After this there was a festival of the Jews, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem. Now in Jerusalem by the Sheep Gate there is a pool, called in Hebrew Beth-zatha, which has five porticoes. In these lay many invalids—blind, lame, and paralyzed. One man was there who had been ill for thirty-eight years. When Jesus saw him lying there and knew that he had been there a long time, he said to him, “Do you want to be made well?” The sick man answered him, “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.” Jesus said to 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.
We open up our Bibles this morning to find a rather unusual setting. We’re told there is a festival going on, but Jesus seems to make his way to a place where people aren’t partaking in the festivities. We discover that Jesus goes down to one of the healing pools, which in Hebrew was called Beth-zatha, where there are many “invalids,” outcasts, shunned, were waiting by the side of the pool. The author doesn’t tell us why they were waiting near the waters or what was so significant about the pool of Beth-zatha, which is something we perhaps should ask ourselves this morning.
Those who were following along in their Bibles might have noticed that there is a “missing verse.” Yes, it’s true, most Bibles skip verse four, which was thought to be added later to fill in the question of, “Why were people gathered by this pool of water.” If you’re curious the annotated verse adds the following:
[F]or 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.
Those who were waiting by the side of the pool of Beth-zatha were waiting for their chance to be healed, according to legend. I imagine that since this rippling, this stirring, of water didn’t happen too frequently, I bet that when it happened, people did whatever they had to to be the first person to touch the water. The people who were pushed to the outside margins, because there wasn’t enough healing love had to compete against themselves to receive the leftovers that were meant for people who were forced out of the community.
That brings us to the man we meet this morning, this man who had been ill for thirty-eight years waiting by the side of the water. Jesus comes up to this man, who doesn’t have a name by the way, and asks him, “Do you want to be made well?” You would think that the man sitting by the side of the pool would answer with a resounding “Yes!”, but instead, we find that he has a complained, “Yes, but I have no one to help me, and when I try someone cuts in front of me.”
You may not realize it, but you and I know what it is like to be in the place where this man had been for the past thirty-eight years. We may not have the same ailments as the people who had gathered by the pool of Beth-zatha, but we certainly have things in our lives that need healing. We have wounds, scars, that haven’t fully healed because either someone, something, opened up those pains again or we haven’t been willing to do the work that is required to alleviate some of our innermost hurts. And to add one more thing into the mix, we all seem to wrestle over who gets to be “healed” first, as if it’s some kind of competition.
Which really makes the healing of this individual by Jesus all the more miraculous. Because if you noticed, all Jesus did was say, “Get up, take your mat, and go home.” That’s it! Jesus didn’t have to bring the man down to the waters of the pool, because there was so much healing love in Christ that it spills out in abundance for all those who require healing. Those illnesses, those things that plague our hearts, don’t have to compete with the hurts of others, because there is no scarcity, there is no need to fight over something plentiful and freely available to all who seek it. Christ comes to offer love that heals to those who aren’t able to make it down to the water, Christ comes to offer grace in whatever mess we might find ourselves in at the moment.
I’m thankful that in those time where it feels like no one care, Jesus is there reaching out a hand in solidarity. We’re all in need of healing, but will we take the time to notice the things that need attention in ourselves and in those who are around us? Jesus makes the extra effort to meet us where we are, whether we are waiting by the side of a pool waiting to be healed or find that we are in the pits not sure how we are ever going to get to a place where we can feel whole again. The thing is that for us to heal and walk alongside the healing process of others, we need to get in touch with the low points in ourselves to travel upwards with others.
When we realize that we have all walked along a road that has not been smooth or easily traveled we might begin to tone down our aggression towards one another over fighting for the things that soothe our souls. Brené Brown, a research professor who has written talked a lot about the power of shame and fear, once gave a talk about what it means to empathize with someone:
Brené Brown paints a picture where you imagine yourself in a position where you see someone who has fallen into a hole, and you hear them calling out, saying, “Hey! It’s dark and overwhelming down here!”. To visualize what it means to be empathetic, not sympathetic, Brown says that in this case you climb down into the hole as well and say, “I know what it’s like down here and you’re not alone.”
That’s what it means to be empathetic, to love empathetically (not sure if that’s a word, but I’m gonna use it anyway). To love from a place that is vulnerable means that the person you are with, and you can work through things in a way that brings about healing and growth simply by just being present with one another. It’s not always about trying to find solutions, sometimes our quest to be healed is a simple as finding someone who is willing to sit in our pain with us.
In that sacred space, where we connect with something vulnerable within ourselves to be present with someone else, the pool that rarely rippled with healing waters begins to overflow in abundance. The healing that comes from God touches us because God’s hurt has hurt with our hearts. We can find renewal and hope because Christ had walked in our shoes and came to show a new way for us to live. This bountiful love is meant for all at no cost but does come with a set of responsibilities.
We’re all in need of healing; there’s no doubt about it. But our yearning for being healed can’t be achieved if we are trying to get ahead of everyone else and leaving others behind; hence, we are responsible to some degree to share it with others. You know one of the most startling things about this reading is that the Beth-zatha pool was in right smack dab in the shadow of the temple in Jerusalem. A place that was supposed to be embracing of people had pushed them outside to seek help somewhere else. It took God made flesh to set an example of what it means to be with those whom we have not cared for in a way that is genuinely in line with the nature of God.
I’m going to throw out an example, and I hope that you don’t take it the wrong way, but I think it’s the easiest thing to point to in this conversation about healing and love. But think about the time or something similar, where you might have had an opportunity to feed meals to those who are homeless. As I said, don’t think I’m assuming these aren’t good things to do, because they are, but try to think about how often you’ve served means while also being empathetic. You don’t have to answer, but I’ll admit that it’s hard, because it means that I have to connect with something deep within myself. And more often than not I’m not sure I want to go to those places, but if we did so occasionally what might happen as a result of our sharing God’s love in that sacred space?
As we take this weekend to remember the sacrifice, the dedication, of those who have served others at the cost of their lives, we should be inspired to take up a similar mantle that has been passed onto us by Christ. A mantle that asks not what we can do only for ourselves in our own pursuit to be fulfilled and healed, but asks how we can achieve those things with the help and the fellowship of others. As we make our way through the dark and cavernous valleys and the up through mountainous terrain, we will find that as we descended we will always be led back to an ocean, not a pool, of God’s healing love that is only made richer when we partake of it together.
Just remember that we can come as we are. We can come as sinners, as saints, as those who are grateful, and as those who are doubtful of the gifts God gives. We no longer have to seek healing in the shadows but are free to be in the light of God who embraces all. We are all in need of healing, so perhaps it’s time we start acknowledging those things that need work in our lives as we come together to build one another up in both body and in spirit. Amen.