Sermon - 5th May 2013
The Pool of Bethesda
Scripture - John 5:1-9
[An audio version of this sermon is available. Please go to Spirituality > Audio and Video.]
The story of the disabled man waiting for a miraculous cure in the Pool of Bethzaza - which some manuscripts call Bethesda - is short and easily passed over. Just another healing to add to the list when we think about Jesus performing miracles during his earthly ministry? – after all, there are so many!
We are hearing part of the Gospel of John. John was writing his gospel around 70-80 years after the events it describes. Much of what he wrote reflects 70 years of tradition within the developing Christian community and speaks of what they had come to believe about Jesus, not just what they knew as fact. Consequently, John’s gospel is full of symbolism - some of it quite subversive - which the clued-up Christian follower of John’s day would have latched on to. There are messages within messages.
In our reading, John describes ‘a great number of disabled people’ who used to lie, day in day out, beneath five porches (or colonnades, or porticoes, as some translations call them) with the slimmest hope of healing based on a random miracle associated with a disturbance of the waters of the pool.
What about those porches? If John goes to the trouble to tell us there are five of them, it probably has some significance. Numbers are crucially important in the Jewish tradition. If you said to a first-century Jew on the streets of Jerusalem: ‘Complete this phrase – The five…’, s/he would almost certainly say: ‘The five books of the Law’ – the first five books of the Hebrew scriptures which enshrined God’s law and covenant with God’s chosen people.
It seems likely that John is showing us that while the old law of the Jewish faith, symbolised by the five porches, could not offer true healing for those who had nowhere else to turn, the new covenant of love and inclusion, represented in Jesus, could say to a sufferer “Get up. Pick up your mat and walk” and he would be healed. And what’s more, Jesus was about to break the old law by performing a healing on the Sabbath; something which would be added to the charge sheet that the Pharisees were compiling against him.
In some manuscripts of this Gospel, and in some of the early translations into English, an extra verse is added to explain why the waters of the pool sometimes bubbled. The extra verse explains that it was believed that an angel used to come down to the pool to trouble the waters and so give a sign that a healing miracle was about to happen.
In fact, archaeologists have uncovered an area in Jerusalem, near the Sheep Gate, with five porches, which actually held two pools – a large lower pool and a smaller upper pool. And it’s thought that there was pipework connecting the two pools so that water could be exchanged between them. So, it seems very likely that the movement of the waters was purely the result of plumbing, and the hopes of those who believed in the miraculous angelic healing of the bubbling waters had been placed in just another superstition: a rather cruel myth which had grown up around the facts of what was actually happening in the pool.
Then we come to the conversation between the disabled man and Jesus. Jesus asks a rather odd question. He is faced with someone who has been coming for 38 years to this place, hoping to capture that rare and precious moment when the waters of the pool would bubble and he might be magically cured of his disability; and Jesus says to him, ‘Do you want to get well’! Doesn’t that seem rather an odd question? What has this man been doing for the last 38 years if not wanting to get well?
And yet: perhaps we need to ask ourselves what Jesus perceived about this man that we aren’t being told. And perhaps our English translation of the conversation serves us badly here. The Greek word that John uses, which we translate as ‘get well’, has much deeper meanings in the Greek. It really has the sense of ‘being made whole’.
I think we can all recall experiences when the simple act of curing a specific condition has not made someone whole again. Sometimes, being restored to wholeness of life involves more than chasing away our physical disease.
Wholeness can often involve less tangible blockages in our lives: it can require that we truly forgive others, or that we are forgiven by others for past hurts; it can require letting go of burdens for which we are no longer responsible; it almost certainly requires us to be at peace with ourselves and with others at some deeply significant levels.
I suspect we have all known people who have found profound wholeness of life even though their bodies may have been riddled with sickness. ‘Wholeness’ doesn’t always equate simply with ‘cure’. We might look to medicine for a cure; but we might look to our values, our beliefs, and - most importantly - our relationships with others, for wholeness.
And so it seems that Jesus was saying to the disabled man, ‘Do you want to be made whole’ rather than ‘Do you want to be cured of your outward infirmities’.
Now, we know that the prevailing belief at the time was that all illness was a payback for sins previously committed. But we also know that this was not what Jesus taught. So why does John put these words into Jesus’s mouth, unless it’s to strengthen the idea in the story that there were things this man needed to address around the entirety of his life which had the potential to overwhelm the healing of his disability.
And what about us? What wholeness of life do we seek from Jesus as we walk with him? How many porches, porticoes or colonnades does this church have beneath which we all sit, week after week, waiting for our encounter with the mysterious? And what do we say to Jesus when he touches us and asks the question: “Do you want to be made whole”?
We can choose not to! We can choose to stay bound to the old laws – ideas long since discredited about our place and status in this world; living lives made powerless by the bigotry and injustice of others; unwilling to separate God’s truth from so many flawed human interpretations of it.
If we don't make a reality of Jesus's invitation to move towards greater wholeness, we can stay on our mats beneath the porticoes of old, familiar, yet life-draining traditions. We can also choose to cling on to superstitions and mythologies about who we are, and what our lives are for, and where the powers of this world are inevitably driving us.
One of those most dangerous mythologies is that God’s love is rationed, and that we are in competition with others for our share of it. This is often expressed by the belief that there are absolute rights and absolute wrongs, frozen in time, enshrined in divine law, and that truth has only one avenue of approach - in other words, some will be blessed and be in the pool at the right time, when the waters move, and others will not. Do we really accept that God’s love is such a heartless lottery?
We believe as followers of Jesus, that when we are in difficulties or unwell, distressed or hurt, lost or aimless, our faith has a part to play in restoring us to wholeness again. This story about the man at the Pool of Bethesda reminds us that, when, in faith, we look to Jesus for healing, he may very well look deep into our soul and ask, ‘Yes; but do you want to be made whole?’, because that is the question which unlocks the answers that move us forwards.
Our challenge, perhaps, is to think about what changes we might make; what redundant ideas we have grown out of and can now relinquish; what baggage we can surrender; and what superstitions we can abandon, to help us fully see what wholeness of life can mean if we truly seek it.
The answer to that challenge will be something which is unique to each one of us: wholeness for me will not be the same as wholeness for you - that is one of the delights of our uniqueness. Yet the challenge to journey towards it is common to all of us. And though we cannot make someone else’s journey for them, we can walk with them as a companion on the road.
Dare we leave our prisons? Can we see beyond healings and cures towards an understanding of personal wholeness? Are we ready to hear Jesus say to us: ‘Get up! Pick up your mat, and walk’?