The Saint John’s Bible, John Frontispiece: The Word Made Flesh. Donald Jackson, 2002
Monday, May 18th
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. 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 Jews that it was Jesus who had made him well. Therefore the Jews 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 the Jews 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 5:1-14
In John Claypool’s iconic book Tracks of a Fellow Struggler, he penned a phrase that has always moved me; he describes being “initiated into the fraternity of the sorrowing.” In these strange, difficult days, I believe that most of us, along with a majority of people in the world, would agree that we, too, have joined those ranks on a level we never anticipated. Any of us who believed in pat answers or easy solutions have been knocked from our proverbial high-horses by a host of new mysteries and unanswered questions. One of the most perplexing conundrums we face with this novel virus is its utterly random, capricious behavior, affecting the old and young, healthy and sick, doctors and patients, rich and poor. We residents of modern western civilization, who felt so invincible just a few months ago, may visualize today’s gospel story with just a bit more empathy and awareness. I know I do. If you were not a member before, welcome to the fraternity!
This third “sign” of John takes us to a pool in Jerusalem, a pool that has been known by many names — Bethesda, Bethsaida, Bethzatha, Siloam, and simply the “sheep pool” (This was due to its close proximity to Jerusalem’s “sheep gate”.). The literal translation of the Aramaic word is “house of mercy.” Along with the mystery of the name, there was for some time a question about whether such a pool actually existed, with some wondering whether it was an invention of John’s imagination, with the five colonnades being merely symbolic. There were no known examples of pentagonal pools in antiquity, and some critics of John and the Bible took that absence as an argument against the historicity of the Bible and John’s Gospel. However, the identity and site of this pool were finally established to the satisfaction of most scholars, when, in 1888, in connection with the repair of Jerusalem’s Church of St. Anne, an ancient reservoir was found. In addition, a faded fresco on one of the old walls of the church pictures an angel ‘troubling’ the water. After a century, The Biblical Archaeology Society identified this pool as the one mentioned in John’s Gospel.
The historical and archaeological questions have troubled scholars for years, but the theological questions are just as puzzling – Why did Jesus enact this healing? And why did John see this as a sign of Jesus as Messiah? The first question has so many corollaries. First of all, there was a large crowd of people desperately awaiting the chance to be the beneficiaries of healing if, and only if, they could be the first in the pool after the troubling of the water. (How that idea came into being is anyone’s guess. However, the early Christian author Tertullian , born in 155 CE, seems to believe it to be true, because in his treatise, On Baptism V, he writes: “An angel, by his intervention, was wont to stir the pool at Bethsaida. They who were complaining of ill health used to watch for him; for whoever was the first to descend into these waters, after his washing ceased to complain.”) Needless to say, the origin of the legend is a mystery. Nevertheless, around that pool would have been one of the saddest gatherings imaginable. And of all these cases, Jesus chooses this one man to heal.
The sick man himself was an enigma. He declared that he had been there for thirty-eight years. Thirty-eight years! Thirty-eight days would have seemed long for most people. But this sad man had been there for a lifetime. What’s more, the man didn’t approach Jesus; Jesus approached him. To make matters more difficult, insightful commentators, including Fred Craddock and Will Willimon, invite us to take note that there’s not one word in this passage about the sick man’s faith; not one hint that he believed in Jesus or anything else except the magic water in the pool. And, if we read just a little further, we see that he is never recorded as being grateful for being healed. In fact, when the religious authorities informed him that healing and mat-carrying were both illegal on the Sabbath, and asked him, “Who healed you?”, he first claimed to not know, eventually identifying Jesus as the perpetrator: “Jesus broke the Sabbath laws, not me!” That is the man Jesus healed.
Of all the mysteries of this text, the one that catches my attention is the question Jesus asked the man, “Do you want to be healed?” At first blush, it seems like such an obvious question. Just pondering that a bit, I’ve thought some of the strange questions that people sometimes ask: You walk into your office, drenched from head to foot, and someone asks, “Is it raining outside?” The phone rings in the middle of the night, and the caller queries, “I didn’t wake you, did I?”(And just as crazily, we answer something like, ”Oh no, don’t worry about it . . . we were just getting the dishes done!”) Your spouse calls to you from the other side of the house, again and again, each time louder, until she finally comes to find you, discovers you with your cell phone held to your ear, and asks, “Oh, are you on the phone?” Or how about this one? I’ve asked it a few times: “Is there something wrong, officer?” Or, another… You, along with three other people, are crawling on the floor, searching for a contact lens, and as certain as sunrise, the next person who walks up is apt to say: “Did you lose something?”
I guess we have all heard (and asked) our share of obvious questions at one time or another. And doesn’t Jesus’ question today sound a bit ludicrous? “Do you want to be healed?” He asked that question of a man who had been sick for 38 years. However, it is a penetrating question, perhaps an important question for us . . . Do we want to be healed, really? I mean, do we truly want to be rid of the unhealthy parts of our lives?
In his book, Space and Light, Marius von Senden tells the story of the first people in the world to undergo successful cataract surgery. All of them, blind for years, suddenly received their sight. Their stories about the experience were wondrous and moving, but some quite sad. They described the world the way a newborn baby or an alien might upon seeing it all for the first time. One newly-sighted girl was shown some photographs and then some paintings by her mother. “Why do they put those dark marks all over them?” she asked. “Those aren’t dark marks,” her mother responded, “they are shadows.” A second girl was so stunned by the radiance of the world that she kept her eyes shut for two weeks. When she finally opened them, she saw only a field of light against which everything seemed to be in motion. She could not distinguish objects, but gazed at everything around her, saying over and over again, “Oh God! How beautiful!” But not everything was beautiful for these folks. Unable to judge distances, they reached out for things far away or cracked their shins on pieces of furniture they perceived only as patches of color. The world turned out to be bigger than they had thought – bigger and infinitely more complex. Unable to control it, many fell into depression. Seeing themselves in a mirror for the first time, some became terribly self-conscious about their appearance, while others refused to go out at all. The distressed father of one young woman wrote to her surgeon that his daughter had taken to shutting her eyes when she walked around the house, that she seemed the happiest when she pretended to be blind again. A fifteen-year-old boy finally demanded to be taken back to the local home for the blind. “I can’t stand it anymore!” he said. “If things aren’t altered, I will tear my eyes out!” He wanted to tear his eyes out? After being rescued from a world of darkness and presented with a world of color, depth, movement and marvelous sights? Why? For some it was just too much – too much to see, to do, to be. It was better before in the darkness – smaller, quieter, familiar, safer.
All of this is to ask, how is this time helping us to see?
A Time of Reflection and Prayer
Life is continual formation. Many elements are transformative — relationships, a sense of passion/purpose, learning, spirituality/prayer, joy, suffering, healing or lack of healing… Can you identify the things forming your life right now?
Is there something — physical, emotional, psychic, spiritual — in your life that needs healing? Ask God for awareness, strength, and courage to address that need.
As a people we are enduring an intense time of change, individually and collectively. Who are we now called to be? How can God’s grace and love guide our formative process?
A Poetic Guide for Prayer: William E. Stafford’s “A Ritual to Read to Each Other”
If you don’t know the kind of person I am and I don’t know the kind of person you are a pattern that others made may prevail in the world and following the wrong god home we may miss our star.
For there is many a small betrayal in the mind, a shrug that lets the fragile sequence break sending with shouts the horrible errors of childhood storming out to play through the broken dike.
And as elephants parade holding each elephant’s tail, but if one wanders the circus won’t find the park, I call it cruel and maybe the root of all cruelty to know what occurs but not recognize the fact.
And so I appeal to a voice, to something shadowy, a remote important region in all who talk: though we could fool each other, we should consider— lest the parade of our mutual life get lost in the dark.
For it is important that awake people be awake, or a breaking line may discourage them back to sleep; the signals we give — yes or no, or maybe — should be clear: the darkness around us is deep.