Soon another Feast came around and Jesus was back in Jerusalem. Near the Sheep Gate in Jerusalem there was a pool, in Hebrew called Bethesda, with five alcoves. Hundreds of sick people—blind, crippled, paralyzed—were in these alcoves. One man had been an invalid there for thirty-eight years. When Jesus saw him stretched out by the pool and knew how long he had been there, he said, “Do you want to get well?”
7 The sick man said, “Sir, when the water is stirred, I don’t have anybody to put me in the pool. By the time I get there, somebody else is already in.”
8-9 Jesus said, “Get up, take your bedroll, start walking.” The man was healed on the spot. He picked up his bedroll and walked off.
9-10 That day happened to be the Sabbath. The Jews stopped the healed man and said, “It’s the Sabbath. You can’t carry your bedroll around. It’s against the rules.”
11 But he told them, “The man who made me well told me to. He said, ‘Take your bedroll and start walking.’”
12-13 They asked, “Who gave you the order to take it up and start walking?” But the healed man didn’t know, for Jesus had slipped away into the crowd.
14 A little later Jesus found him in the Temple and said, “You look wonderful! You’re well! Don’t return to a sinning life or something worse might happen.”
15-16 The man went back and told the Jews that it was Jesus who had made him well. That is why the Jews were out to get Jesus—because he did this kind of thing on the Sabbath.
This story is today’s gospel reading in the RCL and I have to say it’s one that’s always given me trouble because, to be honest, I really don’t like this guy. Not Jesus, the healee. The writer tells us that there are hundreds of people waiting at the portico to be healed and Jesus picks this guy. Why? No idea.
Why am I bugged so much by this guy? He’s whiny, he has zero personal accountability, he’s a finger-pointer, and he’s ungrateful. Here’s what I mean: when Jesus first encounters him he asks the pointed question “Do you want to be healed?” I haven’t made a study of this, but I don’t recall Jesus ever asking anyone else if they want to be healed. He just does it, and many times after they’ve asked. This guy doesn’t ask, he’s just lying there. Jesus asks the question, but they guy doesn’t really answer him, he whines. “I’ve been laying here forever and no one will help me and someone always gets in ahead of me.” In my head he’s got a voice not unlike Deputy Dawg.
We all know people like this. The church is a magnet for them. People who are in pain, physically, mentally, emotionally, all of the above, and they are perfectly happy to wallow in it because it brings them whatever payoff they want. They use it to manipulate people around them, they use it to get attention, they use it to mask deep self-loathing. If they didn’t have an affliction, no one would want to be their friend. So they live in the pain that they know rather than live as a whole person. Do they want to be healed? Honestly, not really.
After the man is healed he is accosted by the Law-enforcers because it’s the Sabbath and he’s carrying his bedroll, which he’s not supposed to be doing on the Sabbath. When they ask him what he’s doing, what is his response? “That guy told me to!” Gah!! Will this guy ever stop blaming other people for his problems? See what I mean? Irritating. Even later on when he learns Jesus identity, he goes back to the Temple and identifies Jesus to make sure they know it wasn’t his idea. Not a fan.
But Jesus heals him anyway. He picks him out of a crowd of hundreds and heals him anyway. Why? I’m not narcissistic enough to think this story is included just to teach me a lesson, but there is a group of us who can learn a lot from Jesus’ choice here. It’s very easy to decide who is worthy of healing and worthy of our help. We evaluate causes and people and try to anticipate how they will respond or if they will wisely use our investment before we choose to live generously. There is a place for responsible evaluation of the track records of organizations who claim to be charitable, but when it crosses the line into judgement we begin to play God.
I think this story is here to show is the radical inclusiveness of God’s grace. God loves and heals annoying people. God loves and heals people I think aren’t worthy of it, people who wallow in pain and self-loathing, people who manipulate others, people who are ungrateful, people who whine, people who will use the money to buy booze. Jesus was called to heal this guy and he did. He also told the guy to stop sinning, which wasn’t defined for us. He’d been laying by a pool for years, so I’m not sure what sin he’s referring to, but it could be the things that bug me. Either way, Jesus paid attention to his calling, healed this man and kept going. Jesus didn’t care about this guy’s annoying whining, didn’t care it was the Sabbath, didn’t care what the guy was going to do with his new-found mobility. He just listed to God, extended God’s boundless grace to the one who needed it most, and moved forward, leaving outcomes to God’s keeping.
Lest I be perceived as one who casts the first stone, this story also causes me to ask the question, “Do I want to be healed?” What pain, wound, ugliness, am I holding onto because it somehow suits my agenda? Am I willing to let God shed the healing light of God’s grace on the things in my heart that are broken? Sometimes yes, sometimes no. I have things that scare me and I’ve decided that God doesn’t need to deal with those, so they are locked away and kept from the light and I go on as if they aren’t there. But they are. I am broken. I need healing. I am whiny. I am annoying. But I am also loved in spite of it all. God has enough grace for me, too, and every day I try to be a little more open to its power.