John 5:1-9 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)
5 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. 3 In these lay many invalids—blind, lame, and paralyzed. 5 One man was there who had been ill for thirty-eight years. 6 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?” 7 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.” 8 Jesus said to him, “Stand up, take your mat and walk.” 9 At once the man was made well, and he took up his mat and began to walk.
Now that day was a sabbath.
A man had been ill for thirty-eight years. During all this time he’d been sitting by a pool located in the Temple Precincts. It was known in Hebrew as Beth-zatha, but is better known to many of us as the Pool of Bethesda. This passage is part of a larger conversation that focuses on Jesus’ decision to heal on the Sabbath, and not only heal on the Sabbath, but make a claim to have done son on the authority if his Father. To many who heard Jesus’ claims, this sounded as if he was equating himself with God. For good monotheists this was a problem. This fuller story, however, is not included in this lectionary reading chosen for the Sixth Sunday of Easter (this is one of two choices, with the other being John 14:23-29).
Being that we continue to be in the season of Easter, one might ask what this passage has to do with Easter. Where is the resurrection in this reading? Could it be in the very statement made by Jesus to the man: “Stand up, take your mat and walk?” With that the man was made well. Resurrection is about getting up and walking and being made whole. That is, after all, the Easter message.
This healing story presents us with the third of seven signs that reveal the glory of God present in Jesus. In John, Jesus doesn’t do miracles for the sake of doing miracles. There is a reason behind each act, even if it’s not immediately obvious to us. For John, the signs reveal, but not everyone sees. One must, as we see throughout the Gospel of John, believe. That is, one must entrust one’s life to Jesus’ care.
When it comes to this particular sign, it’s interesting that Jesus picks out this specific man. As John records, there are many invalids lying in this part of the Temple. The pool is known for its healing properties, and so the sick and the injured have been brought here in the hope that they would be healed. So, among all the people gathered around the pool, Jesus chooses this man. Is it because he felt sorry for the man? I mean, thirty-eight years is a lifetime in the first century. Besides if Jesus was really interested in healing people, why not cure the entire population of those residing here at Bethesda. I mean, Leonard McCoy would do that, why not Jesus?
As for the man, why should he trust Jesus to heal him? Why should he believe? When Jesus asks him “Do you want to be made well?” His answer could have been, well of course, I want to be healed. But his answer is more realistic. That is, he had likely given up hope of being healed. After thirty-eight years of failure, why believe that his situation might change. He had figured out how to live in the status quo. In my imagining of this situation, I see the man sitting in a relatively comfortable place. He had positioned himself where people would notice him and therefore he could ask for alms. Those newer to the situation might have been trying to jockey for position around the pool in hopes that they could slip in when the water was stirred by the angel. No, that wasn’t going to happen, so let’s make the best of it. After all, the Temple was a good place to be if you were in this situation. Lots of traffic and spiritually minded people who might take pity on one like him. So, would like to be healed? Of course, but he wasn’t holding his breath. Then Jesus stepped in and asked him to do one simple thing. Get up, take your mat, and walk!
The reading ends with a statement in verse 9. John tells us that this sign occurred on the Sabbath. The lectionary leaves us hanging. We’re waiting for Paul Harvey (if you’re old enough to remember him) to say, “now for the rest of the story.” The man had been healed. He had to be excited. He might have spent most of his life there among the porticoes. He’d never seen beyond the pool. But before he could get very far, he was challenged. Why are you carrying your mat on the Sabbath? It’s time to rest, not work, and carrying a mat was working. There is good reason for Sabbath, even if we’re not very observant. It is important to remember that the Sabbath is a word of grace extended to all. It is, Ron Allen and Clark Williamson suggest, “an eschatological sign in the midst of time of a future free from toil” [Preaching theGospels without Blaming the Jews, p. 209]. That means, you don’t work. In the end the discussion with the man who was healed leads to a discussion with Jesus over who decides when the Sabbath laws are to be overridden. It needs to be noted here as well that it wasn’t the act of healing that was the problem. Jesus didn’t do anything, other than tell the man to rise up and walk. Besides doing good on the Sabbath is not a problem.
Getting back to the verses chosen for the lectionary reading. What is the message for us on this sixth Sunday of Easter? Could John be raising the question of whether we can become too satisfied with our own situation spiritually? Have we given hope that wholeness is a possibility? There is a satellite TV commercial playing regularly that mocks the “Settler.” The settler is one who settles for cable, and thus misses out on the benefits of the other form of television. The point is—don’t be a settler. Up to this point the man had been a settler, but Jesus tells him not to settle. Rise up. Experience resurrection. Become whole. Believe! Take your mat and get on your way. Experience the fullness of life in Christ.
We know what to do, but will we choose to do what is needed? Once again, we have experienced a sign of God’s presence in the life of Jesus. He is the Word made flesh (Jn. 1:14). He is the one through whom all things were made, and he is the one who has seen God, and has made him known. This time by raising a man from his mat to live fully into the realm of God. Yes, it’s time to get going!!
|Trinity Church, Boston - Angel of the Waters, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. http://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=51533 [retrieved April 25, 2016]. Original source: Collection of Anne Richardson.|