Scripture: John 5:1–18
The crowd was especially busy at LINK for a Thursday noon. The temperatures had dropped considerably in the last 24 hours, and a lot of folks were looking for a place to warm up. Mark blew air into his hands, trying to keep the blood flowing. As he looked around at those waiting for the doors to open, he tried to remember how long it had been since he had started coming to LINK. Thirty-five years? Forty? No, it would have been right around 38. It was a long time to keep coming back, but it had become his lifeline. His family. As he rolled up in his wheelchair, he waved to several of the regulars.
He saw a new face in the crowd that seemed a little out of place. He was slowly walking through the crowd, as if he was looking for someone. Suddenly, he turned and locked eyes with Mark and began walking right toward him. He squatted beside him in his chair, and without any type of introduction, he asked Mark bluntly: “Do you want to be made well?” Mark froze, and in the next few milliseconds, a hundred responses ran through his head. It actually wasn’t the first time he had been asked that question…
Occasionally, one of the volunteers at LINK would ask him something along those lines. Not the regulars who came often enough to learn his name and his story, but one of the folks who showed up from time to time to make themselves feel better about generally ignoring those struggling with poverty. Many of these one-timers operated out of the assumption that poverty was a choice, and that those in line at LINK just wanted to experience a life of freedom. And while Mark had met a handful of those folks over the years, it was incredibly rare. Most of the people there struggled with some form of mental illness, or physical disability like him, or both, and simply didn’t have the support of family or friends to be able to create a life of stability. But for the one-timers, it made them feel better to believe the myth that those in line at LINK could pull themselves up by their bootstraps at any time they wanted. Occasionally, they would ask Mark some version of that question: “do you really want to live this life?” as if he had a ton of serious other options at his disposal.
Others asked this question in a different way entirely. Some folks got to know Mark well enough to know that he had a sense of pride about what he had been able to accomplish as a disabled person. Mark had been paralyzed as a child in the same accident that had killed his parents. And for most of his life, he had been more or less on his own. He was proud of the life that he had been able to make for himself, and glad when others noticed that, as well. In a way, he was thankful when people noticed that his disability didn’t define him, or that he wasn’t a second class citizen because he lived life in a wheelchair. A lot of the one-timers looked at him with pity and embarrassment, but 0occasionally someone would get to know him for who he was, and in honest curiosity ask if his challenges had made him a stronger person. They would ask, if he could have gone back to his childhood and had the outrageously expensive reconstructive surgery that it would take to rebuild his spine and legs, would he have done it? He appreciated that they didn’t pity him, but valued his agency, and his strength and they valued who he was as a person, seeing beyond the lens of his disability.
But Mark quickly assessed that this man squatting by his wheelchair, wasn’t asking any of this. The way asked the question took Mark off-guard: Do you want to be made well? Mark stammered for an answer. He wasn’t able to figure out why this man was asking the question. Was he asking about the fact that he was in a wheelchair? Was he offering to help him? Or had he come to LINK to do a story for the paper, which happened from time to time. Not sure what to say, he told the man that he had been coming to LINK for 38 years, and while they had been incredibly helpful, it wasn’t enough. He just didn’t have enough resources, enough money, enough people in his life to lift him out of the struggles that he faced. Before he knew it, he was pouring his heart out to this man, and telling him his life story…
What would John 5 look like if it happened in our world today? Of course, my imagining is a less-than-perfect re-telling, but can you see the parallels? Scholars think that the pool in the story was used in ritualistic cleansing before worshippers would enter the Temple. It was fed by a reservoir and when more water would be released into the pool, it would gurgle and bubble. Over time, a folk story developed that that bubbling was the presence of a healing angel, and the first person—but only the first person—into the pool after it started, would be healed. This was not established doctrine of the religious leadership, but it gathered enough momentum that crowds would gather at this pool in case it was true. Sounds a little nuts, right? But is it much different than the medical misinformation of a YouTube video that a COVID vaccine is a government plot to rewrite our DNA and control our minds and bodies? There is something deceptively simple about conspiracy theories and misinformation stories, and for those who are predisposed to want to believe them, it isn’t that far of a logical leap. One of these people was a man who had been living in that community of desperation for 38 years, likely most if not all of his life. Like Mark from my creative retelling, he was likely was well-acquainted with a life of desperation and poverty and hopelessness. Whether or not the Gospel writer meant it this way, there is a stark contrast between last week’s story and this one. This paralytic did not have a father who could and would travel at great risk to seek a healer on his behalf. In fact, the man in today’s story lamented the fact that he has no one to even help lift him into the pool. Perhaps when Jesus asked him this question, he misunderstood Jesus’ intent. Very likely, he assumed –or hoped—that Jesus was offering to sit by him and help lift him into the pool when the bubbles begin. He doesn’t understand who this man is and what he is offering.
Let me pause there. This man seems to misunderstand Jesus’ intention, but let’s be honest with ourselves: are we any different? Does anyone else understand what Jesus’ true intention is here in this story, or really in the Gospel of John so far? Anyone else as confused as I am?
· If his true intention was to heal as many people as possible, he is rather inefficient at it, isn’t he? He has an entire crowd of people yearning to be healed right there in front of him, and he only heals one of them. Wouldn’t he become a more popular and well-respected healer if he stood up on a stone, and cleared his throat, and got everyone’s attention, and with a wave of his arms, he healed all of them at once? But that isn’t what Jesus did, which means he must have been up to something else.
· Maybe his true intention was to undermine and overthrow the political power structures of the day. He knocks over tables, and heals on the Sabbath, disrupting the status quo. But again, if his intention is rebuilding a political system, he’s not very efficient at it, is he? I mean, people kept trying to put him in political power, and he rejected them at every turn. Anyone else wonder why Jesus didn’t just take over the Temple leadership? Or just march straight to Rome and become Emperor? But again, that isn’t what Jesus did, which means he must have been up to something else.
Here’s my wager. I think Jesus saw himself as the engineer and not the efficiency expert. The architect and not the general contractor. Jesus could have been much more efficient; he could have built out this fictive kindom in the most prolific and complete and total ways possible, but he didn’t. Could it be that perhaps he knew that even if he could physically meet and heal every single person on the planet who wanted healing, once he was gone, there would be more lives of desperation and pain? Could it be that perhaps he knew that he could overthrow this power structure, but another one would take its place? Instead of building a thousand buildings or a million cars, perhaps he was giving us the blueprint to do it ourselves. Instead of creating a world without pain or injustice, maybe he was simply showing us how to make it happen in each generation. What if Jesus was giving us a model for how we are supposed to live? If my wager is correct, what model does he show us?
· A model marked by healing. Of talking to people and asking what they need and helping them acquire the resources to get there. Or if those resources are not attainable in this life, then sitting with them in their grief and offering a healing of presence, of community, of transformation of soul and spirit. There is this line in the story about Jesus telling the healed man not to sin anymore. Some have offered that it sounds like Jesus is telling him that his sin made him paralyzed, but most scholars that I have read suggest that in John sin is not about moral disobedience and divine punishment, but alienation from God. When Jesus invites him not to sin, he is inviting him to a restoration that is spiritual as well as physical. To stay in relationship with God.
· A model marked by inclusivity. One that welcomes Samaritan outcast women, and terrified royal officials, and cynical Galilean men, and paralytics that have no friends and are desperate enough to believe ridiculous folk stories. Did you notice what the man did first thing? He went to the Temple…the place where he would not ever in his life have been allowed to go as a paralytic. For the first time in his life, he was included in the life of community and worship. The restoration that Jesus gives is physical AND spiritual AND inclusive and communal.
· A model marked by abundance and grace. Unlike last week’s healing, this man didn’t come looking for Jesus. He didn’t even know who Jesus was! Jesus surprised him with abundant grace! Jesus gave this man the physical and social restoration he had longed for—and not because he trusted Jesus or had some great faith like the official last week. Jesus gave surprisingly, unconditionally, and abundantly.
This is the model Christ has given. Now, I think that John would have believed that Jesus could have reproduced this model with incredible efficiency in his time and place. Worldwide. Instantaneously. But perhaps, for whatever reason, Jesus seems to trust us enough to do that work. At the end of the passage, Jesus teaches that God is at work in the world—even on the Sabbath!—and that he as the Son has joined him in that work. It seems like he sees his mission on earth as one to show us what that work is and to invite us to join it.
Healing. Inclusivity. Abundance. This is the model that Jesus offered his followers in John, and the model that we receive today. Jesus is the engineer, but we are the assembly line builders. Jesus is the architect, but we are the construction workers.
What would Jesus do if he were to show up at LINK today? Of course, we cannot know with 100% certainty, but I wager that he would do the things that a lot of you all do every month at LINK. Every week at the Food Pantry. At the DARE Center. Through Family Promise. Day in and day out in your jobs as healers and teachers and caregivers and counselors and friends…
How do we reproduce that model today?
Listening and loving with a healing touch.
Including all of God’s children, especially those on the margins.
Telling the story of abundance, so that all might hear and receive.
The blueprints are in our hands. Let’s get to work!
Leave a Reply