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"Expectation vs. Reality" by Rev. Jillian Hankamer

2 Kings 5:1-15

Earlier this week I posed this prompt to my friends on Facebook: give me an example of a time your expectation far exceeded reality. My example was seeing My Old Kentucky Home for the first time. I don’t know exactly what I was expecting but after hearing the lyrics of the song, The sun shines bright in My Old Kentucky Home/'Tis summer, the people are gay/The corn-top's ripe and the meadows in the bloom/While the birds make music all the day… I expected more than a two-story red brick house right off the highway and visible from a rest station. I was with my parents for a Thanksgiving visit to my dad’s extended family and I remember saying to him, “that’s the home from the song?” His response was something along the lines of, “Yeah, it’s just a house. What were you expecting?”

Folks on Facebook had similar examples: multiple people talked about the Mona Lisa being much smaller in person than they’d imagined, while others mention landmarks like the Welcome to Las Vegas sign - it’s “teeny tiny” - Mount Rushmore - the comment was, “well that’s weird” - The Alamo - which as a Texan I feel I must defend a bit by clarifying that’s all that’s left now is the fort’s chapel - the Panama Canal, Cadillac Ranch in Amarillo - the comment for this was “ew” - The Sistine Chapel, the city of Pompeii - it’s just dirt - and Jerusalem - “what a tourist trap with very little sacred feeling.”

A few mentioned experiences such as getting a mammogram - it isn’t as miserable as some people describe it - seeing the original Ghost Busters, eating at Shake Shake in NYC - it’s overrated - adoption, spaces and places that seemed huge in childhood that aren’t when revisited as an adult, and my two favorite answers from other female pastors. They share a theme: online dating and 90% of single men.

I’m a firm believer that clearly expressed and agreed-upon expectations are a good thing, particularly in interpersonal situations. Because while it might be a bit disappointing to realize how small the Mona Lisa actually is, it can be disastrous to discover that your expectation of monogamy doesn’t align with your partner’s expectation of monogamy. While it might be a letdown to visit the Alamo and see what a tourist trap it’s become, it can be life-threatening for your expectation of privacy not to be upheld by the dating app you’re using. But the reality is that having unrealistic or unexpressed expectations is very human and a way for us to relate to this morning’s story from 2 Kings. Because this is a story full of expectations being interrupted, dismantled, and upended by reality.

But before we dive into these verses let's make sure we know who’s who. First, there’s Naaman, an accomplished Army commander for the king of Aram who has leprosy. Then there are two kings; one of Aram and one of Israel. Neither is named, but the Israelite king gets so upset he tears his clothes. Next is the prophet Elisha who we talked about last week. Remember he’s a bit of a wild man, more like the unkempt John the Baptist than the courtly Nathan.

Finally playing small but vital roles are Naaman's wife and her servant girl who has been captured from Israel during the conflict between the two nations. We don’t know the name of either of these female characters. Naaman’s wife doesn’t even speak in the story. But we do know that with them, particularly the servant girl “there [is] no story, no cure, no happy ending. Nothing remembered. And this story [is] remembered through the centuries.”

We know this because Jesus is so familiar with this story that he refers to it when he preaches his first sermon in his hometown. In Luke 4:27 he says this, “And there were many lepers in Israel at the time of the prophet Elisha but the only one cleansed was Naaman the Syrian.”

And it’s with Naaman that our story begins. This commander of the King of Aram’s army. This “...great man in high favor with his master…This is an important man, a four-star general, head of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, decorated for military victories…one of the inner circle. Naaman was somebody to reckon with.” This man is powerful in every way except one, which is where the story takes a turn, and we have the first reality check to our expectations. For though he’s a mighty warrior Naaman suffers from leprosy, a disease that in the biblical world is devastating, debilitating, and often forces people from their communities.

Now here comes our second expectation change. The second person to enter the story is a slave who was the spoil of conflict between Aram and Israel and is now serving Naaman’s wife. “She is as small as Naaman is big. The power he has is the power she lacks. Yet, she is not silent.” “Oh, if only my master could meet the prophet of Samaria,” she tells her mistress, “he would be healed of his skin disease.” Why would she do this? This girl who’s been stolen from her life, family, and home. Why does she help her captor? And along those same lines, why do Naaman and his king listen to the advice she offers?

We aren’t given these answers, but only know that Naaman is given permission to go. He leaves for Israel with a letter of introduction to the Israelite king and plenty of gifts. Despite these preparations, Naaman is not well received by the king. When the Israelite king reads the letter, he’s wildly distressed, tears his clothes, and says, “Am I a god with the power to bring death or life that I get orders to heal this man from his disease? What’s going on here? That king’s trying to pick a fight, that’s what!”

Now this reaction seems to come out of nowhere. It feels totally overblown until we remember that servant girl and how she came to be in Naaman’s household. As The Message translates it, she was taken on one of Aram’s raiding expeditions in Israel meaning there’s been conflict between Naaman’s people and this king he’s visiting. More importantly, Israel has been on the losing side of this conflict and there’s a decent possibility as the head of the Army that Naaman led this raiding. So, the reality is that the King of Israel has every reason to be distressed when this accomplished general shows up in his country, despite the introductory letter and presents.

Enter the prophet, Elisha. He tells the king to stop tearing his clothes and instead send Naaman to him, “so he’ll learn that there’s a prophet in Israel.” Of Naaman goes, likely expecting to be met by this prophet of God who’s supposed to be able to heal him. But Elisha being Elisha he doesn’t meet Naaman’s expectations. Not only does he not give Naaman anything to treat his leprosy - not a cream, not a salve, not a tincture of any kind - Elisha doesn’t even come out of his house while Naaman is there!

In fact, Elisha doesn’t speak to Naaman directly at all but rather sends out his servant with the message; “Go to the River Jordan and immerse yourself seven times. Your skin will be healed, and you’ll be as good as new.”

Remember, Naaman is the commander of the King of Aram’s army…“a great man in high favor with his master…an important man, a four-star general, head of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, decorated for military victories, one of the inner circle…somebody to reckon with.” Speaking with a king is a normal day for Naaman and now this “prophet” doesn’t bother to come out of his house? Who does Elisha think he is? This is not what Naaman expected when he heard someone could heal him.

What’s more, Naaman has no intention of washing in the muddy Jordan. As we hear from him in verse 11, “I thought [Elisha would] personally come out and meet me, call on the name of God, wave his hand over the diseased spot, and get rid of the disease. The Damascus rivers, Abana, and Pharpar,”- rivers in his own country - “are cleaner by far than any of the rivers in Israel. Why not bathe in them? I’d at least get clean.”

In other words, if this ridiculous prophet from this country that can’t even win in battle is going to insult Naaman there’s no chance he’ll be subjecting himself to Israel’s feted river. What kind of treatment is this anyway? Just take a bath? That’s not prophecy, it’s personal hygiene. And with this outburst Naamam heads for home. It’s not only that his expectations haven’t been met, the reality of what he’s being instructed to do is ridiculous.

“And [this] would have been the end of it. Except for the servants.”

“Father," they say, “if the prophet had asked you to do something hard and heroic, wouldn’t you have done it? So why not this simple ‘wash and be clean’?” Being a warrior Naaman has often done difficult things. A wash in a muddy river is nothing compared to other things Naaman has faced and so he listens to his servants and immerses himself in the Jordan seven times. His skin becomes like that of a young boy and Naaman returns to Elisha, this time talking to the prophet and proclaiming there’s no other God but the God of Israel.

Again, Naaman’s expectation - that the Jordan is a mud hole he’d be better off avoiding - is undone by reality. Elisha has shared a path to healing because the God of Israel is a god of healing a wholeness. This healing can and often does come from the unlikeliest places and people.

So, what is our takeaway from this story? Is it simply a wonderful example of God acting for the ancestors of the faith despite their best efforts to thwart Her? Perhaps. This is story is certainly a reminder to not let our expectations get in the way of hearing people who are speaking truth, particularly when it’s a truth we don’t want to hear. Naaman’s story is a reminder that our understanding of our own importance doesn’t mean a thing in the presence of the Creator. And this story is a testament to the need for us to look beyond our expectations to the reality of God moving in the world around us.

But there’s another takeaway here that might even be better news, which is that “there would be no story without the servants…” This story would not happen “without the slave girl who spoke of God's prophet [or] without the servants who turned Naaman's pride around.” This mighty warrior who led armies and spoke to kings “was made whole by the power of God and by the intervention of the servants.” What a beautiful reminder to us in our privilege, safety, and wealth compared to so much of the word that Scripture calls us to “new ways of thinking and radically new ways of acting” for the message of God, particularly through the person of Jesus Christ, is uninhibited love, acceptance, and good news for the poor and discarded.

And if you hear nothing else I’ve said this morning hear this: “Naaman was a mighty warrior, but all his might could not restore him to health. He would never have been healed if he hadn't listened to those who had no power. God help us. God heal us. Amen.”

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