An intrepid leader in our weekly Faith Connections gathering for adults is fond of using the imagery of an onion with its many layers when approaching the study of scripture. Today’s gospel story is just such an onion-like creature, with its many layers and facets to the story contained in our gospel. For today I would like to focus on just one of those layers – this command of Jesus to the man at the center of the story.
First, Jesus asks this man he meets at a pool of healing, “do you want to be well?” Do you want to be whole? Well, don’t just sit there. “Take up your mat. Walk.”
What an interesting exchange between Jesus and the man he encounters at Beth-zatha in today’s Gospel reading.
We may well wonder what happened to sympathy, compassion and understanding. Jesus’ response to this poor man, who, we read, had been sitting and waiting for a swim in that healing pool for 38 long years, doesn’t seem to contain any of those things.
Don’t just sit there, take up your mat and walk!
Jesus doesn’t seem to be very sympathetic. Why does he notice and engage this man to begin with? The man doesn’t cry out to him, doesn’t call him by name, nor does he confess belief in him; the man doesn’t acknowledge Jesus at all. But, not only does Jesus notice him, Jesus knows something about him - probably knows everything about him, truth be told, and Jesus asks him, “Do you want to be made well?”
Is that a rhetorical question, Jesus?
Come to think of it, Jesus could be asking us the very same thing.
As individuals Jesus might ask us, “do you want to be made well?”
As a community – “do you want to be made well?”
As a Church and a congregation – “do you want to be made well?”
Do you want to be made whole? Do you want to be rid of all the things that assail you – not only the physical manifestations of disease but all that which robs you of the full life that God created you for – life in relationship to God and others.
Do you want to be healed of your fear, of the resentments and the hurt you carry with you and allow at times, to define you? Do you want to be relieved of your ego-driven need to be right, to control every situation, to manipulate others to your way of thinking? To be “made well” encompasses so much more than to be physically cured. In fact, that is arguably the most superficial and least important part of the true wholeness Jesus offers.
Surely the man in our text wants to be healed, after all, he has been beside this pool for 38 years! Given the life expectancies of the time, that must have been all or most of his life.
When considering this text, there are some who say that maybe the guy didn’t care about the healing so much, maybe he was just lazy, and didn’t want to work. Perhaps he had simply gotten used to his condition, his helplessness. Others say maybe he was really there simply to beg. A gathering place like this would make the perfect spot to put out your begging mat.
I’m not sure so about that. It sounds too much like the presumptions I sometimes hear about those who are on welfare, or disability, or those who accept government subsidies.
And I don’t think Jesus himself makes those assumptions either.
To understand a little of what the man was doing at the pool, let’s look again at our text from this morning. Let’s look at verse 4 together. I’ll wait until you find it.
Ah, you say – there is no verse 4! The fact is, that in almost any Bible you pick up, with the exception of the King James version, this is what you will find. The text mysteriously skips from verse 3 to verse 5. At the same time, most bibles will clue you in to why the verse is missing, with a tiny little footnote.
The passage as we read it today is faithful to the oldest and therefore considered the most reliable of biblical manuscripts. Most likely in an attempt to make things clear, certain scribes later added the explanation that the blind, lame and paralyzed were “waiting for the stirring of the water; for an angel of the Lord went down at certain seasons into the pool, and stirred up the water; whoever stepped in first after the stirring of the water was made well of whatever disease that person had.” This was a well-known legend of the time.
So now you have it. Part of the problem is that this man could not avail himself of the stirred up waters at the appropriate time. You had to be quick, or have someone who could assist you, or be just plain lucky to hit that water at the right time – to be the first to enter it after the angels stirred it up, in order to be healed, according to legend.
The fact that in 38 years this man was never able to make it into the water after it had been so stirred, was never able to be the first to slip into the potent healing waters of the pool makes you wonder: didn’t he have any friends or family or others who would take pity on him and willingly help him?
Which makes Jesus’ question to him seem all the more cold-hearted. “Do you want to be made well?” Whereupon the man launches into his explanation – or bitter excuse – for why he has been there in all that time.
I just read a story about baseball great Joe Garagiola, who passed away just this Spring – do any of you remember him?
I guess “baseball great” is a bit of an exaggeration, because long before his thirty years as a sports announcer and television host, Garagiola was a catcher in the major leagues. But he wasn’t particularly successful.
He was quoted as saying about himself, “I went through baseball as a ‘player to be named later.’” In the nine years he played ball he was traded four times when there were only eight teams in his league. He once said he thought he was modeling uniforms for the National League.
Garagiola told a story about one night when he was catching against the St. Louis Cardinals. The pitcher that night was young and inexperienced, pitching his very first game in the major league.
Who should come to bat but Stan Musial, one of the greatest sluggers of all time. Immediately the young pitcher felt a bolt of fear flash through his entire being. To make matters worse, there were runners on second and third, the score was tied at six all, and it was the top of the ninth inning.
Joe squatted behind home plate and signaled for the fast ball. But the young pitcher shook his head, indicating that he didn’t want to throw that pitch.
So Garagiola signaled for the curve ball, but again the young pitcher shook that one off as well.
Garagiola tried a third time. He flashed the sign for the slider, the only other pitch in the young player’s repertoire. But once more, the young pitcher shook his head, saying he didn’t want to throw that one either.
Garagiola was utterly confused, so he called time out and went out to the mound. “Hey, man, what’s going on?” he said, “I’ve called for the fast ball, the curve, and the slider. That’s all you’ve got! What do you want to do?”
To which the young rookie answered, “Frankly, Joe, I was wanting to hold onto the ball as long as I could!”
A young athlete, paralyzed by self-doubt and fear; perhaps feeling a bit in over his head. Pick up your mat and walk.
Perhaps you can relate. I know I can.
There are times in our lives when it is easier to simply hang on to the ball. When it feels beyond our ken to trust that our lives will ever be any different or any better than they are; times when we feel like the tides are stacking up against us, and we cannot move against them. It’s easy in those times to lose heart; to lose faith; to feel isolated and paralyzed.
The question then becomes, how do we break the gridlock when something is hindering us, keeping us from both trusting God and growing into the person, or the community, God desires us to be?
We know that this pool, described in the gospel text really did exist – archaeologists actually uncovered and identified it in just the past few decades. And, we know that it was legendary for its healing power – like the present-day Lourdes in France. And, like Lourdes and other places like it, the pool was constantly surrounded by those who would flock there for healing.
It had a powerful reputation, and the legend was that when the waters were troubled, when they were stirred up, that’s when their powers were unleashed; that’s when you needed to jump in.
Rather than help the man into the water, Jesus had another solution.
Pick up your mat and walk. And that’s just what the man did. For whatever reason – could it have been the prodding of a real angel at Jesus’ words, or the Holy Spirit – the man decided to trust Jesus; to follow his instruction; to walk.
In that moment, the man’s life was transformed. He was no longer helpless. He was no longer isolated, or defined by his condition. He no longer had need of a legend to come true for him.
It might seem strange that if it was as easy as simply picking up his mat and walking, he had never thought of it before, never been able to do it before. But of course, we know there is more to this story and this message. Because the fact is, he had never before encountered Jesus.
God’s power and love known through the person of Jesus Christ create and sustain people and communities. God’s power and love, known through Jesus, transform them and open them up to go to unexpected places and do unexpected things.
Like the disciples in the first reading this morning, God’s call to pick up our mat and walk requires trust and obedience. It means being willing to let go of the fear that paralyzes and moving toward all that God is calling us to do and be, trusting that Jesus has the power to heal and save, making true wholeness possible.
The good news of the gospel of Jesus Christ is a healing balm. We don’t know what Jesus was thinking or when he chose this man, perhaps the least likely to be healed (after 38 years of waiting) but we do know this:
Sometimes we sit and wait and wait for something magical to happen. We wait for the waters of our lives or for our ministry here to be stirred and magically take shape so that poof – things might begin to happen. But the angel never appears, the water never stirs, and we are just as broken and paralyzed today as we were yesterday. False gods and false expectations have let us down again.
But then, Jesus reaches out to us. Jesus commands us, take up your mat and walk. Trusting in Christ, our waiting is over, and our healing begins. Jesus, who intimately knows death and resurrection brings life and hope and wholeness, making all things possible.
Jesus brings healing to our personal lives, and to our lives in community. While both may at times feel frozen in fear, waiting for magical release, magical stirring, Jesus is already calling us, getting ready to transform us through the healing power of his love.
In our personal and corporate lives we are being called to prayer; then, to pick up our mats; to follow Jesus’ command to witness and service.
So, what are we waiting for? Let us pick up our mats, and follow Jesus’ command. Because when you think about it, Jesus alone brings life – everything else is just waiting.