The Healing at Bethesda (John 5:1-9)
5 After these things there was a feast of the Jews, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem.
2 Now there is in Jerusalem by the sheep gate a pool, which is called in[a]Hebrew [b]Bethesda, having five porticoes. 3 In these lay a multitude of those who were sick, blind, lame, and withered, [[c]waiting for the moving of the waters; 4 for an angel of the Lord went down at certain seasons into the pool and stirred up the water; whoever then first, after the stirring up of the water, stepped in was made well from whatever disease with which he was afflicted.] 5 A man was there who had been[d]ill for thirty-eight years. 6 When Jesus saw him lying there, and knew that he had already been a long time in that condition, He *said to him,“Do you wish to get well?” 7 The sick man answered Him, “Sir, I have no man to put me into the pool when the water is stirred up, but while I am coming, another steps down before me.” 8 Jesus *said to him, “Get up, pick up your pallet and walk.” 9 Immediately the man became well, and picked up his pallet and began to walk.
How many of us have heard this story from childhood?
How many of us have repeatedly heard the interpretation that the man at the pool is a whiny complainer, living in perpetual victim mentality? After all, when Jesus asks the man if he wants to be well it seems all Jesus gets in return are excuses.
How many of us have been taught that this is a cautionary tale in both God’s eternal grace but also in the doctrine that “God helps those who help themselves”?
How many of us have used this story to underscore Bootstrap Thinking? That is, God helps us when we at least try to pull ourselves up by our bootstraps. Obviously as humans we are doomed to save or heal ourselves, thus the need for Jesus. But when Jesus sees us trying hard or expressing enough faith, that’s when he enters our lives and creates restoration.
Jesus has no time for excuses or any kind of “poor me” lifestyle.
Either the man is making excuses and doesn’t want to be healed, or he’s trying to play God and heal himself. No matter how the man responds, we interpret his words and actions as damnable. He can’t win for losing. And he’s lost a lot.
How many of us have had this passage interpreted in similar ways again and again and again?
“Have more faith.”
“Quit feeling sorry for yourself.”
“You just don’t want to be better.”
“You’re trying to do God’s job.”
We’ve all heard them. And truthfully, perhaps there are times and places where we need to be admonished about our whining and complaining.
This story, I believe, is no such time.
Look at the text again: the man has been ill for 38 years. We aren’t given his age, so we don’t know if he was born ill and is 38 years old, or if he’s older than that and was taken ill at some other time.
I’m 37. If I’d been born with an incurable illness, I would have no idea what life would be like without it. Even if I’d been stricken in my teens, 38 years of chronic suffering is far more than enough time to dim any memory of what wellness or wholeness could possibly look like.
Yet we blame the man for his own state, and accuse him for making excuses.
I want to point out here that the man has been showing to the Bethesda Pool (also known as the Sheep Gate Pool) for years. We don’t know if he’s been showing up since the illness afflicted him or at a later time. In either case, he’s been lying at that pool with the faith and hope that someone would pick him up and immerse him in the supposed healing waters once the daily stirring from the Lord’s angel took place.
And this isn’t faith?
This isn’t a desperate attempt to find healing day after day?
If it isn’t, I’d like to know what is.
Let’s return to the text: Jesus comes to this man specifically. We aren’t given any insight as to whether or not Jesus divined the man’s situation; or if Jesus perhaps simply asked around about the man at the pool. It would be easy enough to sniff out intel on any person who had been showing up there for years and years.
So here we have it: Jesus seeks out a chronically ill man who has already been trying to heal himself again and again and again. And Jesus asks a very simply but direct question:
“Do you want to be healed?”
Straight to the heart.
It’s here, I think, that Jesus almost comes off sounding like a bit of a jerk.
A seriously ill (and poor) man has stayed by a possibly life-saving pool for decades, and Jesus has the audacity to ask him whether or not he wants to be healed? How insensitive!
But… what if the man really doesn’t want to be healed?
What if he’s given up?
What if hopelessness has set it so deeply that he shows up to the waters now only out of sheer need for something to do? What if he believes there’s no chance that he’ll ever get better?
And what if he wants to stay in that space?
We aren’t told that he’s had any friends or family supporting him. We aren’t told that he’s had any therapists boosting his self-esteem. He definitely has no pithy Facebook memes telling him to never give up.
I hear in his words a grief of an entire life lost to illness, and the daily angst of seeing others enter a world of healing while he’s always left behind.
Can we see ourselves in this man?
I know I can see myself.
There are times when I DO NOT want to be well. When I’m grieving or struggling with loss, the promise of healing seems more like a curse than a blessing. It means letting go of people or situations that I’ve loved, and that letting go seems like a horrible betrayal of loved ones.
For others, it seems like we’re seeing the world through funny lenses. Perhaps we believe that if we’re healed, all those years of suffering were for what? Nothing? Maybe Jesus’ street cred?
For most of us, when the struggle has been as long as 38 years (or longer), we simply do not know life outside of our suffering. Healing is a completely foreign concept, even if we’ve sought out ways to be healed. We are afraid of what that new life might look like.
Here’s where we need to legitimize that fear. As Christians, we condemn others for being fearful. After all, Jesus tells us how many times not to fear? Yet as far as we know, the man in this story has never met Jesus and yet is expected to “just trust” a total stranger with his entire mind, body and soul?
Those are tall marching orders, my friend.
So, dear reader, do you want to be healed?
If your heart rises in your throat, or you start seeing red, or if you perhaps get nauseous at the thought, know that it’s okay.
If you want to jump at the chance to be healed, but feel conflicted also, this is okay too.
If you’ve tried before, and tried and tried, and you’re tired of trying, that’s where you’re at. Enough said.
I’m not trying to reframe this passage in order to promise instant miraculous healing. I can’t do that. Nor would it be fair to anyone for me to even try.
What I am trying to do is declare release from the victim blaming and shaming that this man has traditionally embodied. Like I’ve already said, there are times we need to be kicked in the butt about our complaining. But I don’t think the man here is complaining. He’s mourning 38 years of suffering, weeping over decades of watching others receive what he’s been reaching for, and expressing his hopelessness to Jesus.
It’s his honesty that grabs me.
Jesus being the Jesus we see in the Gospels, I’m sure there would have been some kind of healing to the story no matter what. The heart of the narrative is Jesus’ question:
“Do you want to be healed?”
While some commentators have declared that Jesus is calling out the man’s lack of faith or lack of trying, I would say that Jesus doesn’t care really whether the man’s answer is “yes” or “no”. He wanted to hear the man’s story.
He wanted the tears.
He wanted the pain.
He wanted to know the man himself.
The challenge here is being honest and vulnerable before a Person asking such profound and direct questions. Are we able to do that?
Can I tell Jesus I don’t want to be healed right now because I’m afraid that will dishonour the relationships with people I’ve lost? I believe I can.
Does Jesus get that? I believe he does.
Healing will come in a multitude of forms. Sometimes it comes in ways I don’t want it to.
Here, however, Jesus is far more interested in letting the man know that he’s finally not alone.
Whiner, over-independent, chronic sufferer, victim, ill person, grieving guy, frightened man — however we see him, it doesn’t matter — Jesus wants to be present with him. Jesus wants him to know that He knows. And he takes him seriously.
And that he’s loved.
If that’s not a story of healing, I don’t know what is.