“Make excuses or make changes. The choice is yours.” Anonymous
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, waiting for the stirring of the water; 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. 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.
A PDF of the sermon as distributed at Calvary is available for download and printing.
We all love a good story. The reason we love stories is because stories are “word pictures.” “A picture is worth a 1000 words,” as the saying goes. A story is like that. So PICTURE with me the story from today’s gospel lesson from John. Imagine that you are a famous movie director—like Steven Spielberg or Spike Lee or Kathryn Bigelow—and you are directing a movie scene. It’s a crowded scene, with all kinds of people and domestic animals as well as a “multitude of invalids”—the blind, the lame, the paralyzed—gathered around a pool of water. I’d like to picture the pool of water as crystal clear, cool and inviting. But then I have to remember that according to the story, all kinds of sick bodies have bathed in this water; so I would have to suspect that it looks more like a pool of polluted water in a city park. Apparently, the pool has mysterious healing powers. I included in the reading of today’s gospel the footnote (yes, there are footnotes in the Bible). The footnote adds the description of the periodic appearance of the Lord, who comes to stir the water. Now you would want to be the first in the pool after the water has been stirred because the waters are even more powerful then. So picture the sick and the wounded struggling and elbowing in a race to be the first in the pool! It has become, suddenly, an ugly scene. It is now a rough, degrading, demeaning scramble, like a crowd of beggars fighting for a few coins tossed their way. It is now like trying to grab a seat on BART during rush hour or chasing a foul ball at a Giants’ game at AT&T park.
Now we come to the nameless man in the story. We don’t know for sure what is the matter with the man. It is clear that he can’t walk and he can’t move fast enough to compete with all the others pushing and shoving near the pool. The nameless invalid doesn’t seem to have any family or friends; and he’s been ill for 38 years, meaning, he’s been ill most of his life. Perhaps, he has “never been well.” Perhaps, he “doesn’t even know what it is to BE well.” Jesus notices this man. Of the many sick and lame and blind and paralyzed, Jesus singles this one man out of the crowd. We have to wonder, WHY THIS MAN? Well, according to the story, there was really nothing particularly special about this man to get the attention of Jesus. And there is nothing ABOUT this man that makes him MORE deserving than the others to get Jesus’ attention. So there is nothing OUT-standing about this man. Furthermore, Jesus does not check to see if he is carrying legal documents that allow him to live in the country and to go to school and to qualify for medical care and to vote. Jesus does not check his references, his employment record, or whether he has ever committed a crime. Jesus does not ask him to show a card identifying his medical provider before giving him treatment. Jesus simply addresses him—personally and directly. Jesus gives this man, for a moment in time, his undivided attention. So for starters, in this story, we can see what the “Good News of Jesus Christ” is all about—we don’t have to earn or be deserving of love. It is NOT because we have worth and value that we are loved. RATHER, it is because we ARE loved that we have value. We don’t visit the sick, help the troubled young person, provide hospitality for the down and out, volunteer in programs that strive to end the cycle of poverty, provide sanctuary because they have EARNED the right to our love and compassion. Rather, because of our love, their worth and value INCREASES!
Now, I want you to keep in mind that there is the “paralytic” in ALL of us. Our feet and our legs are not paralyzed; but don’t we sometimes get so overwhelmed by our problems—problems so great—that we are paralyzed by them? We worry about our children’s health and safety, about their getting the best education possible. We worry about what we look like, what we are wearing, and how popular we are. We worry about what people put on Facebook about us or the gossip on Twitter. We worry about losing our jobs; about how much longer we can afford to live in the city. We worry about how we will care for aging parents and about having enough to retire on ourselves. We worry about the polarization in our politics, about fake news. We worry about the future of our congregation—how to address our financial deficit and the desperately needed repairs on our building.
Let’s get back to our story. After picking this man out of the crowd, Jesus asks him a question: “Do you want to be healed”? What kind of a question is that?! Isn’t it obvious what the man wants? What a stupid question, even if it came out of the mouth of Jesus. Here the man has dragged himself to a place known for its powers to cure and he has waited beside the healing waters for a long time. Surely, he MUST want to be healed. Well, maybe Jesus knew or saw something about the man that is not so obvious to us. Because if you listened to how the man answered Jesus’ question, his answer was no better than 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.” Why couldn’t the man just say, “Yes, yes, I want to be healed!” Why make all these excuses? Why go to the trouble of explaining that no one has helped him and that others have been more aggressive, pushing their way into the pool ahead of him? Don’t you know people who would rather spend their time complaining and blaming others for their problems than to be cured? You’d think they would want to be healed; but they don’t really. They’d rather live with their excuses and have others to blame for their misfortune. It’s a lot easier to blame than to take responsibility. It’s a lot easier to blame and to complain about our spouse and children than to take responsibility for things not going well at home. It’s a lot easier to blame the teacher or the administrator for your child’s poor performance in school. It’s a lot easier to blame your accountant for a higher tax bill to the IRS than you had budgeted for. It’s a lot easier to blame the Session for the decisions they make than to stay engaged and involved in the life of the congregation. It’s a lot easier to blame the church for not listening to you than to admit that you’re angry because you didn’t get your way. Do you really want to let go of these wonderful excuses? Of course not! Because if we were cured of these convenient and self-serving disabilities, then we’d have to say YES to responsibility. The reason it is so hard to give up bad habits, the reason for addictions, is that we do get something from them. We fear the cure more than the illness. Because when we are cured, then we have to be responsible. The next time you ask someone to take responsibility, listen to the way they “YES, BUT” your suggestion. Yes, I need counseling, but show me a therapist who doesn’t have his or her hang-ups to work through. Yes, I need to volunteer to help in our children and youth ministry, but I am so busy and I don’t know the Bible well enough to teach. Yes, I can volunteer, but Calvary is a big church and there are lots of other people who can volunteer. Yes, I should increase my pledge to the church, but I’m living on a fixed-income and just barely making ends meet. The Yes-But argument is a great clue to people who would rather be ill than well. Healing brings radical change. And it can be difficult and challenging. Being healed means being restored to participation and accountability. As long as you are sick, you have a built-in excuse and no one expects anything of you. But when you are well...WELL, WHY CAN’T YOU STAND UP AND BE COUNTED?
Jesus does not play games. He gets right to the point. Jesus said to the man: “STAND UP, TAKE YOUR BEDROLL AND WALK!” The man has been paralyzed for 38 years and Jesus says to him, “STAND UP, TAKE YOUR BEDROLL, AND WALK!” This is not a story about the miracle of faith, where if you believe, you will be healed. God does perform miracles. But in this story the miracle is not dependent upon the man’s faith. It is dependent on whether the man really wanted to be healed. He didn’t have to do what Jesus commanded him to do. We don’t have to do anything our parents, our teachers, our ministers, our leaders, our church, our friends, our colleagues tell us to do. And we certainly don’t have to do anything Jesus tells us to do. But if we really want to be healed, it IS up to us to want it and to do something about it. A woman suffering severe stress was prescribed a powerful tranquilizer. It was amazing how well the medication worked. The woman felt so good with the medication that she told her friend that she didn’t feel a care in the world. Weeks later, on a chance encounter, the friend ran into the woman and asked how she was doing. The woman said she stopped taking the powerful drug. And the reason she gave was that she realized she preferred to CARE about the world. She wanted to feel responsible for the world. Did you notice that in the story, the man NEVER made it into the pool, the pool with the waters that could heal? The man didn’t need to. He didn’t need a quick-fix, a miracle drug, a painless diet. He didn’t need to become dependent upon the mysterious waters of the pool. He didn’t need to count on winning the lottery to solve all his financial and other problems in his life. Instead, he obeyed the command to take responsibility for his life. In being able to walk, he had work and responsibility ahead of him. This is not a story with a “happily-ever-after” ending. The man now had work and responsibilities ahead of him.
“God so loved the world as to give the Only Begotten One, that whoever believes may not die but have eternal life.” We are saved by that incredible, un-merited, love of God. And we will discover also that the healing of our fears and paralyses comes when we accept responsibility for the care and healing of our church and our world.