Easter 6C (2022)
Today’s Gospel tells a cool story. Back in Jesus’s time, if you walked past a pool called Bethesda, [not to be confused with Bethsaida, which is a fishing town where Phillip and Andrew and Simon were born] -- so if you walked past the pool called Bethesda 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 was “open,” if you will, only when the waters were stirred up. It was said that the waters were stirred up by an angel, and that was the time they all were waiting for. The King James translation says that when an angel stirred the waters of the pool, the first person to enter the water would be healed. Bearing out the King James translation, there is a fresco at what archeologists think is the site, and it depicts water and an angel.
I don’t know of any reports of someone actually seeing an angel with a paddle running around stirring up the pool – but geologists easily explain what happens. The pool by Sheepgate is fed by a spring. Springs, by their very nature, bubble up. And bubbles stir up the water.
So. When the spring bubbled up and the waters were stirred, everyone who had been waiting tried to rush down –but only the first one in was cured. First in, first (and only) healed.
The guy in today’s gospel story has been waiting 38 years to be first. Which tells us that maybe he’s 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. 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. Since life expectancy then was about 40 years, this man is obviously running out of time. In our story today Jesus approaches him and asks him “Do you want to be made well?”
(I’d probably have said “Well duh, Jesus,” but that’s highly disrespectful, and my mother would not have approved at all.) This man is terribly disabled. He’s debilitatingly weak. 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 aches and pains, on their illnesses, on whatever conditions, real or imagined, that beset them? They get lots of drama and mileage out of sympathy. And they always have an excuse for not doing whatever they might not want to do. So maybe he’s Mr. Drama.
We do know that our wellness, to a certain degree, is up to us. My oncologist, for instance, 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, calmly, matter-of-factly, “Certainly I want to be made well. But I have no one to put me in the pool when the water’s stirred up, and while I’m struggling to make my way down to the water, someone else always steps in ahead of me.” That’s pretty matter-of-fact.
Or what about this? [to be read in a sad, whiny voice] “Of course I 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’s 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, 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 mocha latte. [a head shake would do well here]
This Gospel story is not a self-help story. It’s not a 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 seem to have the right attitude; he possibly does have a really whiny, bad attitude. He doesn’t seem to help himself.
But. But. Jesus helps him.
It looks as if the healing of this man at this pool is something close to a miraculous, undeserved, unearned gift from God.
There isn’t any evidence that maybe the guy has a right attitude in his heart. Maybe he really does have faith in Jesus, even though he doesn’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 him 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 doesn’t show any evidence of faith, either before or even after he is healed. In fact, after he’s healed, and a crowd closes in 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 (maybe), 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 has been afflicted for the majority of his life, but I’m speculating that he’s probably not a very nice person. He could very well be 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 even for 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 save – hmm—a sinner! Why should we be surprised? That’s what God does – God reaches out to heal and save sinners.
So this story is not 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 something that Jesus does. It’s a story about an amazing grace that shines upon people in need, 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 the key whereby we have a technique to ensure that God gives good things to us in our times of need. Have you sometimes heard it said that “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. The word “Gospel” comes from Anglo-Saxon words meaning good word or good tidings, hence, 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 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