Down to the
River of Healing Waters
River of Healing Waters
As I went down in the river to pray
Studying about the good ol’ way
And who shall wear the starry crown?
Good Lord show me the way!
This song -- made famous by Allison Krauss, and which was featured in the film O Brother Where Art Thou? – is an invitation to go down to the river to pray and to experience the full presence of God. Water is a powerful image that appears throughout the biblical story, from beginning to end. As we ponder the three texts that appear for the Sixth Sunday of Epiphany, one of which involves washing in the River Jordan, we hear as well a word about healing in two of the passages. And even Paul, while not talking about healing, talks about the body.
When it comes to healing, many of us, especially moderns, have a difficult time embracing the idea. We know that healings regularly occur in Scripture -- Jesus healed, as did Moses, Elijah, Elisha, Peter, and Paul. These texts are often taken metaphorically or perhaps psychosomatic cures are allowed. Part of our problem is that our world views are defined by modern understandings of science and medicine, as well as the image of faith healers such as the Benny Hinns and the Oral Roberts of the world. But it’s not just the reputation of Gantryesque faith healers that troubles us. There’s also the whole problem of why some claim to be healed, even miraculously, and others aren’t healed. Is there some reason why God heals some and not others? If God heals one, shouldn’t God heal everyone?
As we consider such questions, let’s go “down in the river and pray, studying the good ol’ way,” asking that the “good Lord show me the way!” As we do this, let us attend to the two texts that deal with the healing of persons with skin diseases (leprosy). Let us also hear this word from Paul about preparing to win the race and the boxing match. The passage from Paul may seem to have little to do with the other two passages, but in all three there is a sense that the end is more than simply restoration of the body, but more importantly preparation for the future.
As we think about healing there’s another question that should be addressed. I’ve been reading a rather challenging book by Amos Yong – The Bible, Disability, and the Church: A New Vision of the People of God. Yong is a Pentecostal, who believes in healing, but he asks an important question that is relevant to our exploration of these texts: What is it that requires healing? Is it the person or the attitudes that stigmatize persons with disabilities?
Too often we equate persons with disabilities, whether it’s Down syndrome or blindness or in the case of two of our texts – skin diseases – with imperfection. I must confess to my own “blindness” in this regard. The healing, Yong suggests, that needs to take place might involve a change of attitude among the “normate” folks, those of us who are not considered “disabled.” Healing might involve removing the stigmas we place on persons we deem imperfect or marred physically or mentally. Therefore, we must ask: What is the nature of healing that we desire?
Having raised these questions that relate to the issue of healing, let us consider the story of Naaman. He is a great warrior, but he is afflicted with a skin disease. His service is valued by the king of Aram, but he knows he bears a stigma that sets him apart. He receives a word of hope from an unlikely source, the servant of his wife, a young Israelite girl who had been taken by a raiding party. For whatever reason (we would call it Stockholm syndrome today) she has a fondness for her master, and she suggests that he go to an Israelite prophet to receive healing. Such a step is difficult, because Aram and Israel are enemies. But the general secures a letter from his king to the king of Israel seeking help. Eventually he finds his way to the home Elisha, but when he arrives things don’t happen as he had expected.
Naaman was a great man and expected to be accorded the honor due his rank, but Elisha doesn’t come out to greet him, but instead sends word for the general to go bathe seven times in the Jordan River. He expected rituals and such, not a bath. The rivers of Damascus are grander than the Jordan, so why bathe there? The answer to that question is found in the verses that follow after this passage ends. The lectionary designers seem uncomfortable with the flaunting of Yahweh’s supremacy over the gods of Aram.
As we hear this passage, as it is elided by the lectionary masters, the point seems to be one of humility. Naaman’s companions make just this point: “Our father, if the prophet had told you to do something difficult, wouldn’t you have done it? All he said was ‘wash and come clean’” (vs. 13). So, here is the question – minus the contextual one that speaks of Yahweh’s supremacy – what are we willing to do to receive God’s healing?
Paul takes us in a different direction from the authors of 2 Kings. Paul’s focus is on winning the race or the boxing match. We play to win, and so we prepare ourselves accordingly. When you run a race, you aim to win. You do what is necessary to achieve the prize (maybe that’s the connection with 2 Kings). You practice self-discipline. You work hard. You do this to win but a crown of leaves that will shrivel and die. If a runner will work that hard to achieve such a temporal reward, what about us as disciples of Jesus? If the image of the runner is insufficient, then perhaps that of the boxer will drive home the point. Paul shadow boxes and beats upon his body, “subduing it like a slave,” so that he won’t be “disqualified after preaching to others.”
Paul raises a rather touchy issue: what am I willing to do to achieve the goal of discipleship? We speak as Christians of grace, but what is the nature of grace. Many Christians make a major point about placing grace above works, but Paul seems to be challenging us to broaden our thinking. Dietrich Bonhoeffer is rather famous for contrasting cheap grace with costly grace. Cheap grace is “grace sold on the market like cheapjack’s wares . . . Grace is represented as the church’s inexhaustible treasury, from which she showers blessings with generous hands, without asking questions or fixing limits. Grace without price; grace without cost!” Costly grace, on the other hand, “is the treasure hidden in the field; for the sake of it a man will gladly go and sell all that he has. . . . It is the kingly rule of Christ, for whose sake a man will pluck out the eye which causes him to stumble, it is the call of Jesus Christ at which the disciple leaves his nets and follows him.” (Dietrich Bonhoeffer: Witness to Jesus Christ (Making of Modern Theology), pp. 157-158).
The prize that awaits those who finish the journey is worth the effort, but it seems as if it requires great effort. So what does this mean for us? What are willing to do to be disciples of Jesus? I look at my own life, and I know that I prize comfort and resist the efforts suggested by Paul and Bonhoeffer. How do I discipline myself spiritually to achieve the goal set before me? Do I rest on cheap grace, or walk in the light and power of Christ’s costly grace?
With Paul’s encouragement to pursue the prize of God’s call on our lives in mind, we return to stories of healing. This time Jesus is the one who is involved in healing ministry. As is often the case in Mark, Jesus startles us with his demeanor and attitude. We may be taken aback by what he says and does, but it does raise questions about our perceptions of who Jesus really is? Again we must ask the question – Is Jesus really meek and mild in our sense of those words?
Even as Naaman came to Elisha, so a man comes to Jesus seeking healing. Like Naaman the man is afflicted with a skin disease – leprosy. As scholars will note, the term leprosy covers a multitude of diseases, and not just Hansen’s disease. We really don’t know the nature of the affliction – whether it’s Hansen’s disease or psoriasis – but whatever it is the man is suffering not just physically, but socially. He is excluded from society. He bears a stigma that he can’t erase. So, he comes to Jesus and asks to be made clean – if Jesus so desires.
Jesus’ response is rather odd. The NRSV suggests that Jesus is “moved with pity” at the man’s plight and answers – I am willing to heal. The Common English Bible, however, offers a translation that will startle us. Here, according to Mark, Jesus is “incensed.” He’s angry, but about what? Is he angry at the man’s seeming lack of faith? That would not seem like Jesus. Surely he allows room for doubt. Or maybe there’s something else going on. In their commentary on this passage, Fred Craddock and Eugene Boring suggest that Mark is focusing on the demonic powers that have “robbed him of life.” It is, they write, “the eschatological anger of God who confronts and defeats the enemies of human life” (The People's New Testament Commentary, p. 111). If this is true, then Jesus’ act of healing not only restores a man to health and to the community, but it is designed to counter the forces of evil present in the world. It has, therefore, a more cosmic dimension.
But Jesus isn’t finished. He heals the man, but then again, with strong language that is off-putting, Jesus “sternly” warns the man to say nothing to anyone, but instead simply go to the priest where certification can be made that he is clean and thus able to return to life in the community. Now the man immediately disobeys and starts spreading the news about his healing. As a result, Mark says that Jesus couldn’t enter towns openly, but instead had to retreat to the deserted places. Even there the people found him, coming from everywhere. There is present in this passage another instance of this idea of a “messianic secret.” Jesus seems to want to keep his identity under wraps, but can’t seem to do so. But, for the moment, in keeping with our theme, there is in this passage a reminder to us of our complicity in stigmatizing those who do not measure up to our “standards.” Healing may not always be physical, but may instead entail changing the dynamics of society so that the stigma is removed. Jesus in this sense is declaring those we deem unclean, to be clean. This, would, therefore, be expressive of God’s eschatological anger at the systems of society that divide and conquer.
The invitation is for us to go down to the river and wash in the healing waters that God provides, so that we might pursue the upward call of God. What is required of us? The story of Naaman suggests humility. Paul suggests self-discipline. Jesus reminds us that in the end God is in the mix, overcoming the powers that separate and stigmatize.