Imagine that you never heard of bacteria or viruses. Imagine that you had no idea what cholesterol was, or plaque, or vitamins, electrolytes, or even cells. And then one day, someone in your family gets a headache which then worsens to include dizziness, and nausea. By evening time that person is spitting up blood and soon descends into delirium that lasts through the night and by morning is dead. What would you think? Why did it happen? What caused it? (Remember you don’t know anything about modern medicine.) You wonder why that person succumbed and no one else in the household suffered.
In the ancient world, when Jesus was alive, and when John wrote his gospel, illness, like most other things, was controlled by the gods. The gods had power, and most of what occurred could be attributed to one god or another. When it came to disease, some folks knew that certain plants could help with an ailment here or there, by they did not possess the chemical formulae to explain it. And then some others, like Jesus, carried a reputation of being a “healer.”
Spirits were real in the ancient world: evil spirits and good ones. Evil spirits could wreak all sorts of havoc. They could enter into someone’s body and cause a lot of nasty stuff to occur. Healers, everyone believed, had been given powers by the gods, to address evil spirits, and in some cases to remove them from the patient. But sometimes it seemed, healing could come in other forms too. Certain rocks or metals, when applied by a knowledgeable practitioner could restore a person to health. Sometimes springs were believed to have healing properties, and if someone suffering from certain ailments drank from the healing spring, or bathed in it, health would soon follow.
The Pool at Bethsaida was such a source of water-based healing. The water that emptied into the pool came from a natural spring located within the walls of the City of Jerusalem, and was one of the reasons that it took ten years for Nebuchadnezzar to complete a siege of the city six hundred years before Jesus was born. In the gospel we hear this morning, John reports that the local belief stated that when the good spirit ruffled the surface of the pool, the first person to enter the water would be healed of their ailment. In our story this morning we hear about an encounter Jesus has with a paralytic lying at the edge of the pool. Let’s take a look.
The Hebrew word “Bethsaida” can mean either “house of mercy” or “shame, disgrace.” It may seem that the words are diametrically opposed, but both meanings make sense in this case. In fact, it could be an ancient play on words, since the shame and disgrace of the afflicted, who constantly surrounded the pool, also came for mercy and healing. This also is a spring and pool that allowed the citizens of Jerusalem to keep the powerful Babylonian army at bay for an entire decade, and although they were eventually defeated, they put up a good fight and at least had a chance at victory. John tells us, and archeologists confirm, that the pool is located near a portico having five arches. (Whenever I hear the number “five” in Hebrew scripture I immediately wonder if it is in some way making a reference to the five books of Moses, the Pentateuch, which include the Torah.) And of course, someone, probably a god, must be “troubling” or ruffling the waters. It had to be a spirit of some sort. So when we line up all of these details it seems to me that John is describing a place that is heavily steeped in Jewish tradition and importance.
On the edge of the pool lies a man who has been there for 38 years – not 40 years, not the number of years it took for Moses to lead the Israelites through the wilderness to the promised land, but getting close. I think John has lined up all these Jewish elements to indicate that the man has placed his hopes for health and healing on the traditions of Judaism. But he is frustrated. Every time the water flutters, he tries to be first in the water, but someone else always beats him. The guy can’t catch a break.
Now I can think of a couple of different ways Jesus could have responded to this gentleman. He could have said something like, “Okay buddy, I’m here for you. I’ll be ready right here behind you, and as soon as you or I see the water ruffle, I’ll hoist you up and together we’ll make a mad dash for the pool and get there well ahead of all the others.” Or, he could have said, “38 years!!! Seriously!! That’s a whole lot of failure and disappointment. Don’t you think that if you had any chance whatsoever it would have occurred for you by now. Why don’t you just get on with your life and make the best of your ailment that you can. Blossom where you’re planted after all. If life gives you lemons, make lemonade.” Or Jesus could have done what he did with some of the other folks he healed. He could have taken the man by the hand, said, “Arise” and lifted him into a new life. We don’t know why, but even though it worked with others on numerous occasions, Jesus chose not to do that here. Maybe this story isn’t about physical healing, but John is using it to make a different point.
Here, Jesus just looked at the man and asked him, “Do you want to be well?” In other words, what do you want? Do you want to sit here all day long for another 38 years or more, with no guarantee that you will ever be the first one in the water and completely waste your life waiting and hoping for something that may never happen, or………do you want to be well?
What I find interesting in this story is that the man never really answers the question. He complains that he can never beat out the other sick people into the pool, but he never focuses completely on Jesus, and this new approach that he is offering. Jesus just takes it for granted that he wants to be well, or else why would he be sticking around day after day for 38 years. Jesus seems to be saying that he needs to leave the way that he thought would work for him. He needs to consider another way, an alternative way, a new way, something he has never tried before, never thought of before. “Stand up. Pick up, your mat. And walk.” One, two, three, and away he goes.
What do we do with this reading? The principle is that in order to move forward in our lives we sometimes need to abandon the tried and true, the method that has always worked for us but is no longer working, and strike out on a new, untried, risky, and perhaps scary path. John applies this principle to the traditions of Judaism, which during his time had been corrupted by greed and grasping for power and control. That is not our issue, nevertheless, the story stills applies to us in other ways.
It applies to us personally. Perhaps you can remember a time when a way of working or teaching or dealing with a friend or neighbor that had always netted positive results had broken down. In order to keep working, or in order to maintain the relationship you realized something new was needed. You had to get creative. You had to analyze the situation and weigh all the various factors. You had to engage your imagination, and then come up with a plan. And if Plan A didn’t accomplish the desired outcome, you needed to be ready to go back to the drawing board and come up with Plan B. In first century Palestine, Christianity was John’s Plan A.
So most of us can probably relate to the principle in this story on a personal basis. I’d like to reflect on how this principle relates to Trinity Church. It should come as no surprise to anyone that the church we inhabit currently bears only the slightest resemblance to the church of our youth, the church of the 1940s or 50s. In the years following WWII, the big one, there was a push to insure that the grotesque level of killing, war and destruction would never happen again. The United Nations was founded. Soldiers and sailors who had fought in the war enrolled in seminaries in great numbers, our own Bishop Paul Moore being among that number. Parents living in a time of peace and prosperity brought their baby boom children to church with them. So many children showed up on church doorsteps that Vestries had to quickly build entire education wings with classrooms, school supplies, religious education curricula, and then staff the facility with volunteer Sunday School teachers, and in some cases, a paid director of religious education. Our churches were hopping on Sunday mornings. Our pews were full. Our buildings lively with young voices. Youth groups flourished, and children’s choirs sang alongside adult choirs.
The scene I just described, which was common sixty years ago, can only be found in a small number of wealthy, city or suburban congregations. Furthermore, what I have described is not only true in the Episcopal Church, but in all mainline denominations. (If you feel my assessment is incorrect, please speak to me afterward. I would love to be proven wrong.) So I look at Trinity Church. No choir. No Youth Group. No weekly Sunday School. Lots of open seating at our worship services. And an abundance of grey hair, mine included. Fifty years ago Trinity Church looked very different than it does today. And here’s the thing: what has worked for us in the past is no longer working for us today. Some church strategists advocate doing what we have always done, only doing it really, really, really well. Maybe that approach will work for a time, in larger population areas, but I don’t think that should be our strategy here in Saugerties. Instead, I think we need to listen to this story and ask ourselves, “Do we want to be well?” And being well, being healthy, being active, being purposeful, means leaving the old ways behind and walking away and taking a new path. Just think of all the things paralytic failed to do while he waited for 38 years to jump in the pool. What a waste of a life. He made no contribution to his community. He put all his hope on something that was never going to happen.
On the new path, we will need to ask ourselves questions such as: What does ministry look like in the 21s century. How can we be the light of Christ in this time and place? What parts of our past must we celebrate and keep, and what parts must we give thanks and then put aside and grieve? Choirs and youth groups and Sunday Schools have no value in and of themselves. They only matter if they are vehicles for the proclamation of Christ’s gospel. Fortunately, they are not the only ways of proclaiming gospel, so going forward we may need to analyze, and consider, and use our imaginations and discover other ways to proclaim gospel, to shine the light of Christ on the people of Saugerties.
So listen carefully to this next paragraph because it is the most important part of the sermon. We will not strike out in new ways in order to preserve Trinity Church. We will take up new ways in order to proclaim good news to a world that has changed and will continue to change. And if we engage the world effectively in positive and life-affirming ways, Trinity Church will not only survive, it will prosper.
We have a choice to make. We can either wipe our drippy noses and complain and bemoan that the church and the world is not what it used to be. Or we can stand, take up our bed, and start walking. The question before us is: Do we want to be well?
In Christ’s name. Amen.