Text: John 5:1-9
Imagine this conversation:
Excuse me Jesus. What did you ask? Do I want to be made well? Do you know me? I’ve been coming to this pool for thirty-eight years ever since I was struck ill with this disease at age 10. Someone said that if I could get into this pool when the waters are stirred by an angel I might be cured – I might walk again. And so, for two years, my parents would bring me here every morning hoping that these waters might bubble up and I could be lowered into them. But when they didn’t see any results they stopped bringing me. After my parents stopped bringing me, my sister would come with me. That’s when she was younger. But she, too, got tired of the daily struggle and once she had a family of her own she had other priorities. After those early years, I figured it was just easier to stay here all the time so I haven’t left this porch in 38 years. Some of the people who come through the gate each day are generous and leave me enough food to survive on. Actually, the people here have become like family to me stopping to speak each day and sometimes even inquiring about how I am doing. Many of them have been coming here almost as long as I have. I guess, though, at 38 years I’ve been here the longest.
But back to your question Jesus: Do I want to be made well? As I said, I was ten when my legs became paralyzed. I was devastated to learn that I might not ever walk or run again. I had so many hopes and dreams of what I might become, of who I might be. These last 38 years have been hard as I have watched all those hopes and dreams whither, along with my legs. Each day sitting here, waiting for a miracle but knowing that I’m probably not going to get better. As I think about your question, I realize that at least here I know what to expect and I know all of the other people nearby. Come to think about it, I’ve kind of gotten used to being here. You ask, “Do I want to be made well?”
I’ve always found it odd that in this story the ill man never answered Jesus’ question: Do you want to be made well? Instead, he offers an excuse, “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.” From this side of the story it seems implausible that the man who had been lying by a pool for 38 years waiting to be healed would not have screamed “YES! Yes I want to be made well.” But that is not how the story is told. Have you ever wondered why? Why didn’t the man answer Jesus’ question and affirm his desire to be made well?
I have. And most recently, I have wondered if the ill man didn’t scream out yes because he was afraid, because he feared the cure more than the illness? Thirty-eight years he had been waiting to be healed, and when asked if he wanted to be healed he made an excuse. As I have thought about this text over the last several days, I have wondered if it is easier to make excuses for the parts of our lives that are not working for us – “I can’t get to the water Jesus; there’s always someone else who gets there first” – than it is to seek health and wholeness and balance and responsibility for our lives – to stand up, take our mat and walk?
With so much pulling at us, keeping us busy, tired and diverted, is there a more pressing or relevant question for our time than this one that Jesus asks the man by the pool at Beth-zatha thousands of years ago: Do you want to be made well? Notice, Jesus does not ask, Do you want to walk? And even though the man is clearly suffering, and the text says, “Jesus knew he had been there a long time,” he doesn’t ask the man about basic needs, he doesn’t say, Do you want shelter, or food, or drink?The list goes on. Jesus does NOT ask, Do you want to be saved? And potentially hardest for us to believe, he does not ask, Do you want to be happy? Instead, the question is specific, Do you want to be made well? Or as some translations say, Do you want to be made whole?
What does this question mean, and why might Jesus have focused on wellness or wholeness instead of the specific physical limitations of this man? I think it may mean that Jesus is asking, “Do you want to take responsibility for your life?” Do you want to stop making excuses, blaming others, or maybe just stop focusing on your wounds? Do you want to claim the life you’ve been given – the wholeness that is your birthright? Not a wholeness or wellness that means that everything is perfect in life. Wellness and wholeness don’t equal perfect. They are not the same as “without pain” or “without loss.” Rather they describe a state of being, an acceptance of the reality within us and around us, and a willingness to live as fully into that reality as possible. Jesus is asking us, can we be the beloved in our brokenness? Can we be whole in the face of our full and flawed humanity? Do we want to change the things in our lives that keep us paralyzed?
If we listen to this story, the answer to that question is an unconditional yes. It doesn’t matter what has brought us to the poolside, whether it’s a physical ailment or a broken heart, or an addiction, or a crumbling relationship, or just a lifetime of patterns that don’t work. This past week I found myself at the pool. Physically and emotionally exhausted, I found myself struggling. It was, and is, tempting to make excuses, to focus on why things can’t be different than they are, to talk myself right back to the spot by the pool where I don’t have the choice to be whole. That place in my head that says I have to be there for everyone, that it’s my job to carry all the responsibility, that my health is not important. But I think the message in this story is that there is always that choice. Jesus has walked straight up to this man, found him in his lost place, and met him there. He has offered him, without expectation, the option to be well. But first he has asked him, Do you want to be made well?
As I said earlier, it has always struck me that the man never answers Jesus’ question, and yet he is healed. What does that mean for us? Maybe it means that just being willing to hear the question is important. That if we can allow the question in our most vulnerable times and places, we can be met there and received. For me, the good news in this story is the 38 years. Thirty-eight years is a long time. But Jesus looked at the person who’d been there the longest and said it isn’t too late. No matter how long we’ve been stuck, or made excuses, or avoided the question, the Gospel, Jesus says, means that even after 38 years, you can stand up, pick up your mat and walk. If you want to be made well, it’s never too late.
With Jesus, there was often more to his questions than met the eye. When he asked, “Who is your 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? 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 and 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.” Change is not easy. To take up our mat and walk takes courage and risk. It requires us to see beyond the challenges and obstacles before us. It is about 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.
There was nothing magical about the waters at the pool by the Sheep Gate in Beth-zatha. Being made well, most probably, 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. The question is: Do you want to be made well?