A Sermon for the 6th Sunday of Easter – Year C – 5 May 2013
John Edward Miller, Rector
After Jesus healed the son of the official in Capernaum, there was a festival of the Jews, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem.
Now in Jerusalem by the Sheep Gate there is a pool, called in Hebrew Beth-zatha, which has five porticoes. In these lay many invalids – blind, lame, and paralyzed. One man was there who had been ill for thirty-eight years. 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?” 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.” Jesus said to him, “Stand up, take your mat and walk.” At once the man was made well, and he took up his mat and began to walk. Now that day was a sabbath.
– John 5:1-9
O God, you have prepared for those who love you such good things as surpass our understanding: Pour into our hearts such love towards you, that we, loving you in all things and above all things, may obtain your promises, which exceed all that we can desire; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
The scene of the healing that occurred at the pool of Beth-zatha, or as it is usually rendered in English, Bethesda, is a startling example of the power of Jesus’ presence. And it is also a clear picture of the radical role of grace as a means of personal transformation.
Bethesdais a name derived from Hebrew and Aramaic. It’s an amalgam of two words, beth (meaning “house”) and hesda (which means “grace” or “mercy”). Interestingly, in both ancient tongues, it could also have the reverse meaning namely, “house of shame” or “house of disgrace.” What shall we make of this? Could this word choice be serendipitous? Or might we suppose this to be a deliberate play on words? The pool was supposed to be a source of healing grace for invalids. However, the fact that it attracted the sick and disabled meant that it was a gathering place of those who suffered the shame of illness. Whether it would be a setting for grace or disgrace is the question.
John’s gospel locates the pool near Jerusalem’s Sheep Gate. It was surrounded by porticoes in which the ill lay on their mats. Legend has it that the waters of the pool were sometimes “troubled,” or stirred up. This, people said, occurred when an angel of the Lord hovered nearby, flapping his wings. That was deemed the best time to receive the healing properties of the water. Put in more practical terms, it seems as though the pool may have been fed by a spring, perhaps a hot spring that bubbled up periodically, inviting the infirm to bathe and be made whole.
This is not a strange thing for us to digest. The whole spa industry (of which many have partaken) is based on the same principle. Water in virtually any form is good for what ails us. In fact, people have taken the water cure throughout history. In 19th-century Europe and America many sites developed around mineral springs where hydrotherapy was practiced. Bathing in the waters, or drinking it for medicinal purposes, was thought to promote health and vigor. In this part of the country healing springs were located in mountainous places inVirginia and West Virginia, particularly in Bath, Craig, Greenbrier, and Shenandoah Counties. There were hotels and spas built near these sources of healing spring waters – the most famous of them being The Homestead, The Greenbrier, and Warm Springs. These resorts thrived, especially in the summer, when cool mountain climates coupled with lots of good mineral water enabled guests to avoid city heat and disease.
However, some of the other places didn’t attract the following that these famous resorts did. They fell into disuse, or were sold or adapted to serve other purposes. One of them is Orkney Springs in Shenandoah County. Once a bustling center for those eager to benefit from the curative waters, the historic Orkney Springs Hotel was purchased by the Episcopal Diocese of Virginia in 1979. The renovated hotel, now called Virginia House, is the new focus forShrineMont, our diocesan conference, camp, and retreat center. Other clapboard Victorian buildings surround Virginia House, and have been restored for new patrons, including the clergy, spouses and lay employees of the church who will attend the annual Bishop’s Conference that begins tomorrow.
At Orkney Springs, the quaint buildings are preserved and put to good use. The wide porches still feature rocking chairs and Adirondack chairs aplenty, but few attendees today are inclined to take the waters of the spring. Beliefs about the source healing have changed. Faith in the water cure has been superceded by reliance on the grace of God in Jesus Christ – a gift of fulfillment shared person-to-person. Loving conversation, prayer, friendship, and being present to one another in Jesus’ name have transformed the purpose and mission of those historic springs.
In the biblical world the blind, the sick, and the disabled were all in the same boat. Huddled together in the porticoes, they felt terrible about their condition and about themselves. Disease was literally a dis-grace. It was existence without the grace of God. That may have been one reason why the pool was known as Bethesda. In the public eye the invalids had been shown no mercy, and they deserved what they got. So this was a place where few healthy people would have gathered. In fact they would have avoided it like the plague, because like plagues, all sorts of illnesses were thought to be punishments by God for sin. Little wonder, then, that there were no helpers to care for the sick, or to assist the immobile into the pool.
Our story features the interaction of Jesus with one of the helpless lying by the waters of Bethesda. The man had been ill thirty-eight years, and had somehow gotten to the pool. We have no idea whether relatives had carried him to the place, or whether he had crawled there on his own. All we are told is that there was no one with him to help. Bethesda seemed to be his last hope, and by sheer determination he had gotten to the place of healing. The man deserved an award for persistence. And for patience.
When Jesus asked him, “Would you like to be made well?” he could have gotten a little testy. The question even now sounds a little disrespectful. It may have merited a “Well, duh!” or a sarcastic “What do you think?” The man was accustomed to being treated as an outcast. Mean remarks and pitiless stares were probably part of his daily experience. So a question like this – a question that could have easily seemed insensitive – might have upset him years before he encountered Jesus. But not so on that day. The man did not take offense; he simply put his mouth in gear and began talking. Maybe he was surprised that anyone would condescend to speak to him. His response was impersonal, and he likely averted his eyes from Jesus’ gaze. Perhaps he had gotten so used to being thought of as the “sick” man that he knew no other way to be.
The man’s talk revealed a lot about him. It said that he was not just enduring long-term sickness, but that disease defined him. The text specifies that he’d been ill for a long time. Thirty-eight years in those days was beyond the average life expectancy. This meant that the man had been stuck in sickness his whole life. And he was paralyzed in more ways than one. What he said indicated that he wasn’t capable of changing. Upon hearing Jesus’ question, “Would you like to be made well?” the man said, “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.”
That is, the man’s knee-jerk reaction was to defend himself. His first words – “I have no one,” and “someone else” jumps ahead of me – do not answer Jesus’ question. The healer had asked, “Do you want to be made well?” Hearing that, the man could have said, “Of course!” But instead he started blathering about how deprived he was, and how others get all the good stuff. The invalid was miserable. He may have felt ashamed of his condition, or was feeling very sorry for himself. Either way, his defensiveness was understandable. However, he was not listening to Jesus. He was completely focused on himself, and on correct procedure at the pool. As Jesus waited for an answer, the man fretted about his unfortunate circumstance, about getting lowered into the water at the right moment, and about the insensitivity of others. In his “sickness” he is so caught up in the details that he has missed the big picture.
Standing right there with him was the way out of his misery. All he had to do was to pay attention, to look at Jesus and hear his voice, and take his outstretched hand. That would be sufficient to pull him out the pit of despair in which he spent his days and nights. Here was the true life that could make his sick life whole. The truth is, grace is personal. That’s the whole point. For Jesus, healing occurs in relationship rather than through the right set of logistics. He knew that the man was hurt, and that he was pinning his hopes on doing instead of being, on procedure rather than the person in front of him.
To change the man’s outlook Jesus had to break through his self-pity. Jesus diagnosed the man’s basic “sickness” as self-absorption. To say this does not diminish, or discount, the impact of disability. The genesis of illness is often beyond self-control, and the effects of illness are profound. The healing art and science of medicine are dedicated to the promotion of wellness. This scene of healing at Bethesda is not offered as a substitute for medicine, but as an illustration of the necessity of living by grace instead of works. It is a portrait of the priority of being over doing, of loving one another rather than being mired in oneself. The sick man needed to get beyond the “poor-me” syndrome, and then get on with a real life. Therefore Jesus popped his bubble by commanding him to “Stand up, take your mat and walk.”
That did it. He heard Jesus, and he followed orders. The personal connection with the healer transformed the shadow of death into the morning. All at once, all was well. He bent down, picked up his old mat, and walked away into his new lease on life.
But for Jesus all was not well. The ironic textual note that ends the episode reads: “Now that day was a sabbath.” Now that may sound innocuous enough – like a posting on a Facebook wall. But it wasn’t. The notation was ominous; it observed that Jesus had just broken the law. The healing of the man languishing by the pool of Bethesda may have been a sign of God’s glory, but was also a violation, because Jesus was spotted working on the Sabbath, the day of rest. The file on Jesus was replete with rule breaking for the good of others. That carried little weight with his detractors, though. They were building their case, and sharpening their knives.
After this episode in Jerusalem, Jesus could only travel and teach in Galilee, for he knew that there were people in Judea who were conspiring to arrest him and put him to death. Still, he continued to do signs and wonders proclaiming God’s presence. In particular, his healing of the man born blind increased his notoriety. There was a buzz that followed him. The Pharisees and the priestly authorities were increasingly worried that he would cause complete disruption of order. Accordingly, they lay in wait for an opportune moment to remove him from their midst.
In John’s account of the Gospel, the last straw for the religious establishment was his raising of Lazarus from the dead. This act of healing was beyond the pale of mortal limits. People began flocking to Jesus to see what new sign he would now do, and that infuriated Caiaphas, the high priest, for whom control was everything, and for whom Jesus was both a nuisance and an embarrassment. In the world according to Caiaphas, breaking the rules was forbidden; the common good rested on the foundation of obedience to the law.
Thus, even though Jesus had done something wonderful at Bethesda– transforming a man’s shame with mercy, he was condemned for it by the proponents of rule following. These human doings could not tolerate a human being whose motto for healing relationships was “don’t just do something; stand there.” In truth, all that they had to do was what the formerly sick man did – to stop, look, and listen – and they would have understood that God’s grace had taken human flesh and was standing right there in front of them.
Jesus gave all of us a commandment: to love one another as he has loved us. He wants us to respond to grace by being grateful, and by being gracious. Jesus did not prescribe a step-by-step process to make our life come out right in the end. Jesus challenges us to let go of our fear, and to focus on the wellbeing of others. Loving, he says, is God’s ultimate gift. It enables us to be made well despite ourselves. Amen.