Jesus Heals on the Sabbath
5 After this there was a festival of the Jews, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem.
2 Now in Jerusalem by the Sheep Gate there is a pool, called in Hebrew[a]Beth-zatha,[b] which has five porticoes. 3 In these lay many invalids—blind, lame, and paralyzed.[c] 5 One man was there who had been ill for thirty-eight years. 6 When Jesus saw him lying there and knew that he had been there a long time, he said to him, “Do you want to be made well?” 7 The sick man answered him, “Sir, I have no one to put me into the pool when the water is stirred up; and while I am making my way, someone else steps down ahead of me.” 8 Jesus said to him, “Stand up, take your mat and walk.” 9 At once the man was made well, and he took up his mat and began to walk.
Now that day was a sabbath.
This is holy wisdom, holy word.
Thanks be to God.
I attended college in a suburb located on the South Shore of Boston’s Harbor. From time to time, I would hop on the T and head into Boston to shop and explore the city. Often I would find my way to the downtown and the bargain basement of the Filene’s department store. The items for sale in the bargain basement were comprised of the leftover merchandise from upstairs. The bargain basement prices were based up a system organized by the length of time inventory hung around in the basement. Each item’s price tag included a date on it. And for every two weeks each particular item was still in the basement, the price dropped 25%. After two months of lingering, the item would be donated to charity. Oh, it was a happy day when I found a garment with a date that came with a 75% discount. Truly, the perfect place for a college student to shop. And each spring, Filene’s Basement would hold a wedding dress event. Designer dresses from all over were brought in for a one day, deep discounted sale. Eager brides and their bridal parties would start lining up the night before operating hours the next day and heaven help the employee who had the responsibility of opening those doors. I’ve heard stories of the stampede of women as they charged the racks, racing to find designer dresses at a discount. And I’ve seen the dresses some of my friends were able to snag in the midst of a frenzied shopping experience.
When I read this story of the infirm people in the porticoes waiting for the occasional stirring of the water, I visualize a Filene’s basement dash of getting to the pool first. Bodies moving with laserlike focus on one goal–being the first to get into the water, knowing that the first person in receives the healing. The competitor in me hears this story and begins to craft a strategy of how the man, who had been ill for thirty-eight years could be the first one into the pool. I think, based upon the clues I see in this text, that the man isn’t completely immobile. He mentions that he does try to make his way to the water, but can never get there first. I think, okay, it’s not that he can’t move, it’s just that he’s slow. So then, I think, well why doesn’t he move closer to the pool while everyone is rushing to get in and wait for the next time? If he can secure a position when everyone dashes to get into the water, then when the water is stirred, he will be in place so that he could simply fall into the pool? Problem solved. Right? Evidently not; we read that he had been ill for thirty-eight years. I am sure that if there was a winning strategy, he would have enacted it long before his encounter with Jesus.
So as Jesus is making his way to Jerusalem, he comes to the Sheep Gate with the pool and notices this man who has been ill for 38 years. Jesus asks the man if he wants to be made well. And the man doesn’t say, yes, absolutely, he wants to be well. He replies, there is no one to help me into the pool. And based upon the answer, I begin to think, that perhaps, this man’s healing doesn’t rely on his ability to create the best strategy of positioning himself to be the closest to the pool. It is dependent on the help of others. He admits that he doesn’t have anyone to help him into the pool. He is certain that his wellness was tied to being the first in the pool when the water gets stirred. And he knows that he is bound by his circumstances. He doesn’t have the resources available to make it into the pool first. There is a huge difference from what the man needs and his ability to secure it.
In response, Jesus tells the man to stand, pick up his mat and walk. And we are told that immediately the man was made well. He did as he was told. He stood up, picked up his mat and walked out. And our text today ends with a bit of a foreshadowing cliff hanger. All of this took place on the Sabbath.
This is such a simple story. It is straightforward. Jesus is making his way to Jerusalem, comes across people who are outcasts because they are in need of physical healing and he interacts with at least one man and heals the man on the spot. He then sends the man on his way. Healing people was a big part of Jesus’ ministry. There didn’t seem to be an end to the compassion he extended to many in need and certainly for all those who asked. The man in this story is no exception. Upon the first reading, this story makes me feel good. It has a happy ending. However, as I read through it several more times, I find that I am challenged to confront some of my biases and assumptions. I approach this story with a lens of privilege, independence, and self sufficiency. It is hard for me to understand the infirm man’s reality. And honestly, I shouldn’t stop there. It is safe to say that I don’t comprehend this man’s reality at all.
There was a phrase I heard often as a child. I heard it from my grandmother, my aunts, and my own mother. From time to time, when I would complain that a task seemed difficult or impossible, I would say something along the lines of “I can’t do this.” And the response from my family was a quick retort: “Can’t never could do anything but say, I can’t.” In that one sentence, the message was clear that it was not okay to ask for help. It was not okay to admit that something was not within my reach. It was not okay to admit defeat. I learned at an early age that my family placed a high value on ability and self sufficiency. To ask for help was viewed as a sign of weakness or interpreted as laziness. And there was nothing worse than being lazy and not able to do for oneself (as my grandmother would say).
But what happens, when like the man in our story, we encounter the gap between what we need for survival and our ability to secure it? What if our circumstances dictate the limitations? Therra Cathryn is a freelance writer who had experienced her fair share of life altering events over the period of a decade, losing her home and her mother in Hurricane Katrina, and half a decade later losing her husband to brain cancer If that wasn’t enough from which to recover and press on, most recently she had not received a $4,000 payment owed to her from a publishing company, coupled with incurring the expense of having to replace a hot water heater. All of this bringing her to a crisis moment. She writes:
It’s just me who is responsible for taking care of everything now – the house, the property, four rescued dogs, two rescued cats, an elderly, blind chicken named Dixie Licklighter, my disabled brother…and myself. There is no one else to do it. It’s all on me. I was too embarrassed to say out loud I was having financial difficulty but it was a solid problem. I was making rice for me and the dogs to eat. I was losing sleep. I was crying daily. I rationed gas in my car.
I felt like [crap]. Like a loser. It was breaking me in pieces.
I was scared of the future, immediate and long term. If I can’t take care of myself, I reasoned, I am majestically [screwed over]. I crashed under the pressure and it got r-r-r-rough.
I almost gave up completely and have rarely felt so alone.
Therra goes on to say that one of her friends knew she was struggling and sent her a gift card for Whole Foods. She made her way to the store, excited to shop for both herself and her pets. As she loaded up the conveyor belt at checkout her items spilled over into the items of the man in front of her. When she realized that he had been charged for the dog food, she spoke up and asked the cashier to reverse the charges at which point the man said that he might as well pay for the groceries and proceeded to pay for everything she had placed upon the belt. The total bill for her groceries was $375. As she was trying to wrap her mind around this man’s generosity, she had to squelch the impulse ask him if he was an angel. She then goes on to say:
This guy [was] awesome run amok. You know why? He was just doing something kind for a disheveled, harried stranger. Showing the love in his soul. Shining a light in the world….He used his personal light to fire up my own….You never know a stranger’s full story when you reach out a hand and yank them into a better place.
Therra’s vulnerability in the retelling of her encounter with a stranger illustrates so beautifully, the example Jesus models in our healing story. He didn’t ask the man why he hadn’t been the first in the pool. He didn’t ask why the man was there. He simply asked if the man wanted to be made well. And then he gave the man the one thing necessary for the man’s livelihood. Jesus gave the man his life back through healing him. Jesus removed the limitations and changed the man’s life. And in doing so, scripture tells us that he placed a higher value on the life of a man than the religious constraints of the Sabbath.
To do any kind of work on the Sabbath was a violation of Mosaic law and certainly pushed the bounds of the covenantal theology. The simple act of restoring this man’s wellness speaks volumes about Jesus’ priorities. Given the choice, it is clear that Jesus chooses to bring light and life in the world. Sometimes, not an easy choice to make. How hard it can be to make the choice of compassionate action while pushing against systems designed to reward the abled while holding down and breaking the backs of those most vulnerable. Without going too far down a rabbit hole, I am sure it is safe to assume many of you can think of ways in which acting compassionately pushes the bounds of the legal system, societal norms, or even church doctrine. I am tempted to start a laundry list, but we don’t have the time to unpack the nuances in what could be some potentially difficult and divisive conversations, but necessary and important conversations to hold. And I would be remiss in not mentioning that this particular healing on the Sabbath was what caught the attention of the religious leaders who would begin pursuing Jesus in order to have him punished for breaking the law and for claiming to be the messiah. But because we know that Jesus came to give us life and that we may experience life abundantly, we can confidently follow in his footsteps; choosing to value the sacredness of human life.
It is important to see ourselves in this story in order to be reminded of the times we’ve encountered the living Christ who has more than bridged the gap between what we need and our limitations. It is important to be reminded that life is not to be lived as a competition; a race to create a sense of security with the rest of humanity to be damned. It is in the giving of and receiving grace and compassion that creates life, in turn strengthening the community. We truly are stronger together. And it is important to remember that sometimes our priorities and values cause us to stand alone. Not everyone will want to extend a generous hand to help another person stand on their own two feet and walk. Where do you see yourself in this story? I hope we all leave here today knowing that as we go about the rhythms of our life, we are known fully by a loving God who gives us what we need and who calls us to follow in the footsteps of a risen Messiah whose sole purpose was to bring life wherever he went. May it be so.