By Rev. Heather Blais, Rector
About a hundred years ago, some archeologists discovered the remains of a second-century healing sanctuary and pool with five porticos. It’s located in the Muslim Quarter of Jerusalem’s Old City, and about 50 yards inside the Lion’s Gate, which used to be known as the Sheep Gate, because it was the spot where sheep were brought to the Temple for sacrifice. The location was identified as the Pools of Bethesda, which we hear about in today’s Gospel. The Pools of Bethesda are simply a series of reservoirs and medicinal pools held up by columns and roofs.
While the primary purpose of these pools was to collect rainwater for use at the Temple, it also became known as a place of healing. The blind, lame, and paralyzed would gather around the pool and wait until the waters were stirred up by an angel. They waited in faith and hope. There was a common held belief that the first one into the water once it was stirred up would be healed.
The man we meet in today’s gospel had been ill for thirty-eight years. Maybe he was born ill, or maybe he had become ill later in life. Either way, the text implies he had been waiting at the Pools of Bethesda for a long time. Jesus approached him, and asked: “Do you want to be made well?” The man did not say yes, nor did he say no. Instead, he responded somewhat indifferently, as though he had already lost his chance for healing that day. The man answered: “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.”
In other words, this man was in it alone. He didn’t have any friends or family to carry him into the pool. As a result, someone else always reached the pool before him. There would be no miracle for him.
Interestingly enough, Jesus could have taken that moment to walk away from the man and towards someone else. Someone less apathetic and indifferent towards their own healing. After all, how many other people were at the Pool of Bethesda that day who might have answered Jesus’ question with a resounding yes? But no. Jesus didn’t go to someone else. He didn’t go to the person with the most faith, or to the person who will most likely become a follower, or to the person most ready in their soul to receive healing. Instead, he heals the man who responds to Jesus’ question with a complaint. The same man who in subsequent verses will turn Jesus’ into the religious authorities for healing him on the Sabbath. As commentator, Elisabeth Johnson writes, “The man healed in this story is perhaps the least willing and the least grateful of all the people Jesus heals in John’s Gospel.”
Jesus responds to the man’s indifference by telling him to, “‘Stand up, take your mat and walk.’ At once the man was made well, and he took up his mat and began to walk.” For those of us that place a high value on fairness, this story will disappoint, and possibly madden us. For those of us that place a high value on grace, this story is full of promise and hope. This story reminds us that life isn’t always fair, and that is a pretty darn good thing. Because instead there is grace. By the grace of God, Christ will meet us where we are again and again and again. We don’t have to be deemed good enough or worthy, because in Christ we are all deemed good enough and worthy. Which means we can all know wholeness and wellness in and through Christ.
This story makes me wonder: What would you say if you woke up one morning, and found Jesus standing next to you, asking, “Do you want to be made well?” There are days we say we want to be made well, and there are days we actually mean it with every ounce of our being. When Jesus meets the paralyzed man, he is so apathetic, he can’t even bring himself to say he wants healing.
How many of you have ever made a New Year’s Resolution about your health and wellness? Maybe you wanted to lose thirty pounds, or stop eating so much sugar, or give up drinking or smoking. Maybe you wanted to get more fit by going to the gym more regularly, or maybe you wanted to exercise more to stop chronic pain issues. At some point in our lives, we have likely all made such a goal. Sometimes we succeed in meeting the goal, and sometimes, maybe more often, we fall off track and fail to meet our goal. Afterall, we fail enough that there is an entire commercial industry, featuring hardcore workouts and crazy diets, that might bring the immediate results we want, but in the long run don’t help us stay on the path to wellness and wholeness. Because in truth, the path to wellness and wholeness does not begin with our outer life, it begins with our inner life.
Because in truth, the path to wellness and wholeness does not begin with our outer life, it begins with our inner life.
As followers of Jesus, we recognize the only thing that can make us whole, that can lead us to wellness, is a relationship with Christ. When we engage in relationship with Christ, we start the journey towards wellness and wholeness. As we talked about last week, a relationship with Christ requires that we dare to be vulnerable enough to surrender ourselves to God each day. In the intimacy of that relationship, we can answer Jesus’ question: Yes, Lord, we want to be made well. We know we will be made well in our relationship with you.
And what I love about this particular healing story, is that the recipient of God’s grace wasn’t even fully ready for it. He was simply willing to remain in God’s presence, even if he was indifferent to his own wellness. Which means even when we are indifferent to our own wellness and wholeness, God is with us and in us, nudging us towards wellness and wholeness. This week, I invite you to pray and reflect on the question Jesus asks the paralyzed man; the same question he asks each of us: “Do you want to be made well?” Amen.
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