the King of Israel. He responds in grief asking, how they think he can heal leprosy, a miracle that he equates with “raising the dead to life.” And there, we find the state of the leper in Mark's gospel—considered to be dead because he is outcast, friendless and dirty on account of his leprosy. He literally needed rehabilitation, a healing from God.

Because the Law declared those with leprosy unclean, they had to live away from everyone else and were not allowed to worship with everyone else in the same space. So, Naaman may not have been aware of this but the King of Israel and Elisha certainly were. Elisha saw it as an opportunity for witness, to declare the glory of the Lord.

The attitudes of the two lepers varied. Naaman goes in all his earthly splendor, “chariots and horses” before the prophet Elisha, the narrator suggests, seeking to impress him. The other leper comes before Jesus pleading and on his knees. The leper in Mark's story simply asks Jesus to heal him, he does not have any pretense as to how he will do so, he just knows he has come to the right place. The leper must have been startled when Jesus reached out and touched him, as the man could not have been touched since whenever he first had the disease. Naaman is upset that Elisha does not touch him and call on the power of the Lord. I see a difference in some of the people at the pool that is similar, those who are so thankful to see another day, and that water is there to help them move their aching limbs, but some walk in like they own it, complain the water is not hot enough, complain that it's cold outside, complain that Dancing with the Stars is no longer on TV, all their expectations dashed.

Naaman is really really ticked when he hears Elisha's instructions. Naaman thinks that Elisha is just trying to tell him to wash as part of a ritual that will declare him “clean” and he doubts the power that God wields in the Jordan River. Naaman wants his leprosy completely gone. His servants say to him, “Don't you get it? He just said something awesome to you!” because they understood that when Elisha said, “Your flesh shall be restored AND you shall be clean” he meant that he would be both cleansed and also healed of the leprosy, so he is healed before God and also in his body. When Naaman does what Elisha prescribes, he is restored, to flesh like a child.
An early church father remarked on this that “Naaman, an adult, became like a boy by washing seven times.” At the pool, I have often seen both old and middle aged alike become like kids when they enter the water. They smile, they splash and they move as they can't anywhere else.

The leper with Jesus sees that his leprosy is immediately gone and thus knows that he has been declared religiously clean simultaneously. The Levitical code called for examination by a priest, washing in the river, and atonement, sin and thank offerings once cleansed. Jesus, the true great high priest, is able to heal the man of both impurity and of the physical ailment by a touch of His hand and further, Jesus is unafraid to touch him because he will not be defiled by being with the unclean and He wields the power to forgive and to dispense healing. Jesus, like Elisha, recognized the healing of the leper as an opportunity for testimony, directed toward the leaders of the Jewish people, that the Messiah had come, not just as a prophet, but as the life-giver, raiser and restorer even rehabilitating the least among them, declaring clean what used to be unclean by His touch. It should be clear from both of these passages, that God wants to freely heal and give life. In this, I hope you can see, at least a beginning of an answer to the question I asked at the beginning, “who is Jesus revealed to be?”

So, my next question is: Have you been touched by the life giver, has He said to you, “you shall be restored and you shall be clean”? Does this jive with the Jesus you know? Can others here testify to this? I hope that we can all answer “yes” to this one. It may be a little early in the morning for an “amen” but if you've got one, now would be a good time. :)

These stories should remind us of our baptism, where one church father says, our souls were cured of their leprosy, the disease of bondage to sin was taken away. I pray that we can all soak in that truth, that we have been cured of that leprosy, able to confess God as the only Lord, true and living. One of the miraculous things I see at the pool is that many people come in hunched, limping, stiff, and disheartened but when they enter the pool, they are quite literally transformed, they are able to stand upright, walk from one end to the other with little effort, stretch, laugh and move without fear of falling down. Just as the water moves them to be able to do this, this is a good portrait of the Holy Spirit raising us up to new life.

Have you forgotten the great power of the Lord to raise you up and heal you? Have you been doubting His work in your life recently? No matter which of these you are experiencing, I urge you, brothers and sisters to testify to one another and to yourselves as a reminder of the healing God has worked in and through you. The leper left Jesus and disobeyed His order to go to the high priest to tell him first of the healing, and to offer proper sacrifices of thanksgiving and so robbed those who should have been first to know of the opportunity to hear that the leper was no longer diseased. In sharing with one another, you might be able to offer hope to one another through doing this and you may allow someone else to share your burden perhaps over a lack of healing. One simple way you may do this is to visit the prayer team at the back of the sanctuary after receiving Communion, and have them join with you in thanking and praying for healing.

If you would like a different starting place, maybe try thinking about water- notice this week how often it is in your life, a cooling balm when thirsty, a heating agent when in pain, infiltrating every system in your living body, falling from the sky to provide drink, showers and a good harvest, at least here in Pennsylvania, that's the case.
If you need a visible reminder, come on by the YMCA and visit me at the pool. I'm sure Fr. Scott would like for me to add here that we could also offer up prayers when thinking about water, for our brothers and sisters in Kajire who do not have enough and pray that we might work together to help them receive it that they might experience more healing joy as well.

Though I didn't get a chance to speak about the 1 Corinthians passage from Paul today, I think that his metaphor is a good one. He says, “Let us run that we may obtain the imperishable wreath of life!” Some here may have received the cure for their soul's leprosy long ago. But, I daresay that there have been times of refreshing and healing along the way that help us hope to see more of it in this life. Let us not become out of practice with turning to the Lord for healing and restoration even up until the very day when our race is finished and we are with Him, the Fountain of Life.