'After Jesus healed the son of the official in Capernaum, 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.'
--John 5: 1-9
Do you want to lose weight fast? Then you need to get on Nutrisystem. Do you need more energy? Drink a 5-Hour Energy and get through your day. Do you want to get rid of wrinkles and look younger? Use Oil of Olay and take 20 years off. Everywhere we look, on tv, in magazines, on the Internet, someone is peddling a magic product to us, telling us that we need it to make our lives easier, to make them better. If I could get "fill in the blank" everything would be ok.
If it works for Marie Osmond it MUST be real!
It seems there is nothing new under the sun. In our reading from the Fourth Gospel this week we hear of a pool in Jerusalem called Beth-Zatha, which means House of Olives. This pool, one of many mikvahs (ritual baths) around Palestine, was all of those products rolled into one. The Jewish historian Josephus said that pools like Beth-Zatha were common means of renewal and healing in the ancient world. Every so often the pool would bubble up, and people would push past each other to be the first to get into the pool. It was believed, according to Josephus, that an angel came down, touched the water, and caused it to bubble, and the first person to get into that bubbly holy water would receive the angel's healing grace. If you could get into that pool, everything would be ok. What folks didn't know, Josephus pointed out, was that beneath the pool was a subterranean stream that would disturb the pool, causing it to occasionally bubble up. There was no angel. The pool had no healing properties.
A mikvah like Beth-Zatha near the Basilica of Saint Ann in Jerusalem.
Most people, however, did not know about the underground stream, including the man we meet in our Gospel story. For 38 years he has been coming to Beth-Zatha. For 38 years he has tried to get into the pool to cure his ills. For 38 years the people have pushed past him, trampled on him, and taken away his hope of healing. If he can only get into the pool, everything will be ok.
It just so happens that Jesus is hanging around Beth-Zatha at the time of day that the man is there. In an unconventional move, this sick man does not seek Jesus out, neither does anyone take him to Jesus. Instead, Jesus takes notice of him, lying there on his mat, looking longingly at the pool, and hoping for that magical solution that will turn his life around.
Now if you or I had been there we likely would have shared Josephus' information with the man, told him that he's a fool to think that a bubbling pool, or any other magical product, could heal him. It's a silly superstition. But Jesus does not give the man a lecture about the properties of the pool, rather he asks the man a question: do you want to be made well?
An artist's depiction of Jesus and the paralytic by Beth-Zatha.
Isn’t it obvious? Of course he does, he’s been sick for almost four decades! Yet his response to Jesus is not really an answer to the question is it? His never says, "Yes! I want to be made well!" His response is more of a retelling of his story. So does he really even want that healing if he cannot give Jesus a straight answer? And what does it mean that he himself did not seek out Jesus for help? Maybe he is just content with being in this helpless and hopeless state.
Two weeks ago I was grabbing lunch at a local Subway (Eat Fresh!) after church. I noticed, as I walked up, a woman sitting against the brick wall. She never looked up or spoke to me, and she had no sign asking for help, but it was clear that she was homeless. Something inside me said that, in spite of the fact that she was not verbalizing her need, I should offer something. I asked if she would like some lunch, and like the man in the story who doesn’t give Jesus a direct answer, she didn’t say yes or no, but rather, “Are you serious?” I said yes, and after a brief conversation, I took her inside to grab a bite.
The man in the story never asks Jesus for anything, neither did the woman at Subway ask me. Yet in both cases the need was there, and the grace of God broke through. It was unprovoked grace, to be sure, but it was grace, nonetheless, and in both cases a miracle occurred.
Unfortunately, the Sunday lectionary cut off our Gospel story before its conclusion. What happened after Jesus healed the man? Did he go around telling folks that the pool was bupkus? Did he show himself to the priests, or go about dancing in the temple and praising God? Nope. He just goes about his day. He never says thanks to Jesus, and when the religious authorities chastise the man for carrying his mat on the sabbath he throws Jesus under the proverbial bus. Observe:
' So the Jewish authorities 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. Later Jesus found him in the temple and said to him, ‘See, you have been made well! Do not sin any more, so that nothing worse happens to you.’ The man went away and told the Jewish authorities that it was Jesus who had made him well. Therefore they started persecuting Jesus, because he was doing such things on the sabbath. But Jesus answered them, ‘My Father is still working, and I also am working.’ For this reason they were seeking all the more to kill him, because he was not only breaking the sabbath, but was also calling God his own Father, thereby making himself equal to God.'
--John 5: 10-18
There’s no indication that this man’s faith was restored, that his life was transformed, or that he changed in any way because of his encounter with Jesus. He seems ungrateful. That’s a bummer, isn’t it? But it’s a good reminder for us that Jesus meets us, even when we don't meet him, that not only can miracles be performed independently of faith but that miracles don’t always produce faith. Nevertheless, the grace of God is at work.
I had another situation with a person in need when I lived in New York City. I was headed to dinner, and when I reached the corner of the block, at the end of which was my restaurant, I was met by a man asking for money, who told me the story of how he had lost his job and was just trying to get enough change for something from McDonald’s. I dug into my pocket and gave him what I had. I walked down to the end of the block to the restaurant. There would be a wait, so I went outside to make a phone call. When I got out there the man was standing there on the corner. He saw me…and gave me the exact same speech. I said, “I gave you something five minutes ago!” He paused and said, “Oh! Can you give me any more?” “You took all I had,” I said, and he walked away dejected. One might say ungrateful.
There’s an old slogan that says “faith works miracles,” and yes, so very often that’s the case, it’s why Jesus frequently says, “Your faith has made you well.” Even when everything else is falling apart, our faith can sustain us and work miracles in us. But this story? That notion utterly breaks down with this story. The man doesn’t seem to have a strong faith (or any at all), yet Jesus comes to him anyway. The man doesn’t show any gratitude for what Jesus does for him, but Jesus doesn’t seem to mind, and he certainly does not take the man's healing away from him.
Sometimes we might feel that we mustn’t help someone because they don’t appear genuine. And sometimes we might regret helping someone who seems to be ungrateful. But that, brothers and sisters, makes it about us, not about the person in need, and not about God and the miraculous work of God's grace. It is God who works the miracles, and neither the level of faith nor gratitude is a precondition for God doing so. This story threatens a theology that would carefully control God’s activities by making whether or not we allow God 's grace to work through us contingent upon the faith and gratitude of those in need. Claiming that we should help others based on these preconditions is as foolhardy as thinking that some magic product, even bubbly angel water, will cure all our ills. Because that, brothers and sisters, is how grace works. God’s gifts are freely bestowed.
So maybe the next time you see someone in need you won’t think about how faithful they are, nor be disappointed if they don’t praise and thank you for what you do. Because the truth is that whenever you allow your desire for change and God’s transformative power to co-operate through you, a miracle occurs. Do you want to be made well? It’s not just a question for those in positions like the man by the pool. It’s also for those of us who have the means to help make someone well. It is an invitation for us, as well. Do you want to change? Do you want to be the change you desire? Do you want to effect change for others and for society? If so, we must let Jesus show up and do what he does and let the grace of God flow. We must let go of our misgivings and concerns about others’ faith or gratitude, and then, by the grace of a God, miracles will happen.