SCRIPTURE – John 5:1-13
Some time later, Jesus went up to Jerusalem for a feast of the Jews. Now there is in Jerusalem near the Sheep Gate a pool, which in Aramaic is called Bethesda and which is surrounded by five covered colonnades. Here a great number of disabled people used to lie—the blind, the lame, the paralyzed. One who was there had been an invalid for thirty-eight years. When Jesus saw him lying there and learned that he had been in this condition for a long time, he asked him, “Do you want to get well?”
“Sir,” the invalid replied, “I have no one to help me into the pool when the water is stirred. While I am trying to get in, someone else goes down ahead of me.” Then Jesus said to him, “Get up! Pick up your mat and walk.” At once the man was cured; he picked up his mat and walked. The day on which this took place was a Sabbath, and so the Jews said to the man who had been healed, “It is the Sabbath; the law forbids you to carry your mat.” But he replied, “The man who made me well said to me, ‘Pick up your mat and walk.’ ” So they asked him, “Who is this fellow who told you to pick it up and walk?” The man who was healed had no idea who it was, for Jesus had slipped away into the crowd that was there.
Life by the Poolside
May 9, 2010
I went to my high school reunion a few years ago back in the D.C. area. Those things can be so nerve-wracking, right? What will everyone look like? Will my old girlfriend be there? Will anyone remember me? I had a big graduating class – 799 people – so there were a lot of faces there that night I didn’t recognize. But I found that almost everyone I ran into remembered me. Why? Well, here’s how most of the conversations went:
They’d make eye contact, look at my name badge and say, “Did you go to our high school?” I’d say, “Yeah, I did.” Then they would fake like they knew me for a few seconds until the epiphany hit, and then they’d almost shout, “Oh yeah, you’re the guy who liked Kentucky!” Apparently I was quite outspoken in my love for the Wildcats back in high school, so much so that everyone at the reunion remembered me for that one fact. I could cure cancer or write a bestseller and I have a feeling I’ll always be known by my high school chums as “that Kentucky guy.”
I thought about that story as I read over our passage for today, and it got me to thinking: What defines us? To define something is to explain or identify the nature or essential qualities of it. So what are our essential qualities, the things that make us who we are? Or maybe the more revealing question is what do other people think those qualities are? In high school, my essential quality was apparently my fanaticism for Kentucky. I would rather be remembered for my combination of sleek athleticism and scholarly wisdom, but it’s hard to be remembered for essential qualities you never actually possessed.
This man in our story today is defined in various translations as an invalid, a paralytic or a lame man. For 38 years, that has been his essential quality, the thing that defined him more than any other. I wish we knew more about this man so we could better understand him and his situation. Did he live by the pool? Did he have family in the area? Did someone deposit him by the pool each morning before work and pick him up on their way home? What was this man like before he was an invalid? We don’t know. All we know about this man is his defining characteristic – his infirmity.
Into this scenario walks Jesus, and we can only imagine what he finds. Beneath this pool was a subterranean stream that would sometimes bubble up and disturb the waters. People believed this was caused by an angel with healing powers, and the first person in the water would be cured. So dozens, maybe even hundreds, of people with various sicknesses and diseases crowded around the water, waiting for the supernatural sign of healing. Imagine the looks on the faces of the broken; imagine the cries of pain; imagine the smells. This is what this man has been experiencing for 38 years.
Jesus, as he often does, gets right to the point. “Do you want to be made well?” All of Jesus’ questions have multiple layers of meaning, which may be why the man gives such a weak answer. You’d hope he give an enthusiastic “Yes!” or at least throw in a little sarcasm. “Do I want to be made well? No, I’m still working on my tan. Let’s give it another year or two.” Of course he wants to be made well, we think. Who wouldn’t?
But the man’s answer gives us pause. It sounds almost pre-planned, a robotic, canned response the man gives while begging for change. “Sir I have no one to put me in the pool when the water is stirred up; and while I’m making my way, someone else steps in ahead of me.” This isn’t so much an answer as it is an excuse for why the man is in this situation. “It’s not my fault I’m here,” he says. “Blame the other folks, the ones with the hangnails and eczema who can get to the pool a lot faster than I can.”
While his response may sound pathetic, I believe any of us who have been sick can relate to him. Because when you’re sick, when life is hard, when things are bad you’ll do just about anything to be made well, even believe in a superstition about troubled waters and healing angels. People don’t call psychic hotlines or kneel in front of faith healers because they are bored or have too much money. They are desperate to be made well and will buy just about anything someone is selling if it comes with a promise of wholeness. We may think dipping our toe in a pool is a ridiculous pipe dream, but when you’re sick, you’ll try anything to be made well, to end the misery and suffering and pain.
What this man wasn’t able to see was that the true source of healing wasn’t the pool. Jesus asks him, “Do you want to be made well?” and I think that’s a crucial question. Did the man want to be made well? Some people live with failures and imperfections so long that they don’t know anything other than that. They become defined by their illnesses and shortcomings. I just moved from an area of the country where a large segment of the population defines themselves by the failure of their baseball team. Chicago Cubs fan wear their team’s futility like a badge of honor. “The loveable losers,” they call them. If the team ever wins the World Series, I wonder what fans will call themselves, because freedom from their failure will bring on a major identity crisis.
Same thing for this man. For 38 years he has been known as the paralytic, the poor guy by the pool. Maybe folks drop an extra quarter in his cup because they pity him. And if he answers “yes” to Jesus’ question, he no longer is that man. He loses his identity, his reputation, even his source of income. Hey, being a paralytic may not be ideal, but at least he knows who he is, knows his territory and his limits.
Pastor Mark Feldmeir tells about his conversation with an AA sponsor who says a person has to want to be healed, to be set free from the things that afflict them. The sponsor often says to a new AA attender: “You don’t really want this, you’re not ready for this, you’re just playing the game. So go back out there and drink some more. Live it up. Do whatever you have to do to wreck your life big-time, then come back and talk to me.”
At first I balk at those words. Wow, that’s really insensitive! Of course we want to be made well. And yet we humans are creatures of habit. We don’t like the unknown. So I wonder if subconsciously it’s easier to be defined by what weighs us down than face the unknown freedom Jesus offers. Do we take him up on his offer to release us from our addictions, to free us from our negative attitudes, to heal us of our broken relationships and sinful behavior? Something inside us is keeping us down, holding us back from a closer relationship with God. Are we ready to let go of those things? Do we really want to be made well?
Maybe we’re not sure what to make of this question in our own lives. After all, things can feel pretty hopeless. Maybe we feel like we’ve been stuck somewhere for 38 years, or that someone is always getting ahead of us, or that we’re powerless to change things, or we’re not sure why we’re doing what we’re doing. It’s so easy to lose hope, isn’t it? And yet, if we are crazy enough to believe that Jesus is who he really says he is, then we believe God can enter into our own cesspools and bring about healing. God may have special work for us to do in spite of our condition or maybe even because of it. Do we dare let God in? Do we want to be made well?
After this man gives Jesus the party line about what he believes holds him down, Jesus rewrites his definition. “Stand up, take your mat and walk.” Healing won’t be found in the pool or in the pills or in the psychic’s crystal ball. Healing is found through our faith in Christ. Christ offers to make us well but we have to be willing to broaden our definition of what “being made well” means. Being well is a whole lot more than just not being sick. It is a spiritual, mental emotional state of well-being. A lot of physical healthy people are not well and a lot of physically limited people have been made well. There’s more than one way to be healed.
So the man claims the freedom Jesus offers and accepts his new identity as “that guy who used to be the paralytic.” He takes his first steps in 38 years…right into the crosshairs of the Pharisees, who criticize him for working on the Sabbath. Talk about missing the boat! That’s like saying, “Don’t save the person’s life by giving them mouth-to-mouth resuscitation; you haven’t brushed your teeth!” And yet this demonstrates a principle that’s been proven down through the ages, and one we better be aware of. If we’re going to live out our faith in Jesus, if we’re going to walk the walk, there will always be people lined up to take us down. Doesn’t matter what shape our life takes, doesn’t matter what issues we choose to stand up for, someone will always be there to criticize us. There will always be naysayers and party-poopers and people who find it a lot easier to point out the speck in someone else’s eye rather than deal with the log in their own.
So here’s the question: Will we let them define us? Will we give other people the power to tell us who we are? Or will we respond like this man, who basically says, “Look, I don’t know much about the Sabbath law, but I do know that a few minutes ago I was lying by a pool and now I’m walking.” He will not be defined by what others think about him or find wrong with him. Will we?
Jesus offers us the power to be freed from all that holds us down. He gives us the chance to stand up and walk away from those negative essential qualities and destructive definitions. Is this new path a bit scary? Sure it is, because we don’t know where it leads. Is it worth it? I guess we could ask…well, what do we call this guy, anyway? We can’t call him the invalid or the paralytic anymore, now can we? Let’s see, how shall we define him, this person who has claimed God’s love and received new life through Christ, this man who stood up and walked with Jesus? Wouldn’t it be great if we could call him “us”?