I want to sort of retell the Gospel story. Back in Jesus’ time, if you walked past a pool called Bethesda (Beth-zatha) [beth-zA-thuh] near Sheepgate in Jerusalem, you saw a common sight. The edges of the pool would resemble a doctor’s waiting room – with all manner of people sick, crippled, maimed – even paralyzed.
This particular pool wasn’t like a 24-hour walk-in clinic. It worked only when the waters were stirred up. It was said that an angel stirred them – and that was the time they were all waiting for.
The King James translation says that when an angel stirred the waters of the pool, the first to enter the water would be healed. I don’t know of any reports that someone saw an actual angel with a paddle running around stirring things up, but geologists easily explain what happens. The pool by the Sheepgate is fed by a spring. Springs bubble up. And bubbles stir up the water.
So. The waters were stirred, everybody tried to rush down, and only the first one in was cured. First come, first healed. The guy in today’s gospel story has been waiting 38 years to be first. Which tells us that he is maybe a paralytic. Which means that he needs someone to take him down into the pool. I’ve looked at pictures of the pools. They’re not like round plastic kiddy pools with gently sloping sides down which you could slide. They’re square or cruciform, and you get into them by way of big steps. HUGE steps. Big, deep stone steps. Not easy for a man who is terribly ill, crippled, or paralyzed to negotiate.
So. Among those gathered, waiting at the pool, hoping for healing, is this man who has been ill for 38 years. A biblical generation is about 40 years. So this man has been there for an entire lifetime. In our terms, he might be closer to 74 years old. He’s running out of time.
Jesus approaches this man and asks, “Do you want to be made well?” Hmm. He’s terribly disabled. His weakness is debilitating. He’s at a pool famous for its healing qualities. What else would he want, Jesus?
On the other hand, we don’t expect Jesus to ask stupid questions. So let’s take a look at what he is asking. Maybe it’s “Do you really want to be made well? We know people, don’t we, who seem to thrive on their illnesses, their aches and pains, their conditions, whatever they may be? They get lost of drama and mileage out of sympathy, and they always have an excuse for whatever they might not want to do. So maybe he’s Mr. Drama.
We do know that our wellness is, to a certain degree, up to us. We know we should pay attention to what we eat, what we smoke, what we inject into our bodies. We know what’s good for us and what we should refuse to use. My oncologist tells me that a positive attitude and my faith in God were very instrumental in my surviving three bouts of cancer. But maybe this guy doesn’t have a positive attitude. In fact, his life’s profession has been to be ill. Maybe he doesn’t want to be cured because he doesn’t know any way of being – other than being disabled.
Or maybe the man replies, matter-of-factly, “Certainly I want to be made well. But I have no one to put me into the pool when the water’s stirred up, and while I’m making my way, slowly and painfully down to the water, someone else always steps in ahead of me.” That’s a pretty matter-of-fact statement.
Or what about this? [sad, whiny voice] “Yes, I do want to be made well. But nobody will put me in the pool when the water’s stirred up, and if I try to get down to the pool, slowly and painfully, somebody else always gets ahead of me.”
John’s gospel doesn’t indicate tone of voice in this story, so we’re left to speculate. Maybe this man is whining and complaining, using “poor me, I’m a victim” to define his life. We don’t know. And we don’t know why he doesn’t simply say, in answer to Jesus’ question, “Yes, I do want to be well!”
Does he exacerbate his own infirmity, whatever it is? Is he like my mother-in-law who would go outside in her wheelchair, turn off her oxygen tank, (she had emphysema) so that she could smoke? My dad, who died with cancer in his throat and tongue, continued to smoke after his diagnosis and surgery and cobalt treatments, although he thought we didn’t know it.
Can we expect Mr. Pool Guy to say, when Jesus asks if he really wants to be made well, “Yes, Yes! I have at last overcome my mental block to healing, and I am going to be well.” And he rises from his pallet and skips off into town for a mocha latte. [head shake]
This Gospel story isn’t a self-help story whose moral is that we need to get ourselves in a better frame of mind in order to have a better life. Nothing this man says or does seems to be a plausible precondition for his healing. He doesn’t have the right attitude; in fact, he possibly has a really whiny, bad attitude. He never helps himself.
Jesus helps him.
It looks like the healing of the man at this pool is something close to a miraculous, un-deserved, un-earned gift of God.
There isn’t any evidence that maybe this man had a right attitude in his heart. Maybe he really did have faith in Jesus, even though he didn’t know how to express it. But let’s face it. He doesn’t even know who Jesus is! The man who heals him is just some guy who appears at the pool and asks a ridiculous question.
There are stories in the Bible where people are healed because they believe that Jesus can heal them. In Mark, Jesus says to the hemorrhaging woman, “Your faith has made you well.” But our guy here doesn’t ever show any evidence of faith, either before or even after he is healed, and when a crowd gathers to criticize Jesus for performing work on the Sabbath, this man seems to feel absolutely no gratitude or loyalty to Jesus.
This guy is not only a “nobody will ever help me get down to the pool in time” whiner, but he’s also a snitch! “That man over there, him, he’s the one who broke the rules about healing on the Sabbath!”
We might feel sorry for this man who was afflicted for the majority of his life, but we also realize that he’s probably not a very nice person. He’s a passive, whining, dependent ingrate. That’s not a very good character recommendation. And yet. And yet. This man Jesus chooses to heal.
Remember, this guy isn’t alone at the pool’s edge. There are lots of people there, all ill in one way or another. Probably there are nice people, eager for healing, as self-sufficient as they can manage, friendly, grateful for even a kind word from a passer-by. And yet our Mr. Pool Guy is the one Jesus chooses to heal.
Elsewhere Jesus says that the gracious God “causes the sun to shine on the righteous and on the unrighteous.” On this day the sun shines on a man whom we might deem as unrighteous. God, in Jesus, reaches out in this episode to heal and to save, --hmmm – a sinner! Are we surprised? Should we be? No. Because that’s what God does! God reaches out to heal and save sinners.
So this story isn’t so much about something that we are to see in ourselves or something that we are to do; rather it’s a story that helps us see something about Jesus and about something Jesus does. It’s a story about an amazing grace that graciously shines upon people in need, despite their faith or lack of faith. That’s interesting, isn’t it? Even if they don’t have any faith. They receive grace despite their faith – or their lack of faith.
We would rather that good things happen to mostly good, faithful people, don’t we? People like us? We’d like to believe that in our faith, we have found a key whereby we have a technique to assure that God gives good things to us in our times of need. Haven’t you sometimes heard someone say, “If you have faith, if you really believe, God will heal you”?
But there is none of that in today’s Gospel. The man is not asked to have faith. He is not asked to have a specific set of inner resources. Instead, he simply receives. He is given a gift. Even if he doesn’t say thank you.
And gifts are good news. John’s Gospel, where this story comes from, is good news. Gospel means Good News. It’s not the good news that we have found a correct technique for self-help. It’s good news because God comes to sinners, to the crippled, and to the terribly needy, including those who don’t even know enough to know that they’re in need, to those who wouldn’t have the vaguest idea how to help themselves, who maybe couldn’t help themselves even if they did have an idea how to go about it.
We call it grace. It’s truly good news. It’s amazing.
Alleluia and amen.