Sermon Commentary for Sunday, May 22, 2022
John 5:1-9 Commentary
The Lectionary gives us a choice on texts this week. I’m choosing to work with the healing on the Sabbath that occurred at the pool of Bethesda. By the way, if you’re looking to preach on the other lectionary text option this week, my colleague Scott wrote on it the last time through the Year C cycle.
Reading other people’s interpretations of the man suffering from a debilitating illness (a more accurate translation of the Greek word for “ill”), I was struck by the attitudes ascribed to the man’s answer to Jesus. Particularly, most of the reflections and exegesis I read saw the man as defensive when Jesus asks him, “Do you want to be made well?”
Now, maybe he is defensive. Maybe he’s defensive because he is tired of suffering—it’s been 38 years after all—and being made to feel like it’s his fault. I can see how the question Jesus poses, “Do you want to be made well?” could imply that there’s something still wrong within himself, like he’s responsible for this sickness that has plagued and broken him… Or maybe he’s defensive because here’s this man he doesn’t know, has never met before (see verse 14) asking a question so obvious that it’s offensive: of course the man wants to be healed, that’s why he’s at the pool of Bethesda!
Often, the homiletical turn that these reflections take is to inward questioning about our own ways of holding back from being made well by God… our own stubbornness and defensiveness at the idea that there is something wrong in us that does need repentance and to change. And perhaps the Holy Spirit has brought this to the forefront for very good reason and purpose… perhaps it’s the message that the Spirit would like you to preach this week.
It strikes me that the attitude we ascribe to this man laying at the pool is very likely an identification with something in our own lives, revealing how we might react to being questioned by Jesus.
But, when I first read this text, I didn’t read any of this defensive attitude in the man. Instead, I heard a man who matter of factly describes his situation. This is probably because I identify with this man physically more than spiritually: I too have physical disabilities and there have been so many times on the road of seeking healing that I have felt so very utterly alone, “without a person to help me.”
Going to a slew of doctor and care provider appointments, trying to learn about what I’m being told is going on in me, waiting, waiting, waiting, for the next specialist… it’s exhausting and it’s easy to feel like you aren’t going to make it. You struggle to change your frame of reference and your standards for your lifestyle so that you don’t fall into the trap of believing that because you can’t do things, you’re giving up.
On top of these mental games and physical challenges, many people with disabilities lack a person who is able to come alongside to be with them, to join in advocating for them through the health system. As just one concrete example (at least in Canada), many people on disability assistance have to choose between getting married and keeping their disability benefits, since getting married changes the way the government will support them. Often, losing those benefits is too costly and cannot be made up for by their partner’s financial resources or insurance coverage. (This is sometimes referred to as “marriage penalties.”) There are so very many people who “have no one to put [them] into the pool.”
Perhaps for some, it is not a matter of wanting or not wanting to be well. It is a matter of having the community needed in order to be made well.
Notice that this man did not ask to be made well nor is there mention of faith as a perquisite for healing. When Jesus steps up to this man, he is just a regular ol’ stranger. From the perspective of the man laying at the pool, this man (Jesus) might be a man who will judge him, or a man who will help him; either way, the disable man’s circumstances are the same: he answers that the obstacle to his getting healed is that he is alone and ignored by those who are able to help him get into the pool.
In verse 6 Jesus is described as “knowing” that this man had been suffering from his debilitating illness and trying to get into the miraculous pool for a very long time. Caught up in this sentence is both a statement of this man’s patient perseverance in trying to live and seek wholeness where it can be found as well as Jesus’ compassion. As Herman Ridderbos describes it, Jesus knew this man “in the depths of his misery…” a misery of a man “doomed for years to powerlessness on account of an incurable illness, looking in vain for a miracle to happen, who had no one to assist him.”
It is this knowledge that leads Jesus to answer the obstacle that has stood between the man and his healing: as Jesus speaks to him, he is no longer alone; the man has someone who will help him, advocate for him, be with him and acknowledge him as a human being with worth. He has the very man who is also God.
With this lens, when Jesus asks this man if he wants to be well, he is giving this man recognition as a human being with his own agency—Jesus is recognizing him as a person as he joins the man in his suffering and works this miracle. In this part of their interactions, Jesus has no care or concern about his spiritual life or faith: he is content to provide physical healing and wholeness. (Later, they will interact again and Jesus speaks to his soul. But these two instances need not be held together as perquisites for God’s actions in either.)
Of course, as our text notes at the very end, this healing stirred controversy because it was performed on the Sabbath and Jesus’ command to the man to pick up his mat put the man in direct violation of Sabbath law. Even after this miraculous healing, God’s people separate this man out, keeping him “alone” as a law-breaker. It’s more than a little exasperating, considering that Christ’s design for the church is that no one is to ever feel like they “have no one.”
What if we learned from Jesus and simply sought to support, uphold, and partner with people who, in their own agency, are seeking wholeness and well-being? What if, instead of dictating what that wholeness and well-being must look like, we asked them what sort of healing is taking place and what sort of life they see God shaping for them, and how we might support them? What if we asked them what sort of support they might be able to give us, trusting them to have agency and ability and contributions to the body of Christ? Even though with God, no one is ever alone, God has put us together as his body for a reason.
Did you notice that your translation probably left out verse 4? Verse 4 is thought to be a later addition to the gospel narrative, as it provides the folk tale explanation for why the pool at Bethesda was so special. In case your Bible doesn’t provide that material, here it is: “waiting for the stirring of the water; 4for 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 from whatever disease that person had.”
What is interesting to me about this is that in the Old Testament, a visit from the “angel of the Lord” often becomes synonymous with having seen Yahweh himself. (See the story of Samson’s conception in Judges 13, for instance.)
While reflecting on this text in The Christian Century, Ron Hansen translates Jesus’ healing action as Christ showing himself to be the “stirred up” waters that work miracles of healing. Not an angel of the Lord, but the Lord himself.
In working on this text, I came across The Visual Commentary on Scripture. One of the pieces of art it highlights for our text is the 1842 sculpture, Angel of the Waters, designed by Emma Stebbins, to commemorate the Croton Aqueduct, which delivered fresh water to Manhattan Island. (Prior to the aqueduct, people in New York City were getting sick from their water supply.) Angel of the Waters sits in Bethesda Terrace in Central Park and has long outlasted the aqueduct. As Naomi Billingsley reflects, the fountain and statue “continue to represent Central Park as a place of respite, and a green lung in the high-rise city that surrounds it… a modern incarnation of the sacred, public space of Bethesda…”
Having lived as a single person, alone, during Covid lockdown in downtown Vancouver, BC, I know the healing power of intentional green space. Considering that less than 30% of Manhattan Island is green, and that almost half of its population are single people, it is quite easy to imagine that sitting under the Angel of the Waters became a healing gift for many people these last few years—especially as the only place where they could interact with other people, going from those of us who had “no one” to having someone to help us through the challenges of our time.
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