This is the second sermon in my series on the questions Jesus asks people in the Bible. How would you answer these questions if Jesus asked them of you?
SCRIPTURE – John 5:1-9 – 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 Beth-zatha, which has five porticoes. 3 In these lay many invalids—blind, lame, and paralyzed.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.
Questions Jesus Asks Sermon Series
Do You Want to Be Made Well?
March 12, 2017
I went to my high school reunion a few years ago back in the Washington, D.C. area. Those things cause deep, existential crises, right? Talk about a life event that invites questions. Who’s going to be there? What will everyone look like? Will anyone remember me? I had 800 people in my graduating class, 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 for one specific reason.
Here’s how most of the conversations went: The other person would make eye contact, look at my name badge and say, “Did you go to our high school?” I’d say, “Yeah, I did.” “Are you sure?” “Pretty sure.” 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? Today we’re continuing our sermon series for Lent on the questions that Jesus asks. While those questions were directed at those in his presence, I believe they are also relevant questions for us. Today’s question is aimed at a particular person for a particular reason, but is fair game for our consideration. Do you want to be made well?
This man in our story today is defined in various translations as an invalid, a paralytic, or a lame man. We’re told that for 38 years, that has been his essential quality, the thing that defined him more than any other. He was known for his infirmity. The man spent every day at the poolside, but that’s not as exotic as it sounds. 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. This is all he knows.
Jesus shows up and, as he often does, gets right to the point. “Do you want to be made well?” Seems like a softball question, right? 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 – or lack thereof – gives us pause. It sounds almost pre-planned, like what he would write on a cardboard sign 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, and you’ll feel defeated when it doesn’t work.
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?” 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 moved from an area of the country where a large segment of the population used to define themselves by the failure of their baseball team. Chicago Cubs fan wore their team’s futility like a badge of honor. “The loveable losers,” they called them. Because of their World Series win last year, their freedom from their failure has brought on an identity crisis. And, to be fair, a big honking trophy, so don’t feel too sorry for them.
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 is no longer 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, knows what tomorrow will bring.
You would think this man would want to be made well, to have his life drastically changed for the better. 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 you want to be made well?” 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?
There’s a heart-breaking scene in the movie The Shawshank Redemption where a career convict name Brooks gets his release from the penitentiary after spending 50 years as a prisoner there. He’d been in so long that the only life he knew was that of a convict. On his first night of freedom, Brooks ends up committing suicide because he can’t face the freedom he’s been granted. He only knew himself as a prisoner.
But that example may be too extreme for us. We’re not prisoners, are we? Far from it. Do we even need to be made well? Really, aren’t we fine? We’re fine. Fine…except for our anxiety about our finances. Fine…except for the anger we feel about things happening in our country. Fine…except for the nagging feeling that our marriage isn’t solid enough, our job isn’t secure enough, our faith isn’t strong enough. Are we fine? Do we need to be made well?
But that’s not the question. The question is, “Do you WANT to be made well?” Or is it easier to stay sick? After all, that’s the life we know, and as crazy as it sounds, staying sick feels safer than changing our futures by being made well. For 38 years, the man knew who he was. But now…who is he? What will he do? How will he be known? There are advantages to staying sick.
I played basketball in high school, but apparently not very well, because no one remembered me for that. I was clumsy so I got injured a lot. During one game, I thought I had sprained my ankle, but an X-ray revealed a fracture, so the doctor put me on crutches and scheduled an appointment with an orthopedist. In school the next day, I discovered something I found very advantageous. Students who were on crutches got to leave class early and take a friend with them to carry their books. I suddenly became very popular. Here’s the thing: I knew my ankle wasn’t broken because I could walk on it just fine. But I didn’t want anyone else to know that because I would lose this new-found status.
After a few days, I went to the orthopedist, who took one look at the X-ray and said, “That’s not broken. Can you walk on it?” at which point I put down the crutches and walked across the room. “It’s a miracle!” he said facetiously. And the next day, I returned to school and reclaimed my status as “that Kentucky guy” who didn’t get to leave class early. Bummer.
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.” This healing is different than others. Jesus doesn’t touch him or commend his for his faith. Jesus simply says, “Get up!” Now, this may sound insensitive, but I wonder if this man was really sick. I wonder if he had gotten so used to being identified as the victim that he started to believe it about himself. But Jesus looks at him, sees him for who he really is – a non-lame person – and names it. “Get up!” The man already had the healing he needed within him, but for him, it was easier to stay sick than to change.
His healing comes with a price, doesn’t it? He’s lost the pity of those around him. He’s lost the free meals and free transportation he received. He’s lost his identity as the sick guy. He’s lost everything he’s known in the last 38 years. I wonder if it would have been easier, more comfortable for him to just stay sick? Probably. Change is hard. Growth is hard. Living into who God has called us to be is hard.
And yet, if we choose to stay sick, what are we missing? Why are we willing to go through short-term pain in order to gain long-term benefits in other parts of our lives, but not with our Spirit? For example, many of us will go through the momentary pain of getting a flu shot in order to reap the long-term benefit of not getting the flu. But will we go through the short-term pain of making changes in our lives in order to reap the benefits of becoming the person God created us to be, to free ourselves from the burdens that hold us down? Are we willing to let go of our need to be busy or our anxiety over hard conversations or our fear of the Bible in order to stand up and walk with Jesus?
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 qualities and destructive definitions. Is this new path a bit scary? Sure it is, because we don’t know where it leads. But 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? He’s no longer the guy by the pool, waiting for healing. He’s left that person behind. He’s stood up. He’s been made well. His life has been changed by Jesus. I wonder what we should call him. I wonder what we would call ourselves.