Do You Want To Be Made Well?
[I preached this sermon at Nortminster Presbyterian Church in Slidell/Pearl River, Louisiana on May 1, 2016.]
Do You Want to Be Made Well?
Text: John 5:1-18
No one heard his cries.
At least, that’s what he thought.
The Bible doesn’t speak his name, but we’re going to talk a lot about him, so let’s call him Reginald, because I’m pretty sure that’s not his real name.
For 38 years (38 years!), Reginald lay helpless, as the world went by day by day.
Even Job, with all his troubles, had friends who came by and tried to help, clueless as they were.
Not so with Reginald: No friends, no mercy, no help.
He lay by the pool whose name in Hebrew and Aramaic means “house of mercy” or “house of grace”, and also “house of shame” or “house of disgrace.”
I imagine Reginald felt lots of shame and disgrace. People who feel less than whole often feel ashamed and disgraced.
I don’t think Reginald felt much mercy or grace.
At least, not until Jesus turned turned the world upside down for him.
If you’re like me, maybe you remember more to this story. In fact (a little bit of trivia here), you might notice that there is no John 5:4 in the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible, or many other Bible versions.
The missing bit (which spills into part of verse 3), tells a story about how an angel would stir up the waters in the pool from time to time, and whichever sick person won the race to get into the pool first would get healed.
The editors of many newer Bibles leave the story out because it’s just not found in the oldest versions of the Gospel of John. It seems that hundreds of years after the gospel was first put on paper some scribe or priest or monk somewhere decided he needed an explanation for what was going on with the water, and just added one in.
It turns out, there was a good reason why lots of sick people would have made their way to the Pool of Bethesda, and it had nothing to do with angels -- at least not the kind of angels with wings.
The Greeks had a god named Asclepius. (I practiced saying that name.) He was the god of medicine. In the old myths Asclepius could cure people of practically anything.
It was even said that, at least for a while, Asclepius had gone around bringing people back from the dead.
Then Hades, the Greek god of the underworld, complained (jerk!). He was afraid it would get lonely in Hell.
So Zeus, the king of the Greek gods, made Asclepius cut it out.
But anyway, Asclepius had a number of real, honest-to-the-real-God human followers called “therapeutae” (for men) or “therapeutrides” (for women). (I practiced saying those words too…) It meant “someone who heals.” The word “therapy” comes from the same Greek word. The therapeutae and therapeutrides, as followers of Asclepius, were committed to medicine and healing. And, it turns out, they were actually pretty good at it, considering the times.
There was a complex with a couple of baths in some natural caves just north of Jerusalem. At least one of these baths was dedicated to Asclepius, managed by his therapeutae and therapeutrides. It was near the Sheep Gate, near the Temple of the true God, a gate handy for bringing in sheep for sacrifice. Part of the complex was a pool with four colonnades, separated in the middle by another one. A pool called Beth-zatha or Bethesda.
If you were sick in the time of Jesus, you could do much worse than look for help at this pool. There were people there who might be willing and able to help you.
Angels, of a sort.
Only there are some people whom the angels often seem to ignore:
- People who are sick and have no way to get care,
- People who are starving,
- People who are homeless,
- People who are addicted to drugs like alcohol,
- People who yearn to end their life.
Reginald, kind of the patron saint of the therapeutically ignored, lies there on his mat year after year, sick, friendless, and helpless at the pool of grace and disgrace.
Jesus walks up to this man and asks, “Do you want to be made well?”
Reginald does not answer the question directly. He doesn’t say, “yes.” In fact, he seems to me to be a little confused. He just starts telling Jesus his life story.
Now, in the Gospel of John, it's actually kind of unusual for someone to ask a simple question and get a simple answer. Still, this question (“Do you want to be made well?”) is odd, even for John.
While Jesus heals something like 30 or 40 people in the gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John), this is the only time he ever uses that phrase. “Do you want to be made well?”
It must have been confusing to hear an obviously Jewish man ask a question like that in this pagan place so near to the Jerusalem temple. And Jesus asked it on the Sabbath, a day Jews dedicated to rest and study, a day where work like healing was, for the most part, forbidden.
Reginald must have thought this might be some kind of test or trap. So he doesn’t say “yes” or “no”. He tells Jesus who he is, or, at least, who he thinks he is: a man defined by 38 years of sickness and rejection.
And Jesus says, “No, that’s not who you are.”
Except not in those words. He says, “Rise, take up your mat, and walk.”
With Christ’s words and God’s healing, the world Reginald was in, the world where he was imprisoned on a mat, sick and pathetic and not worth the attention of anyone, was over. Over. The world was now one where Reginald was healed, and strong, and a political problem for some of the most important people in Jerusalem, who found him to be a dangerous threat to all that is holy because he’s walking around with a mat on a Sabbath.
And Reginald did nothing to make this happen. Nothing at all. For 38 years, Reginald did nothing because he was sick and alone and powerless, and when Jesus stood over him, Reginald did nothing because he was sick and alone and powerless.
And Jesus healed him anyway.
Although I am far from sick and friendless and poor, I still long for Jesus to ask me, “Do you want to be made well?”
Yes yes yes yes yes yes yes.
There are a hundred parts of me that disappoint me or lessen me or scare me. I’m not stuck on a mat, but I am far from well. I’m still a nerdy weirdo who has a demon on his back continuously shouting in my ear, “You don’t belong here. No one wants you here.” And I am completely helpless to heal myself.
Now, please don’t take this the wrong way, but I think you need healing too. We all do. This is a broken world that breaks people along jagged edges that cut deep. I am broken. You are broken. There’s stuff inside us that we’re carefully hiding ourselves, from the world, even from God.
Reginald, on his mat fumbling out an answer to a simple question that sounded like a trap, is right there with us, except he can’t hide his jagged edges very well. Reginald, sick and helpless and alone, all but hopeless. And even though Reginald sounds kind of whiny and pathetic, and even though Reginald doesn’t really present himself confidently and in the best light as so many people say a man should, and even though Reginald doesn’t say, “Yes, I want to be made well,” Jesus heals him anyway.
“Stand up, take your mat, and walk,” Jesus says.
Jesus heals. Jesus heals.
In that way, Jesus is more like those pagan followers of the Greek god Asclepius than he is like the self-important self-righteous pious religious experts who claim to know God and question his every move.
And Jesus is what Asclepius never was: real. The followers of Asclepius could do their best to patch up the wounds, just as we can do, but God in Christ can, and WILL, heal those the angels don’t.
It doesn’t matter if you think you’re incurable, if whatever it is that’s broken in you, whatever it is that’s breaking you, is big and scary and hairy with sharp teeth, Jesus will stand over you and tell you to stand up, take your mat, and walk.
It doesn’t matter if you feel lost and alone, if people call you ugly or strange or creepy or whatever, if people are scared of you. Jesus will stand over you and tell you to stand up, take your mat, and walk.
It doesn’t matter if you disappoint people or if you disappoint yourself. It doesn’t matter if you’ve screwed things up over and over again and you’re so sorry, so terribly sorry. Jesus will stand over you and tell you to stand up, take your mat, and walk.
It doesn’t matter if you ask for healing, or wonder if you really want to be healed, or have given up hope and don’t even want to bother anymore, Jesus will stand over you and tell you to stand up, take your mat, and walk.
Now, from my point of view, my broken, sinful point of view, I’d just as soon God in Christ would just send the Holy Spirit right now to heal those broken parts of me, and those broken parts of you, and those broken parts of us, right now, right now, and we would stand up, healed and new and free from all that is broken and jagged inside us and we would take our mats, and we would walk as whole, healed people. Now. Right now.
Nope. Didn’t happen. But still, I know it will.
I could tell you a story now, about some seemingly miraculous healing. But then I could tell you another one about someone who is still waiting, still lying on whatever passes for a mat to them, or someone who has died waiting for someone to make them well.
I don’t think I can prove to you that the risen Christ will heal you, or me, or anyone. I can’t even prove it to myself.
And yet I know it’s true.
But it’s also true that not everyone wants it to be true.
I remember the TV show M*A*S*H, a show about a mobile surgical hospital in the Korean War. Now and then, one doctor or other would get in trouble for healing an enemy combatant, or even an enemy civilian.
For some, and especially those who feel threatened and insecure, healing should only be taken to a point. And the kind of free, unbidden healing given to people who don’t seem to deserve it -- well, that’s way over the line.
I kind of misled you a bit a while back with the Asclepius story. I said that, when Asclepius started raising people from the dead, and Hades (jerk!) complained, Zeus made him cut it out.
That’s a bit of an understatement. In many versions of the story, Zeus kills Asclepius with a thunderbolt, then throws him up into the stars.
You see, the world appears to work as the Greek myths said it does: healing is often the enemy of power, and must have its limits. A healer who heals everyone must die.
Yet, the gospels tell a different story: Jesus, the healer who can heal everyone, does die, but God IS the healer for the sake of all of us. And God, the dead healer, is raised by God’s power.
It doesn’t bother God that Hell would be emptied.
Yes, this is a broken world, but it will be healed. We are broken, but we will be healed.
And, even more, even while we are all broken, we can be part of the Holy Spirit’s healing.
We can echo the words of Jesus and the pagan healers and ask one another “Do you want to be made well?”
And then we can join with Christ and do what we can to heal the world.
John says something else odd, much later.
When Jesus washes the disciples feet at the last supper, the word for “wash” isn’t the usual one.
It’s the Greek word that meant washing in the baths and pools of the followers of Asclepius, it’s a word that means washing in order to be healed.
When Jesus serves his apostles, washing their feet, when Christ serves us, loving us even to the point of dying for us, he is healing us.
I know we’re not completely healed now.
But we will be.