There are a few movies that I will watch every single time they show up on television. There’s The Shawshank Redemption, one of my all-time favorites; The Mummy, which is a little embarrassing to admit; and Forest Gump, which has been popping up on TNT the past few Saturday nights. I must’ve seen this movie a dozen times, sometimes in bits and pieces, but I still find it hard to turn off. It’s just too much fun, watching Forest as he journeys through life, unintentionally inspiring greatness in the world around him with his simple acts of love and courage.
The scene I happened to catch the last time I watched the movie was when the young Forest is being picked on by a pack of bullies, who hurl rocks and insults at his sweet, simple head. You know this part – it’s the “Run, Forest, run!” moment. For most of the movie, we’ve watched Forest stumbling around in leg braces, marching straight-legged and lock-kneed in his “magic shoes.” So when we see him try to sprint down the lane away from the bullies, we can guess it isn’t going to be pretty. But then, suddenly, a miracle happens. Forest’s strides, awkward at first, begin to get longer and longer and longer until the braces just fall off his legs. He’s running (“like the wind blows,” he says) flying down the lane, leaving a trail of broken metal in his wake. He’s suddenly and surprisingly whole, strong, healed.
Wouldn’t it be nice if all healing happened that way? One minute we’re hobbling around in our braces, being told that we are so crooked we’ll never be made straight, and the next we’re running as fast as our happy feet can carry us. In one moment, everything is fixed and soothed, our souls and bodies are made strong and sure. One minute – one grand moment in the sun accompanied by a soaring musical score and the assurance that “from that day on, if [we are] going somewhere, [we will be] running!”
Wouldn’t it be nice, Naaman thought, if that’s exactly what Elisha could offer him? One moment, one crystalline flash when everything would be made right. The thought of that one miracle moment was really the only thing that was keeping him going. Because no journey he had ever taken had been as difficult as this one. He had been on tough journeys before, journeys into enemy territory with little food and less water, journeys shaded with his own fear and confusion, journeys home after a defeat when the wounded howled in pain and the missing dead’s footsteps were hauntingly absent.
But none of these had been like the journey he was on today, where each step was one of pain and forced humility. He carried with him the vivid memory of when this journey began, that first moment when he had removed his battle armor to find a little patch of red, spotty skin. At first, he’d told himself that it was just the heat, that the sweat on the inside of his elbow had made his skin grow inflamed and itchy. But then the patch had spread up his arm and down his chest, setting his skin on fire. He hadn’t been able to hide it from his wife or himself any longer. Naaman was a leper.
And so, like a good soldier, he asked himself how he could fight this thing. And he’d been shocked to realize that he had absolutely no idea; he had no strategy, no plan of attack. He was as helpless as a child. It had only been when his wife’s servant – a captured Israelite slave, of all people – told him about a prophet in her country who could heal him that he knew what to do next. He needed to get to this man. And so he dragged his leprous body into the court of the king and begged on his knees for the king to let him go. And the king had said yes, of course, but Naaman still bore with him that feeling of utter helplessness, a feeling that didn’t sit well on the shoulders of the fierce man of war he thought himself to be.
The journey was long and hard. His leprosy made the heat and dust of travel excruciating, and his shame was nearly unbearable. The Israelite king’s dramatic, hysterical reaction to his presence had only made things worse. But now, now, Naaman had been summoned to Elisha’s home. Now the great warrior was on his way to share his one important moment with the great prophet. And what a moment it would be. Naaman had spent most of the journey imagining what the prophet might do. He’d heard some of the stories of this wild man – how he’d purified water using only salt, how he’d made oil and food miraculously replenish themselves. There was even a story that he had brought a young boy back from the dead by stretching out on top of him. What would Naaman’s moment be like? Would Elisha call the whole town together, burn incense, sing songs? Would there be special clothes he had to wear, a special poultice for his skin? Would he have to suffer? Naaman felt sure he could handle anything – any pain, any exertion, any test of skill or strength, if only this moment would make his skin smooth, his body sound and ready to run.
And so Naaman pulls up outside of Elisha’s house with his entourage, his heart thumping in his chest. As he sits there waiting hopefully, a servant leans out the door, drying a pot with an old cloth. “He says to go take a bath. Anywhere will do – you can just go down to the Jordan if you want.” And Naaman is furious. What happened to his miracle moment bathed in sunshine and scored with trumpets and tympani? Just go take a bath?! He is ready to pack up his chariots and go home, until his faithful – and patient! – servants convince him to just give it a try.
What does Naaman’s great moment of healing look like? Well, here is how the Book of Kings describes it: “He went down and immersed himself seven times in the Jordan, according to the word of the man of God; his flesh was restored like the flesh of a young boy, and he was clean.” He simply stood in the river all alone, running a wet cloth over the sore patches on his body, wondering at first what in the world he was doing, then wondering if he looked like a fool, then wondering what kind of a God it was that this prophet served, then wondering why his skin didn’t seem to burn as much anymore, then wondering why it seemed that that one patch on his shoulder seemed lighter than a few minutes ago, then wondering how it was that he was standing, naked and wet and healed and whole.
Naaman never got his one, single miracle moment. He never played that one spectacular scene when the braces came flying off, when the shackles of his illness burst from his body with cinematic flourish. There wasn’t just one moment: Naaman was healed in pieces. There were many, little moments – the moment he accepted that he was ill, the moment he asked for help, the moment he listened to the words of a simple slave girl, the moment he approached his king for mercy, the moment he persevered despite the protests of the king of Israel, the moment he chose to listen to his servants and just give it a try. There were seven moments in the river Jordan. His healing had started a long time ago; his whole journey had been about healing. God had actually always been with him, helping him in stages, healing him in pieces.
Naaman never got his one, single miracle moment, and the truth is that we might not either. And sometimes this is incredibly frustrating, because when you are shattered by illness, shackled by anger or grief, or shamed by abuse or neglect, you want healing and you want it now. But just because we have to take one more step before the braces come off, just because we need one more dip in the Jordan, does not mean that we are forsaken. God did not forsake Naaman, and God will not forsake us either. Sometimes we’re just healed in pieces. Sometimes our whole journey is about healing, full of many moments when God reaches out a hand to guide and soothe and make whole. And if we string those moments together, they might stretch across the darkness of our fear and doubt; if we look back on those moments we might see that we’re more healed and whole than we realized. And maybe, just maybe, if we can notice and remember these many little moments, we’ll hear trumpets sound and tympani roll…and look down and find ourselves running!
Preached by Mother Erika Takacs
12 February 2012
Saint Mark's Church, Philadelphia