After this there was a festival of the Jews, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem. Now in Jerusalem by the Sheep Gate there is a pool, called in Hebrew Bethezda, 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.
May the words of my lips and the meditations of all our hearts be acceptable to you, O Lord.
Jesus is in Jerusalem and he goes to the Pool of Bethesda. Imagine for a moment that you are there: maybe close your eyes and try to imagine the heat of Palestine; the smell of food; the sound of a dog barking or of children playing; the murmur of a group of people nearby. You are at a pool, surrounded by arches offering shade and shelter and the area has become a gathering place for anyone with some sort of sickness: they are watching the surface of the water for the smallest sign of the rippling of the waves. A bubbling from the underground spring or even a breeze could cause a stampede of invalids trying to be the first into the water. You hear Jesus talk to one invalid and offer to heal him - an offer which is accepted - and your curiosity takes over and you move closer.
Now what’s this business of getting into the water all about? Religious commentators explain that when the waters of the pool moved – that movement which triggered the rush of the hopeful to be first into the water for divine healing – the belief was that an Angel had touched the water. I have no doubts that the people of Jesus’ time had a stronger belief in Angels than we have today: or is it that the distance in time and knowledge between then and now has left us question some of these more awkward bits of religious belief? I’ve heard it said that most British Christians are "functional atheists". While we believe in God, we function as if God were still resting after the creation. We don't expect God to break into our lives. Our God tends to be seen as a very passive God.
I certainly grew up questioning much of the traditional elements of the Bible and I suppose like many I simply decided to concentrate on what was clear to me: the person, the teaching and the sacrifice of Jesus. Some of the other stuff, I reasoned, was fringe, a bit too fantastical or not relevant to where I was in my faith at that time. After all, these people didn’t have the scientific and medical knowledge that we take for granted today but had to find some explanation for what they didn’t understand.
In the end, I suspect it comes down to definitions and I’d like to illustrate that with a little scenario from the classroom because the parallel with today’s Gospel is very strong: angels and miracles.
I used to be a High School teacher of RE. My Yr. 8 students - aged 12/13 - had been studying Miracles and it had been a struggle from the outset, if for no other reason than spelling. You see “miracles” on the board, look down to your book and write “miricals.” How does that happen? Every. Single. Time?
Of course, the first problem was that of definition: what are we talking about when we talk of miracles? Blank looks. It took some time, and with heavy guidance from me, to decide on “A dramatic and unusual event which goes against the laws of nature and is caused by God or one of his agents.” This is where it all started to unravel as we were taken down an unexpected line of discussion in relation to what constitutes an agent of God. Predictably angels came in for some considerable forensic examination and I found myself explaining the mind-set of the medieval artist.
“O.K.” I say, “I’m a Medieval Pope.” They look less than convinced.
“Chris, you’re Michelangelo.” Chris looks pleased.
“Chris, I need a nice painting on the ceiling of my new chapel - a Biblical story. How about the Christmas story?”
“Right you are Guv.”
Later Michelangelo gets out his Bible. “What’s in the story that I need to include? Stable, check. Mary and Joseph, check. Infant, check. Cattle, check. Shepherds, check. Wise men, Check. Innkeeper, check. Angels, ch … Angels? Oooh, Angels.”
“What does an angel look like?” I ask.
How about you guys? Any ideas?
Surprisingly for a group of avowed Atheists they soon build up a picture: M & S floaty nighty, pigeon’s wings and a tinsel halo.
“Musical Instrument of choice?” I ask.
“Harp.” They chorus happily, entering into the spirit of the occasion.
“Trumpet.” Someone else offers.
(I ponder, briefly, how far we have moved in five minutes from my carefully crafted lesson plan on miracles – sorry: miricals.)
I draw said angel on the board. It takes about six pen strokes but they pronounce themselves happy with the result.
So I ask them, “How did we get to this?”
“Well, it’s in pictures.”
“And adverts. Sir, Sir, Have you seen that advert for cream cheese where …..?”
And so it goes on. Having established that this image is firmly established in the international imagination, I try to point out that medieval artists were faced with a no-win situation in attempting to represent something visually where there’s not much in the way of description to go on.
I explain, “They needed to get over the idea of something spiritual rather than human otherwise we’d be looking at these paintings asking “Who’s that man in the background?” or “Why are those ladies falling out of the sky?” The angel as we know it is an artistic compromise.”
“Are you saying they don’t look like that then?”
“Well, I’m saying they might not.”
“What do they look like then?”
“O.K.” I take a deep breath. “What does “angel” mean?”
There is no response.
I ask again.
(That’s teen-speak for “I don’t know”)
I offer them a clue, “It’s a Greek word.” Why did I tell them that? This is bottom set of 12 year olds. What are the chances they know New Testament Greek? What is the matter with you man?
Still no ideas.
How about you? Any ideas?
“It simply means messenger of God. What does God’s messenger look like?” Perplexed looks. This is marginally encouraging as it indicates some level of mental activity above and beyond maintaining a heartbeat.
“Do you remember when Mrs. Stanley sent a pupil down with a message last lesson?”
“Are you saying Emily was an angel?”
I’m saying Emily was a messenger. What does a messenger look like?
“Could be anybody.”
“I don’t get it.”
I sigh. I do that a lot with Yr 8. “Why does God’s messenger have to look picturesque?”
“Coz it’s an angel.”
Now, you will recognise that this is a circular argument.
“And angel means messenger.” I persevere. “Why couldn’t anyone be God’s messenger? Please don’t say “because we don’t have wings.””
“So, right? Are you saying Sir that anyone could be an angel because they’d be being God’s messenger?
“I’m just saying that the images of medieval artists might not always be helpful, that’s all. What was an aid to faith in the middle ages seems to be quite the opposite today: "Who'd believe in one of those winged things?"
There is a glimmer of hope that we might, at last, move on to talk about miricals.
“Any questions on anything we’ve looked at so far?” I ask. “Yes Chris?”
“Sir, who’s Michelangelo?”
And yes, much like my lesson, we are moving on to talk about miracles. “A dramatic and unusual event that goes against the laws of nature and is caused by God or one of his agents.” The agent of the Godhead here, being Jesus the Son.
By the way: any ideas why it the passage mentions that it was the Sabbath? It’s important because Jesus has cured on the Sabbath when nothing that could be understood as work might be done.
Surely healing is a necessary, compassionate act which the Sabbath law allows for? Well, yes – in an emergency but this man had been suffering for 38 years so his condition hardly counts as an emergency so his healing could surely wait until the Sabbath was over.
So what? Interesting enough – or maybe not. Why are we considering this passage today? Well, I think there are two possible approaches: I think the challenge for us today is to consider whether Jesus’ words as spoken to this man and the Pharisees are also words for us today? What am I going to do with this passage? What are you going to do with it?
Let’s try this approach: And Jesus asked the man, “Do you want to be made whole?”
Do we fear the cure more than the illness? When we cease being a victim – “I can’t get to the water Jesus; there’s always someone else who gets there first” – and start being responsible then we begin to become strong enough to walk beside others who are in pain and need help. We are more able to accept our enemies and the outcasts no one else wants to know. We no longer make excuses; instead we walk forward to new life in Jesus and go to work serving, healing, hoping, and living a life which involves helping others.
But we know that to get up and follow Jesus will involve us in people’s lives in ways we’re not sure we really want, because to be whole means to be re-connected with God and with God’s people and God’s creation. No more isolation. No more living my own private life where no one bothers me. To be whole means to get off of our backsides and get involved. It means working hard, often doing behind the scenes work that is tedious and overlooked: talking quietly to people; offering a shoulder to cry on; a listening ear; moral and practical support as far as we are able and praying for each other and others – even the ones we don’t much like. We know that to say, “Here, am I Jesus! Send me!” is something that in our heart of hearts we really don’t want to say because it may require us to do something.
But there is another way of looking at this passage: If we are really the modern audience of today’s passage, then are we being invited to examine how the knowledge of God brought by Jesus is rejected because it is too challenging to the way we’ve always done things? “You can’t do that! It’s the Sabbath!” When do the safe and comfortable ways of doing things help to keep people "sick" or "stuck in their condition" rather than offering new life through the power of God? I think that was the situation in today’s Gospel: the man had the opportunity for a new life, a fresh start but the religious rules of his day would have kept him where he was. The rejection of Jesus later in this story, then, is a rejection of the possibility of new ways of knowing God and living the life of faith. Jesus could have avoided the controversy of this healing by waiting until after the Sabbath; or not commanding him to take up his mat.
Jesus did both as a deliberate act.
So what might those things be today?
I remember a lady once complaining about teenagers coming to church in jeans. She was especially upset when they went up for communion in trainers: so disrespectful! Would she rather have had them in church in jeans and trainers, or have her idea of the proper way of doing things keep them away?
Many years ago I was a member of a congregation where the morning service was broadcast live on the Radio. A few days later the vicar received a letter of complaint from a member of the public because the Lord’s Prayer, which had been set to music, had been accompanied … by a guitar! Does obedience to these unwritten “rules” help or hinder the spread of the gospel? Perhaps we should be asking ourselves: "What are we willing to do differently so that more people might hear the Gospel?"
So, look around you. Think about what we do here and what you do afterwards as a result of being here. Is there anything in our practice that keeps people away from the message of Christ?
So, at the start I asked you to try to imagine that you were there. Who in the story did you most identify with: those who stood for the old ways of doing things or those who stood for the new? Your answer to that question may well influence the way you think and act from now on.
Well, there was a miracle by the pool of Bethezda. Why? Not just because Jesus performed a healing but because in that healing the people glimpsed new possibilities. I think that our prayer should be for Jesus to touch many more people so that they, too, can see new possibilities.