The Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost (October 13, 2019)
After this there was a festival of the Jew[ish people], and Jesus went up to Jerusalem.
Now in Jerusalem by the Sheep Gate there is a pool, called in Hebrew Beth-zatha, which has five porticoes. In these lay many invalids—blind, lame, and paralyzed. One man was there who had been ill for thirty-eight years. 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?” 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.” Jesus said to him, “Stand up, take your mat and walk.” At once the man was made well, and he took up his mat and began to walk.
Now that day was a sabbath. So the Jew[ish authorities] said to the man who had been cured, “It is the sabbath; it is not lawful for you to carry your mat.” But he answered them, “The man who made me well said to me, ‘Take up your mat and walk.’” They asked him, “Who is the man who said to you, ‘Take it up and walk’?” Now the man who had been healed did not know who it was, for Jesus had disappeared in the crowd that was there. Later Jesus found him in the temple and said to him, “See, you have been made well! Do not sin any more, so that nothing worse happens to you.” The man went away and told the Jew[ish authorities] that it was Jesus who had made him well. Therefore the Jew[ish authorities] started persecuting Jesus, because he was doing such things on the sabbath. But Jesus answered them, “My Father is still working, and I also am working.” For this reason the Jew[ish authorities] were seeking all the more to kill him, because he was not only breaking the sabbath, but was also calling God his own Father, thereby making himself equal to God.
A story similar to this one came up in my weekly preacher’s lunch several weeks ago. I can’t remember which healing story it was–maybe Jesus healed a leper, or cured a fever, or made a person who couldn’t walk walk, or made a person who couldn’t see see–but there was an audible groan from some of my colleagues around the table. “Ugh! Another healing story…”
I laughed about it. “Isn’t it interesting how we don’t want to ‘touch’ this one,” I said.
I have trouble with stories in the gospels like these, to be completely honest with you, because I feel a certain level of theological and pastoral anxiety about them. Theological because it raises interesting questions about healing and miracles and God’s providence. All the “why” questions: why that person at that particular time; why not the others then; why some now and others not now. Why a world with death and disease and chronic illness and frailty in the first place. Why aging can’t be smoother. I was talking to someone in their 90s recently who was telling me about the difficulty of moving around these days–everyday movings – that seem increasingly harder and painful–and I said, “It sounds like getting old is kinda hard.” And matter-of-factly she said, “There’s no kinda about it. That’s a fact!”
I say “pastoral anxiety” too because I have ambivalent feelings about these healing stories. I’ve sat by too many hospital and hospice beds and prayed for events to take a different course. Sometimes they do. I’ve known people who experience a sudden reversal of dire health conditions and doctors are baffled. There are some amazing things that happen in this world that simply defy explanation. And I don’t think that the laws of nature are suspended exactly; I think it’s more the case that there’s still so much we don’t yet understand about them. We don’t see the whole picture.
And then there are the times, many times, when things don’t work out. I know someone who… well, you can probably tell me enough of examples from your own life. There are chronic illnesses and sudden misfortunes that just don’t seem fair.
Adding to that complexity are all the traditions and practices surrounding “miraculous healing.” Even as I say that, you might picture in your mind those televangelists or tent revival types on a stage. People are lining up, hoping against hope, tears streaming down their faces. The televangelist extends his arm to the person, lays his hand on their head, and shouts, “Be healed in the name of Jesus!” and they fall backwards into the arms of a group of well-placed gentlemen, and leave the stage! I can’t tell you how many times I’ve frankly been envious of those TV preachers and wished I was a conduit for such power, able to lay hands on people and make their ailments just vanish.
And worse still are those traditions that suggest that if you believe hard enough, if you muster just enough faith, then you will be healed. A seminary professor of mine once told a story about going to one of those healing revivals and a group of people brought a man with a muscular degenerative condition and sitting in a wheelchair up to the stage. The preacher did his thing. “Get up and walk!” But the man didn’t. So he was castigated for his lack of faith. What cruelty…
I’d like to point out those on that stage to John chapter 5. There are so many interesting details to note about what Jesus does here, but at the top of the list is that no indication is given about the man’s faith. None. Not his faith in Jesus or his belief in the potential for healing. He didn’t even know who Jesus was at first. And, it bears pointing out, the man basically ends up ratting Jesus out to the Jewish authorities: “Why are you carrying your pallet on the sabbath?” they asked him, “Don’t you know you’re not supposed to do that! Who healed you?” “That guy!”
God’s grace abounds… even for the unresponsive, the unknowing, and the undeserving.
So with all these tensions, where’s the good news in this text? What’s in it that is trustworthy and true?
Well, to get there we delve into Jesus’ question: “Do you want to be made well?” He sounds so abrupt (as Jesus often does in John’s gospel, he’s not that nice, really. He’s kind, but not nice). No introductions. No pleasantries. No small talk. Just right to the point. “Do you want to be made well?” Not “Do you want to be cured?” but “Do you want to be made whole?” There’s a difference between health and wholeness. Frederick Buechner talks about
the Hebrew view of the human being as a psychosomatic unity, an indivisible amalgam of body and soul in which if either goes wrong, the other is affected. It is significant also that the Greek verb sozo was used in Jesus’ day to mean both “”to save”” and “”to heal,”” and soter could signify either “”savior”” or “”physician.””
Not only is he hinting at something greater than the man’s particular infirmity, but the answer to the question, “Do you want to be made well?” seems obvious at first, but really isn’t. It’s similar to the question posed to any one of us, “Do you want to change?” is a “yes” at first hearing, but when we really get into what we have to do to change, the answer becomes shakier.
To be clear, I am not victim-blaming with the man by the pool (I wish we knew his name) but I do wonder if his circumstances had become so familiar in the way that someone adapts to their adverse conditions out of necessity. 38 years by the pool. 38 years of doing something that wasn’t working. 38 year of hanging on the edges, hoping against hope that, despite the evidence, that someone would just this once lower him into the pool instead of shoving past him.
Like a form of Stockholm syndrome—when hostages forge a bond with their captors—we can become so inured to or even comfortable with the conditions that stand in the way of our wholeness.
Did you notice how prominently featured the man’s mat is in this story? “Take up your mat and walk,” Jesus says. Later the Jewish authorities see him carrying the mat and issue a citation: “It’s the sabbath. That counts as work. You can’t do that!” It’s almost as if he clings to it, that haunting but familiar reminder of his captivity to which he had become attached over decades.
In a larger, spiritual sense—as John’s gospel tends to travel—what “mats” do we cling to? What stands in the way of our whole health, of being whole and complete people, in body, soul, and mind? What destructive ways of thinking, or ruts we’ve grown cozy in, or other patterns “paralyze” us? What addictions, attachments, or relationships are keeping us “sick”?
And not just as individuals, but as a church, or as a wider community or society–what are the so-called “pools” that we hang around expecting change, expecting something new to come from the same worn out habits? Or how are we “blind” to the ways we participate in systems that keep others on the edges?
Whatever “mats” we cling to, Jesus’ poses the question to us with each new day: “Do you want to be made well?” Well honestly, Lord, I’m not sure. Change is hard. Change is scary.
Yet the one who asks it, however abruptly, also declares later in John’s gospel, “I came that they may have life, and may have it abundantly.” The one who poses the question is the same one who offers forgiveness, freedom, and hope— those things that lead to true wholeness.
So let’s leave those mats behind and walk into that abundant life God intends for all God’s children.