Sermon Series: Questions Jesus Asked
“Do You Want To be Made Well?”
Rev. Dr. Glenda Hollingshead; August 2, 2020
9th Sunday after Pentecost
During Jesus’ ministry, he asked many more questions than he answered. Following in his footsteps over the last few weeks, we have considered some of those questions: Is it lawful to do good or harm on the Sabbath? The other nine, where are they? Why are you afraid? Are you not of more value? Good questions—all of them. But the question we focus on today seems almost ridiculous. Imagine with me—a man has been ill 38 years. When Jesus sees him lying by the pool of Bethzatha, the question Jesus poses is: “Do you want to be made well?” Do you want to be made well? I want to be made well when I have a cold that hangs around for more than 38 hours so if I were ill for 38 long, grueling, life-limiting years—there is no doubt in my mind—I would want to be made well. Wouldn’t you? What an odd question.
There is something else unusual about this story—the text itself. Ancient manuscripts of the original Greek are quite confusing—something that is most evident in the addition of verses 3b-4 in some later manuscripts. Both the NRSV and NIV add this as a footnote to describe why people gather around the pool with its five porticoes in the first place. Thus, in the NRSV verse 3 reads, “In these lay many invalids—blind, lame, and paralyzed,” to which ancient manuscripts add, “waiting for the stirring of the water; for 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.” How interesting!
The man to whom Jesus directs the question, “Do you want to be made well?” is crippled in some fashion. We know this because he tells Jesus he does not have anyone to put him into the pool when the water is stirred up. In other words, whenever he tries to make his way into the pool, someone steps ahead of him—someone else gets the blessing. Thus, there is no way the man can possibly be healed—on his own. But Jesus, the Healing One, has a habit of going beyond what is possible to create new life and wholeness. As they say, “God will make a way where there seems to be no way.” Such is the way of God. Always has been. Always will be.
You will recall the story of the enslaved people of Israel who grow in such number in the land of Egypt that Pharaoh sees them as a threat. As a result, he decides to eliminate their number one male child at a time. The people cry out to God and God intervenes by raising up one of the male children to lead them out of Egypt. After many signs and wonders, the Israelites are granted permission to leave. When Pharaoh changes his mind and chases after them with all his military might in tow, God intervenes. God makes a way where there seems to be no way and saves the people. They respond by singing and dancing and worshiping on safety’s shore. Then, with God as their guide, the people begin their journey to the Promised Land. Soon, though, the daily grind of traveling toward a land flowing with milk and honey loses its luster and they begin to grumble. “Where are the melons and grapes we left in Egypt? Remember the fresh fish and fresh bread? Is it too much to ask for basic necessities like bread and water? Moses, did you bring us here in the wilderness to die? We could have died just as easily and in better living conditions as Pharaoh’s slaves.”
The people of Israel cry out to Yahweh for years, “Come, save us!” Yahweh answers—but not in the way they want. They want God to fix everything; to make life easier for them—immediately. And could it be—they have no desire to do their part? “Fix it God but let us have only the good and not the bad. Fix it, God! But do not ask too much of us. Do not ask us to change. Just be our genie in a bottle—come when we say come—leave when we say leave!” But God is not a genie in a bottle and God will not be used. God loves us and meets us where we are—but God never intends for us to stay there. God intends for us to live and love and grow. And, along the way, God expects us to participate in our own wellness, and in the wellness of others. Such is the way of God. Always has been. Always will be.
In our reading from John’s gospel, Jesus sees a man who is waiting by a pool of water, waiting for an angel of God to move the water. By some miracle, the man hopes and prays he might be the first to feel the cool, healing water upon his skin. Even though he does not ask Jesus for healing, that does not keep Jesus from doling out God’s grace. Once the man is healed, Jesus offers instructions: “Stand up. Take your mat and walk.” The healed man is now called to respond. Now what? Where will his next steps lead? Is he headed down the yellow brick road of life without a care? Sadly, there are those who say so. There are those who believe that if we are followers of Jesus—if we have enough faith—then Jesus will touch us and make our lives picture perfect—now and forever more. Eugene Peterson warns against such an understanding:
I want to go over some old ground here, repeating what seems—in our culture, anyway—to need frequent repeating: entering into a life of faith…following Jesus, centering our life in the worship of God doesn’t exempt us from suffering. Christians get cancer in the same proportion as non-Christians. Believers are involved in as many automobile accidents as nonbelievers. When you hit your thumb with a hammer, it hurts just as much after you’ve accepted Christ as your Lord and Savior as it did before. I don’t take any particular pleasure in writing this. I would feel better if I could promise that being a Christian gave us a distinct edge over the competition.[i]
So, enough faith does not assure our heart’s desires! If that were the case, wouldn’t we be in control of God? But God will not be controlled. God is God and we are creatures made in God’s image to love God and to care for ourselves and one another.
For the crippled man, new life is his and new life comes with new freedoms, new joy, and new responsibilities. Things will be expected of him that were not expected before. Likely, he will have to go to work; get involved in his community. For the first time in 38 years, he can worship with other believers and joyfully bring a tithe of the first fruits of his labor. Though everything has changed, and his life has been transformed, there will still be hurdles aplenty. Such is the way of life. Always has been. Always will be.
On a spiritual level, this healing story offers another insight worth pondering. Isn’t it true that in one way or another, life has a way of crippling us all? Someway, somehow. So, I ask you: What is crippling you? What keeps you stranded on your mat? Fear of change? Disbelief that God can still make a way where there seems to be no way? What keeps you stranded on your mat? Do you doubt God’s love for you? Have you gotten caught up in negative behaviors like cynicism, gossip, bitterness, or other habits that cause harm to your body, mind, or spirit? What keeps you stranded on your mat? A false belief that you already know all you need to know about God—so prayer, Scripture reading, meditating and other spiritual disciplines—well, they are just not for you? What keeps you stranded on your mat?
In this moment, could it be that Christ’s Spirit is calling each of us to participate in our own healing in some form or fashion? Does Jesus have a word for us about standing up and walking boldly into a new future? How will we react to God’s grace—for we, too, are beneficiaries of God’s favor, and we, too, are called to respond. Such is the way of God. Always has been. Always will be.
[i] Eugene Peterson, Leap Over a Wall: Earthly Spirituality for Everyday Christians, 195.
*Cover Photograph for the “Questions Jesus Asked” Sermon Series taken by Rev. Rachel Crumley during a Pastoral Pilgrimage to the Holy Land in 2009