by Father Mike Stubbs
Hindus bathe in the Ganges Rive.r Muslims perform ablution upon entering a mosque for prayer.
Some members of the Plains tribes spend time in a sweat lodge, in order to purify themselves. Throughout human history, people have often undergone a physical cleansing of one sort or another to symbolize spiritual purification.
Naaman appears in Sunday’s first reading, 2 Kgs 5:14-17, as a person afflicted with leprosy. At the time, leprosy represented not only a physical aliment, but was also considered to constitute ritual impurity. A person with leprosy could not participate in religious ceremonies, was cut off from close contact with others and was declared “unclean.” Other conditions besides leprosy could also trigger a state of uncleanliness. For example, touching a corpse could also render a person unclean.
Accordingly, the remedy proposed by the prophet Elisha for Naaman makes a great deal of sense. Elisha has told Naaman to wash away the uncleanliness of his leprosy in the waters of the Jordan River.
Naaman does not object to washing as such. However, he does protest at the idea of washing in the Jordan River. After all, the Jordan is a river of Israel. Naaman is a native of Syria. He wonders why he could not wash in one of the rivers of his own country. What is so great about the Jordan?
Nonetheless, Naaman complies with the instructions of Elisha the prophet. And to his great surprise and delight, he is healed of his leprosy. Out of gratitude, he requests permission to take two loads of dirt back to Syria with him. This is so that he might be able to offer sacrifice to the God of Israel.
At that time, God was so closely identified with the land of Israel, that Naaman could not conceive of worshipping God apart from the territory itself of Israel. Bringing the dirt back with him would allow Naaman to have a bit of Israel at his home in Syria.
Naaman is healed of his leprosy. At the same time, he is also healed of that ethno- centricity that caused him to doubt the value of the waters of the Jordan River. His horizons are expanded to include worshipping a God from a strange land, the God of a foreign people.
We can take that a step further. As Christians, we recognize that the God of Israel is the God for all peoples. God is not restricted to any corner of the earth, but can be found throughout the universe.