Lent II: Enter the Water

boat

II Kings 5: 1-3, 7-15 (Naaman) and Matthew 14: 22-33 (Peter and Jesus walk on water)

The children line up all along the edge, feet dangling, faces a variety of expressions.  Some were eager, hardly able to wait for the moment that the instructor would tell them to enter the water.  Others were looking anxiously for their parents, afraid of the moment when they would hear the whistle to enter the water.  And, of course, every variety of expression in-between: boredom, quiet anticipation, resignation. And then the whistle blew, and the children jumped, slid or tentatively edged into the water.

Afraid, afraid of being afraid, afraid to admit being afraid, and afraid it wouldn’t work.

Meet Naaman. A great man, highly regarded by the king, and a valiant warrior – but with leprosy. Naaman is afraid – very afraid.  He is afraid of his problem – and afraid of admitting that he is afraid.  Warriors aren’t supposed to be afraid, after all. And he is afraid to believe that a solution might be possible. Naaman had a problem. A serious problem – as serious as it got in those days.  Hanson’s disease – Leprosy – a bacterial disease that affected skin, nerves, and respiratory system was a death sentence in Naaman’s day.  And Naaman was an important person.  He was the commander of the army of the king of Aram. A mighty and powerful man – and he was afraid. Afraid of the disease – but probably also afraid of the way it would destroy his career, and the social stigma it carried.

A thin hope. One of the captives of raids into Samaria was a girl who served his wife. For a man as great as Naaman to listen to a captured slave girl shows how desperate he was.  Just a sliver of hope that she might be right – that there was a prophet in Israel capable of curing him – had him running to his king, the king of Aram to see what might be done.

Power talks.  One king to another, the king of Aram writes to the king of Samaria, the Northern Kingdom of Israel, probably Jehoram, about Naaman.  In Aram, they assume that kings have authority over prophets. They don’t understand. But the king of Samaria does – and is afraid.  HE can’t cure leprosy – only God can.  And Elisha isn’t a tame prophet – the king doesn’t even think of ordering Elisha to heal.  Healing is, after all, a gift from God – not something you can count on by influence, prayer or gifts. And if Naaman is disappointed, Samaria might feel the force of that disappointment – after all, he defeated them the last time there was a war. While the king of Israel is debating how to approach Elisha, Elisha’s messenger arrives saying, “Send him to me.”  Phew – relief on the king’s part.

Naaman’s fear. Poor Naaman.  Not only is he afflicted with leprosy – he is a fish out of water here.  He shows up outside Elisha’s house with his whole entourage and rich gifts. Elisha doesn’t follow expectations.  Naaman presents himself at the prophet’s house– surely that’s his part.  He is a great and important person, after all.  But Elisha doesn’t appear before him, doesn’t cry out to God, utter some mumbo jumbo or do some bit of religious ritual to heal him.  Instead, he just sends a message with instructions that Naaman should go wash in the Jordan River – seven times.  Now Naaman is insulted and angry – as well as afraid.  This is humiliating!  The prophet is rude.  Should he just leave in anger? Was the trip in vain?  Was he going to go all through this just to be mocked and accomplish nothing?  At this point in the story, Naaman is afraid on many counts.  He is afraid of the leprosy and its affect on his life.  He is afraid of humiliation if he follows this foreign prophet’s instructions and nothing happens.  He is afraid to believe, to hope, and have that hope destroyed. And he is afraid, this big warrior, of being afraid or admitting that he is afraid.  Poor Naaman.

Meet Peter.  Peter left his life behind to follow Jesus.  Peter sees that God is at work in Jesus in a special way.  He wants to follow Jesus, to be like Jesus, to do what Jesus does. 

That night, the sea got rough and the boat in which the disciples were riding was getting tossed around a lot.  They were afraid – so Jesus sent to their rescue.  Peter saw Jesus and called to him – if it’s really you, Lord, tell me to come to you.  “So come.”  And Peter got out of the boat and headed towards Jesus.  And began to sink – and Jesus reached out to him.

Let’s give Peter some credit here.  He wants to be with Jesus, to follow Jesus, so much that he wants to follow Jesus even when it doesn’t make sense. And yet, he falters.  Jesus notices – hard not to in this story.  But Jesus doesn’t really rebuke Peter.  He just gets him back to the boat and the storm calms down.  They get it – Jesus is the Son of God.

But let’s talk about this story:  Peter is willing to leave the relative safety of the boat to follow Jesus.  Even when it doesn’t make sense to do so.  Jesus offers a sense of the presence of God that is so important to Peter that he is willing to risk anything to be there. A scholarly side note – helpful to those who question – this is perhaps a post-Easter appearance that is misplaced in the narrative as occurring before Jesus’ death.  But that doesn’t matter much in Peter’s response. We know from his life that his passion to follow Jesus was even stronger after the resurrection.

We might go a long way for something we really believed in.  The church in Luo Shui village, in rural China, worships about 40 members each week. They have 70 members, but many are farmers and unable to attend regularly.

Very early every Sunday morning, Simei Tong sets out from her small house in the mountains. She walks for two hours, along narrow, winding pathways and village lanes, until she gets to the home of her blind friend, Zhou Maoying. Taking hold of her arm, she carefully guides her as they walk for another hour.  When they reach Luo Shui village where their little church is located, they have one more hurdle to overcome: they have to cross a stream by wobbling across a series of stepping stones. Their friend Yang Jinying, who also takes two hours to get to church, recently slipped and broke her arm while crossing the stream. Li Yue Ying, 47, makes her long journey to the church each week carrying her two-year-old niece, Li Si Ling, on her back. She says the journey is worth it because she is nourished in her faith through the Christian fellowship there. She became a Christian in 1998, through a friend, Wu Qiang Jin.  “I went to church because I was looking for comfort,” says Wu Xiu Ying, 58, who became a Christian in 1983. “I was in great distress because I was ill and couldn’t afford treatment. In church, people prayed for me and I immediately felt peaceful and released by God’s love for me.” If they are able to come, they walk the hours to gather in their community of faith – because there they have experienced life.  Of course they go.

In many rural parts of the world, people walk or bike for hours to get to church – because they hear in the stories of Jesus, words that give life – living water. When people find life in following Jesus, they’ll go anywhere, do anything, to keep following the one who is the life-bringer. Even try walking on water or something equally foolish.

So here we are, standing at the edge of the water. Trembling with uncertainty. Trembling with our own need for God – but uncertain about taking the next steps.  And yet, God is already here. God has already shown up, and wants to help us.

Few of us resemble Peter in this story.  Peter on a good day has the tenacity of a retriever – and this is a good day.  Tell a retriever to fetch a ball, and whoever was holding it is flat out of luck. Tell a retriever to find a stick, and it just could be attached to a branch that gets dragged to you despite the fact that it is half of a tree. Tell a retriever to fetch an errant toddler and temper tantrums will be irrelevant. This story has Peter on a retriever day.  He sees Jesus and storm, wind waves and a little thing like not being able to walk on water will not deter him. Peter sees Jesus.  Peter wants to go to Jesus – so Peter gets out of the boat. Peter wasn’t worried about pride or looking foolish – he just jumped in after Jesus.  One of God’s holy fools perhaps —  a man of faith, or one who had found what he was looking for and didn’t care about anything else.  Peter’s faith has nothing to do with walking on water – it is trust that Jesus is present, real and cares for him.

We may identify with Naaman.  He is definitely looking for help – he needs a miracle.  He’s come to the only miracle man around.  But what is relayed to him doesn’t make sense.  WHY did he travel all this way just to take a bath?  WHY this river when there are bigger, cleaner and better rivers in Damascus? Those of us with a fondness for reason and explanation will relate to Naaman.  Yes, he needs God’s help – but this doesn’t make any sense at all. For a while there its touch and go on whether or not he’s going to get in the river.  His entourage persuades him:  if this were a quest with something difficult, you’d do it in a heartbeat – so why not follow directions?

Of course, his pride is in the way too.  He’s important enough that he expected VIP treatment. He wanted to prophet to show up and tend to him personally.  He expected a show and is both disappointed and a bit insulted, to tell the truth.  Perhaps we can relate – we try to be humble, but it is hard – like the refrain of the old Mac Davis song,

Oh Lord it’s hard to be humble
When you’re perfect in every way …
Oh Lord It’s hard to be humble,
But I’m doing the best that I can…

And perhaps Naaman was a bit on the stubborn side.  Like a recalcitrant teenager who announces, “If you TELL me what to do it makes me less likely to actually do it.” So the instruction to “get in the Jordan and wash 7 times,” meets “I will if and when I feel like it.” Never mind that the instruction is what needs to happen for him to get well. Consider this: what if Naaman HADN’T gotten in the Jordan?  Is this a story about healing or a story about taking risks?  Both, perhaps. But they go together.  Healing doesn’t come without risks. Physical or spiritual – either way.  And life is different after a healing.  Better in some ways, yes, but always an adjustment.

And No – I haven’t forgotten the others in the boat. They experienced the same storm and waves as Peter.  They didn’t feel the need to jump out of the boat after Jesus. After all, Jesus came out to the boat to rescue them in the first place.  They stayed and waited – in relative safety. If we are honest, we might be most like the other disciples in the boat.  Not willing to fling ourselves in the water after Jesus, but willing to acknowledge that he is the Son of God once the storm dies down.  But that kind of faith doesn’t seem to cost much – perhaps isn’t worth as much either.

Regardless of how we identify ourselves with the characters in these stories, we need to remember that this story isn’t just about us – it is also about God.  Everyone in both stories experiences God responding to their needs – even the kings playing political chess in Aram and Samaria. God cares.  God offers a way of healing to a foreign commander regardless of political games. God’s prophets respond to needs – just not quite as expected. And Jesus appeared to the disciples to save them, to reassure them – those in the boat (which represents the church in the gospel of Matthew) and Peter.  Jesus tells them, “Take heart. I AM.  Do not be afraid.”  God shows up. Because of our needs. And answers them.

Here we are, trembling, as we stand at the edge of the water. Knowing that we are in need of God. Shall we enter? It doesn’t matter if we are afraid, or proud, have retriever tendencies or are reluctant to get out of the boat. All it takes is crying out, “Lord, help me!” For the God who WANTS to heal, to help, to save us is already here.

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