The Rev. Sara Cosca-Warfield
Scripture: 2 Kings 5:1-14
I will exalt you, O Lord, because you have lifted me up and have not let my enemies triumph over me.
As you already know, I am a HUGE women’s soccer fan. The first thing I did when I moved here was to get season tickets to Thorns games. There are four Thorns players on the US Women’s National Team who played this morning. And I’ve been a fan of the national team since I was a little eight year old playing soccer with the boys because there was no girls league. They were my heroes. And even though they’re all younger than me now, they’re still my heroes.
So that’s why I posted this on facebook just before the World Cup quarterfinals: Quote: Let’s all just stop for a second and send up a little prayer for the USWNT. That they crush France today. End quote.
I can’t say that this was my best theological moment.
What do I have against the French, and why do I need God to get involved?
Do I think God really cares about the outcome of a sporting event?
Do I think God should favor America over some other country?
This can get problematic really fast—especially on a Fourth of July that saw a huge parade in our nation’s capital that unapologetically set tanks and stealth bombers against a backdrop of “God bless America.”
What does God’s blessing look like?
Winning a soccer game? An election? A war?
In our first reading today from the Hebrew Bible, Namaan thought his blessing should look a certain sort of way. He had the bad luck of having leprosy but the extraordinarily good luck of being a hot shot army general. He was in with the king of Aram, who presumably had access to all sorts of resources across the land.
I imagine Naaman saw all the very best healers in his country. I imagine that they performed elaborate rituals, burned oils and incense day and night, rubbed expensive balms across his infected skin. I imagine the priests prayed to their gods day and night for the health of their commander who kept them safe.
I imagine it was a national crisis. After all, these nations existed in a constant state of war. A strong, powerful commander was a national treasure.
I imagine no expense was spared for his healing. No effort was too great.
But the miracle came not from a high priest or a renowned healer. Word came first from a young girl from Israel. “I know of a prophet,” she said. She was a nobody, a slave. I imagine they tried anything and everything else before the hot shot general was willing listen to the little girl—before he swallowed a bit of his pride and made his way to Elisha, some backwater prophet living in the middle of nowhere in a rival country.
But he was still a hot shot general and he had certain expectations of what his healing should look like. So when Elisha couldn’t even be bothered to come out of his tent to heal this important, powerful man face to face, Naaman decided he didn’t need that healing, especially when that healing required swimming around in some dirty river that ran through the lands of his enemy.
It didn’t look the way he expected it to, so Naaman almost missed his healing.
I wonder how many times each of us has missed our healing, because it didn’t look the way we thought it should.
When I was serving as a chaplain in San Francisco, I worked with a woman who I’ll call Donna. Donna lived in a Single Room Occupancy, or an SRO, in the roughest, poorest neighborhood of the city. SROs are basically dorms for people who can’t afford apartments. You get a small room with a bed, and you share a bathroom with everyone else on the floor. The only cooking facilities in these buildings are usually a microwave shared by an entire floor or sometimes by the entire building. So it was often broken. A lot of people living in SROs relied on Meals on Wheels or soup kitchens for their meals. Donna lived on canned goods and Diet Coke.
She only left her room for three reasons: to get food, to go the doctor, and to see me.
Donna struggled. Her landlords regularly threatened to evict her because she was a hoarder and her room had become a fire hazard. She suffered from Chronic Fatigue Syndrome—an illness doctors generally don’t take very seriously. They take it even less seriously when the patient is a woman living in poverty. It was draining for her to take the three flights of stairs to get out of her building. (Her building’s elevator was out of order more often than not.) It was draining for her to walk to the convenience store down the block where she bought her groceries. It was draining for her to take public transportation.
Whenever I saw her, she seemed worn out and resentful. If I’m being honest, I think I would have felt the same way if I was in her shoes.
She also struggled with some issues stemming from a very traumatic childhood. She believed that her niece was attacking her in the spirit realm, sending supernatural beings to assault her in a number of ways—ways so graphic I won’t describe them here. It was disturbing, and I can’t imagine what it felt like to be in her head.
She was suffering.
It would be more accurate to say I was a chaplain in training when I was working with Donna. I was in a residency, learning the craft on the job. Looking back, I thought I knew everything. I assessed Donna using all the latest spiritual care models I'd learned, and then I determined what the correct course of action was in bringing her wholeness and healing.
The problem was, Donna and I usually spent our sessions butting heads. I’d use one of my fancy interventions to interrupt her narrative about the war going on in her spiritual realm, and she’d just plow right over me. I’d try again, a little more frustrated, and she’d keep going, also a little more frustrated. She dug into her stories of violence and terror, and I dug into trying to pull her out of them. At the end of our hour together, we’d both come out unsatisfied and defeated.
This, by the way, is the opposite of what a chaplain is supposed to do.
Part of my training was meeting with a consultation group of other chaplains in training. They observed—generously—that Donna and I seemed to be stuck, neither of us really listening to the other. They suggested that I change up where we met. We had been meeting in a small, windowless meditation room. Was there a place outside we could go instead?
I’ll be honest, I was very resistant. Not sure how that would help. But fine. I’ll try it.
We agreed to meet at a park closer to her building. It was a beautiful place in the midst of the rough and dirty neighborhood. One side was bordered by a huge building whose wall was covered by a bright, colorful mural of a treehouse. There were trees in this park and a well-tended community garden. There was a little soccer field lined with benches. That’s where we talked.
Things changed. We started to just...chat. She’d tell me about her day. I listened. The fresh air seemed to give her more energy. It seemed to give me more patience, more openness. She told me about learning to paint and play the piano. I told her about growing up in Wyoming.
A few weeks in, she told me that she had gone to Pride the previous weekend. This was a big deal considering her health issues. She loved dancing, and there was a huge dance at Civic Center during Pride. People were encouraged to say yes no matter who asked them to dance, and to switch partners every song.
Her whole body changed when she talked about two-stepping. She didn’t seem so exhausted, so burdened. She loved getting to dance with so many different people, she loved leading, and it seemed like her Chronic Fatigue disappeared when she was out there.
“Can I show you a few moves?” she asked me.
I froze up. I really didn’t want to. I’m not a huge fan of dancing in front of anyone who’s not my wife, and was it even appropriate as a chaplain? But then I felt the Holy Spirit, like Naaman’s servants saying “all the prophet is asking you to do is to wash in the river and be clean.”
All she’s asking you to do is dance.
So I did. She showed me where to put my hands and feet, and then she walked me through some steps, some turns, some spins. I’ll be honest, I was a little stiff at first. But eventually I got the hang of it. I stepped on her feet a few times, but we just laughed and kept going.
Eventually, we both let go. She let go of her illness and spiritual warfare and found a different way of being. She was so confident. I let go of my need to fix her and found a different way of caring, of being present with a person.
At the end of our session, she was tired, but it felt different. I had never seen such joy, such release, on her face like I did after we danced. And I had never felt so open and loving and loved as a chaplain as I did that day.
It didn’t look the way I expected, so I almost missed our healing.