The Sixth Sunday of Easter, May 26, 2019
The Rev. Anna C. Shine
Readings: Acts 16:9-15; Psalm 67; Revelation 21:10, 22-22:5; John 5:1-9
May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, our strong rock and our redeemer.
As you walk through the Lions’ Gate, known formerly as the Sheep Gate, you enter the Muslim quarter of Jerusalem. There on the right-hand side of the road, is a church, built during the Crusade era in the Byzantine style. Called the Church of St. Anne, it is dedicated to the parents of Mary - Anne and Joachim. It is thought that Mary was likely born in the grotto that is preserved by this church. Within the confines of this church's property are two pools, with five porticos that archaeologists have discovered. It is believed that this is the site of our Gospel story for this morning. The journey down to the waters of these pools is a literal walk through history. At the top level is the Church of St. Anne. As you walk further down the walkway you can see the remains of a Crusader church. Further still and you reach the ruins of a pagan shrine from the Roman period. And beneath that you reach the pools of Bethesda, or as our Gospel passage calls it, the pool of Beth-zatha, meaning house of sheep. It seems fitting to have to walk down centuries to reach this pool. I admist that this was one of my favorite spots on my trip to Jerusalem. A thin space where I could feel the holy present in the very fabric of the dirt, water, and ruins.
Perhaps it felt so holy to me because today’s passage is one of the more challenging passages I’ve dealt with in my own life. We encounter a man who has been ill for thirty-eight years. We are not told exactly what is wrong with him, although it is mentioned that there are many who suffer from blindness, who are lame, and who are paralyzed lying by this pool. Jesus sees this man, and knew he had been there a long time, so Jesus asks him, “Do you want to be made well?” This can be understood in many ways. For some, the question may be asked matter-of-factly, with the expectation of a simple yes or no response. Perhaps more like this: “Would you like for me to make you well?” However, given that we know that this man has been ill for thirty-eight years, and we are told that Jesus recognizes that the man has been there a long time, the question has a different layer of meaning to it. It is almost as if Jesus is emphasizing the importance of this man’s choice. “Do you want to be made well?” or “Do you want to be made well?” The inflection matters. And these latter options are how I have understood Jesus’ question whenever I have heard this passage read. Because the response the man provides is not a ‘yes’ or a ‘no.’ It is an excuse. “Sir, I have no one to put me into the pool when the water is stirred up; and while I am making my way, someone else steps down ahead of me.”Have you ever experienced a time in your life where you feared making the choice and taking the step to enter something unknown, even when you knew that that unknown would most likely make your life better? I certainly have. As many of you know, I have struggled with depression and anxiety for the majority of my life. This passage haunts me, even as it brings me hope. It haunts me because I am very good at making those excuses. I consistently find myself returning to those ego-bound excuses that keep me from committing to those habits that I know will make me healthier. Thoughts race through my head: ‘But what if people begin to expect more out of me?’ or ‘Who am I without this aspect of my being?’ and the scariest of all – ‘What if it doesn’t work?’ All these thoughts can blind me, make it difficult for me to move forward, and paralyze me. Blind, lame, paralyzed. Lying by a pool that is supposed to make me well, and yet I can’t take that step to get there.
But the hope in this story is profound. Because Jesus does not chastise the man for his excuses. He does not pass judgment on him either. Jesus simply looks at the man and says, “Stand up, take your mat and walk.”And the man is immediately healed. Jesus places no extra expectations upon the man. And indeed, this story does not even tell us if or how the man’s faith is changed or grown by his experience. In fact, the man does not even know that it is Jesus who has been talking to him or who has healed him. God’s grace is a radical gift that requires nothing in return. But Jesus offers that man some clarity in asking that question. He provides the man with the opportunity to reflect on his choice. His agency. Looking more closely at what Jesus tells him, we find some useful ways to respond to our own hesitancy in healing, wholeness, and wellness. Jesus tells him to stand up. To stand up requires balance, it increases strength, and it foreshadows action while also allowing for simple presence. Take your mat. We are told that the day is the sabbath. To carry your mat is a form of work, which would not be allowed to be performed on a sabbath day. This will become one of the reasons that the religious leaders pursue Jesus later. But what Jesus is alluding to is that the process of being healed, of living a whole and full life, requires work. And walk. As we stay present and commit to the work of living wholly and holy lives, we must also continue our journey. We must move and grow.
Hear me clearly. I am not saying that to be made well we just need to believe more or pray harder or live more perfectly. Those are forms of deep spiritual abuse that have followed me throughout my own spiritual journey, and I refuse to perpetuate that trauma for others. It is not about us having enough – be it faith, piety, personal willpower. As our passage from Revelation tells us, God already provides us with enough. In fact, God provides out of an abundance. In this last vision from Revelation, God is [Jerusalem’s]light, and its lamp is the Lamb, who is Jesus. The vision hearkens back to our first creation story, with the goodness that God sees in all that God creates. There is no temple in this Jerusalem, because God as the Trinity is the temple. Flowing through the city is the river of the water of life, and on either side of the river is the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit, producing its fruit each month; and the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations.We see in this passage another story of healing, but it is the healing of all, rather than the healing of an individual. It is the restoration of the garden, now within the confines of the holy city Jerusalem, which is coming down out of heaven from God.
Whether we find ourselves still awaiting healing or learning how to pick up our mats and walk, may we remember the promise of where we are walking, toward the restored city and garden, where God’s light shines on all.