May 26, 2019, 6th Sunday of Easter Year C, John 5:1-9
In reading our gospel for today, we once again find that perhaps Jesus could benefit by taking an Introduction to Pastoral Care class as he seems a tad insensitive in his interaction with the man at the pool by the Sheep Gate in Jerusalem. Without even introducing himself or engaging in any other social niceties , the first thing he says to him upon seeing him there is, “Do you want to be made well?” Sounds just a bit harsh, doesn’t it? Maybe he did know him at least a bit since the reading says that Jesus knew the man had been there a long time. Or maybe since the man had been ill for thirty-eight years it is likely that Jesus saw him at that pool every time he had gone to Jerusalem during his lifetime so he felt like he knew him and could call him out.
Still, it seems as if Jesus is being a bit rough on the poor man who has been ill for so many years. Thirty-eight to be exact. That’s a long time. Especially if he was hanging out by the pool for much of it since medical care in Jesus’ day wasn’t even anywhere close to what we have available to us today, so they had pretty limited options for where to go or what to do for treatment. In a post from this week on the Political Theology blog page, Fritz Wendt shared that around the year fifty, Pliny the Elder made a list of the currently available medical treatments for human illnesses of the day. They included horns of a stag, heads of mice, eyes of crab, and the livers of frogs. While I’m sure these were cutting edge treatments for their day, they pale in comparison to what we have access to today, don’t they? And as they probably weren’t very effective treatments even in Jesus’ day, the pool at the Sheep Gate was basically a last resort for the blind, lame, and paralyzed who gathered there with few or no other options for their healing. This was their final hope.
However, instead of expressing compassion for the man’s situation, Jesus sounds almost accusatory, doesn’t he? “Do you want to be made well?” After thirty-eight years who wouldn’t want to be? Seems like sort of a silly question, no? And yet, the man doesn’t answer with the emphatic “Yes” we would expect. Instead, he replies, “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.”
Legend or tradition said that an angel visited the pool at random times and stirred up the waters so that the first person who make their way into the waters after the angel could be healed. However, the man was so lame he could never make it before anyone else. And he says that he has no one at all to help him to get there quickly enough to be first in line. So, it seems he is resigned to this being his sad existence forever. Simply being an ill beggar lying helplessly by the side of the pool all alone. He seems to have lost all hope of ever being made well or having his situation or circumstances change. It would seem that the man’s situation feels worse than hopeless to him and so he can’t even see being made well as an option for him.
We’ve probably all found ourselves in similar emotional and mental circumstances in life. Stuck in a bad situation and unable to see that anything can or will happen to change it. Maybe the circumstance we find ourselves in relates to our health like the man ill for thirty-eight years. Or maybe in our case it is unemployment or a relationship or a financial or spiritual situation or any of a number of things where we find ourselves unable to see any good possible as an outcome for us because our supply of hope has dried up as our situation seems to never change or just gets progressively worse and worse. Like the man sick for thirty-eight years we find ourselves defeated and demoralized. We find ourselves stuck where we are and we give up on even trying for another outcome other than the one we find ourselves experiencing.
In her latest video for the Makers Have a Little Faith series called, “I wish I had a hall pass”, Lutheran pastor and author, Nadia Bolz-Weber, tells of how at one point in her life she was a stay at home mother with a baby and a toddler. Exhausted and sick a lot, she started to think and, even hope, that something was seriously wrong with her so she could get a break from the situation she found herself struggling and suffering in. But after ending up in her doctor’s office for the third time in six weeks, the doctor told her, “Nadia, nothing’s wrong with you. You just need to deal with your life.”
While she didn’t want to hear what the doctor had to say to her – so much so that she never returned to his office again – she said was grateful that he wouldn’t play along with the story she told herself about her situation. He called her out on the fact that the story she told herself and had convinced herself that she was stuck in because she could see no hope or way out, wasn’t actually her reality. Whether she wanted to admit it or not, she needed that doctor to call her out of her stuckness and to point her to the fact that another reality was possible for her than the one she thought would never change.
I think that is what Jesus is up to here with the man who had been ill for thirty-eight years as well. Jesus isn’t being cruel or insensitive to the man’s reality. He isn’t insinuating that the man’s situation is his own fault or the result of something he has done or failed to do. He is simply pointing out that the situation he thinks he can’t break free from isn’t the whole story or what defines him. Instead, he simply invites him to, “Stand up, take your mat and walk.” He invites him to experience the different reality that he knows is possible for him. He invites him to see that wellness, wholeness and freedom are possible. He invites him to the way of new life and healing that stuck in his situation he couldn’t see as options. Jesus calls him out of the perceived reality he feels stuck in as he says, “Stand up, take your mat and walk,” and he sets him free to live fully once again.
We all find ourselves in situations in life where we feel stuck and without hope for the possibility of change. And it is in those moments we too need Jesus to call us out and remind us that healing and new life are possible for us too. It may not seem it and we might not be able to even imagine how, but like the man ill for thirty-eight years it is. Notice that unlike in other places where Jesus heals people he doesn’t tell the man that it is his faith that has made him well. Because clearly here the man doesn’t demonstrate any faith and yet at the mere invitation of Jesus we read he is made well, takes his mat, and begins to walk into the new life Jesus offers to him. It isn’t about what the man does for himself, it is what Jesus does for him.
Like the man ill for thirty-eight years we might find ourselves so stuck in the circumstances of our lives we might not find ourselves able to even scrape together a bit of faith to believe that Jesus can make us well. And yet even there, Jesus calls us out to the possibility of healing and new life. Even there Jesus is always calling us out of those stuck and hopeless places and inviting us to be set free, to be made well, to be made new. He is there calling us out to tell us that our stuckness and our hopelessness need not define us as Jesus wants more for us than that and calls us to it. He wants wellness. He wants wholeness. He wants new life. And because of that he will never stop asking us, “Do you want to be made well?” Not to blame us for the hopeless situations we find ourselves stuck in, but to call us out of them and invite us to be set free to find healing so that we might live anew in and with him. Amen.