Text: John 5:1-9
You can tell a great deal about a person by the kind of questions that he or she asks—or maybe by the questions that are not asked. Effective teachers know how to ask questions that promote curiosity and cause their students to think and pursue the answers. Competent doctors ask questions so that they can diagnose their patients properly. Children seem to be born with the ability to ask questions, many questions. Their inquiring minds motivate them to ask questions that will help them to learn and to understand.
A skill that is equally important as knowing how to ask the right question is the ability to know when to ask a question. When you look at the way that Jesus communicated, you soon discover that he was a master at both of these skills. By the water’s edge, in the synagogue, at the home of friends, in the court of the authorities, or in villages surrounded by crowds of people—wherever he went—Jesus used carefully crafted questions to teach his followers and to communicate his message.
The gospel of Mark records more than fifty questions that Jesus asked during his ministry. John records, in his gospel, about an equal number. Listen to a few of them as recorded in both gospels. Why are you so afraid? What is your name? Who touched me? Why do you weep? Who do you say that I am? Why do you bother her? What do you want me to do for you? Who are you looking for? Will you lay down your life for me? Have you believed because you have seen me? Do you love me more than these? And finally, the question that is at the heart of our reading today, “Do you want to be made well?” Looking at these questions and reflecting on how Jesus responded to the answers can give great insight into the mind and heart of Jesus and into the kind of life that Jesus calls us to live.
Do you want to be made well? is the question that Jesus asked the man who had been lying by the pool, unable to move, for 38 years. Now, I like to think of Jesus as a compassionate man, especially to those who are suffering. But his question to this man seems at the least insensitive and at worst offensive. Who asks someone who has suffered for 38 years with a major disability if they “want to be made well”? Talk about “politically incorrect” speech! What was Jesus thinking? But more to the point what must the man have felt at being asked such a question after 38 years of being unable to walk? For sure, it would have been understandable if he had come back with a sarcastic response like, “No, sir, I really enjoy being here completely unable to move!” But he didn’t, so we must assume that there was something about the way Jesus looked at him, something about the way he asked the question that caused the man to respond with intent and to resist sarcasm. No, the answer must have not been as obvious as it seemed. Jesus wanted to know. Did the man really want to be made well or not?
As clear as the answer seems to us, the man failed to give a direct answer. Why not a simple “yes”? Thirty-eight years is a long time to be able to settle into a kind of comfort and safety even in misery. But instead of a simple “yes” to Jesus’ question, the man begins explaining to Jesus why he can’t be made well. He says, “Sir, I have no one to put me into the pool when the water is stirred up; and besides, while I am making my way, someone else steps down ahead of me.” I suppose, we all have our challenges to finding healing and wholeness. But for most of us—not all of us—but for most of us, our challenges pale in comparison to the man in this story. For so many of us, we get so accustomed to the familiar—day after day, week after week, month after month, year after year—that we fail to realize the difference between living and simply existing. We get paralyzed, unable to move, because we can’t see beyond our current reality—our present circumstances.
There is a part of me that feels reluctant, even uncomfortable in dealing with this question, “Do you want to be made well?” I think of people I know who are suffering from illness and disability and who long to be made well. The question, “Do you want to be made well?” seems so unfair to even utter in their presence. When I read these healing stories in the Bible—stories where Jesus actually cured and healed people from their disease and disability—I am always a bit hesitant to draw attention to them for they seem random and by chance. I felt that reading this story. Why, when the text says, “In these [porticoes] lay MANY invalids…” did Jesus choose to heal just one of them? And why this man? What made his situation different from all the others that he was the one to receive healing? The only way I know how to respond to those questions within me is to acknowledge and embrace the mystery of this life and of God. To some, that may seem like an insufficient response. And it may very well be a weak theological argument to all the pain and suffering and injustice in our world. But it is, for now, the best way I know to live into the words of scripture that remind us that “our ways are not God’s ways.”
And so it is, with that confession, I want to return to the question Jesus is asking, “Do you want to be made well?” I wonder if there is a question behind the question. You know with Jesus there was often more to his question than met the eye. When he asked, “Who is my neighbor?” he wasn’t just asking about who lived next door. When he asked, “Who do you say that I am?” he wasn’t asking if you knew his name or where he lived or who his parents were. No, those questions held a much deeper meaning. And I am wondering if that is true in this story? And I am wondering if the deeper question Jesus is asking when he asks, “Do you want to be made well?” is, “Do you really want to be changed?” Do you really want your life to look different? And are you willing to risk stepping outside your comfort and familiarity, even your misery, to experience a different way of living and being? Too often we want to be healed/made well but we resist the change that is necessary to find our healing and wholeness. Instead, we find ourselves in that place that Carl Sandburg described when he said, “There is an eagle in me that wants to soar, and there is a hippopotamus in me that wants to wallow in the mud.” Indeed, change is not easy. To, metaphorically, take up our mat and walk takes courage and risk. And it requires us to see beyond the challenges and obstacles before us. For most of us, being made well is about our souls finding and soaring with that eagle that is inside of us instead of being satisfied with the hippopotamus that, too, is a part of us and inside each of us.
In the end, there was nothing magical about the waters at the pool by the Sheep Gate in Bethzatha. Being made well, most possibly, is after all, about asking the right questions at the right time and then being willing to change—to take up one’s mat and walk toward new possibilities and new opportunities—to walk in unfamiliar places, willing to see oneself differently. Jesus asks, “Do you want to be made well?” Do you really want to be changed? Maybe it’s not such an insensitive, offensive question. Maybe, it is one of the most compassionate questions Jesus ever asked his would-be followers. In this question may very well be the difference between living and simply existing!