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Those of us familiar with the stories of Jesus are used to hearing him ask hard questions: Who do you say I am? Do you love me? Do you still not understand? But the question we hear him ask in this morning’s scripture reading might just be the most jarring of all “Do you want to be healed?”
The story of the man Jesus heals at the pool of Bethseda always makes me think of Carolyn Porter. Carolyn was a member of this congregation for several years. She had early onset MS and was bound to a wheelchair from a relatively young age. She died in 2011 when she was just 49 years old.
Carolyn hated this story. She could never get beyond the part where Jesus asks the question to a man who has been ill for 38 years: Do you want to be healed? “Of course he wants to be healed” Carolyn would shout, offended at any hint that it was his fault that he hadn’t been healed or her fault that her legs wouldn’t work and she couldn’t walk.
She was offended because over the course of her illness, she had encountered people of goodwill, who had somehow suggested to her that there was more she could do to heal herself.
If you’ve ever been afflicted by a debilitating illness, you might know what it is like to feel blamed your ill health. Take Covid for example. There still a bit of stigma attached to getting Covid, even though people who are taking every precaution not to get it still seem to be contracting it these days. When I was diagnosed with cancer, I had to terminate a long term relationship I’d had with an alternative care provider because the way she talked about my diagnosis suggested that if I were more open to being healed I wouldn’t have found myself in the predicament I was in.
It’s not hard for us to identify society’s judgements towards people living with debilitating mental health challenges, or addictions and those sleeping in the alleys of the downtown eastside. If only they wanted to be made well, to have a better life, surely they could do something about their own situation.
When Jesus asks the man who has been sitting at the pool of Bethseda for 38 years waiting to be healed, if he actually wants to be healed the man doesn’t answer “yes, of course I want to be healed.” Instead he makes up excuses. “There is no one to lift me into the waters when they are stirred. Other people get there first and push me aside on the way.”
It makes me think of the countless people I have seen in my office over the years looking for financial support who often come with tales of woe I know cannot possibly be true. For some reason they think that if they actually tell the truth about their situation they will be turned away. Maybe that’s what’s going on for the man at the healing pool. Maybe he thinks no one really wants to hear the truth about his life so instead he makes excuses.
I know myself there is no end to the excuses and blame I have about my own unhealthy behaviors. I didn’t get out for a walk because it was raining. I wouldn’t have eaten the entire bag of chocolate covered almonds if someone hadn’t brought them into the house. I couldn’t let the rest of that bottle of wine go to waste after the guests have gone home. Sometimes it’s just easier to blame someone or something else than to take responsibility for my own behavior.
The man at the healing pool is full of excuses and blame about his state of ill health and I think we can relate to his humanity whether it be in relationship to the state of our own health or the state of the dis-ease of our society.
But what if Jesus question “Do you want to be made well?” isn’t about blaming the victim. After all, in other parts of scripture Jesus is full of compassion and care for the ill. In fact, he goes to great lengths to counteract the common belief of his day which was that people did cause their own diseases due to their sin or the sin of their parents.
So, maybe Jesus question reflects his honest curiosity, not about the man’s circumstances, but about the man’s heart and his deep desire. Here’s a guy whose been coming to the same place for 38 years trying to be the first one to get into the waters when they are magically stirred up to provide healing. Perhaps what Jesus sees in him is his weariness, his sense of defeat after years of living with his condition. Maybe he sees the way he’s become dead to the possibility of his life being any different than it is and what he is doing is extending an invitation to a different kind of life.
Biblical commentator Fred Craddock refers to this story as a parable of God’s grace. It’s worth noticing that there is no mention in it of faith. In other stories Jesus says “your faith, your belief in me, has made you well.” In this story, Jesus only says the words “Stand up, take your mat and walk” and the man is made well. He only has to hear and listen the voice of love and compassion and he is healed. He regains his mobility. He comes alive.
And isn’t that true for us and all that ails us too? It’s not always the medicine we take that makes us well. What really makes us well is love and compassion. That’s what enables us to stand tall and carry on despite our diagnosis or our addictions or our lack of an actual cure. It’s the eyes of someone who sees us and cares for us and doesn’t blame us for the state in which we have found ourselves that calls us into a deeper appreciation of ourselves and a deeper appreciation and understanding of one another.
Anthropologist Margaret Mead says that the earliest sign of civilization was not a clay pot or drawings on the walls of a cave. She says it was the discovery of a healed femur, a sign of human compassion.
At the very end of this morning’s reading there’s a single sentence that says “Now that day was a Sabbath.” It’s a cue for those who have ears to hear that Jesus is going to get in trouble for healing someone on the Sabbath and breaking the religious rules of the day. Sure enough in the very next verse of this chapter the temple authorities are not just accusing Jesus of breaking the rules, they are accusing the man who was healed for breaking them too.
In case we have any lingering doubt that it wasn’t his faith in Jesus that made him well, but rather Jesus’ faith in him, when the authorities ask the man from the pool who it was that healed him he has no idea who Jesus is and not only that he blames Jesus for healing him on the Sabbath and breaking the religious rules.
It’s such a great illustration of the way that social and religious constructs can so easily get in the way of healing and wholeness, how they can keep us in the dead end place of pointing fingers and assigning blame.
The writer of John’s gospel wants us to be clear that it’s not an intellectual assent to belief in Jesus that heals and saves us. It’s not repeating a bunch of statements about Jesus that makes us well, it’s the experience of encountering love and compassion, power beyond ourselves that brings us to life again.
Which is why it is so important for us in the church to keep working at being the face of unconditional love to one another. And then when we mess up at that, which we do regularly, remembering to keep listening to the voice of love that calls us to get up and carry on.
Ojibway writer Richard Wagamese talks about how for years he ascribed all his pain to his experience in residential schools. He blamed the church for his alcoholism, loneliness, shame, fear, inadequacy and failures. But then came the day when he decided he’d had enough of his anger and blame. He decided he would visit a church because it was the church that had forced religion on him and run the residential schools that in his words “shredded the spirit of my family.” He knew that if he wanted to lose his anger, he needed to face the root of it. So he went to church. It happened to be a United Church in Vancouver. He forced himself to sit and listen and try and find something he could relate to. Despite wanting to walk out and reject it all, despite in the beginning listening to it all through the “tough screen of his rage” he found himself desiring the peace and serenity of those who sat around him. He closed his eyes and started to listen. Instead of hearing doctrine, semantics, proselytization or judgement all he could hear was the voice of compassion, the small voice of the minister, who he describes as a very human person, talking about life and confronting life’s mysteries. He continued to go to church for the next several weeks until at some point his anger and resentment disappeared and he saw that there was nothing in the message of the church that wasn’t about healing. Rather, he says, it was a message about compassion, love, kindness, trust, courage, truth, loyalty and an abiding faith that there is a God, a Creator.*
I’m so glad that before he died, Richard Wagamese found his way through the doors of Grace United Church for the sake of his own healing and for the sake of ours. His story speaks to me of the resurrection that is possible when we are able to die to our excuses and blame for the wrongs inflicted in the past and embrace our responsibility for our mutual healing.
I can still remember vividly Carolyn Porter’s indignation at Jesus question Do you want to be made well? Of course she wanted to be made well. Of course we all want to be made well. And so it is that across every barrier and blockade, every rule that has been ill conceived, every excuse we’ve ever made and finger we have ever pointed, the voice of Love calls again and again saying take up your mat, walk, be made well and come alive again, a never-ending invitation to dwell in the heart of grace and love.
*Source: Richard Wagamese – Response, Responsibility and Renewal: Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Journey, 2009.