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John 5:1-15

The Healing at the Pool

     Some time later, Jesus went up to Jerusalem for a feast of the Jews. Now there is in Jerusalem near the Sheep Gate a pool, which in Aramaic is called Bethesda and which is surrounded by five covered colonnades. Here a great number of disabled people used to lie—the blind, the lame, the paralyzed. One who was there had been an invalid for thirty-eight years. When Jesus saw him lying there and learned that he had been in this condition for a long time, he asked him, “Do you want to get well?”

     7 “Sir,” the invalid replied, “I have no one to help me into the pool when the water is stirred. While I am trying to get in, someone else goes down ahead of me.”

     8 Then Jesus said to him, “Get up! Pick up your mat and walk.” At once the man was cured; he picked up his mat and walked.

     The day on which this took place was a Sabbath, 10 and so the Jews said to the man who had been healed, “It is the Sabbath; the law forbids you to carry your mat.”

     11 But he replied, “The man who made me well said to me, ‘Pick up your mat and walk.’ ”

     12 So they asked him, “Who is this fellow who told you to pick it up and walk?”

     13 The man who was healed had no idea who it was, for Jesus had slipped away into the crowd that was there.

     14 Later Jesus found him at the temple and said to him, “See, you are well again. Stop sinning or something worse may happen to you.” 15 The man went away and told the Jewish leaders that it was Jesus who had made him well.

Today’s gospel reading tells the story of Jesus healing a man who had been “an invalid” for 38 years. He was apparently brought with some regularity to the side of a pool near one of the city gates, where local legend said that an angel would stir the waters of the pool. The first person to get into the pool, it was thought, would be healed of his or her affliction. There’s a verse 4 in some versions of John that tells this legend about the angel, but that verse doesn’t appear in all copies of John.

But the invalid in the story was (or thought he was) too weak to make it into the pool, and had no one to help him get there before someone else beat him. So his disability went on and on for decades.

On the face of it, this story is about two things – Jesus’ ability to perform miraculous healings and the religious leadership’s loss of perspective on keeping the Sabbath. But there’s probably another aspect of the story that’s meant to catch our attention. That’s the question Jesus asked the invalid: “Do you want to get well?”

You might think, ‘Well of course the man wanted to get well!’ But not so fast. I suspect that quite a few of those reading this reflection have had experience with people who suffer from various conditions for years, but who seem to find excuses to avoid doing the things their doctors said would make them well. Notice that the man is described as “an invalid,” not as having any particular disability. Some people embrace the role of invalid, and it becomes, in a manner of speaking, their identity.

But on this reading, I find that there’s yet another aspect of the story that catches my attention.

As we often note, the miracles of Jesus are meant to represent “signs” – previews of the kingdom of God, or pointers to the power of God at work in the world in and through Jesus. And I can’t help noticing that this man had placed his hope of being made whole on some old superstition about an angel stirring the water of a pool.

There are certainly places in the Bible where angels appear as agents of God’s power in the world, but almost always as messengers sent by God to tell people things God wanted them to hear. I really can’t think of anywhere in the Bible where God puts angels to work on such a weird project as stirring the water of a pool to let people be healed if they get into the water first. I mean really – does that sound like something with any connection at all to the way that God works? Does the God we worship save his healing power for invalids who can move fast? That sounds more like a cruel joke than the action of the God we worship and serve.

So now I’m wondering whether what we’re meant to see in this story is that Jesus set a person free from placing their hope in a half-baked old superstition. That by healing the man, Jesus demonstrated that the healing power of God is not dependent on strange old rituals.

We talked about rituals in worship a week ago. And we pointed out that there are two kinds of rituals. The good kind of ritual reinforces our religious devotion by embodying the values and beliefs of our faith. The Lord’s Supper embodies our belief that Jesus allowed his body to be broken and his blood shed for us. It also embodies our belief that those who follow Jesus are adopted into God’s own family, and welcomed at the family’s table. Lighting the Christ candle on Christmas Eve embodies our belief that in Jesus, light came into the world to dispel the darkness.

But the other kind of ritual – the silly kind – is an action that people believe will have some kind of magical effect on the world around us. People wear a lucky shirt and sit in the same chair because they think it will help their team win. People bury a statue of a saint in their back yard because they think it will help them sell their house. Those rituals are superstition – “folk religion,” you might say.

This bit of lunging for the water when an angel’s wing stirred it strikes me as the kind of superstitious action that can take the place of real dependence on the living God. So maybe we’re meant to see in this story a case in which Jesus set a man free from placing his hope in magic.

I wonder if this might not be connected to God’s prohibition of consulting with mediums and fortune-tellers. Putting your trust in them establishes another source of guidance in your life in place of the God who has been teaching and guiding his people for centuries. You can’t really be dedicated to a life of genuine discipleship – to seeking and being guided by the Word of God – if you’re also wondering what your Tarot Card reader thinks you ought to do.

But in this passage, the man encounters Jesus, and he’s turned from a person crippled by his dependence on superstition into a liberated person boldly rising to his feet and walking off into a new life.

It seems to me that one of the central challenges of the life of a follower of Jesus is to be monitoring our own spiritual health, watching always for whatever sins or errors might creep into our practice of the faith. Sometimes those errors can be occasions of anger or selfishness. But sometimes they can also be allowing ourselves to imagine magical powers in things that really have no power at all. Jesus asked the man, “Do you want to get well?” And to make that happen, the man had to switch his hopes from the wings of an imaginary angel to the commandments of the Son of God.

Let’s pray. Lord, you know that we sometimes allow ourselves to place our hopes for a more abundant life in things of this world, even to allow them to have a power over how we live our lives. Set us free from those habits, so that we can be guided in all things only by the teaching and example of our Lord Jesus. Amen.

Every Blessing,

Henry

(The other readings for today are Psalms 27 and 47: Isaiah 63:1-5; and Revelation 2:8-17.)