On Thursday I was sitting on the deck at Boomer’s, having lunch with my sister-in-law, when I looked down and my arm was bleeding. Not sure if I scratched it, or knocked against a scratch that was healing—but it was bleeding and would not stop. I pressed a napkin against it, but it wasn’t doing much. As I sat there, clutching my arm and chatting, something was suddenly thrust in front of my face. I looked up to see a man standing there, and looked again at what was in front of me. It was a band-aid. My brain immediately leapt to “Does this man know who I am? Is he being nice to me because I am clergy?” In the meantime, my sister-in-law jumped in and thanked him, and he said something about always being prepared. (A grown up Boy Scout, I guess!) I laughed a little, and thanked him as well. He went and sat back down, I put the band-aid on my arm and enjoyed the rest of my lunch.
I don’t know if this man would self-identify as a “Christian” or a “person of faith,” but in that moment, he brought me healing—and probably NOT just because I am a pastor. It wasn’t a huge thing, but it was what was needed in the moment. His little act of generosity was enough. But it also required that I show “hospitality” to him, to receive what he offered.
Generosity and hospitality are at play in the story we just heard of Naaman’s healing. Naaman is a general in the army of Aram, a kingdom frequently in conflict with the kingdom of Israel. The slave girl begins it all, this girl with nothing—no power, no possessions—she gets the ball rolling. She shares with the people who OWN her the one thing she has: her faith in the God of HER people, Yahweh, the God of Israel. She tells about “the prophet in Samaria” and his ability to heal. She offers the hospitality of her own people to this man who was, at least technically, their enemy.
The king of Aram is showing a certain kind of hospitality when he receives this information and believes it, despite its source. How many world leaders would act on such questionable information? Imagine if a child came forward and said, “I know how to stop terrorism,” or “I know how to fix the environment.” Would any of our leaders even LISTEN, let alone do what she says? He is hospitable in opening himself to the possibility that this child knows something he doesn’t, and he is generous when he writes to the king of Israel on his general’s behalf.
The king of Israel is in something of a bind when this letter from the king of Aram arrives. He knows that that primary Middle Eastern value of hospitality requires that he make a space for this person, but he can’t see what he can possibly do to help this man. It’s such a preposterous situation that he assumes it’s all just a ploy for the King of Aram to break the tenuous peace between their two countries. He assumes that he is about to be attacked, and he does the classic act of mourning—he tears his garment apart. There is no way for them to move forward without conflict.
But then Elisha’s generosity and hospitality opens a way. Elisha is generous with God’s grace (although Naaman doesn’t recognize it, at first) when he tells Naaman to go down to the Jordan River and wash. Naaman is not a member of his own community, he does not worship Yahweh, the God of Israel. This is unprecedented: Elisha offers God’s healing power to the very enemies of God—even though nothing says he has to.
It takes Naaman a while to become open to that offer. At first, he can’t find the right generosity of heart to receive what is being offered. He is offended that a man of his stature should be told to do something so basic as wash in a river—and not even by the prophet himself, but by some servant of that prophet. And once again it is the servants, the ones with nothing to offer, who save the day. They appeal to that very pride that is getting in Naaman’s way, keeping him from receiving this promise of healing. They tell him that they KNOW he would not be afraid to do something difficult, big strong brave general that he is. So what does he really have to lose by doing this simple thing? A little dignity perhaps, but in exchange for restoration of his flesh, isn’t a little humbling worth it?
Our lectionary ends the story with his healing, but something important happens in the rest of this story, something we need to know in order to really understand how hospitality functions, why it is at the heart of our faith.
Once Naaman is healed, he tries to reward Elisha, but Elisha refuses any payment. And in Elisha’s refusal to accept recompense, Naaman somehow puts it all together. He realizes that Elisha was not the one who healed him. Elisha’s GOD is the One who healed him. And because of the way that people understood divinity at that time, he asks for two “mule-loads” of earth—the soil of the land where he was healed—to take home with him so that he can worship the God of Israel for the rest of his life. And the request is granted. Naaman also asks for pardon in advance, because despite his commitment to worship Yahweh as his god, his position within the military structure of Aram will require that he continue to participate in the religious rituals of Aram, the worship of Rimmon. And Elisha, who is usually quite cranky and rigid about proper allegiance to God, grants this pre-emptive pardon. Both men have somehow been transformed, because generosity and hospitality are not unidirectional. They work on parties involved.
When a community makes room for an outsider, the person may be converted, yes—but so is the community. Everyone involved learns more about how to love as God loves. Everyone involved discovers God’s grace and generosity. Everyone involved begins to “bear one another’s burdens,” to quote from that passage of Galatians we heard today, and in so doing to fulfill the law of Christ.
Bearing one another’s burdens, fulfilling Christ’s commandment to love one another—that is the mark of a Christian. And we cannot do that on our own. We need each other—each other’s generosity and hospitality and love—to open up possibilities that we, on our own, cannot imagine or believe in. We need each other’s imperfections to teach us to be generous and hospitable and loving within the safety of the community of believers, so that we are a little more prepared to follow Christ out into that big bad world on Monday morning.
Imagine how different things would be if we lived by such rules of generosity and hospitality today; imagine how the world might be transformed. Think of the troubles that would disappear, if everyone fed even their enemies the best food and offered even their enemies the healing they require. Who knows what simple solution is out there, waiting for us to respond. I pray we someday find the humility and courage to go and bathe in that River, and receive the restoration and healing it offers.