Questions From Jesus: Do You Want to Be Made Well?
The First United Presbyterian Church
“Questions from Jesus: Do You Want to Be Made Well?”
Rev. Amy Morgan
September 8, 2019
May God be gracious to us and bless us and make his face to shine upon us, Selah
2 that your way may be known upon earth, your saving power among all nations.
3 Let the peoples praise you, O God; let all the peoples praise you.
4 Let the nations be glad and sing for joy, for you judge the peoples with equity and guide the nations upon earth. Selah
5 Let the peoples praise you, O God; let all the peoples praise you.
6 The earth has yielded its increase; God, our God, has blessed us.
7 May God continue to bless us; let all the ends of the earth revere him.
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 Bethzatha, 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, "Rise, 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.
Drinking soft drinks can kill you. A new study published this week in the Journal of the American Medical Association says that drinking just two soft drinks a day, even diet soft drinks, can lead to death from digestive diseases, including diseases of the liver, appendix, pancreas, and intestines.
According to Beverage Marketing Corporation, the average American drinks 44.7 gallons of soda every year.
The dangers of drinking soda may be new information to some of us, but Americans have known for decades that smoking is bad for your health. And yet, more than 34 million Americans still smoke, even though more than 16 million of them are living with smoking-related diseases.
Numerous studies have shown that activities like daily meditation reduce stress and anxiety and have numerous other health benefits. But less than 10% of the U.S. population bothers to do it.
Every doctor will tell you that some form of exercise, even just taking a casual stroll, has a tremendously positive impact on your health and well-being. And yet, a report last year from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says that less than a quarter of Americans are getting enough exercise.
So when we hear this question from Jesus today, “Do you want to be made well?” we have to wonder. This seems like a question with an obvious answer. Anyone who is unwell wants to be made well, right? Sure.
But we know what will make us well. Stop smoking and drinking soft drinks. Meditate and exercise. But most of us still indulge in unhealthy behaviors and slough off opportunities to improve our wellness. Do we want to be made well?
The man Jesus approaches at the pool in Jerusalem seems to know what will make him well. Stories of the pool at Bethzatha say that the water would bubble and swirl and even change color. An added verse found in later manuscripts of John’s gospel tell us that it was believed an angel would trouble the waters, and only the person who reached the pool first would be healed. This is the man’s only hope. Get to the pool first. He knows what will make him well.
And yet, he’s been sitting around these porticoes for decades. 38 years was a lifetime in the first century. His disability or disease, while not named or described in this story, is of a chronic, even permanent nature. So even though the man knew what it would take to be made well, he’s still hanging around the pool. He’s like the person who buys a piece of workout equipment and watches it gather dust in the garage, all the time wondering why her waistband continues to expand. Turns out proximity to healing potential doesn’t help.
Then Jesus comes along. Now, this story shares a lot in common with other miraculous healing stories found throughout the gospels. There’s a set-up, an interaction, the healing, and the response. But this is the only time a healing takes place that nobody asks for. The man doesn’t come to Jesus, asking to be healed. No one brings him to Jesus. No one comes to Jesus on his behalf.
Instead, Jesus walks up and, John says, he sees the man, and he knows the man. He sees his condition, his isolation, his imprisonment, his hopelessness, his cynicism. He knows that he has been there a long time, that he has given up trying. The story focuses on Jesus’ action, not the man’s. The man doesn’t seek Jesus out; it’s not even clear if he sees Jesus coming. He doesn’t know Jesus. Even after he has been made well, and people are questioning him about the event, he claims to have no idea who this guy is. He doesn’t ask Jesus for help. He doesn’t invite Jesus in or accept him as Lord and Savior. Jesus is the one who acts, who takes initiative, in this episode.
But before he begins the transformation of this man’s life, Jesus asks him, “Do you want to be made well?”
There are several words that get used throughout the gospels to talk about healing of one sort or another. Many stories include the word from which we derive the English word “therapy.” It means to serve or offer medical treatment or restore. Another word means more specifically to cure. And in many stories, instead of talking about healing, the word for salvation is used.
But the word John chooses is ugais – “wellness.” Only two other healing stories use this term: the healing of a man with a withered hand and the story of the woman with a hemorrhage. Each of those stories use this word once. This story in the Gospel of John uses it 4 times.
Which indicates that this story is not about treating an illness or curing a disease or saving someone from trouble. It is, uniquely, a story about wellness, wholeness. And that involves much more than miraculous, physical healing.
When Jesus asks if the man wants to be made well, he doesn’t answer the question. Instead, he names all the obstacles that have kept him from making himself well. First, he has no one. He is alone in the world. Friendless. He has no advocate or support. Second, because he has no one, no one will help him get to the pool. Again, we don’t know exactly what this man was suffering from, but it clearly impacted his mobility. Without someone to help him get to the pool at the critical moment, he is helpless. Finally, he says, other people always get in front of him and make it into the pool first. He plays the healing lottery; he just never wins.
I have those days where I’m tired and hangry and all I want to do is crash on the couch, order a pizza, and binge-watch the Great British Baking Show. I know I should go for a walk, eat something healthy, and drink some water. But the kitchen feels so far away. My body feels so heavy. If someone were to ask me right then if I want to be made well, I might give an answer not too different from the man in our story. I don’t have anyone to cook something for me. I need someone to go for a walk with me. And I don’t have a debilitating, chronic disease.
So let me just say, I don’t blame him. He’s not to blame for his situation, and he’s not to blame for not being more pro-active in his healing.
But I do think there is something more going on in this story than just a man who is ill being healed. What is happening here is a man who is broken, hopeless, cynical, entrenched, is made well.
In other healing stories people ask, beg, shout and plead for healing. People reach out and touch Jesus’s cloak. Friends lower another friend through the ceiling. This guy just sits there and explains why he hasn’t gotten around to jumping in the pool yet.
In other healing stories, Jesus acknowledges that the faith of the one healed is a component in the healing process – “your faith has saved you” is a phrase we hear repeated throughout the gospels. But not in the Gospel of John. And not here. This man has no faith. Not in Jesus. Not in other people.
In other healing stories, the sick and disabled are brought to Jesus by other people. No one brings this man to Jesus. The faith of human beings plays no role in this miraculous transformation.
The human beings in this story are entrenched in one pattern of thinking. They are imprisoned by structures of religious and cultural practice that keep them from imagining other possibilities. “If no one will put me in the pool before anyone else can get there, I’ll never get healed.” That is the myopic view of this man Jesus is talking to.
And we’re all guilty from time to time of descending into these thought patterns. We look at our contentious political landscape and public discourse and think, “Nothing will ever change.” We look at people who are younger, healthier, more successful, happier than we are and think, “That will never be me.” I have a Facebook friend from high school who exclusively posts her odes to despondency. Conversations with other pastors regularly involve some expression of hopelessness that the church will ever change, that young people will ever come back to church, or that ministry will ever feel fulfilling.
We lack the imagination to do anything other than sit around and talk about the obstacles we face, the challenges we can’t overcome, the self-victimization we feel.
And you know what’s extremely wonderful good news? Jesus can work with that. Jesus doesn’t wait for the man to change his attitude, to open up his mind, to expand his imagination. He just starts ordering him around.
“Rise,” he says. Jesus is in Jerusalem, where he will die. But he’s already speaking resurrection hope.
“Pick up your mat,” Jesus says. This transformation is not temporary. You won’t be needing to return to that place of despondency.
And then Jesus commands the man to walk. In and of itself, this is a miraculous and wonderful opportunity. For a man who has been disabled essentially his entire life to suddenly have the ability to walk is amazing. But it isn’t just about the physical transformation. This man who has been stuck in one place – physically, but also emotionally, spiritually – is now able to move toward his purpose in life, to fulfill his vocation.
We all experience those places in our lives where we are stuck, unable to move toward wellness and wholeness. Our illness may be physical, emotional, or spiritual. Generally those three things are interconnected. Sometimes our feeling of dis-ease is ill defined but nonetheless debilitating.
And even though we may know what we need to be well – mental health treatment, exercise, better sleep habits, a regular practice – whatever our pool of Bathzatha looks like, we can only imagine the reasons we can’t get around to pursuing that which leads to life and wellness and wholeness.
We don’t need a guilt trip. More studies or more doctors lecturing us. More friends and family wondering why we can’t just get up and do what we need to do. We don’t need that.
What we do need is to know that Jesus is right there with us. He sees us. He knows us. And he’s not waiting for us to ask to be made well. He’s speaking resurrection hope. He’s offering us eternal transformation. And he’s empowering us to fulfill our vocation. Rise. Pick up your mat. And walk. Thanks be to God. Amen.