5.9.10 sermon notes
The other day I sat out on our back deck on a particularly windy, but sunny, afternoon, enjoying the nice weather. I happened to look up and notice some birds chatting with each other up on a branch. They seemed to be devising some sort of plan that ended with one of them communicating to the other, “I’m going to go over there for a while. You stay RIGHT here. Don’t move.” Because that bird did not move. The wind was shaking the branch more than most of us would be able to handle. But this little bird held on, determined to stay the course it had set before it.
And as I sat out there watching this bird, I thought about this text from John, the man sitting by the pool at Bethesda, and the kind of determination he exhibited. He was determined to stay the course of healing that he had embarked upon, enough so that Jesus could tell he had been there a long time. We tend to prize this quality in people, don’t we? I am pretty sure “Determination” is one of those words they put in bold type with those motivational prints you can get at the mall. But is determination always good? Or can it lead to narrowness of vision and possibilities?
We are told that the man at Bethesda had been ailing for 38 years. When you consider the shorter life spans of our biblical friends, it is likely this man has been plagued by illness since he was a child. We get no background story on him, and perhaps that makes sense. At this time and place in history, illness, whether physical or psychological tended to cut one off from their community. Even close relatives and friends would not want to associate with someone who culture had determined was unclean due to an illness that was brought about by some sin. Illness was not just terrible for the physical and emotional pain it caused, but people bore the extra burden of having no community to help care for them or support them.
So this nameless, isolated man has been waiting by the pool at Bethesda for a long time. The legend was that from time to time an angel would come and trouble the waters there, and the first person in the waters after that happened would be cured of whatever ailed them. So you can imagine the lines. You can imagine the masses of broken and injured and blind and lame and hurting people, unwelcome in the temple (which was just around the corner). You can imagine many abandoned by their friends and family, camped out, waiting for this moment, for the waters to stir, and then the chaos as everyone seeks to be the first in the water. It sounds horrible to me. Such a rollercoaster of anticipation and hope and then despair. And this man had been experiencing this over and over and over again. I think he had good reason to be a little snarky with Jesus when he asked if he wanted to be made well.
We don’t know his exact ailment, only that it prevented him from walking on his own. He watched and waited and hoped that someone, one of these days, would come by at the right moment to help him into the waters. He spent all of his time and energy waiting for that magic alignment of events to heal him, to save him. He was so determined to be healed by that pool of water in Bethesda, that he never considered anything else. He certainly never took time to hear about this new teacher and healer in town from Nazareth. Remember that the man has no idea who Jesus is anywhere in this exchange at all. The man never asks Jesus for healing, and he never gives him credit for the healing after. This is indeed a strange miracle story.
And here we are in May of 2010. We may no longer place much stock in magic pools of water, but we are no strangers to the need for healing: brokenness in our bodies, our minds, our spirits, our relationships. And this week alone – from devastating floods in Nashville, to would-be terrorist attacks in Times Square, to an oil spill in the Gulf – reveals the great need for healing in our world. We long for healing, and we may find ourselves at moments like the man at the pool at Bethesda – so determined that THIS drug, THAT counselor, THIS war strategy, THAT new law is going to fix everything. So we spend all of our money and energy and our time focusing on that one thing, missing the other possible opportunities for healing that may be out there, possibly even ones that we can help bring about.
So, what happens when healing doesn’t come the way we expected? Jesus’ response is not one of forgiveness or praise for the showing of great faith, as in other healings, but a command: “Stand up, take your mat and walk” (John 5:8). In the end, the man is healed by his willingness to respond to Jesus’ command rather than the magical waters of the pool (Michaela Bruzzese).
When we place all of our hope in one thing – this rare moment when an angel stirs the waters – when we are so determined that this is our only source of healing, we miss opportunities for healing and wholeness that might have been there the whole time. And then we make excuses for why we still suffer. And sometimes, I wonder if we kind of like having something to complain about. Maybe it’s easier than the hard work of having to be in real relationship with people, which comes when we live into the wholeness God in Christ can offer. Perhaps the isolating reality of brokenness is harder to give up than we thought. Because for this man, healing was right in his hands the whole time: Stand up, take your mat and walk, Jesus says. Was there some magic in the fact that Jesus said it? Or could the man simply have gotten up and walked away years ago, but he just never tried? We really don’t know.
And I must add an aside and a personal struggle here: We all have people we know and love who struggle with debilitating diseases who really cannot pick up their mats and go. And with them in mind, this story can be very painful – implying that all anyone needs to do is suck it up and go. I don’t think that is the point of this story, but I do think healing stories in the Bible are problematic for us who have to watch or experience incurable suffering. I don’t have an answer for it other than to say that I believe that God is with those who suffer. And I believe that healing can come even when there is no cure.
But for all of the very real physical and emotional challenges many of our brothers and sisters face, we do know people who simply choose to remain isolated and broken. And perhaps in our spiritual lives, we too easily take the isolated couch-potato approach to faith.
As people seeking to be faithful, how are we like the man at the pool at Bethesda? What are we waiting for? What excuses do we make? What would happen if we just picked up our mats and walked? We become numbed to the call of Jesus Christ to serve God and serve the hurting because we don’t have time. We come home after work and collapse in front of the TV until it is time to go to bed and repeat the process all over again. Weekends are when we want to get out of town or do something else. So we live life to the minimum.
Do we really want the healing God can offer in our lives? We know that to get up and follow Jesus will involve us in people’s lives in ways we’re not always 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. It means to work our tails off, often doing behind the scenes work that is tedious and overlooked. It means being in true community with people who drive us crazy with their ideas and opinions that are different from ours and therefore clearly wrong. It means serving our neighbors not because they deserve it, but because we are Christ’s disciples.
We see so much brokenness – so many areas of our lives, our communities, our world, that are in need of healing. We look to our laws, our committees, our religious leaders to fix things for us. But are we looking for healing in all the wrong places? Jesus doesn’t give us easy answers, but he does know that we do nothing to further the kingdom of God if we just sit waiting for things to happen. So he says to the man at Bethesda, and he says to us today: Get up, and go.