May 1, 2016
by Matthew C. Rawls
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.
When I was younger, my dad used to take us wakeboarding on the boat pretty regularly. I grew up in Suffolk, and we had this beautiful river called the Nansemond. It was perfect for wakeboarding and water skiing. It was a clam, protected winding river that was consistently un-crowded. We’d usually be the only ones out on it.
There was spot on the river, sort of in the middle of our wakeboard path. The river went under a bridge that had a 20 foot wooden bulkhead underneath it on each side of the channel. Over time, as we would wakeboard by, we kept noticing this rope swing that hung from way up on the bridge down to right by the wooden bulkhead. Since the river was so un-crowded, we never saw anyone using this rope swing. But we noticed it. And we were intrigued.
One day, when I was about 12 or 13, we rode by the usually the deserted rope swing and it all of sudden wasn’t deserted. There were a bunch of older, college aged guys and girls swinging from it. And, obviously, it being a rope swing, they looked like they were having a blast. Later that night, my brothers and I couldn’t stop talking about it. We decided that the next time we were out on the river we had one goal: use the rope swing.
So, the next time we went out on the river, we went straight there. We pulled the boat up the bulkhead, tied it up, and started checking out the scene. To get there, you had to climb up the 20 feet of piles, and then walk along the narrow path on top until you got to the rope. Then you had to use a hook to reach out, and pull the rope in so you could grab it. Then you had to take the rope, step back and sort of jump off the side of the angled platform so you’d swing out over the water. Then, of course, you had to let go of the rope and drop into the water before you swung back into the bulkhead.
I figured, being the oldest, I’d lead the way. But as I kept staring at the path ahead of me, I began to lose my nerve. This couldn’t be that safe, right? It was probably illegal, right? Wasn’t the boat really comfortable? I had a lot of wakeboarding left. That was enough for today, right? So I decided I was fine, and I was going to sit this one out.
Next up was my middle brother, Stephen. He would have been about 11 or 12. If you watched his face, you could have seen him doing the quick mental calculus I had just done in my own head. He turned around, and suggested we just keep wakeboarding.
While all this was happening, though, we lost track of our youngest brother Michael. He’d already gotten out of the boat, climbed to the top of the bulk head, made his way over the rope and grabbed it. We heard a “Weeeeeee!” as he swung out over the water, and dropped, probably not that gracefully, into the water. We just stared. He pops up out of the water with a grin on his face, and asks if we’re coming up with him for the next round.
Stephen and I now had some pride at stake. We couldn’t let our little brother win the machismo competition. So, pretending to not be scared, we raced to rope and proceeded to have one of the best days ever. I’m pretty sure we swung on the rope for 2 straight hours.
Today’s Gospel reading has always reminded me of this story.
Jesus walks into Beth-zatha and finds a man who’s been sitting by the pool as an invalid, staring at the water for 38 years. 38 years. Now, here’s a little background information on this pool: this pool was a big place – probably similar to an ancient Jerusalem version of a modern Las Vegas pool. And a bunch of people gathered around it every day, because they believed it had healing powers. The legend was that every so often an angel would come down, stir the water with its finger, and the first person who got into the water would be instantly healed.
Maybe this happened, maybe not. But if the man in this story is any indication, it seems like it might have been a bunch of people hanging out together, finding solidarity in their misery and infirmity. That at least appears to be the situation for the man in the story.
So, Jesus shows up and asks what seems to be a pretty simple question: “Do you want to be made well?” It’s a simple question, and the answer to the question seems like it would be obvious, right? It seems like it would be “yes!” with an exclamation mark.
But the man in the story in responds with excuses. “Sir, I have no one to put me in the pool…Someone is always there ahead of me…etc.”
Isn’t this what we often do in our own lives? I know I do. When God appears, offering opportunities of full, purposeful life, I can pretty quickly come up with a list of reasons why right now is not the right time. “I’m busy; I’ve got too much on my plate.” “I don’t think I’d be very good at that.” I am so often living proof of Isaac Newton’s “First Law of Motion”, which states: “Everything continues in a state of rest unless it is compelled to change by forces impressed upon it.”
Jesus, though, is the force that changes that state of lethargy and immobility. He changes the way the man in the story looked at his own situation and he changes the way we should look at our own situations. After the man in the story had made his excuses, Jesus simply looked at him and said: “Stand up, take your mat and walk.” In other words, stop making excuses, and get busy living.
I think that’s exactly what Jesus is saying to each of us every day. “Stop making excuses and start living. I’ll show you how.”
Anthony de Mello, the Jesuit priest from India, says: “Spirituality mean waking up. Most people, though they don’t know it, are asleep. They’re born asleep, they live asleep, they marry in their sleep, they die in their sleep, without ever waking up. They never understand the loveliness and the beauty of this thing we call human existence.”
Jesus is calling each of us to wake up, to be fully human and fully alive. That’s why he came to earth. He came to redeem us from our lethargy and complacence. He’s looking at each of us and asking, “Do you want to be made well?” Do you want me to save you from your prisons? From your addictions? From the ruts of life you get stuck in? Do you want me to give you full life and connection with God? That is what he is asking each of us.
Our answer so frequently is just a list of excuses. I’m not spiritual enough. I’m not good enough. That’s for someone else to do. Let’s stop making excuses, and just start saying “Yes.”