Rev. Peggy Schnack
38 years of illness. Every day dealing with pain, fatigue, stigma, and limitations. We aren’t told what the illness was, just that he had been ill for so long that he likely could not clearly remember a time when he was not living with his affliction. This reality is something that many people in today’s world can relate to, perhaps you can relate to it in your own life. A life of chronic illness is hard.
The site of the pool where Jesus encountered the man was not just a site known by the Jewish people to be a place of healing, it was also a place that was sacred to Pagans. So there was probably a gathering of all sorts of people at the pool. We are not told if this man was Jewish, we are only told that he was sick and in need of healing, because that is all that mattered.
Jesus did not ask the man if he had faith, or if he knew who he was; there were no perquisites. He simply asked, “Do you want to be made well?” If Jesus had asked the man what he wanted, the man would have said that he wanted help to get into the pool first when the water was stirred up. But that was not the question. Jesus asks the question that got to what the man really wanted, not what he thought he wanted. Singer and songwriter Mike Donehue of the band Tenth Avenue North recently wrote a book titled Finding God’s Life for My Will: How His Presence Becomes the Plan (advance copy provided by WaterBrook & Multnomah).No, it is not called Finding God’s will for my life. You see, Mike’s theory is that God tells us what God’s will is for our life: joy, rest, forgiveness, gratitude, and purity of heart, so we do not need to find it. It’s all a matter letting God use us, not trying to use God. Our will, or what we want, will change when we find God’s life for our will. Mike says, “He has an incredible way of giving us exactly what we always wanted, but it comes at the expense of taking away what we currently want.”
“Do you want to be made well?” This appears to be a pretty simple yes or no question, yet the man does not answer it. He responds to Jesus’ question by explaining why he could not be healed by the pool of water, which was the only method of healing that he knew. If he could not get into the pool at the right moment, what did it matter if he wanted to be healed? Jesus’ question simply did not make sense to the man. Yet, his response tells us a lot: there were many people around the man, but he was there alone. If he had no one to help him to the pool, he probably did not have anyone to help him with anything else. He must have had a routine of survival methods, all centered on the slim chance that he could make it to the water when it was stirred up and be healed. He had made a life out of waiting. Out of necessity, and through no fault of his own, he simply watched and waited, not knowing how, or not able to, make a change to better his circumstances.
“Do you want to be made well?” What would it really mean for this man to be made well? 38 years is a long time to wait. It is easily enough to become despondent. The life he was living out of necessity and illness would no longer suit him if he were no longer ill. His routine would not be good enough, but he could not have known how to live any life other than the one he had become accustomed to. “Do you want to be made well?” Do you want your life to change so drastically that you will not recognize it? Do you want to move on into a life that is beyond your wildest dreams? Do you want a helping hand, to do something that you cannot do for yourself?
The man may have been accustomed to his life by the pool, accepting it for what it was, not really expecting it to get any better, and out of ideas for how to make any changes. Maybe he did not make the best decisions in his life. Maybe he was looked down on by those around him because he had been in the same place for so long. Maybe Jesus looked past all that. Maybe we can too. As followers of the living Christ, we can, and need to, see beyond people’s circumstances and see their common humanity. When we do this, we see them as the beloved children of God that they are.
The man in this story needed help to change his life. He had been waiting for a pool of water to help him make that change. When Jesus approached the man, he did not expect anything from him, just his desire to be healed. Rather than a pool of water, it was Jesus who made all the difference. He was willing to approach a man with an unknown illness and offer him the chance at a new life. How often do we see people who want to make a change in their lives but need assistance to do so? Maybe, like this man, they are looking to the wrong places to make the change. Maybe they do not comprehend what the changes will really mean for their lives. Yet, how can we, as the helping and healing hands of Christ approach them and, as the church, offer them a new path?
True, we typically are not able to heal ailments with a word, but what if a part of the ailment is loneliness? Despair? Hopelessness? Fear of judgement by others? Being chronically ill, homeless, or addicted is hard enough without also being abandoned, judged, and shunned by the community around us. How we respond to those who are suffering can either drive them further into their pain, or offer them a hand up from their situation.
Jesus basically said, you have been waiting for help, I am able to help, so I am going to. It did not matter if the community thought the man was the most deserving around the pool, or if they thought he would succeed in the world. Jesus was able to help, so he did. What gifts do you, and we as the community of St. Paul’s have that we can use to bring healing in a hurting community and world? You see, it is not about what we can not do, it is about what we can do. We have all been given the ability to help one another. How are we going to choose to use our God given gifts?