John 5: 1-9

Easter 6   Text: John 5: 1-9 

Within the 4 Gospels we have in the New Testament, there are healing stories galore … suggesting that the healing that happened through Jesus’ encounters with people along the way made a deep and lasting impression. As people recounted stories about him, passing along what they recalled of his way and what he was about, they couldn’t help but speak of Jesus the healer.

We spent some time with a few of the 13 healing stories in the Gospel of Mark the week I was away on study leave in early May. The thing that was drawn to our attention that we began to notice is how Jesus healed for the sake of setting people free … free to go home, free to exercise their agency in life, freed from isolating stigma to be part of community, to reclaim dignity. Always the healing comes with Jesus’ encouragement, his summons, to “go on your way.” He doesn’t heal in order to get people to sign on to his program, but for the sake of liberating people … setting people free to be alive in a new way!

The story we have this morning from John’s Gospel takes us to the city of Jerusalem, to a pool of water near one of the city gates. This is not just any pool, but the pool that legend or tradition or rumour has it that, now and then, at times no one can predict, an angel troubles the water giving it healing qualities, and the first person who gets themselves into the water will be healed of whatever their infirmity. On this day there are a great number of people --sick, blind, lame, paralysed, lying in the covered porches surrounding the pool. One man, we’re told, has been crippled for 38 years. When Jesus enters the area, and sees this man, knowing its been a very long time, he approaches him and asks him “do you want to get well?”

“Well, what kind of question is that, Jesus?” we might wonder on the man’s behalf … in his defence. Why do you think he’s lying where he is? Why are you asking him? as if getting well isn’t all he thinks about … all he aches for. 38 years! … don’t you get it … that’s longer than all your life! Of course he wants to get well, we say, never having met him, feeling the insult of the question on his behalf.

Except that it isn’t like Jesus to rub salt into a wound. It’s more like him to see and to see deeply, below the surface … and to want dearly, fiercely even, our healing … for us to come into our hidden wholeness. So what if instead of reacting, we give his question some room … let it bubble. Do you want to be well … whole … free? What if we let it trouble us if it needs to, trusting it’s not meant to insult but to serve life.

For it is possible that whatever ails us, especially if it’s of longstanding, it’s possible that we’re no longer hoping for something different … it’s just become the way it is …part of who we are, what it means to be me. We may have long since forgotten even to imagine life without whatever it is that ails us. We may even have consciously or unconsciously somehow turned it to our benefit in a way … the way it may protect us or excuse us or serve us in some way. And so, strange as it may sound, it is possible that we’re invested in it, even while it cripples us. [1]

Not long ago I came face to face with this in my own being. It was in conversation with someone who was part of the same gathering I was. This person shared with me his experience of feeling shut out, of being invisible, which for him was painful. His whole point in being part of the gathering was to connect. Here’s what I recognized in myself and what I actually shared with him. “If you weren’t part of my designated small group,” I said to him, “I wouldn’t be talking to you either… I would be one of those people keeping their distance.” Why? he asked. “Because you know what you’re doing … and you are great at what you do. And I haven’t a clue. I’d be afraid you’d ask me what I’m up to and I wouldn’t have anything to say that would sound like anything to you. It’s that demon of inadequacy and fear of humiliation … I’m afraid of setting myself up, so it’s safer to keep my distance,” I told him.

He was so generous toward me … instead of lashing out in hurt, he thanked me! It helped him understand some of the dynamics in himself and in the gathering. We ended up having a beautiful connection -- one that will lead to more. What I could see so clearly is how this thing that haunts me, while it on the one hand serves to protect me, it also serves to isolate me where I could be learning and receiving so much. And in ways I didn’t appreciate before, I came to see how, through it, I contribute to the isolation of others. Where’d it come from? God knows … and maybe therein lies the hope! But what I keep coming back to was this moment when I was in grade 3 … 10 years old … and a teacher asked some question about the Bible. Me being a minister’s kid, he expected me to know the answer, and I didn’t know the answer; and he couldn’t believe I didn’t know the answer, and I died of embarrassment. That’s the story that lingers …at least, that’s one of them … still working away, 50 years later!

I can hear something of this, and maybe you can too, in voice of the man who’s been crippled -- in his case, for only 38 years (!) … when Jesus puts it to him, “do you want to be well?” … and he goes on about how there’s no one to put him in the water at the right time, and others get there first. In other words how it’s beyond him … how it’s about what others do or fail to do. Except that Jesus at this point isn’t asking about others, (in my case, isn’t asking about that teacher) isn’t asking him (or me) to name or blame the others. He’s asking the man about himself … he’s intent on bringing him back to himself … asking him to tune into his own heart … do you want to be well? do you want to be free? What do you really want? YOU.

Do you notice that when the man at the pool responds, speaking about how he’s stuck, what isn’t happening for him, Jesus doesn’t go there with him. Nor does he lower him into the water in the event healing properties still linger there, nor does he hang about to be there for him the next time the water is troubled. Jesus is not bound by the man’s story or how he imagines healing will come. The Freedom Giver imagines another way … speaks a fresh word: “Stand up,” he says, “Rise! Roll up your mat and go home!” And the man does!
Wild! Isn’t it?

When Daniel and I were sitting with this story last week, Daniel was reminded of Nina Simone singing “I Wish I Could Know What it Feels to Be Free.” This is one of those times I think if only we had the equipment right here to watch Nina singing so we could experience her together. When you get home (or with your phone before you ever get there), look her up. Watch her singing I Wish I Could Know What it Feels to be Free. And tell me if she isn’t in a different place in her being after she sings that piece than when she first sits down at the piano... as though taking in the words and singing them out puts the taste of freedom in her mouth, gives her to see this breath-taking vision in her mind’s eye, and ignites such deep desire for it in her heart such that it’s pulsing through her veins … it’s like an explosive seed has been planted in her being … and she’s moving out, moving on! free to give all the love she has to give … free to be who by God’s love she’s already been given to be.

I wonder if she doesn’t show us something of what happened to our friend by the pool, crippled for 38 years ... wearily waiting for the water to be troubled … only then to feel a word enter his crippled body … trouble his hopeless spirit. I wonder if healing began to flow in him before Jesus uttered those words “stand up!” … I wonder if the healing began with sound of that penetrating question … do you want to be well? Whole? Do you want to be free? -- how those words ignited something deep inside. So that then, when along came “Stand Up! … roll up your mat and go home”-- words that aren’t just words but the strong breathing of a Yes, blessing, empowering him to make a move, to move on … and he lets it blow clear through him and he’s no longer bound but on his way … on his way home to freedom.

What is it that haunts or cripples you? What holds you down …holds you back … holds you captive … doesn’t let you soar?
Do you want to be whole? Do you want to be free?
Have you ever been asked that question? Really asked... and really heard it like it mattered?

Not for any one of us has the end of the story already been written. The Gospel … the Good News is still being written … because the Risen Christ continues to show up in our midst. Do you want to be well? It’s a question Jesus will never stop asking, because his heart’s desire is for our wholeness, our freedom, our thriving. So along with his question is his readiness to be there for us … to lend us courage and strength … to open a way for us … that God’s grace may be wildly at work in us in ways we might never have thought possible.

The Gospel is still being written … written in our time … in our own flesh.

What’s the healing story being written in your life?

 [1]  Debbie Thomas, The Question that Hurts, posted on Journey with Jesus, May 19, 2019