Which way to the river Jordan?

Like many of us, when faced with the many questions surrounding the pandemic, I needed some guidance as to how to respond. For example, did I need to choose between relying on God and going along with material remedies? Did I need to choose between loving God supremely and paying attention to the politics on each side of the debate? 

To find answers, I turned to the Bible, and it opened to the account of Namaan in the book of Second Kings (see 5:1–19). I read rather quickly what I thought was a familiar story. But I hadn’t remembered its surprising ending. 

Naaman was famous in his country as the successful commander of the army of Syria. But he had leprosy. He learned that a man in Israel named Elisha could heal through God’s power. So, Naaman set off for Israel seeking healing. However, rather than receiving this famous warrior, who arrived with great fanfare, Elisha simply sent instructions to Naaman. He was to wash seven times, not in the clean rivers of Naaman’s home country, but in the muddy Jordan River of Israel. Deeply offended by Elisha’s response and instructions, Naaman went off in a rage. But his servants reminded him that if Elisha had commanded him to do some great thing, he would have done it. So, Naaman listened, humbly washed in the river Jordan as he had been instructed, and was completely healed.

Here’s how the Bible records the next scene: “Then Naaman and all his attendants went back to the man of God. He stood before him and said, ‘Now I know that there is no God in all the world except in Israel. So please accept a gift from your servant’ ” (New International Version). When Elisha declined the gift, Naaman offered instead a symbolic gift—that he would never again serve any other god but the Lord.

But Naaman now faced a dilemma: With his profound new faith in the one supreme God who had healed him, how would he respond to the demands that would face him when he went back to his country, where he, at the behest of his king, would still be required to bow down to a false and powerless god? 

Naaman expressed his concern to Elisha: “But may the Lord forgive your servant for this one thing: When my master enters the temple of Rimmon to bow down and he is leaning on my arm and I have to bow there also—when I bow down in the temple of Rimmon, may the Lord forgive your servant for this” (NIV).

Naaman’s new motive, free from the trappings of self-importance, was to acknowledge and worship the one God, while still fulfilling his duties to the king. Elisha recognized this change of heart, and his simple response to Naaman was, “Go in peace.” 

Earlier in the account, when Naaman yielded his pride and sense of personal power by washing as he’d been instructed, he was overwhelmed by the freedom that came from experiencing God’s healing power. In a way, wasn’t this next step another opportunity for a river Jordan experience? With that same newfound humility, Naaman could return home and help the king, who still fervently believed in another god. But in his heart, Naaman could continue to honor the one true God. 

Naaman’s concern resonated with me as I considered my pandemic questions. What was the right thing to do about things such as social distancing, masking, and being vaccinated that family, friends, neighbors, and many governments were urging us to adopt? What measures should I take that might feel foreign to me, but that might help others feel safer and cut down on fear, while still acknowledging God as the healer?

I found that the answer boiled down to “What is my motive?” As someone who has witnessed God’s power to heal and is dedicated to healing through prayer alone, what was I being asked to compromise—loving God supremely? No. And while I was no more tempted to think any material means could help or harm than Naaman was tempted to worship an idol he had outgrown, it was equally clear that in obeying the divine commandment to love my neighbor as myself—just as Namaan continued to honor and serve the king—I would be guided, step by step, as to how to show tender regard for those around me while honoring the one omnipotent God who is Love. 

I found my freedom to “go in peace,” without any need for mental compromise. No longer fretting over the tangential issues that would mystify and stymie me, I now am free really to pray about healing the pandemic. This timeless, grace-filled lesson will surely outlast what seem to be the pressing questions of 2022.

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