You might be thinking to yourself, “that Gospel reading doesn’t make sense.” And based on what the designers of the Revised Common Lectionary have given us in this snippet of a reading, you may be correct.
We do know that Jesus is in Jerusalem. In John he travels four times to Jerusalem two during Passover, one at Hanukah and the one from our story for a festival, which is not named.
We know that Jesus is coming from Galilee, Capernaum to be exact. While there, he healed the son of a high official; the second of the seven signs that John gives us so that we might believe.
The author of John tells us that there is a gate to the city at Beth-zatha a word in Aramaic, which is also known as Bethesda. This is a place for which archeologists have found evidence of its existence.
This particular gate that was used to bring sheep, among other things, into the city has a pool, probably to water the sheep, and five porticoes. In these porticoes sit many sick people. This same gate is mentioned in the Hebrew Scriptures in Nehemiah.
You can’t tell it from your copy of the reading, but there are words that are omitted from verses 3 and 4, to be exact. The notes in my Oxford New Revised Standard Bible tell us that some ancient sources include the words that our editors left out. Beginning after the words, “In these lay many invalids-- blind, lame, and paralyzed…”
“…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.”
Some translators think this might have been added later to explain why the invalids sat there and the comment of the man who Jesus heals. Meanwhile, it reveals a superstitious attitude about how healing takes place.
Jesus is showing us a different way to think about healing.
There is a man who has been sitting there for thirty-eight years. The only other reference to that number is in the book of Deuteronomy and represents the number of years that the Children of Israel spent wandering in the dessert between Egypt and the promised land; a time of rebellion and grumbling.
This period of wandering with no real direction may be what Jesus is trying to warn us against.
So Jesus speaks to the unnamed man, “Do you want to be well?”
We are told that Jesus knows that the man has been sitting here for a long time, so this seems like a stupid question. After all he has been sitting there trying to get into the water after the angel stirs it.
Instead of a direct response, the man complains and makes excuses. Sounds similar to the people in the wilderness, doesn’t it? Their one ongoing complaint to Moses was, “Did you bring us out here to die?”
The man says that there is no one to place him in the water after it is stirred up and others always get there first.
But Jesus is not accepting this and tells 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.”
Wow! Not even the man’s excuses get in the way of his healing.
We are left in our reading with the statement, “Now that day was a Sabbath.” This seems very abrupt, but it is important to our story, as we shall learn as we press forward.
“So the Temple Authorities said to the man who had been cured, ‘It is the Sabbath; it is not lawful for you to carry your mat.’”
And this unnamed man who has not even thanked Jesus for his healing answered them, “The man who made me well said to me, ‘Take up your mat and walk.’” Even now he continues to blame others for his situation.
They asked him, “Who is this man who said to you, ‘take up your mat and walk?’” But the man didn’t know it was Jesus, because he had not bothered to ask before Jesus slipped away into the crowd.
The author of John tells us that Jesus found the man later in the temple and said to him, “See you have been made well! Do not sin any more, so that nothing worse happens to you.”
We already heard earlier in John’s Gospel that Jesus does not believe that people cause their illnesses through their own sins or the sins of their parents, which was a popular belief at the time.
So what might Jesus be saying to this man?
Is it that the man never really claimed agency over his own healing?
That he separated himself from others in a portico by the pool in the Sheep Gate and assumed that someone else was to put him in the water for his healing?
Are we to understand that we have some accountability in seeking health in our own lives and relationships?
What happens next is even more astounding. The man who now knows it was Jesus that healed him, tells the temple authorities. Far beyond having no gratitude for being healed, this man now incriminates Jesus for healing on the Sabbath.
And yet, this may be why Jesus picks that nameless, ungrateful man, because Jesus is in Jerusalem to challenge the Temple Authorities, maybe that is why he journeys to Jerusalem so many more times in John’s gospel, to be “in the face” of the Temple Authorities.
And of course this is exactly what happens. This is the first story where concern about who Jesus is, turns to a plot against him by those in the power elite.
All of the synoptic gospels have stories about Jesus and his followers working on the Sabbath, but these other stories start with manual work like picking grain before they move on to the work of healing. John’s gospel starts at the top, the most important work he or, for that matter, we could do, the work of healing ourselves and the world around us.
The Temple Authorities question his healing on the Sabbath to which he responds, “My Father is still working, and I also am working.” He is claiming his divine nature to be a healing influence in the world.
But this only inflames the Authorities because he is not only working on the Sabbath, but also calling God his own father, thereby, they said, making himself equal to God.
There were already references in the Hebrew Scriptures to the people of Israel being the children of God, so this concept was not new. But Jesus was claiming agency far beyond this. He was claiming the power for all people to heal this broken world.
Jesus goes on to say, “Very truly, I tell you the Son can do nothing on his own, but only what he sees the Father doing; for whatever the Father does, the Son does likewise.”
He is making it clear that incarnation is about healing love for all of creation. In this way he is making a bold statement about our incarnation; that God dwells in each and every one of us to fully be the children of God as the Body of Christ.
This is what he calls us to today.
I’m just back from Brazil, a country where half the population lives in slums. Another portion of their society, known as the landless people, live in cardboard and plastic shantytowns.
I went to have a vacation and to learn more about the culture of my friend Sam who you heard preach here last October. We stayed at very nice hotels for the most part. But the front desk at our hotel in Rio warned us not to go to the beach for fear of the crime and violence.
The homes of the people living in the slums are so poorly constructed that if Brazil were in an earthquake zone many people would die.
Meanwhile there are many fine homes with walls and guards. I fear we are heading in this direction in our country.
I receive a daily briefing from the New York Times on my phone and while I was away I received a story about San Francisco, a city with which I am very familiar. It seems that at some of the more popular tourist spots people are being robbed at gunpoint. Recently a tourist from Thailand was shot for not handing over his camera.
Another part of the story about San Francisco was about a man who had to replace the tinted windows on his BMW twice in one week because they were broken out to steal the gym bag he left on the seat. This only reveals the oblivious nature of some of the more affluent.
But Jesus message is that we can all be healed and heal others if we understand that the Gospel is not just about our personal salvation but also about the salvation of the world.
We could wander in the dessert for thirty-eight years and avoid taking responsibility for who we are called to be or we could allow Jesus to heal us through his message of love and reconciliation. But we must be more involved in this healing than the nameless ungrateful man in John’s Story.
We must own who we are called to be, the Body of Christ in the world, seeking healing solutions for all of our ills.
God grant that we have the will to do this work.