“Go wash in the Jordan seven times, and your flesh shall be restored, and you shall be clean.”
“Seriously?” Says Naaman. “That’s what it’s gonna take?”
Naaman expects this to be a big deal; after all, Naaman is a big deal. Naaman is a well-respected military commander in the army of the king of Aram. Naaman is a celebrated hero, yet he is also a tragic figure, as he suffers from leprosy. It’s important to point out here that any number of skin diseases at the time fell under the category of “leprosy,” and in many cases the ailment bore little resemblance what we now know as Hansen’s disease. However, what remains clear is that Naaman has suffered deeply, so much so, that he is willing to travel to Israel, and to consult with a prophet who he only found out about because his wife’s Hebrew servant told him.
Naaman expects more from a great prophet like Elisha. He’s already been surprised to find that this powerful prophet isn’t squarely situated in the center of power near the king. He thought for sure it would take a lot of money and gifts to incur the favor of this prophet. So, Naaman expects a big production, in which the prophet comes out and waves his hands over the area calling upon [quote-unquote,] “his” God to effect this healing. Instead, Naaman never lays eyes on Elisha. Elisha sends a messenger with the simple instructions to go wash seven times in the Jordan.
Naaman is furious. “This is all you want me to do? Go wash in your muddy Israelite river? The rivers where I come from are better than your river! I should have stayed at home.” And then, his servants help him to put things into perspective. “Father, if the prophet had commanded you to do something difficult, would you not have done it? How much more when all he said to was, ’Wash, and be clean’?” “Maybe just give it a shot?”
Naaman expects a grand ceremony, or at least some feats of strength to overcome his disease. Except that his stature and his abilities are not what will heal him and cleanse him. God will. Elisha doesn’t need to come do a big production, waving his hands over the area because he’s not the one doing the healing. In fact, Naaman doesn’t know it yet, but the narrator has told us that even Newman’s success hasn’t come from his own efforts, but because God gave victory to Aram. It is all God. Elisha doesn’t need to give Naaman a difficult journey of cleansing. God will do the cleansing. He just has to respond, to go to the waters and wash seven times, a number of completion, a number of perfection, and let God take care of the rest.
Water. Simple water. Today is Scout Sunday, and one of the things I reflected on as I read this passage is the way water can be your friend or enemy. It can be the thing that gets through your hike when you’re thirsty, yet it can also be the thin that ruins your camping trip as it soaks your socks. I recalled a time when I tried to dry my socks by the fire, and they caught on fire! But water. Naaman is aggravated because water is so mundane! So normal! This is going cure my leprosy? And yet, God chooses to cleanse Naaman through the mundane waters of the Jordan. And when we think of water, we are naturally drawn to think about baptism. That God offers us grace through something as mundane and yet as vital as water! Simple water.
What happens to Naaman is not baptism. Yet, what we see in Naaman’s cleansing is a prefiguring of one of aspects of the waters of baptism: washing and cleansing. We tend to think only in terms of cleansing from sin, which seems somehow different than Naaman’s skin disease. Yet, isn’t that what sin is? A disease. A disease that finds us as people who are sick not just mentally, but physically, emotionally, and relationally. Just like Naaman, it is not a disease that we can perform our way out of with great feats of righteousness. Rather, it is a cleansing that is a gift to cure a disease that we can’t cure ourselves. It is forgiveness and new life that is offered to us, with the only condition being that, with the help of grace, accept it. It is learning, as we have seen over the past few weeks, how to perform into what Jesus did because we are in him and he is in us.
It is when we accept that forgiveness and new life that is offered to us, that we begin to live as disciples of Jesus Christ. And yet we know that we will experience times of difficultly even after baptism. Times when we stop listening. Times when we might walk away. Times when we turn our back on the love offered to us by God. Times we reject God’s invitation to be a part of God’s life. Times when we as members of the church do not offer that same love and forgiveness to those in our midst. Times, when lose sight of the effect that the grace offered to us in the waters of baptism has had on us, in drawing us into Christ’s body and to doing the things that Christ did as members of his body.
When that happens, and we find ourselves far away from God, far away from church family, that we begin to create great barriers for ourselves to return. This is reasonable because when we begin to recognize God calling us back, we are aware of what we have forfeited. And, like Naaman, we begin to expect that great feats will be necessary for us to be cleansed and return back to the community.
Yet, what is simply required is to dive back into the waters. I don’t mean to be re-baptized. What I mean is that after we are baptized, we spend our lives swimming in those waters, learning what it means to be a follower of Jesus Christ, and we are helped to live in him and let him live in us through the grace regularly offered to us by God. That includes even those times when we have walked away from God and the community. It doesn’t mean coming back into the community will always be easy. There are consequences for our actions, there are relationships that may have to be mended, but isn’t that what the community of the baptized is supposed to be? The primary location of where such relationships with God and one another are healed. It’s why we confess our sins and pass the peace before we share Holy Communion with one another. Just as Naaman must dip into the river seven times, our lives as Christians is the story of us being shaped, formed, changed, healed, and brought back to Christ by the waters of our baptism.
The scene that keeps running through my head as I consider Naaman’s cleansing and our baptism comes from The Apostle starting Robert Duvall. Duvall’s character, “Sonny” Dewey is on the run. He is a preacher who has had what many might consider a successful ministry at a Pentecostal Holiness Church in Texas. However, things are now out of control. His wife has decided to leave him for another man, a younger minister in the church. In an angry drunken rage Sonny takes the life of this man at his kids’ little league game, where this other man is a coach. Sonny flees town, eventually ending up in Louisiana. He ditches his car in a lake, and begins walking, trying to figure out what to do next. As he is walking along the river, he runs into an old man fishing, and he asks if he can hang around the man’s property. Sonny begins to search his soul as begins to fast and lay in a small pup tent that the man lets him borrow.
As Sonny lies down in this tent, he reflects on his life, his ministry, his family, and his call. When he emerges from this tent, we find Sonny in the river, praying:
With great humility, I ask permission to be accepted as an Apostle of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ of Nazareth, and with your gracious permission, I wish to be baptized as an Apostle of our Lord. I therefore, without witnesses, baptize myself in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost, and in the name of Jesus.
I watched this movie for first time during seminary for a class, and this scene was a topic of great discussion. It doesn’t take a seminary student to see that what Sonny does is rife with problems. First and foremost is that Sonny re-baptizes himself. As I’ve already alluded to, while some traditions permit and may even call for re-baptism as a sign of commitment and membership, we as United Methodists believe that we only require one baptism. We accept the baptism of other churches as valid as long as water is used and God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit is invoked because we understand Baptism as God’s act of claiming us even as we understand the need for a human response to the grace offered. Even more peculiarly, Sonny baptizes himself. Even Jesus had someone else baptize him! Not to mention this baptism occurs outside of the context of a faith community. Finally, what in the world does it mean for this new baptism to confer on Sonny the title of “Apostle”??
There are plenty of problems with what Sonny does, and yet, it is a profound moment of transformation for both Sonny and the viewer. We don’t recognize it at first. As the “Apostle, E.F.” as Sonny calls himself now, emerges from the waters, and he begins to do his “preacher thing” again. We don’t trust him. It seems he has used his religion to don an alias to hide his identity while he is on the run. He is just a murderer who now sets about doing the only thing he knows how to do, creating a ministry, not out of sincere faith, but because he needs to create some income. The Apostle, E.F., begins to establish this ministry, first on the radio station where he gets a job as a janitor, and then as he begins to gather a congregation around him and work to renovate an old church. We want to view Sonny as a charlatan, a cheap huckster of a false gospel. Seriously? He baptized himself? Who baptizes himself an apostle?
The only thing is, that as the movie proceeds, we find that, even with all the problems with what Sonny as done lives begin to change in his midst. We begin to root for Sonny, even though, as viewers, we know for certain that he will eventually have to suffer the consequences of what he did. What becomes clear is that Sonny’s transformation, while there may be some self-confirmation and self-deception in that self-baptism his action is actually a function of him knowing nothing else than the practices and beliefs of Christ’s Church. In his own weird way, he knows he needs to repent, and he knows that baptism, repentance, and cleansing are related, and so he makes his way to the waters.
His new ministry, as much as at it may be an effort to start a life somewhere else after his crimes, comes because he knows nothing else than preaching the Gospel in such a way that people are compelled to have their lives changed by the power of the Holy Spirit. It doesn’t excuse what Sonny did, and even Sonny knows this. However, Sonny’s problematic baptism in that river turns out to be also a turning point in his life as a Christian. It unfolds complete with the Biblical drama of receiving a new name. His time in that pup tent turns out to be a tomb, and his emergence from it a time of resurrection culminating in his return to the waters. Sonny, who has been preaching since he is 12 years old, is returning the beliefs and practices that have shaped him as a Christian. In his problematic baptism, we find Sonny returning to the waters for another dip, in his own weird way.
The preacher and theologian in me doesn’t like what Sonny did. It is, after all, my responsibility to teach rightly about our beliefs, especially with regard to the sacraments of Baptism and Holy Communion. Yet, as a disciple of Jesus Christ, I am compelled by Sonny’s character. As a disciple I am reminded that the Spirit may work outside the normal channels. I am compelled by Sonny’s character because Sonny isn’t all good, and Sonny isn’t all bad. He isn’t all righteous, nor is he all evil. He’s somewhere in the middle. He is, I think, a lot like you and me. Sonny recognizes this himself. As he walks along after his re-baptism, he prays and talks with God:
“Thank ya Lord. I’m your Apostle from now to the end of eternity. Ever since you rung my bell when I was 12 years you’ve been with ya. Sometimes I zig-zagged off course, more zaggin’ than ziggin’, but I’m on’ tell ya I’m with ya now on a straight line forever!”
More zaggin’ than ziggin’. How many of us have done more zaggin’ than ziggin’? Sonny doesn’t need to re-baptize himsel, yet the transformation that comes from his odd activity looks and sounds someone who Jesus has got a hold of. He still suffers the consequences of his actions at the end of the movie, yet we root for him, I think, because we want to believe that, like Sonny, even though we’ve done more zaggin’ than ziggin’, there is still redemption for him and for us.
Naaman expects a big production with a powerful healer-prophet, but what he finds is healing and cleansing from the mundane waters of the Jordan and God’s touch in the Jordan. It is the same cleansing that beggar experiences from Jesus’ touch in our Gospel lesson. It is the same cleansing that we experienced in our baptism, and that continues to happen in our lives and in our church as we come the table of Holy Communion over and over again. We spill out into the world to invite others to the cleansing, not because we are so clean, but because we’re somewhere in the middle, and we know that we find cleansing at the waters of the font. It is a cleansing that comes because God’s invitation to us never ceases. It never expires. It comes because God knows us each and everyone of us by name.
One of my favorite phrases in the Apostle comes as Sonny performs a healing: “I always call you Jesus; you call me Sonny. Now heal this broken heart!” That, I think, sums up what we as church experience, and are called to offer to others, even though we’ve done more zaggin’ than ziggin’.
“I always call you Jesus, you call me by my name. Now heal this broken heart!”
 Carl, “Homiletical Perspective,” Feasting on the Word, Year B, Vol. 1, (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2008), p. 341.
 The Apostle. DVD. Directed by Robert Duvall. 1997; Universal City, CA: Universal Home Video, 2003.