Rev. Teri Peterson
Do we want to be made well?
9 February 2014, NL4-23
Then Jesus came again to Cana in Galilee where he had changed the water into wine. Now there was a royal official whose son lay ill in Capernaum. When he heard that Jesus had come from Judea to Galilee, he went and begged him to come down and heal his son, for he was at the point of death. Then Jesus said to him, ‘Unless you see signs and wonders you will not believe.’ The official said to him, ‘Sir, come down before my little boy dies.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Go; your son will live.’ The man believed the word that Jesus spoke to him and started on his way. As he was going down, his slaves met him and told him that his child was alive. So he asked them the hour when he began to recover, and they said to him, ‘Yesterday at one in the afternoon the fever left him.’ The father realized that this was the hour when Jesus had said to him, ‘Your son will live.’ So he himself believed, along with his whole household. Now this was the second sign that Jesus did after coming from Judea to Galilee.
After this there was a festival, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem. Now in Jerusalem by the Sheep Gate there is a pool, called in Hebrew Beth-zatha (Bethesda), which has five porticoes. In these lay many invalids—blind, lame, and paralyzed. One man was there who had been ill for thirty-eight years. When Jesus saw him lying there and knew that he had been there a long time, he said to him, ‘Do you want to be made well?’ The sick man answered him, ‘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.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Stand up, take your mat and walk.’ At once the man was made well, and he took up his mat and began to walk.
Now that day was a sabbath. So the authorities said to the man who had been cured, ‘It is the sabbath; it is not lawful for you to carry your mat.’ But he answered them, ‘The man who made me well said to me, “Take up your mat and walk.” ’ They asked him, ‘Who is the man who said to you, “Take it up and walk”?’ Now the man who had been healed did not know who it was, for Jesus had disappeared in the crowd that was there. Later Jesus found him in the temple and said to him, ‘See, you have been made well! Do not sin any more, so that nothing worse happens to you.’ The man went away and told the authorities that it was Jesus who had made him well. Therefore they started persecuting Jesus, because he was doing such things on the sabbath. But Jesus answered them, ‘My Father is still working, and I also am working.’ For this reason theywere seeking all the more to kill him, because he was not only breaking the sabbath, but was also calling God his own Father, thereby making himself equal to God.
I think healing stories are so hard. Because sometimes, people get a miraculous healing. And sometimes they don't. Sometimes people ask and receive, sometimes people receive without asking, and sometimes...suffering, and pain, and death come anyway. I have been that person who begs, who bargains, who prays for nothing else. Sometimes the answer has been incredible....and sometimes heartbreaking. So when I read stories like these today, I come with experience of my own, and carrying the stories of dozens of others, friends and church members and colleagues and family.
Sometimes I hear people say that if we just had more faith, or we just prayed harder, or we just asked more specifically, healing would come. And other times I hear people resign themselves, saying all the suffering must be part of God's plan. But here's the thing: our Reformed tradition says neither of those is quite right. There's no magic formula for the amount of faith it takes--because scripture tells us that faith is a gift of the Spirit, not something we manufacture ourselves. And throughout the Bible we see that God's plan is never for suffering, but always for wholeness. Today's two healing stories are perfect examples of both of these realities.
In the first story, we have a royal official--other gospel accounts call him a centurion, a Roman, a gentile. He's as much of an outsider as you can get: he’s a foreigner, he works for the oppressor, and he’s of a different religion. He comes to Jesus with a straightforward request: heal my son. He doesn't make a statement of faith, Jesus doesn't grill him about his sins, just a question: heal my son. Please.
In the second story, we meet a man who has been an invalid for a long time. He is a Jew, like Jesus--an insider in the system, living in the holy city. He doesn't ask, he doesn't even know who Jesus is, he doesn't proclaim his belief...Jesus just walks up and heals him.
Both men go away from their encounter healed. Both go away and talk about Jesus. Both have big obstacles to overcome on their path to healing and wholeness...and they approach those obstacles in very different ways.
The royal official goes away from his conversation not knowing what will happen. Jesus says his son will live, but they're 20 miles away from home. It'll be many hours of walking before he knows what's happened. He turns and walks, trusting even in the midst of the fear, uncertainty, and hopelessness of the situation. Though he cannot know what will happen, he walks.
The second man, the invalid by the pool, is approached by Jesus, who asks him: do you want to be made well?
It seems a silly question--who would say no? Of course we all want to be made well.
But the man's answer is not an answer. Instead he says "well, there's no one to help me...I can't get there by myself...I'm sick, you see, and I have been for a long time, and other people always get there before me." He doesn't exactly say no, but he doesn't say yes either. It's almost as if his illness has so overtaken his identity, he can't answer the question. All he knows how to do is point out the problem and place nebulous blame.
When Jesus heals him anyway, this man too begins to walk. But his walk is very different from the other story. This man walks right back into the old ways, and finds himself rebuked for breaking the Sabbath, then passing the blame to Jesus. Rather than walking into the new life Jesus gave him, he remained trapped in the story he’d been telling about himself.
This is starting to sound a bit like the Body of Christ, not just one man’s body. And so I wonder, what if we read these stories as two options for the Body of Christ, The Church? The question is there: Do you want to be made well?
What if it means breaking the rules of how church is supposed to be?
What if it means walking into the unknown?
What if it means letting go of the story we have always told about ourselves?
What if it means trusting, forgiving, healing, listening, praying, working…with no certainty about what will happen at the end?
Do you want to be made well?
The man by the pool told Jesus "I've been here a long time, and my body doesn’t all work together properly, and there's no one to help me, and other people always get there first."
I’ve heard The Body of Christ say those things too. All over The Church, the same conversation is happening: we look at the neighborhood, at the dwindling resources, at the bigger churches down the road, at the changing demographics, and most of all at the way things used to be. We tell a story where the best days are behind us and the problems should have been solved by someone else. Our disagreements descend into gossip and hurtful words. We have no idea what could be, because our story is all about what was and what isn’t.
Jesus waltzes right into that story and offers another way. God’s vision is always for life—not just for bodies that walk and talk, but people and communities made whole and transformed. Jesus even says so flat out at the end of today’s reading: “Regardless of the rules you’ve set up, regardless of the box you’ve stuffed God into, my Father is still working, and so am I.” In fact, Jesus continues to waltz right into our stories and offer another way. I’ve seen it downstairs on Wednesday night, and upstairs every day the temperature was below zero. I’ve seen it in the library on Sunday morning. I’ve seen it in the Cosby room at 11pm on a Tuesday night. I’ve seen it in this room, and out on the front lawn, and at five sites around the neighborhood one Sunday morning. I’ve even seen it at Presbytery meetings, strange though that may seem. Healing and wholeness are possible. New life is possible. And it’s also possible to live the old story instead, complete with blinders and rose colored glasses and fault always being someone else’s.
The second man was all excuses, and even after his body was healed, he continued to live the same old story, with no peace or wholeness to be found. But this is not a “God-helps-those-who-help-themselves story. That’s not in the Bible. Instead we see that Jesus heals both of these men, before they have anything to say about him. The question is what they’ll do with that healing. Just like in creation, just like in the Exodus, just like in the call of the disciples, God acts first, before they believe…and then asks them to walk with the Spirit on a rule-breaking journey into the unknown. First their bodies are made whole, and then their spirits too. It’s that last part that has a bit of choice about it—the first man puts one foot in front of the other, every step a choice to trust and hope, rather than despair. The second man isn’t able to imagine those steps into abundant life.
Do we want to be made well? Will we walk the path even when the future is uncertain? Will we trust Jesus that life is ahead? Will we break the rules of what church is supposed to be in order to risk living the life God has in mind?
Ancient Greek philosophers said, “it is solved by walking.” Or, we might say today, “we’ll figure it out as we go along.” We may not have all the answers, or know the final outcome, but one step at a time we can follow Christ’s way…and on the way, we might just find healing and wholeness.
May it be so. Amen.