John 5:1-9: It’s Complicated
Sixth Sunday of Easter: May 26, 2019
When our kids were in high school, Chris and I would accompany them to the Montreat Youth Conference, sometimes as chaperones and sometimes as small group leaders. It was, for me, and I think for Chris too, a highlight of the teenage years. And one of the highlights of the youth conference was the Thursday evening talent show.
Now, if you have never been to a Montreat Youth Conference, you need to know a little bit about energizers. Energizers were invented as an alternative to competitive games, like dodgeball or kickball or red rover, that were sometimes exclusive and tended to get a little out of hand. Energizers are basically dances choreographed to the latest top-40 or Christian Rock hits. According to the MYC website, “Energizers are a much beloved Montreat tradition, pairing popular music and simple movements everyone can enjoy.” Right. I don’t know which claim is more of a stretch: “much beloved” or “simple movements everyone can enjoy.” While some of the kids—and adults—truly enjoy energizers, not everyone does. And more than once, I’ve seen clever high-school kids poke fun at energizers in the talent show. The best of these acts was an entire youth group who nailed it by creating an energizer of their own to Avril Lavigne’s hit song “Complicated.” The chorus went “Why do you have to go and make things so complicated?” and the kids danced to the chorus by holding on to their left ears with their right hands and their right feet with their left hands and hopping around in circles. It was a hoot!
I think of this song, and that talent show act, when I read this gospel story because the man in the portico takes this lovely, simple question from Jesus—“Do you want to become whole?”—and loads it up with so many complications, that he ends up not even answering the question.
“Do you want to become whole?”
“Sir, I have no man to put me into the pool when the water is troubled, and while I am going another steps down before me.”
“Why do you have to go and make things so complicated? Do you want to become whole?”
In some ways, the man’s complicated response to this simple question is not so surprising. Illness was a more complex condition in the ancient world than it is now. Most of the time, when we become ill, we can find relief rather easily at the drug store or the doctor’s office. A cold that makes our eyes water, our nose run, and our throat sore is usually overcome by a few days’ rest and plenty of water, orange juice, and chicken soup. A skin rash, as from poison ivy or athletes’ foot, is cured rather easily with Calamine lotion, hydrocortisone cream, or antifungal ointments. Most intestinal disturbances can be treated with simple over-the-counter medications: Pepto-Bismol, Kaopectate, Milk of Magnesia, or acid suppressants. But catching and curing these simple illnesses in the ancient world was complicated. Any kind of bodily discharge—even a woman’s monthly menstrual cycle—made a person unclean and unfit for the Temple life, its religious practices, and society at large. The same was true for rashes or skin diseases. Illnesses—or even natural bodily functions—like these were associated with sinfulness or harsh divine judgment. And a chronic disease—like this man’s illness of thirty-eight years, or the woman’s twelve-year hemorrhage (Mark 5:25), or one man’s withered hand (Matthew 12:10), or another man’s congenital blindness (John 9:1) or another’s lameness from birth (Acts 3:2)—could have devastating economic and social impact. Men and women who were ritually unclean because of illnesses like these, had to stand cupping their mouths with their hands and shouting, “Unclean! Unclean!” to prevent themselves from accidentally contaminating others. For these men and women, wholeness—a life of fully integrated physical, social, economic, and spiritual wellbeing—was nearly inconceivable.
Bethesda means “house of mercy” or “house of grace.” The man in the portico had been waiting there 38 years for a chance to be the first one to enter the pool—the first one to touch mercy and grace when God is near and the water is troubled. But there is so much keeping him away from the pool: he cannot move quickly enough on his own to get there first, he has no one to help him get there, and there is always someone who gets there before him. This man is separated from God by his physical immobility, his loneliness, and his inability to hire a caregiver. For this man, God is in the troubled water, and the troubled water is inaccessible. The result is physical, social, economic, and spiritual isolation.
So it’s no wonder he can’t hear Jesus’ question, or doesn’t seem to understand what Jesus is actually asking. He has 38 years of stories coming between himself and the reality of Jesus’ mercy and grace. To put that in perspective: 38 years ago I was just about to turn 20. 38 years ago, we were just in the first months of the Reagan years. 38 years ago, the AIDS epidemic was just beginning. 38 years ago, we were still recovering from the shock of John Lennon’s death. 38 years is a long time to pile up damaging stories:
There’s the blaming story that tells him his sinfulness is manifest in physical disability.
There’s the shaming story that tells him he is unworthy to be in the company of other people.
There’s the hopeless story that tells him he will never be anything but a beggar in a portico.
There’s the bitter, resentful story of a fleeting and fickle God whose mercy and grace are meted out to those who can claw their way over others weaker than them.
“Do you want to become whole?” Jesus asks. And the man in the portico who has been so beaten down by defeating and degrading stories of unworthiness can barely conceive of what wholeness means. So Jesus shows him. “Rise,” he says, “take up your pallet, and walk. This is what mercy and grace look like.” Jesus slices through these layers of stories to give the man an immediate experience of mercy and grace.
Last week, when I was at a silent meditation retreat, one of our dharma teachers, La Sarmiento, spoke to us about judging and comparing mind. They had asked those of us at the retreat to submit examples of how we judge ourselves and each other. The lies we tell about ourselves are still just as heartbreaking as the lies the man in the portico tells himself:
I will never belong
But Jesus cuts through these lies to give us an immediate experience of the reality of God’s mercy and grace. We don’t have to claw our way toward it. We don’t have to outrun or outsmart anyone to get to it. We don’t have to buy it or earn it or merit it. We only have to want it.