I’ve sometimes said something that even I think is strange. It has to do with being sick. It’s happened when I’ve heard people talk about weight loss as a result of an illness. Understand, I’m not referring to serious, life-threatening weight loss; I’m not talking about wasting away. It’s just a question of taking off some pounds. I’ve remarked (jokingly) a good way to trim the fat is to get sick. Although, I add, it’s not the preferred method!
Another quirky comment deals with an almost abnormal (okay, let’s call it abnormal) satisfaction. It’s possible in a weird way to enjoy being sick, or at least, not to hate it too much. Again, I’m not talking about anything severe or really painful. It’s simply that when one is under the weather, it’s possible to appreciate the days off. And depending on how big a baby one is, it’s nice if you have someone to wait on you. (Not that I would know anything about that!)
Of course, there can be many problems with that, aside from being unnecessarily needy on said person! One big problem would be getting used to being sick or injured. A problem would be allowing it to define us. You know, being the survivor of brain cancer who takes anti-seizure medication, whose condition is exacerbated by lack of sleep. (Again, not that I would know anything about that!)
[Speaking of brain cancer survivors, there’s a woman named Joan Reilly who has her own quirky story. She had the same kind of cancer as mine, oligodendroglioma. Part of her story is told in her dry-wit cartoon, “What My Brain Tumor Taught Me about Anxiety.”]
Considering the questionable appreciation of—or reliance on—sickness, there’s a fellow some might say is the embodiment of it. But first, we need to set the stage.
The gospel reading in John 5 begins by saying, “After this.” We’re starting right after Jesus has healed the son of a royal official, a son who was at death’s door. Now we see Jesus entering Jerusalem, during “a festival of the Jews” (v. 1). It’s not clear which festival is intended.
I want to digress for a moment on something that has led to oppression and death: which is the use of the word “Jews” in the gospel of John. Without going into great detail, the context of John’s gospel is very important. “Jews” can refer to the Jewish officials, and/or possibly to the Jewish people who were at that time persecuting the church.
A grievous misunderstanding of the word’s use has had a horrific effect down through the centuries. Christians have inflicted all manner of cruelty against Jews. It’s even led to the hateful nickname, “Christ killers.” Friends, that is not the way to read the gospel according to St. John!
Moving on, we come to a pool known for its healing qualities called Beth-zatha, or Bethesda. (Of course, we know Bethesda, Maryland as the home of the Walter Reed Medical Center and the National Institutes of Health.) This pool attracts people with all manner of illnesses. One wonders if there aren’t those with an entrepreneurial spirit traveling though the villages selling containers filled with the therapeutic elixir of Bethesda!
What is the source of the water’s power? Legend has it that an angel now and then goes and stirs up the water, and the first one in gets healed. Anyway, that’s what part of verse 3 and all of verse 4 say. But there’s almost universal consensus those words were added on later.
Okay, the stage is set. The first actor, Jesus, is already present. The other actor, a poor soul who we’re told has been sick for thirty-eight years, is found lying on the ground among some other unfortunate ones. Thirty-eight years is a massive chunk of someone’s life. When you figure in life expectancy in those days, it’s likely this fellow has known nothing but sickness.
When Jesus sees the man, he asks him a question that, on the face of it, seems to have an obvious answer. It’s almost like asking, “Is the sky blue?” He makes the inquiry, “Do you want to be made well?” Do you no longer want to be sick? Are you tired of lying around here?
We might expect the sick man to respond, “Yes, yes, yes!” What does he say? He begins, “I have no one to put me into the pool when the water is stirred up.” And because of that, “while I am making my way, someone else steps down ahead of me” (v. 7). It’s not the straight answer we might imagine. And as you might also imagine, there have been quite a few takes on his reply.
A common viewpoint goes back to what I said earlier about a reliance (and even appreciation, if possible?) on being sick.
Raymond Brown is somewhat less than charitable in his assessment. He notes about the man, “His crotchety grumbling about the ‘whippersnappers’ who outrace him to the water betrays a chronic inability to seize opportunity, a trait reflected again in his oblique response to Jesus’ offer of a cure.” He says our poor fellow demonstrates a quality of “real dullness.”
Without hurling insults at the sick man, can we get a sense of him saying something like, “Can I think about it and get back to you? I’m not sure I’m ready to make that commitment yet.”
I think I can understand his reluctance. He’s lived with this illness for a very long time. As I suggested earlier, is it possible he’s let it define him?
In this congregation, we are blessed to have several people who, in one way or another, have experience in the medical field. Maybe I’m the only one who’s ever heard this, but I have heard comments (not very positive ones!) about people being referred to as “the appendectomy in room 203,” or “the head trauma in 315.” Again, I don’t know if anyone here has encountered that. I’m sure it’s a necessary shorthand, so to speak. It would be a bit of a mouthful to say, “James Moore, the fellow in 203 who had an appendectomy.” But maybe we can see just a tiny example of being identified with one’s ailment.
So maybe our friend at Bethesda has in some way become comfortable with his condition. Now he has the opportunity to leave his comfort zone.
I wonder, how often has Jesus asked me to leave my comfort zone? How many times have I said, “Can I think about it and get back to you? I’m not sure I’m ready to make that commitment yet.” How many times have all of us decided against leaving our comfort zone? I suppose there’s a good reason for it to be called our “comfort zone”!
Leaving our comfort zone forces us to move forward and be responsible in a way like never before.
In his article, “Courage to be Whole,” Kyle Childress includes the quote, “if it is hell to be guilty, it’s certainly scarier to be responsible—response-able—able to respond to God’s call, able to respond to the word and love of Jesus.” I’ve found it’s easy to talk about something, but not as easy to actually do it.
He adds, “We know that to get up and follow Jesus will involve us in people’s lives in ways we’re not sure we want, because to be whole means to be re-membered, re-connected with God and with God’s people and God’s creation. No more isolation. No more living my own private life where no one bothers me. To be whole means to get off of the couch and get involved.”
So far, we’ve looked at the fellow as reluctant to receive healing. Still, as I said, there’s more than one way to consider his answer to Jesus. Remember, he says, “Sir, I have no one to put me into the pool.” I have no one. Is that his plaintive cry?
Brian Stoffregen speaks of an alternate idea of healing. It has to do with cultural and social connection. “The man in our text has no one to put him in the water when it is stirring. He has no friends. He has no family. There is no one to help him.” It looks like he’s been shunted aside, basically forgotten. For him, healing would not only be physical, but it would help restore those social connections without which one might exist, but not really live.
It’s somewhat analogous to people who live on the street. When we lived in Philadelphia, it was a not uncommon event to encounter them. Even here in Auburn, there are more homeless people than we might imagine.
After all that, what does Jesus do? He says, “Stand up, take your mat and walk” (v. 8). And that’s what the sick man does. Jesus simply tells the man what to do.
It’s been about twenty years since the movie, The Matrix, came out. For those who’ve never seen the movie, very quickly it’s about a computer hacker named Neo (played by Keanu Reeves) who learns about the nature of his reality, which is that he’s living in an illusion generated by sentient and malicious computer programs. A group of people led by Morpheus (played by Laurence Fishburne) help him break free of the illusion and see the world as it really is.
They teach him to live in the real world, part of which involves training in various fighting techniques. They do this in a simulation. Neo is not making any progress. An exasperated Morpheus scolds him, “What are you waiting for? You’re faster than this. Don’t think you are, know you are. Come on. Stop trying to hit me and hit me.”
I mention this because sometimes we get trapped in our thinking. (Actually, it’s much more than “sometimes.”) I wonder if something like that is going on with Jesus and the sick man. What are you waiting for? Jesus wants to cut through the man’s explanations—and even his misfortunes—and just tell him, and show him, what to do. Jesus lets him know he needs more than yes. Just do it. (And again, am I saying something without actually doing it?)
At the end of verse 9, a new paragraph begins with the words, “Now that day was a sabbath.” We’re moving on to the story at large, which is Jesus’ violation of the sabbath rules. That is, the rules the religious leaders follow and teach the people. The point isn’t his healing of the man but his command to take his mat and carry it. Carrying his mat on the sabbath constitutes working on the sabbath. It is forbidden!
Verse 10 says, “the Jews said to the man who had been cured, ‘It is the sabbath; it is not lawful for you to carry your mat.’” (Remember what I said earlier about the use of the word “Jews.”)
With their use of the understanding of sabbath they would hinder the man. They would hinder him from experiencing God, from experiencing the power of the Holy Spirit. Elsewhere, Jesus says, “The sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the sabbath” (Mk 2:27). The sabbath was made for us; we were not made for the sabbath.
I wonder: what rules, what guidelines do we have—what do we impose—that hinders others (and ourselves) from fully experiencing God? What walls do we build in the attempt to prevent the saving and empowering grace of Jesus Christ from reaching certain others? How often do we mimic the prophet Jonah’s attitude toward the people of Nineveh, saying, “I don’t want them forgiven!”
We are nearing the end of the Easter season. Is there anything in us that has died and needs resurrection? Or at least, is there anything in us that needs healing? I think I’m safe in saying yes to both of those. But we are not alone. We have a Lord who directs us—who carries us, if need be—into those stirring, healing waters.
And guess what? That healing doesn’t come to us all by our lonesome. It comes in the connection that is community. It comes in the connection that is this congregation. It comes in the connection that sends us beyond these walls. It comes in the connection that bids us to “go forth in peace,” to be the peace and to share the peace. It bids us “to love and serve the Lord,” to love our neighbor more than any rules that would hinder. We serve the Lord, who reminds us there’s plenty of water in the healing, life-giving pool.
 Raymond E. Brown, The Gospel According to John, I-XII (Garden City, NY: Doubleday & Company, 1966), 209.