Sermon for the Sixth Sunday of Easter, May 9, 2010.
Delivered by the Rev. Margaret Bullitt-Jonas, Grace Church, Amherst, MA

Acts 16:9-15 Psalm 67
Revelation 21:10, 22-22:5 John 5:1-9

“Do you want to be made well?”

In today’s reading from the Gospel of John, Jesus heals a paralyzed man whom he finds lying beside a pool. It is a quick little story — almost a blink, no more than nine sentences — and l want to take a moment to visualize the scene. The pool was by the Sheep Gate, which was near the temple in Jerusalem. In our story, the pool’s name is Beth-zatha, although some texts call it Bethsaida or Bethesda. 1 Whatever its name, the pool was a real place — in fact, Rob told me yesterday that he saw it when he visited the Holy Land last fall. Years ago, archaeologists located the pool, excavated it, and found that it had four sides and was more than 300 feet long — pretty big, almost the length of two Olympic-size swimming pools. A series of columns ran along each side and along a partition in the middle, which explains the story’s mention of five porticoes. Stairways were built in the corners of the pool, so that people could descend into the water, which may have been fed by springs that welled up at intervals. The bubbling waters were thought to have healing powers, and sick people — the blind, the lame, the paralyzed — came to the pool, believing that whenever the waters were stirred up, the first person to enter the pool would be cured of whatever sickness he or she had.

That is the scene. Here is the story. A man who has been ill for thirty-eight years is lying by the pool on his mat, a thin mattress that the poor used for bedding. The story doesn’t say how long he has been there, waiting to get into the water, but it does say that he has been there “a long time” John 5:6.

What do you think this man is going through, as he lies paralyzed for so long beside the pool? As I imagine it, he experiences himself as completely helpless. The waters that can heal him are close by, but he can’t reach them. The thing that can heal him — and he badly needs healing — is way over there, separate from him, at some distance away, and he can’t move. He can’t reach it. He can’t get there. He is cut off from the source of healing, and utterly paralyzed. What’s more, he is cut off from the people around him, too, as he competes with the crowd to be the first to get into the pool when the waters bubble up. Who knows what he is feeling, but I imagine anxiety, frustration, desperation, even despair — all those painful, negative feelings that are stirred up when we feel helpless, vulnerable, and alone.

Now of course we can take the story literally, as a story about physical illness, but in John’s Gospel every story has an imaginative or symbolic dimension, as well, so let’s think for a moment about paralysis in a wider sense. When have you felt paralyzed? We can feel paralyzed by grief, paralyzed by doubt or indecision, paralyzed by anxiety. Like that man beside the Beth-zatha pool, we can feel completely immobilized. Like him, we can feel alone in the crowd, utterly bereft of inner or outer resources, with no one to help.

I don’t have to tell you that we live in stressful, even scary times, and that the world around us is volatile and unpredictable. Just recall some of the events of the past ten days, from the failed bomb attempt in New York City’s Times Square to the massive water break that left almost two million people in the Boston area under an order to boil their water. Some things took place quickly, such as the twenty-minute episode of near panic on Wall Street last week, when stocks went into freefall and briefly erased 1 trillion dollars. Some things are playing out in excruciatingly slow motion, like the heart-breaking oil spill catastrophe that is still unfolding in the Gulf of Mexico.

How do we prepare ourselves for adversity? How do we stay connected with our deep inner resources of creative energy, wisdom, and hope when the world around us is so full of suffering, and the future ahead of us is so full of uncertainty? What do we do when we feel alone and paralyzed by the side of the pool, cut off from the healing and wholeness that seem so impossibly far away?

“When Jesus saw [the man] lying there and knew that he had been there a long time, he said to him, ‘Do you want to be made well?’” John 5:6. The first step in the healing miracle was this: Jesus drew near and he “saw” the man and he “knew” him. As John’s Gospel underscores again and again, when Jesus sees and knows us, he sees and knows us through and through, more widely and deeply than we know ourselves. He looks deeply into us with eyes of love, with eyes that see the whole truth of who we are, and that perceive everything in us, everything about us, with loving kindness and compassion. When we open ourselves in prayer, we open ourselves to the One “unto whom all hearts are open, all desires known, and from whom no secrets are hid” [Collect for Purity]. In prayer, we turn our attention to the Holy Presence who searches for truth deep within and whose loving embrace encompasses everything we are, everything we feel.

That is the first step in today’s healing miracle: Jesus draws near; he sees and knows. The other step in healing is his question, “Do you want to be made well?” It is a surprising question, really, for you might think that Jesus would take one look at the situation, pick the man up without a word, and carry him straight to the pool of healing water. Why waste time? Why bother asking such an obvious question? When someone is evidently hungry, you offer something to eat; when someone is thirty, you offer a drink. Why mess around with questions?

But Jesus’ question reveals something important about God. The God we meet in Jesus will never force or push, even when it comes to offering healing. The God we meet in Jesus is deeply respectful of our freedom, and gives us space in which to choose. Do we want the grace that God is offering us? Will we give our consent? It is not just a rhetorical question with a pro forma answer. The question invites the man beside the pool — and invites us, as well — to explore our desires, to examine what we want and why.

Do I really want to be made well? Well, yes and no. Some part of me likes to play the role of innocent victim, to blame the other person for wounding or offending me, or for keeping me stuck. Some part of me likes to complain and to look for excuses, to note the ways my parents have done me wrong, my spouse has let me down, I deserve better, it’s not my fault. Why me? I could have been fully alive and well — but then such-and-such bad thing happened and so here I am, stuck forever on the very edge of healing, with healing so close, but never quite making the move.

Do you want to be made well? That question requires honest self-examination. You might say that it comes with a shovel. With that question in hand, we carry out an ‘archaeology’ of our motives and desires, and dig down deep to discover the bedrock of what we really want. When we have sifted out and sorted through all our lesser wants, what we may discover is that deep down we want to be fully alive. Deep down we want to love and to be loved, and to draw close to the holy Source of love. Deep down we want our lives to be about something much larger than ourselves and our endless striving and self-promotion. We want our lives to be full of light, and to be a blessing to other people.

Knowing that is like having a compass in our pocket, like having the North Star shine overhead. In every moment we have a dependable indicator that can point the way to wise action and loving speech. Moment to moment, in everything we do, in every situation we encounter, we can ask ourselves: How do I meet this situation in a way that is consonant with my deepest desire and my highest purpose? What can I say in this moment, what can I do in this moment that will let the love of God be more fully expressed? The more completely our lives are aligned with that deepest motive, the more inner peace and stability we will feel, no matter what our outer circumstances may be.

When it comes to healing, Jesus does not appear out of nowhere, waving a magic wand. What Jesus asks is more demanding than that, and more costly, for he needs us to do the work of becoming conscious, of becoming as self-aware as we can, so that in every interaction and decision and thought, we are tuned in to our motives, to what we most deeply want.

How does the man by the pool reply to Jesus when he asks, “Do you want to be made well?” As I hear it, it’s a mess of an answer, really. He does not reply directly to Jesus’ question but responds with blaming and complaint. “’Sir,’ [the man says,] ‘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’” John 5:7. Jesus’ response is brusque and clear: “’Stand up, take your mat and walk.’ And at once the man was made well, and he took up his mat and began to walk” John 5:8-9.

How did the miracle take place? No one can explain a miracle. But as I imagine it, the man did the work that he needed to do. He clarified his muddy, murky motives. He became conscious of his excuses and half-hearted commitments, and recognized at last that he had been hiding behind passivity and self-pity. As Jesus gazed on him with those piercing, loving eyes that saw and knew and loved the sick man through and through, the man was able to name and confess the ways that he had been holding himself back. I think that in a flash of insight and inner healing, he was able to turn to Jesus and to give his consent, to say Yes, it is life that I want, fullness of life, to fall in love with life, to give myself in love to each moment without holding back. The Gospel does not record that conversation, but I imagine it happening at a non-verbal level, by gesture and glance, as the sick man looked up at Jesus and said, without words, “Yes, I do want to be made well.”

“Stand up,” Jesus said, “and walk.”

And so he did. And so do we.

You will notice that the man did not need to climb into the Beth-zatha pool in order to be healed. The healing spring was not outside him, but inside him, just as it is inside us. As Jesus told the woman at the well in the chapter right before this one John 4:1-26, Jesus gives us water that will become in us a “spring of water gushing up to eternal life” John 4:14. Even in troubled and scary times, we have everything we need. The healing pool is within us; the spring of healing is already rising up. All we need, when we feel paralyzed and alone, is to turn to the One who knows and loves us through and through, and to listen to the question that he is asking, “Do you want to be made well?”

We say yes every time we examine our motives and re-align ourselves with our deepest desires. We say yes every time we say the loving word and choose the loving act. We say yes every time our intentions are clear and in line with love. And then we are free again to stand up and to walk, and to reach out to the frightened or sorrowful people around us who need healing as much as we do, and to give them encouragement — a word that means “to make the heart strong.”

God never promised that our lives would be free from struggle, pain, or tragedy. 2 But God is with us, and will make our hearts strong.

1. The Anchor Bible: The Gospel According to John (I-XII), introduction, translation, and notes by Raymond E. Brown, S.S., Garden City, NY: Doubleday & Company, Inc, 1966, pp. 206-207.

2. Maggie Geller, paraphrase, cited in Synthesis, “Easter 6 -Tradition,” May 9, 2010.

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