“Do You Want to be Made Well?”
Rev. Jeffrey Long-Middleton
Bradford Congregational Church-UCC
May 26, 2019
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?’
– John 5:6i
The hardest pastoral visits I have made are to nursing homes. Many are fine facilities with caring and competent staff. Still, it’s hard. Residents in wheelchairs incessantly calling out for help. The smell of urine. Minds that quit long before the person’s body did. I mention this because today, Jesus has gone to Jerusalem’s nursing home where the mentally impaired, the lame and the diseased have gone perhaps because there was no where else to go. In all my visits to the infirmed, I never once asked the question Jesus puts to this man, “Do you want to be made well?” If I had asked it, the answer would have been “Yes.” But Jesus puts it to this poor soul, a man who had been coming to this renowned pool of healing water for thirty-eight years. Thirty-eight. And Jesus has the audacity to ask him, “Do you want to be made well?” It borders on offensive. And why did Jesus ask the question? Jesus doesn’t wait for an answer. Indeed, the man never answers the question. Instead he offers an excuse. He has no one to help him into the water. Please don’t miss this point. The saddest thing about his condition may not be his immobility but his social isolation. It may be sadder than being lame. Why no one to help? For thirty-eight years he’s been coming to Beth-zatha. Don’t you think he would have some friends who also frequented the pool? I mean, thirty-eight years at the same Starbucks and you know the barista by name! But he tells Jesus he has no one who will help him into the water, not a single soul after spending thirty-eight years waiting for some wind to trouble the waters and be first to enter. No one, no family, no neighbors, no one.
And something else to note. Jesus knew the man had been there a long time. How did Jesus know? Well, it was probably obvious. What do you think the man’s hair looked like? How about his overall cleanliness? And the garbage all around him from years of occupying this site. You know: the filthy mattress, the garbage bags filled with his cloths and what little treasures he possessed. Oh, I think Jesus knew the man had been there a long time because any one of us could have guessed the same.
Yet the question Jesus asks is far more universal than it might appear. Could Jesus be asking us the same question? Indeed, doesn’t Jesus ask this question of the world? You don’t have to be paralyzed to be crippled. I know many people who are up and running, who look fine and fit, who you would never think needed to be made well. Indeed, some of them are here today and I am among them. It was Henry David Thoreau who noted, “The mass of men live lives of quiet desperation,” and some of us may be among them. There are folks here who have let their anger divide their families, people who have been abused, those who live in fear of those they label “other.” The question Jesus asked of this man is the question Jesus puts to us: “Do you want to be made well?”
Think of it, for thirty-eight years he had been at the pool. We don’t even know if he was paralyzed, had a muscular disorder, suffered from some mental infirmity. The text is silent. He reports that when the water is disturbed he has no one to help him get into the pool first. So although we don’t know exactly what ailed him we do know that for thirty-eight years he had come hoping for a miracle.
Or at least that’s what we might think. Perhaps it played out in other ways. Perhaps he had come at first thinking he had a real chance of a cure. Day after day he waited. Maybe there were days when the water was never disturbed. Still, he’d come the next day thinking that would be the day only to discover that folks more mobile than himself made it to the pool before him. Still he came. How many times had he lived through the frustration of never being first? How often had he screamed for help but no one came to his aid? How many times had he thought about his family of origin and if he had brothers or sisters, nieces or nephews, aunts or uncles – none of them helped him and after thirty-eight years they probably had given up.
I have never known this kind of isolation. There have always been people willing to help me find my way to wellness. And you? There may be some for whom their families are the problem. Rather than look for help from those who are supposed to love us, they have become part of the dis-ease we must bear. Maybe that’s how it was for him. Perhaps he was crippled because he had only known twisted love, the kind that wants to own you rather than help you grow. We don’t really know why he had no one to help, but some of us know the effects of a twisted love.
For this man, the consequence of having no one, of being physically too slow to be first into the water, must have been a crushing reality. Where else does one go in first century Palestine? The pool of Beth-zatha was all he had. And so he came day after day until, perhaps unknown to him, his disease became his identity. He was the cripple who had set up residence at the pool. Did anyone know his name? I can imagine that those who talked about him did not use his name but his condition, “He’s the one, you know, whose been at Beth-zatha for years.” This man knew little comfort and now he is the cripple by the pool, the one who has no one. If you stare too long at your malady, if you let your pain consume you, it will come to own you. After thirty-eight years I suspect he no longer knew who he was independent of his affliction. He had no responsibility, no purpose to pursue, no success to be lost, no failure to stand over him. He was not responsible for the limits of his life. It was others who had let him down. He was defined by his condition.
Is this not what happens to some of us. We are the one who can’t control his or her anger, the one who has been so marginalized by others that she thinks she has no worth, the one who refuses to own his guilt and instead blames the world, the one who lives in perpetual sorrow thinking that to live in joy is a betrayal of those they mourn.
The cure for this man’s malady appears simple. He does as Jesus commands. He stands up, takes up his mat and walks away. He did not come to faith before the healing was effective. Indeed, if you read past John 5:6 you discover that he doesn’t even know who Jesus is. Remember, this healing took place on the Sabbath – a clear violation of the prohibition of working on the Sabbath. There are six other days when one could perform a healing but to ignore the sanctity of the Sabbath is to ignore the sanctity of God. So the authorities ask the man “who healed you?” He cannot tell them. The man never knew that it was Jesus.
Note, too, that like the man born blind in the ninth chapter of John, he never asked to be cured. He was planning on living out his day in the same fashion he had lived out all the others. Suddenly, in obeying the command of a stranger, everything had changed. He had no more excuses for a squandered life. Now he had to make a living.
We often hold onto that thing that makes us less than whole. Like this man at the pool, wellness takes away our excuses. But the cure for our maladies in life are the same as they were for this man. Jesus commands. We obey. Wellness follows. The reality is that God does not need our affirmation to bring us to wellness. Healing is not ushered in by faith neither is it prevented by those who have no faith in Christ. The One who brought the universe into being, who makes the Sun rise and set and determines the limits of the sea wants the crooked to be made straight and the diseased to be made well. But like the man of old, we, too, can control our destiny. All it takes is listening to the voice of Jesus and following in His way. Let us pray…
1 After this there was a festival of the Jews, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem.
2 Now in Jerusalem by the Sheep Gate there is a pool, called in Hebrew Beth-zatha, which has five porticoes. 3In these lay many invalids—blind, lame, and paralyzed. 5One man was there who had been ill for thirty-eight years. 6When 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?’ 7The 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.’ 8Jesus said to him, ‘Stand up, take your mat and walk.’ 9At once the man was made well, and he took up his mat and began to walk. Now that day was a sabbath.