1. After this there was a festival of the Jews, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem. 2. Now in Jerusalem by the Sheep Gate there is a pool, called in Hebrew Beth-zatha, which has five porticoes. 3. In these lay many invalids–blind, lame, and paralyzed. 5. One man was there who had been ill for thirty-eight years. 6. 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?” 7. 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.” 8. Jesus said to him, “Stand up, take your mat and walk.” 9. 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 NRSV
The pool at Beth-Zatha was a place where people believed they could be healed. Verse 4, not printed as part of the text in the NRSV or NIV, gives us some context. ” 3b. waiting for the stirring of the water, 4. for an angel of the Lord went down at certain seasons into the pool, and stirred up the water; whoever stepped in first after the stirring of the water was made well from whatever disease that person had.” (Verse 4 is a footnote because it is only found in later manuscripts and not in earlier, more reliable manuscripts.)
Like every story, there is much we can talk about in this text and in the subsequent verses where Jesus and the religious authorities are in conflict about this healing which occurs on the Sabbath. But I want to focus more narrowly on the exchange between Jesus and the sick man.
People went to this pool hoping to be healed. It must have been a place of both hope and desperation. Can you imagine going to that pool for 38 years? I wonder, was he there out of hope or out of desperation? Out of habit? Or because there was nothing else he could do?
Jesus asks him. “Do you want to be made well?” I have always thought this was an odd question. Why else would one go to the pool at Beth-Zatha? But as I have gotten older, I think I understand what’s behind that question. There is, for all of us, a certain comfort in the familiar. Even if the familiar is not a good situation. What if we make a change and things are worse? And sometimes, we can’t imagine life other than what we have always experienced. We don’t know how to live in a different body or a different circumstance. Can we make the adjustment?
What does it mean to be well? What is gained? And what may be lost? (If asking what might be lost seems odd to you- and it might- listening to disabled persons and learning about how they view themselves and their disability may be enlightening.)
This man, in John’s gospel does, it seems, want to be made well. What do you think about his response to Jesus’ question? “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.” Is he making excuses? Is he expressing his frustration? Is he simply telling Jesus about his reality?
Perhaps, those of us with ability and means need to listen and hear what he says, “I have no one to put me into the pool.” No one helps him. He has been coming to the pool for 38 years and no one helps him. He is sitting in a crowd, surrounded by people and no one helps him. Sit with that for a moment. No one helps him.
And then Jesus shows up. Jesus heals him. Jesus bringing the reign of God into his world, and into our world – healing, feeding, reconciling.
When I engage the text carefully, the Gospel prompts difficult questions. I wonder, what about all the other people at the pool? Did they notice what happened? Were they happy for this man? Or were they jealous? We don’t know, but I wonder. Why did Jesus heal just the one person? And I wonder why the man had to wait so long? Did he learn something in those 38 years of waiting? Or was he just there, existing?
I don’t have answers to those questions. The text doesn’t give us any answers. But these questions are, I think, worth asking and wrestling with.
The text prompts other questions that I have the potential to answer- if I am willing to do the work of self reflection and examination.
Can I see another’s healing and rejoice even when my prayers are unanswered?
Do I want to be made well? What “illness” am I holding on to because I don’t know any better or can’t imagine anything different?
When there is no progress and no healing, do I keep showing up? If I do, am I showing up in hope? In desperation? Or in resignation because I have no other choices?
I can’t heal people. I’m not a physician and I’m not Jesus. But am I seeing who is around me? Can I see who is around me that I ought to be helping into the water? And when I see them, will I help them?