The traditional church I am pastor to, Heritage Presbyterian Church, is in a time of transformation. In December, we voted to sell all of our property. May 8 will be our last worship service in our current building. On May 15, we will begin worshipping in a temporary space. For the next year, we will be worshipping at (and with) Tudor Oaks Senior Living Facility. The congregation has been interested in doing ministry with the elderly. We are excited to share our Sunday morning worship with the residents there. This is an excerpt of my May 1 sermon.
After this there was a Jewish festival, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem. In Jerusalem near the Sheep Gate in the north city wall is a pool with the Aramaic name Bethsaida. It had five covered porches, and a crowd of people who were sick, blind, lame, and paralyzed sat there. A certain man was there who had been sick for thirty-eight years. When Jesus saw him lying there, knowing that he had already been there a long time, he asked him, “Do you want to get well?” The sick man answered him, “Sir, I don’t have anyone who can put me in the water when it is stirred up. When I’m trying to get to it, someone else has gotten in ahead of me.” Jesus said to him, “Get up! Pick up your mat and walk.” Immediately the man was well, and he picked up his mat and walked. Now that day was the Sabbath. – John 5:1-9 (CEB)
I confess that I struggle with this passage, primarily because I don’t like the man very much. It seems that when Jesus asks him if he wants to get well, the man just throws out excuses. He doesn’t ever say he’d like to be well, and we have no record of him thanking Jesus. In fact, if we were to keep reading in chapter 5, Jesus would find him again and tell him to stop sinning and tell people it is Jesus who healed him.
But maybe it makes sense that the man didn’t think Jesus’ question was an offer. After all, here comes this man who he’s probably never seen before. We don’t have any reason to think this man spent time out and about in Jerusalem, and definitely not at the Temple. This community of the sick, blind, lame and paralyzed was his world.
Maybe stories of a Galilean who healed had made their way to the pools at Bethsaida, but this was early in Jesus’ ministry. Maybe he thought Jesus was asking if he needed help into the pool. Maybe he wondered why Jesus was asking him rather than any of the other needy people in the multitude.
Maybe he didn’t really understand the question.
Did he even know what it meant to be well?
So maybe I should give this man a break. Some guy he doesn’t know walks over and asks him if he wants to be made well. Of course he does! Who would want to live as he is living now? 38 years is a long time to be an invalid and an outcast, but this is also the only life he really knows.
In my struggle, I have also loved this passage. It was one of my favorite places when I was in Jerusalem. I love Jesus’ question:
“Do you want to be made well?”
Jesus doesn’t ask if the man wants to be healed or if he wants to walk again. Jesus wants to know if he wants to be well. Most translations (46 of 55 that I looked at) use “well” or “healed.” But the Greek word also has the connotation of wholeness, which was used in the nine other translations.
To be healed or well is something we desire when our bodies are sick. But to me, wholeness is something completely different. I can be whole and still be sick. Wholeness is about more than just physical health – it’s about our entire being. I don’t think “do you want to be well/healed” and “do you want to be whole” are the same questions.
Of course, Jesus did more than just transform him from an invalid on a mat to a walking man, who may have gotten more than what he didn’t even ask for. But who knows if this man wanted his life to change so drastically? Who knows what, if anything, he believed? Regardless, he stands up, picks up his mat and walks – because Jesus told him to.
This man woke up that morning as he did every morning – in a place that seemed to offer hope only to others. Sick for 38 years, how could he expect that today was the day he would walk again? How could he expect that the trajectory of his life would be changed forever? He wasn’t even asking for change.
This man not only felt abandoned, but was probably literally abandoned at the pool by his family. Sick for 38 years, he has no wife or children. He probably doesn’t have a bet-ab either, a house of the father: his father is likely dead and his brothers would have inherited everything. This man wasn’t abandoned in the past – he is still in a state of abandonment.
Even though Jesus saw him and chose him out of the multitude, for the most part, his reality hasn’t changed. He still doesn’t have a home or family to go to. He still doesn’t have a skill or a job to support himself. What will he do now that his people by the pool are no longer “his people”? What will he do all day, unable to beg?
He might feel more abandoned than ever. He has essentially known nothing else than illness and abandonment. How would he know what to do once made well?
He needs a change of perspective.
In the state in which this man had lived most of his life, he probably couldn’t comprehend what it meant to truly be well. Even at the moment of his healing, his life was turned upside down. He’s picked up his mat and walked – but where is he going to go now? How will he even understand the world? His world had been limited to invalids, pools of water, and the mercy of strangers.
Made well, his world wasn’t just bigger; he would also experience it in a different way. For 38 years, his only vantage point was from the ground looking up. Now, he could look people in the eye. He could see further – even see over things. It would take time to get used to this new perspective – to truly understand being made well. Maybe he did have some idea what it meant when Jesus asked him the question.
Change is scary – did he really want to be made well?
Maybe the reason I both struggle and love this passage is because I don’t know how I will answer when Jesus asks if I want to be made well – to be made whole. Sometimes the trouble I know now seems better than the trouble I don’t know. Jesus didn’t require anything of the man to make him well. He didn’t even require faith. All I know is answering Jesus’ question in the affirmative means my life will change.
I think we as a worshipping community have heard Jesus asking us this question. In Session’s reflection on this passage, the history decades ago of a well failure came up. Reflections in journals pointed to angst over the viability of the congregation. The things that keep us on our mat aren’t new. Jesus has probably been asking us this question for a while. Unfortunately we didn’t have a Damascus Road experience or a miraculous healing.
At times, we’ve probably answered yes to Jesus’ question, and small changes were made. But I think most of the time we pretended we didn’t hear the question or were too afraid to respond. We only had one perspective to look at our church, our community, our place in God’s world – until now.
Jesus has told us to get up and stand. Next week, we will pick up our mat. And on Pentecost we will walk to the place in our journey where Jesus is leading us next. With loving care, Jesus has helped change our perspective so that we have some glimpses of what our life is going to look like now that we are standing and looking it in the eye.
It’s not going to be easy. Show me a place in scripture where God changes someone’s trajectory and things become all happy days, unicorns and rainbows. I haven’t found it yet. But what I have seen in scripture, in my life, in Heritage’s past, in this life we are sharing together, is that God doesn’t just wish us good luck and send us on our way. God prepares the way. Jesus loves us to the end. The Holy Spirit dwells within us. Every step of the way.
One last little Greek tidbit. The Greek word Jesus uses to tell the man to walk isn’t a word of simple movement. The word connotes a way of walking, a way of being. We actually use it all the time. When we say, “We walk with God,” we aren’t talking about a stroll around the neighborhood. We are talking about relationship and the way we choose to live our lives.
Jesus didn’t tell the man made well, or us, to simply go. Jesus tells us to conduct our life with intention. As we stand up, pick up our mat, and walk, let us remember that we do so together, with God, for a purpose. May our “walk” bring wholeness to us and those with whom we worship. Let us pray,
Jesus, you call us into places that are uncomfortable. Even when we know we are not well, we still resist change. Help us to trust that the places you lead us are always better than where we are now. Even when we don’t have the courage to say, “Yes,” please give us the courage to stand up and walk. In the Name that makes us well, we pray. Amen.
It's a little shaky, but this is some video of the pools.