I invite you to follow along with me as I read this scripture. It is found on page 96 in the New Testament, which means near the end of the pew Bible. I will read John 5:1-13.
After this there was a festival of the Jews, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem. Now in Jerusalem by the Sheep Gate there is a pool, called in Hebrew Beth-zatha, which has five porticoes. In these lay many invalids—blind, lame, and paralyzed. One man was there who had been ill for thirty-eight years. When Jesus saw him lying there and knew that he had been there a long time, he said to him, “Do you want to be made well?” The sick man answered him, “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.” Jesus said to him, “Stand up, take your mat and walk.” At once the man was made well, and he took up his mat and began to walk. Now that day was a sabbath. So the Jews said to the man who had been cured, “It is the sabbath; it is not lawful for you to carry your mat.” But he answered them, “The man who made me well said to me, ‘Take up your mat and walk.’” They asked him, “Who is the man who said to you, ‘Take it up and walk’?” Now the man who had been healed did not know who it was, for Jesus had disappeared in the crowd that was there.
This scripture is so rich that I could spend an hour giving background info, starting with why there isn’t a verse 4. We would all learn things—some of them even interesting—and although the knowledge might be good for us, it wouldn’t make us better. A lecture is not a sermon. Nor is a sermon supposed to be a multiple choice question, but that’s what you’re getting today! You see, a good sermon is supposed to have one main point, but you don’t all need the same point. So I’m asking you to listen for yourself in the story. Listen for which message you need to hear. I’m going to give you four options. I pray that you will find yourself and God in these words.
Let’s start with the man in need of healing. We don’t know what is wrong with him, only that he has been ill for 38 years and the illness or injury affects his legs and his ability to move. You see, the folklore around this particular pool is that an angel of the Lord would occasionally come and stir up the water, and the first person to get into the water would be healed. But this man has never been first. We don’t know how long he has been coming, and whether it is faith or force of habit that brings him each day. We just know that he has been ill for a long time.
And so have some of us, emotionally. Many of us have been wounded in spirit. Maybe, like the man in our story, you feel crippled, maimed, lame in the feet or heart. Perhaps it is a condition you have struggled with since birth—a need that has gone unmet for most of your life. Perhaps you were wounded or injured along the way. Maybe an illness of body, mind, or spirit left you limping. Maybe a loss of joy, security, relationship, or faith has maimed you. Maybe someone you believed in let you down, or a disagreement caused distance where you needed connection, and you are left stumbling in uncertainty. At the very least, you refrain from putting weight on the sprained joint; you limp along with strained connecting tissue. You’ve been coming to this pool, this place of healing—for weeks, months, years! And you’re still waiting for your miracle.
Then Jesus comes on the scene. The man in the story doesn’t ask Jesus for anything. He doesn’t even know who Jesus is. But Jesus sees him and somehow knows the man has been ill for 38 years—most of a lifespan, in Jesus’ time—so Jesus takes the initiative and asks the man, “Do you want to be made well?”
Now, that’s a silly question, isn’t it? “No, I just come to the miracle pool every day to work on my tan.” But instead of answering, the man explains why he has not been healed. “I don’t have anybody to help me get into the water.” Now a lot depends on how you hear his answer. Was the man’s response to Jesus an explanation or an excuse?
Let’s assume first that it is an excuse. “It’s not my fault, you see. There’s nobody to help me get into the water. Everybody else is faster than me and beats me to it. I’m not to blame.” Excuses come in really handy when we’re afraid of the miracle. We’re afraid of the changes that a miracle will bring. We’re afraid of having to bend, having to compromise, for fear that bending too much might make us break. We’re afraid of having to forgive. We’re afraid of being wrong and we’re afraid of being right. We’re afraid of being hurt again. So we start to move toward the water, we hobble in that direction, but we let others get there ahead of us. And we sit back down, safe in our woundedness for another day.
Or we find ourselves caught up in the race for the miracle, believing somehow that we must be first, fastest, biggest, best in order for God to love us, in order for God to deem us worthy of healing. We think we have to earn the miracle by having the right beliefs, the most sophisticated perspectives, the most over-worked and worn-out soul. So we race for the cure, and when someone else beats us to God, we sit back down, stuck in our woundedness for another day.
Excuses come in really handy when we want the miracle, but we don’t want God to stir the water. The Greek word translated as “stirred” literally means to shake things up, to unsettle, to disturb, or to trouble. I don’t know about you, but I don’t like this image very much. I don’t want troubled waters. I want a bridge over troubled waters. I prefer “He leadeth me beside the still waters.” But often healing only comes after God shakes things up, and that’s scary, so we make our excuses.
But what if the man in our story isn’t making excuses? What if he truly sees no other way? You see, in his time, “Physical symptoms—the disease—were of little concern. The main concern was with the social dislocation—the illness—associated with the physical symptoms. . . .To be an invalid was to be a social outcast, a beggar, and probably homeless.” And 38 years is a really long time to be without community. He has no one—he is completely alone in the world—because surely if he had people who cared about him, they would help him get to his healing. He longs for it but can’t get there.
Some of us know the feeling. We want the healing. We want our spirits to be free from the burdens we carry, but we truly cannot see a way through our problem or the way out of our predicament. We feel so alone, with no one to help. To us God says, “I see you. I see the pain you’re in. I see how long you’ve carried it. And I’m here to help.” I wish I could tell you that the healing your heart needs will happen as quickly as it did for the man in our story. I wish I could tell you how long God’s healing will take. I can’t. I can’t even tell you what that healing will look like. But I can tell you that Jesus didn’t go to the person at that pool with the most faith. Jesus didn’t ask who believed or who had the right answers. Jesus went to the person who needed him.
So maybe you are like the man in our story—either stuck in your woundedness because you see no way out, or stuck in your woundedness by choice. Or maybe you’re like the religious leaders in our story. Jesus says to the injured man, “Stand up, take your mat, and walk,” and at once the man is made well. Of course, what Jesus did is against the law. It is the Sabbath, and Jews are not allowed to work on the Sabbath. If the man had been in danger of dying, Jesus could heal him to save his life. But he’d been ill for 38 years—this was hardly an emergency! Then Jesus tells the man to carry his mat, which was also working on the Sabbath!
Now I have to warn us about somethings in the Gospel of John. The writer of this gospel talked about “the Jews” when he really meant specific groups of Jewish leaders. Because this criticism was expressed so broadly as “the Jews,” John’s Gospel has been used for centuries to further anti-Semitic attitudes and attacks—everything from “The Jews” were rigid and hypocritical to “The Jews” killed Jesus. Every time we see “the Jews” mentioned, especially in John, we have to be careful in how we interpret them. In this passage, the author is criticizing particular Jewish leaders because they cared more about the letter of the law than they did about mercy. They were very picky about what could be done on the Sabbath—what constitutes work, and what could be carried this far but no further.
It is easy for Christians to criticize these rules, but they existed for a reason. I’ve read that in Natchez, Mississippi, it is against the law for elephants to drink beer. An old Hollywood ordinance forbids driving more than 2000 sheep down Hollywood Boulevard at one time. Why? Because at some time, somebody gave beer to elephants, and somebody drove more than 2000 sheep down Hollywood Blvd. (I’m assuming these weren’t the same person.) If people could be trusted to act reasonably, we wouldn’t need such laws. I think maybe that’s part of how the Jewish leaders of Jesus’ day got their rules—because people, being people, couldn’t be trusted to just do the right thing. So they got legalistic about it. And it resulted, at times, with religious leaders getting so hung up on the letter of the law that the laws themselves became a burden. In this story, this means that they cannot see God at work because God wasn’t choosing to follow their understanding of how God should work.
Maybe this is you. Maybe you want a predictable God, a knowable God, a God who can be counted on to show up in this place and in this way. And we have a God who loves to show up in unexpected places and startling ways; a God who says Yes! You can worship me with choir and organ, and yes! you can worship me with guitar and drums; a God who says Yes! you can see me in the face of the poor, and yes! you can see me in the face of your opponent. We worship the God of yes! who troubles the water to bring healing. Maybe some of us have been trying to fit God into a box when God wants to fold out the box and turn it into a dance floor.
So have you found yourself yet? Are you the religious leader who wants a predictable God? Are you the wounded person who would rather die than change? Are you the wounded person who longs for change and can’t find a way? And if you’re none of these, if you’re not wounded, you have another option. You can be the community. You can help others get to the water. You can help others get their healing. You can surround the wounded and ill and say, “I got you! I’ll be your legs. I’ll be your hands. I’ll be your eyes and ears.”
That’s your multiple choice question for today. We’re all at the healing pool together. Who are you? And what do you need? You’re invited to lay down the burden of expectation, to lay down the burden of excuses, to lay down the burden of isolation. Healing is found in the water.
Wade in the water. Wade in the water, Children. Wade in the water. God’s gonna’ trouble the water.