Troubled waters

Good morning, Friends!

We’ve got another gospel story this morning. We’ve been reading from the gospel of John for several weeks now. Each week there’s a big question or a big issue. Last week we heard about Jesus meeting a woman with a broken life. Today Jesus meets a man whose health had been broken for almost 40 years.  Let’s read it together.

Jesus went up to Jerusalem for one of the Jewish festivals. Now near the Sheep Gate in Jerusalem there is 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 – and they waited for the moving of the waters. From time to time an angel of the Lord would come down and stir up the waters. The first one into the pool after each such disturbance would be cured of whatever disease they had.

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 Jewish leaders 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. Later Jesus found him at the temple and said to him, “See, you are well again. Stop sinning or something worse may happen to you.” The man went away and told the Jewish leaders that it was Jesus who had made him well.

– John 5:1-15

If today’s gospel reading was a live broadcast with listener call-ins, the phone would be ringing off the hook right now. People would be asking:

• Did this story really happen?
• Was the man really healed?
• Why was he sick?
• How did he get that way?

And dozens of other questions like these.

Answer #1 – it probably was a real story. Because we know that the place where it happened was real. At the time of Jesus there was a place called Bethesda, which means “House of Healing”. Bethesda was a big, public pool, the size of a huge swimming pool. It had two halves – an upper half, and a lower half, with a kind of a dam in between.

Surrounding the pools on all sides was a covered walkway – sort of like the colonnade outside here at Springfield, a covered walkway but with a stone wall facing to the outside, and columns all along the sides of the pool.

We know this, because it’s been re-discovered by archaeologists. All the details in today’s story match completely.

We’re not sure if it was simply a water supply for the city, a gathering place, or whether people bathed in it. One guess is that it was what Jews called a mikvah, a ritual bath where people went for a cleansing ceremony before going up to the Temple to pray or offer sacrifices, or to be restored to the community after anything that made them impure.

Anyway, there was a popular belief that every so often, an angel would come down and stir up the water in the pool. And the belief was that whenever the water got stirred up, whoever got into the water first would be healed of whatever illness they had.

So there was always a big crowd at the pool of Bethesda. People hung around all day, talking, bathing, praying, resting, whatever – but everybody was keeping an eye on the water. At the first sign of anything unusual, there was a stampede to be the first into the pool. People were desperate to be healed.

So Jesus was there one day. Doesn’t say how he happened to be there – one of those dozens of questions coming in, Caller Number 3 on the hotline. And Jesus saw this one miserable guy lying near the edge of the pool.

Jesus asked about him, and found out this guy had been coming every day to the pool for the last thirty-eight years. Imagine suffering for that long – a whole lifetime. So Jesus walked over to the man and asked him, “Do you want to be healed?”

Now, you’d think the guy would have said, “Yes! Of course I want to be healed!” But instead, he started in with a long story about how miserable he was.

“Every time the water gets stirred up, somebody else pushes in front of me. Nobody wants to help me. I’m always too late. I come here every day. I never get a chance!”

Maybe the guy really did have a health condition that prevented him from getting into the pool. But you get the feeling that there was a strong element of self-pity going on here.

What’s interesting is that Jesus didn’t say, “Hey, I’ll help you into the pool, next time the water gets stirred by the angel.” Jesus said, “Get up! Pick up your bed, and walk!”
And he did.

OK, let’s look at some different possibilities here.

Possibility #1 – the guy had been faking being ill all this time. I kind of doubt that, because thirty-eight years is a long time to pretend. If he was faking it, and he really could walk, somebody would have seen him sometime.

Possibility #2 – he really was paralyzed, or whatever the condition was that made him unable to get up. There are all kinds of ways that could have happened – a fall, a childhood injury, polio, any number of illnesses or accidents. But it could have been a real inability to walk, and Jesus healed him.

Possibility #3 – he could walk, but he didn’t think he could. Could have been pain, or fear, or some mental condition that prevented him from even trying to use his limbs.

Any way you slice it, Jesus helped him. That’s the point of the story. Jesus helped someone who hadn’t walked in thirty-eight years. It was like saying that God is more powerful, more real, than even a terrible illness like this. God is stronger and has more life than even a paralyzing condition. That’s the bottom line.

Now, I want to step back from the story just for a moment. Because I know something about how the guy in this story felt. About 20 years ago, I was in so much pain that I thought my life was over. It went on for weeks, and it didn’t get better.

I couldn’t walk. I had to be helped to the bathroom. I couldn’t sit in a chair, or ride in a car. I could stand for about 90 seconds before the pain made me collapse. It was not fun.

Fortunately, with good medical care and some great help from physical therapy, a lot of prayer, and a lot of help from my wife, things slowly got better. It took months before I could stop taking pain medicine, and for years I was afraid of that level of pain attacking me again.

So, I understand this guy. Fear can be completely debilitating. Depression and despair can almost take away your life.

I also have to tell you that I have friends who are never going to walk. One of our best friends over in Indiana is a woman who was born with spina bifida. She lives in a wheelchair. She has a lot of difficulty with Bible stories like this.

Part of it is, she says, that people try to make her feel guilty for not being healed. It’s like they blame her for her condition.

She’s got plenty of faith. She prays better than I do. But she tells people, “This is who I am. This is how I live. I’m happy.” She’s married. She’s got a degree in social work. She holds a job. She’s a fierce advocate for people with all kinds of disabilities. She calls them different abilities.

And she’s a wonderful person. She’s gifted, and generous. She has a terrific sense of humor. She’s deeply spiritual. And she lives in a wheelchair. It’s just who she is.

I have seen miracles. I have seen things happen where doctors threw up their hands and had no explanation. I’ve also prayed for healing, many times, and it didn’t seem like my prayers were answered.

But I always pray. I believe in the power, mercy and love of God. So I pray. I put my faith and trust in God.

There’s a couple more details about this story that bother me.

One of the excuses this guy gave Jesus for not being healed was he said, “I don’t have anyone to help me into the pool. . .”

And I want to ask, “Well, how did you get here today? Didn’t somebody bring you?” Maybe they did. Or maybe not. Maybe they just dumped him there every day. 38 years is a long time to have to care for someone.

I think this detail highlights how important it is to have family and friends who don’t give up. I know it’s hard, but it’s so important.

When you help somebody, whether they get better or not, it’s for the long haul. You don’t stop praying. You don’t stop helping.

Sometimes you have to set limits, and sometimes you need to stop enabling illness or unhealthy behavior. But don’t abandon people. Maybe in today’s story, the man’s friends needed to change. Maybe they needed help, or more faith.
Just remember, that being a friend is sometimes the most important thing there is.

In today’s story, Jesus told the man, “Pick up your mat and walk.” And he did. You’d think everyone would celebrate if something like that happened.

But some people criticized and attacked this guy, because the healing took place on the sabbath, and he was carrying his mat on the sabbath.

I can’t imagine that kind of small-mindedness. For me, a healing is a healing, however it works, and whenever it happens. I figure God is responsible for all healing. So, give thanks now, and if the details don’t make sense, just give thanks anyway. Sabbath or no sabbath. Be thankful, whenever anybody is healed.

The other detail that catches my attention is that Jesus meets the guy later on, and tells him, “See, you’re well again! Stop sinning or something worse may happen to you.”

This is one of the few times when Jesus tells someone directly that sin is responsible for their illness. Most of the time, when Jesus healed someone, he told them, “You’re forgiven” or “Your faith has made you well”. Jesus almost never blamed people. Blaming and judging are almost never appropriate. It doesn’t help, it makes things worse, and it’s simply not our place.

In another story we’re going to read a couple of weeks from now, Jesus explicitly says that the illness wasn’t caused by anything the person did, or even by anything their parents did. In today’s story, it seems like maybe sin was involved somehow. Or at any rate, Jesus said that not sinning was going to keep the guy healthy.

I think most people know that. And if anyone confronts them, I think it should be Jesus.

I think this story raises a lot of questions for us. Questions of faith. Questions of life experience. Questions of application.

I think it really happened. But I also think this story can be applied in other ways.

Sometimes Jesus comes across a group of people – a couple or a family, a community or a congregation. And Jesus asks, “Do you want to be healed?”

It cuts through all of our excuses. “Oh, we’re too hurt. We’re too broken. We’re in too much pain. We’ve been down too long. Everybody gets there ahead of us. We’re paralyzed. We can’t walk! We can’t even take one step!”

And Jesus says, “Do you want to be healed?”

And then he says, “Get up! Pick up your mat, and walk!”

Sometimes we need to hear that. Sometimes, the way back to health is just to get up and walk.

Take this story home, and apply it in whatever way seems right and true – whether you apply it to yourself, or whether you apply it to someone else you know.

Just remember to pray. Remember to have faith. Don’t be afraid to ask. Always trust that God loves you. Believe that God is about mercy, not punishment. That’s the good news that Jesus came to bring.


Copyright © 2017 by Joshua Brown

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One Response to Troubled waters

  1. Mick Curran says:

    The warning given “to stop sinning or something worse may happen to you” seems a bit out of place not only because it’s an obvious threat but also because of the situation of the person to whom the threat is directed. Assuming a hierarchy of sins, how heinous might be the sins of some poor paralyzed guy whose daily routine over the years has been to lie helpless, yet ever—hopeful of being healed, by the side of a pool? One might reasonably infer that a cheerful encouraging comment along the lines of “Well, now, you won’t have be slothful any more,” to be more apposite. Although, if the guy had been taking to heart Mrs. Job’s counsel to “curse God and die!” and had made a habit of bawling obscenities morning, noon and night I daresay that might have warranted the stern caution.

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