For those who were the regulars at the Pool of Beth-zatha, the day probably began in typical mundane fashion. Perhaps for others elsewhere in Jerusalem, the day might have held a little extra excitement since one of the Jewish festivals was underway, but for those camped out across the five porticoes at Beth-zatha, there was probably no reason to believe – or to hope – that that particular day would be any different than any other.
They had come to the Pool that Sabbath morning – the lame, the blind, the paralyzed, the incurably sick; they had come as they had done in a monotonous progression of indistinguishable previous days and in a nearly pointless repetition of a futile homeostasis; but they had come because the pool at Beth-zatha had a reputation; they had come because they believed that the waters of the pool possessed divine healing properties; they had come because there were a few word-of-mouth reports of the chronically ill stepping into the water and emerging moments later in perfect health; and so they had come because at some point the human desire to understand the pool’s unique therapeutic properties had led to a widely accepted, if somewhat superstitious, explanation: the conventional wisdom was that at random intervals an angel of God would descend, and disturb the surface of the water, and at such times, whoever was the first one into the water, would be healed from their infirmity.
The conventional wisdom about the Pool of Beth-zatha promoted a false hope based on a tragic explanation. Tragic, because it reduced the miraculous to something predictable. Tragic, because it was an explanation which paid lip service to the intervention of angels, but placed an even higher premium on human self-sufficiency. Tragic because it was an explanation that regarded life as nothing more than a zero-sumgame in which one person’s relief came at the expense of ongoing pain for countless others. Tragic because it was an explanation that left no room for mutuality or vulnerability or the grace of God.
And perhaps most tragic, because 2,000 years later it is an explanation that the conventional wisdom of the 21st century still advocates as a practical, and sometimes even preferable, way for people to live their lives. Mind you, the conventional wisdom is more sophisticated these days. Our culture is no longer overtly superstitious; but I invite you to consider the various covert clichés that are our modern equivalent of saying that “the first person into the pool will be healed”. Survival of the fittest. First . come, first served, Every man for himself – and every woman for herself for that matter, God helps those who help themselves. And my personal favorite – the last one in is a rotten egg.
Nowadays, the conventional wisdom is no longer overtly superstitious, but in its own way our culture still embraces the idea that whether or not a person will experience healing or wholeness or salvation or any other type of blessing, pivots purely on personal effort. Our culture still clings to the idea that blessings are allocated on a merit system; Our culture still views life as a competitive
– dog eat dog
– no holds barred
– win at any cost
– look out for #1
– all’s fair in love and war
–survival of the fittest struggle.
And if one person’s good fortune means someone else’s continued misery or shattered dream – well, that’s just tough – that’s how it crumbles! All of which is to say that the cultural mainstream still leaves precious little room for mutuality or vulnerability or the grace of God; and perhaps that is why we need to be reminded from time to time that Jesus said: “Peace I leave with you. My peace I give to you. Not as the world gives do I give to you.” Which I think was Jesus’ way of saying: “Sometimes the conventional wisdom is wrong.
Did you know that the Pool of Beth-zatha is still there? Not far from the Sheep Gate in the Old City of Jerusalem there is a fenced off enclave that contains the ruins of what once was the Pool of Beth-zatha. The water has long since receded – with only a scant amount remaining in the lowest level of the deepest cistern – but a considerable amount of the stone infrastructure remains; much of it now covered by grass; with a few scattered, red wildflowers providing accents of random color. There were no blind, or lame, or paralyzed people lingering around the Pool of Bethzatha when I was there a few years ago; but I did have the opportunity to observe one example of human behavior that let me know the spirit of enlightened self-interest still lingered there like the haunting echo of a bygone era. While I was there, another tour group happened to be completing their own visit to the site. The movement of the group caught my eye, and I observed a woman crouch down beside the fence surrounding what had once been the upper portion of the pool; and then a moment later I observed her purpose. As I watched she casually reached through the fence and picked several of the red wildflowers that were growing there; and then she stood, and walked along her merry way, her newly acquired mementos safely in hand.
Now I would be the first to admit that in the grand scheme of things picking a few wildflowers is not that big a deal; compared to some of the genuinely offensive things I witnessed in Jerusalem, and the West Bank, a tourist helping herself to a pocket full of posies is a relative triviality; perhaps not even worthy of mention; and yet the image of that woman picking flowers at Beth-zatha is seared in my memory – because at some level I think the very fact that it isn’t a big deal illustrates the moral and ethical numbness of our culture; it testifies to the unexamined sense of entitlement that is epidemic nowadays; a sense of entitlement that offers permission to grab whatever we think is ours without regard for the unintended consequences that our pursuit of our fair share might have on someone else.
The water has long since receded from the Pool of Bethzatha – but our culture still views life as a competitive – dog eat dog – no holds barred – win at any cost – look out for #1 – all’s fair in love and war struggle; all of which leaves precious little room for the grace of God – which is precisely why the good news at the heart of today’s gospel lesson is as relevant to us today as it was to one of the regulars who came to the Pool of Beth-zatha on an otherwise typical and mundane sabbath day almost 2,000 years ago.
Today’s gospel lesson tells us that among the regulars who made their way to the Pool of Beth-zatha that day, was a man about whom we know almost nothing, except that he had some chronic condition which had rendered him an invalid for the previous 38 years. And while he continued to make the daily monotonous journey to the pool as he had done for over 13,000 previous futile days already, it is not hard to imagine that his hopes for a cure were probably as withered as his legs. There was no reason for him to expect that that particular Sabbath would be different than any other; at least not until Jesus looked upon him with compassion, offered him a word of grace, and ultimately empowered him to take up his pallet and walk.
As we read a few moments ago, John’s gospel tells us that when Jesus first saw the man lying by the Pool of Beth-zatha, he asked him, “Do you want to be healed?” At first glance that might appear to be a silly question – but it is striking that the man responded, not with an answer, but with an explanation; an explanation concerning the limitations of his own self-sufficiency; an explanation which expressed the hopelessness of his situation given the constraints imposed by the conventional wisdom; it was an explanation which suggested that as far as he was concerned, it did not matter whether he wanted to be healed or not, because for him the practical reality of the situation was that he was overmatched by the cutthroat competition at the pool: “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.”
Which brings me to an important question. In your life, is there a particular problem that you have never been able to overcome given the limitations of your own self-sufficiency – or given the constraints imposed by the conventional wisdom? Perhaps the problem which has been resisting your best efforts is nothing more than a bad habit; perhaps you are faced with a set of circumstances – which leaves you feeling stuck – either with nowhere to go – or with no good options – or with no way out; perhaps you are most aware of the limits of your self-sufficiency relative to some dysfunctional status quo in your relationship with your spouse or with one of your children which has persisted for so long that there no longer seems to be any possibility of healing or wholeness – no hope of restored trust or forgiveness – and no prospect of reconciliation or renewal; perhaps the limits of your own self sufficiency are being tested by a compulsion or an addiction that part of you knows you should deal with – but which another part of you refuses to put aside
Whatever may be beyond the limitations of your own self-sufficiency – whatever may be beyond what the conventional wisdom considers possible I invite you to consider what you might say if Jesus were to ask you the question, “Do you want to be healed?” I invite you to consider what might be possible, not on the basis of your own personal merit; not on the basis of trying harder; not on the basis of winning at all costs; but simply by leaving room for the grace of God – or leaving room to be an instrument of the grace of God yourself.
It seems to me precisely at those times when we are struggling with whatever dependencies, or co-dependencies, or whatever else may leave us feeling stuck – that we are most like that nameless man by the pool of Beth-zatha – and that like him we may be more likely to hear ourselves offering explanations for why things will never be any different – than we are to hear ourselves saying, “Yes – I want to be healed” – or “Yes – I want to be made whole” – or “Yes – I truly want to change”. And to the extent that is the case, the good news is that God has come to you in the person of Jesus Christ – and God has come with more than sufficient power to set you free from all of your crippling forms of inertia.
Almost 2000 years ago, God – in the person of Jesus Christ – came to one of the regulars at the Pool of Beth-zatha – a man who had been afflicted for 38 years. God came on a sabbath day when there was probably no reason for any of the regulars at the Pool to either believe or to hope – that that particular day would be different than any other. But God, in the person of Jesus Christ came; he looked upon the man with compassion; offered him a word of grace, and empowered him to literally get back on his feet.
Almost 2000 years later God, in the person of the crucified and risen Christ, still comes to those of us who in our own ways are still the regulars at the Pool of Beth-zatha. He is here – right now – on this sabbath day when most of us probably do not have any reason to believe or to hope that this particular day will be any different from any other. God is here – and he knows how long and in what ways you have been afflicted. God is here – and he is asking, “Do you want to be healed?”
To His name be all honor, glory, and praise.