By The Rev. Sherry Deets

6 Easter – May 5, 2013

John 5:1-9

John says when Jesus got to Jerusalem he entered the city by the Sheep Gate and went to the pool of Bethesda nearby. The Sheep Gate still stands today. It was called the Sheep Gate because shepherds would drive their sheep into Jerusalem through this gate and on over to the Pool of Bethesda to the right, where they would be washed before taken to the temple for sacrifice.

The pool of Bethesda was separated by a dividing wall in the middle, creating two bodies of water. The sheep were washed at one end of the pool, and people bathed at the other end.

Around the sides of the pool where the people bathed, there were five porticos and, under the porticos, people with various infirmities gathered in hopes of being healed. According to John, “In these (porticos) lay a great multitude of those who were sick, blind, lame, or paralyzed…”

Now, the pool of Bethesda was fed by an underground spring, and when the spring overflowed, it would bubble up from beneath causing a disturbance in the waters above. In Jesus’ day there was a legend that this rippling of the waters was caused by the fluttering of angels’ wings, so that the first person to enter the turbulent waters would be cured. According to John, Jesus met a man who had been coming to the pool of Bethesda for thirty-eight years in hopes of being healed, but because he was paralyzed, he had no means of getting into the water on his own, much less getting there first. And so, Jesus asked, “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, but while I’m coming, another steps down before me.”

Jesus said to him, “Stand, take up your mat, and walk.” Immediately, the man was made well, and took up his mat and walked.

Now, at first, Jesus’ question seems like such an odd thing to ask: “Do you want to be made well?” What kind of question is that? Why, of course, he wanted to be made well. He’d been coming to the pool all of his life. Why else would he have been there?

Yet, when you think about it, thirty-eight years is a long time to wait for a miracle, especially when the conditions were so obviously impossible to meet. From the man’s own admission, he had no hope of reaching the water before the others. You have to wonder why he kept coming back, day after day, year after year. Given the circumstances, he had no reasonable chance of ever being made well. So, in this sense, it was a good question: “Do you (really) want to be made well?” Because, if you do, you’re going about it the wrong way. Unless something gives, it’s not going to happen.

When Jesus saw him he realized the man was stuck. But, instead of carrying him to the pool he said to him, “Do you want to be made well?” The man answered that he had no one to carry him. Jesus, however said, “Stand up, take your mat and walk.” Rather than oblige the man by carrying him to the healing pool, Jesus challenged him to walk away from it. If the man wanted to be healed he had to quit focusing on a miracle cure and move in a different direction. He had to be led away from the thing that was giving him false hope.

God doesn’t see us as deficient people. God doesn’t want us to be stuck. God doesn’t want us to put our hope in things that give us a false sense of security. What gets us unstuck is God’s love for us and our focus on God, not instant cure-alls.

When Jesus encountered the man he said there was no one to help him. He had given up. He had resigned himself to a state of hopelessness. So what did Jesus do? He asked the impossible. “Stand up.” This almost seems cruel. How could an invalid stand up? Perhaps he was saying, “Quit feeling sorry for yourself.” Or, perhaps he was coaching him like he had never been coached before. Or, perhaps something else is going on here.

I wonder if Jesus told him to “stand up,” because he saw in him what no one else had ever seen; potential. Jesus saw him as a whole human being. In Jesus’ day, invalids were not considered a vital part of the community. But, Jesus sees everyone as vital. No handicap, no illness, no psychological disorder separates us from the love of God.

It would appear that this is just another miracle story, where a man who could not walk was healed by Jesus and was then able to walk. When you carefully read the story you will note that Jesus did nothing to cure him. He didn’t touch him, he didn’t say, “believe and you will be made well,” he didn’t even pray. What he did do was redirect the man’s focus away from the pool and toward God.

By focusing on God we become unstuck. The difficult decisions we need to make can be resolved when we focus on God. We will experience newness when we walk away from those things in life that are nothing more than a “Band-Aid” approach that make us feel better, but only temporarily. We can be healed of all bitterness, anger and worry when we “walk” toward God.

Now I want to share an excerpt from that classic book, The Velveteen Rabbit: “What is real?” asked the Rabbit one day, when they were lying side by side near the nursery fender, before Nana came to tidy the room. “Does it mean having things that buzz inside you and a stick-out handle?” “Real isn’t how you are made,” said the Skin Horse. “It’s a thing that happens to you. When a child loves you for a long, long time, not just to play with, but really loves you, then you become real.”

“Does it hurt?” asked the Rabbit.

“Sometimes,” said the Skin Horse, for he was always truthful. “When you are real you don’t mind being hurt.”

“Does it happen all at once, like being wound up,” he asked, “or bit by bit?”

“It doesn’t happen all at once,” said the Skin Horse. “You become. It takes a long time. That’s why it doesn’t often happen to people who break easily, or have sharp edges, or who have to be carefully kept. Generally, by the time you are real, most of your hair has been loved off, and your eyes drop out and you get loose in the joints and very shabby. But these things don’t matter at all, because once you are real, you can’t be ugly, except to people who don’t understand.” (From The Velveteen Rabbit by Margery Williams Bianco)

We all want our Red Sea moments. We want God to part the water or do something great, but we don’t realize that we have to allow ourselves to be in over our head first.”

We have to be willing to shed the safe and comfortable in order to escape from the myopic living that has unknowingly imprisoned our souls and imaginations. We get stuck. Like the Skin Horse said to the Velveteen Rabbit, becoming real “doesn’t happen all at once. It takes a long time.” Sometimes “long” is a week, sometimes it’s more than a year. However long it takes, becoming real cannot be avoided. And like the wise Skin Horse reminds us: when you are real, no one else’s perception of you matters because you know who you are and whose you are: God’s beloved.

When Jesus told the man to “walk” it didn’t make any sense. But it was exactly what he needed to do to get unstuck. My focus, like all of you, needs to be on what God wants for me, not some man-made source that can only give me false hope. The man’s hope, my hope, and your hope is when we walk toward God. Amen.

Copyright 2008-2012 Episcopal Church of the Trinity.

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