Troubled waters

Good morning, Friends!

We’re working our way through the gospel of John, from now through Easter. The point is for us to hear an entire gospel together, and listen to some of the greatest stories in the Bible.
We’re reading ones which are unique to John – you won’t find these anywhere else:

  • In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. . .
  • -the wedding where Jesus turned water into wine
  • -that time when Jesus met a woman at a well and said, “Whoever drinks this water will be thirsty again, but those who drink the water that I give will never be thirsty. The water that I give will become like a spring of water gushing and soaring up to eternal life”
  • the time Jesus met an old, frightened man in the middle of the night and said, “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish, but have eternal life. . .”
  • the wonderful place where Jesus said that his Father’s house has room for everyone, including you and me
  • the beautiful place we listened to last week, where Jesus said, “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. No longer do I call you servants – I call you friends, because I have told you everything I have heard from my Father. . .”

We keep working our way, week by week, through these great Scriptures, these wonderful words of life. And the weight and the glory of them keeps piling up, till we reach the story of Jesus’ new life on Easter morning.

Today we’ve got a different story. It’s about a man who was in utter misery, abandoned and in despair. We all feel that way sometimes. And it’s good to know that we’re not alone.

We come to worship on Sunday. We put on our nice clothes, we put on our company faces. But the truth is that these are very troubled times. People spend a lot of their time being frightened, worried, in pain and depressed.

Are things ever going to get better? Is there any hope for the world, hope for me and my family? Are we going to make it? All these questions we ask ourselves. We come to church and we try to forget these questions, and pretend they’re not here. But the truth is that those questions follow us around all the time, even here.

Today’s story is about a man we feel sorry for, because of how terrible his life was. But part of us feels – “You know, that guy might be a lot like me.”

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

The situation in today’s story is really interesting. People back then didn’t have any hospitals. They didn’t have doctors with medical degrees to go to. No drug stores. None of that stuff. If you were sick, you were in serious trouble.

People would try just about anything to get well. Even things today we might consider preposterous.

In Jerusalem – the holy city, the place where people believed God resided – there was the Temple, where people went to worship. But there was a holy place, a pool or spring, which people believed had healing powers. They called the place Bethesda, which means “the house of Mercy”.

Over the years it had been built up and developed. In Jesus’ time, at Bethesda there were two enormous pools or reservoirs, the size of huge swimming pools. People would wait by the pool, until something unusual came and stirred up the water.

We don’t know exactly what that something unusual looked like. When we read this passage in Bible study together this year, I passed around some pictures of how different artists tried to imagine it.

One picture showed some turbulence in the water, as though something under the surface was stirring it up. Another picture showed huge waves sloshing back and forth, as though an angel had come off the diving board and done a cannonball.

One showed an angel silently reaching down and just touching the water, making an almost invisible disturbance. We just don’t know exactly how it went.

But the idea was, that when an angel stirred up the water, the first person who jumped in would be healed. Nobody knew when the next time was going to be, so people sat there and watched and waited. When anything happened, there would be a stampede to see who could get in first.

You know, when you’re in despair, you’ll try anything.

There was a guy at the pool who was sick who had been coming there every day for thirty-eight years. We don’t know what his illness was.

Maybe he’d had polio as a child. Maybe he’d been in a bad accident. Whether he was completely paralyzed, or whether he could drag himself around with his arms and his elbows. All we know is, he couldn’t walk.

Thirty-eight years of this. If this was happening today, he’d have been having this problem since back in 1982. That’s back when Ronald Reagan ran for president. The Dow Jones was only 1,046 points. The movie E.T. came out that year. Can you imagine all the re-runs he’d have watched for all those years?

It was a very long time. Probably most of his life, being ill and unable to walk. Talk about discouraging. Talk about depressing. Coming down to the holy pool every day. Hoping. And every time the water got stirred up, maybe only a few times a year, some other person, equally desperate, would push in ahead of him.

It doesn’t say if he was a beggar. Might well he could have been. Maybe he carried a cardboard sign – “Sick. Can’t get around. Help any way you can.” You all get the idea.

The story never tells us exactly why Jesus just happened to come along that day. Most of the time, when Jesus was in Jerusalem, he was up teaching at the Temple. But not always.

People used to ask why Jesus hung out with the beggars and the street people, the people who couldn’t read the Bible, the people who didn’t wash their hands before meals, the people who had epilepsy or mental illness – everybody else said they had demons.

And Jesus said, “People who are well don’t have any need of a physician. I didn’t come here for the healthy and righteous people, but for people who are hurt and broken.” (Matthew 9:12-13, Mark 2:17)

So Jesus didn’t just come to church. He went wherever people were – to their homes, in the marketplace, in the fields, or by the beach. He went wherever people were. And that day, he went to the holy pool, where he knew he’d find some sick people.

Doesn’t say why Jesus picked out the guy in today’s story. Maybe he was sitting at the back, all huddled up and miserable. Maybe Jesus just knew this guy had spent a lifetime of pain and poverty. Maybe he saw that this guy didn’t have any friends nearby, to carry him down into the water next time it happened. We don’t know.

But we can picture Jesus stopping, and sitting down next to this guy, and asking, “Do you want to get well?”

On the face of it, that seems like kind of a dumb question. Well, of course he wanted to get well! What did Jesus think he wanted?

But there’s also some dignity in the way Jesus spoke to him. It’s like he said, “I can see what it’s like for you. I can see you’re not OK. I understand your situation. I care about you. Do you want to get well?”

Sometimes, Jesus says something that just cuts through all the other stuff. Jesus knows what we want. Jesus knows what we need.

The sick man started telling his same old story – “I’ve been coming here every day for thirty-eight years, nobody helps me, I never get a chance, they push me out of the way.” It was the same old story of misery and despair. He’d told it so many times that he’d given up hope. He didn’t believe that anyone could help him. He thought not even God cared about him any more.

And Jesus cut right through his story. He shut down the man’s self-pity, all his excuses, all his unhappiness and fear.

I want to try something. I’m going to say the exact same words that Jesus used. I’m going to say them, and I want you to do it.

Jesus said, “Stand up.”

Come, on, stand up. Just like Jesus said. You can do it! Stand up!

Look around for a minute. How did that feel? A little strange, wasn’t it? But over and over again, that’s exactly how Jesus worked.

Jesus said, “Stand up, and pick up that dirty, smelly pile of old, sorry rags that you’ve been lying on every day for your whole life – pick up your bed, and walk!”

And that’s exactly what the man did.

OK, you can sit down again now. But Jesus did this same kind of thing, many times in many places.

Let’s pretend again, just for a minute.

Imagine a different day when a person came into the church where Jesus was teaching. Had something wrong with them, it doesn’t say what, but he couldn’t move his arm. Could have been a stroke, could have been a bad fracture, could have been many different things.

Now, people knew that Jesus healed people. But some of them said, “This is church. This is the sabbath. We don’t do that sort of thing today. There’s another time and another place for the sort of stuff that Jesus does.”

And Jesus knew what those other people were thinking. He knew it might call down their hate onto himself. But Jesus said four words. I’m going to say those four words, and you’re going to do them, just like Jesus said.

Are you ready? Stretch out your arm.

And when Jesus said that, the person was healed. He stretched out his arm, and it was whole, and well, and strong. (Mark 3:5, Luke 6:10, Matthew 12:13)

I want you to imagine how it felt to the people Jesus spoke to. They were amazed. They were well. They were free. All the burden they had carried, all the misery they lived in, all the hurtful things other people had said – it was gone. They were free!

Part of what makes these stories of Jesus so important is that people weren’t just healed. But they were able to lay down the burden of their illness. They could be proud again. And they were free!

This is so much fun, I want to do it one more time with you. This time, you don’t have to stand up. You don’t have to reach out your arm. This time, we’re just going to close our eyes.

Not being able to see was really common in Jesus’ time. An infection, an accident, a war wound, all the dirt and grit flying around, a spark flying out of the fire. Anything could happen. And nothing could be done. They’d be blind.

There are many stories like this. Many people with no vision came to Jesus. He met them by the road side.

And what Jesus did was different with each of them. Some people he told to go and wash and soak their eyes. Some people he anointed. Some he just touched. But for each person, the moment would come, when Jesus would say, “Open your eyes!”

And they could see. They could see the glory and the beauty of the world all around them. They could lift up their eyes, and feel the strength of the God who built them. They could see the expressions on other peoples’ faces, and get glimpses into their hearts. The gift of sight is a wonderful thing, isn’t it?

It’s so simple, the way the gospel tells it. All the misery, all the hopelessness, all the fear we live with. All the fear, and the depression, and the pain.

And Jesus says: “Stand up. Stretch out your arm. Open your eyes.”

That’s all I’m going to say today.

Because of who he was, because of his relationship with his Father, Jesus was able to turn any place into a house of mercy. It didn’t matter where he was.

When we pray, we are asking for Jesus to turn wherever we are into a house of mercy – a place of healing, a place of forgiveness, a place of freedom and hope.

There is no place that Jesus isn’t willing to go. There is no one who Jesus isn’t willing to stop whatever he’s doing, and sit down, and listen to their problem, and say the word that will set them free.

Jesus loves us. That’s the bottom line — Jesus loves us.

Why don’t you take that word home with you today?

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