by Rev. Eric Elnes, Ph.D.
This week at Darkwood Brew, our Pneuma Divina reading was based on a story where Jesus heals a lame man beside a pool in John 5:1-15. The Pool at Beth-Zatha, also known as Bethesda, was a place that, until the 1964, many scholars thought was a fiction or at least a pious misunderstanding from an author who may never have lived in Jerusalem. Scholars were doubtful because excavations in Jerusalem failed to uncover any conclusive evidence of the healing pool. Then in 1964, archaeologists uncovered a whole complex of pools and buildings that not only matched the description of John’s Gospel but showed that the site had been considered a holy site by ancient Christians who likely identified them with John’s story.
You may wonder why I call this a story of Jesus’ failure. After all, he heals a man who has lain infirm beside the pool for 38 years! Let’s consider the story a little more closely, and you can decide for yourself. (Click the link above and read the story if you haven’t already.)
So here’s this pool where people have apparently gone for a very long time to be healed. Some manuscript traditions include a brief description in John 5 of how healings worked at the pool. Apparently, the waters would occasionally be”troubled” (some manuscripts add “by an angel”). When the waters were troubled, the belief was that the first person into the pool would be healed.
When Jesus visits the pool, he finds this lame man begging beside it, whom Jesus perceives to have been there for a very long time. How would Jesus perceive this? Did he peer clairvoyantly into his mind? Imagine how you yourself might clue in. All the people seem to know this man by name and show deference toward him. He’s in the prime begging location – a spot surely coveted by the other beggars, none of whom dare usurp it. They don’t have the seniority. Nor do they have the social capital necessary to oust him from his spot with the support of others. This man clearly rules the roost, and anyone taking more than a minute to observe the situation would have easily concluded that his guy has been there awhile. John says he’s been there thirty-eight years.
Jesus approaches the man and asks a question of him that would have been considered strange, if not downright offensive: “Do you want to be made well?” Of course he does – Doesn’t he?
Curious that the man doesn’t come out and say, “Of course I do! Why do you think I’m here to begin with?!” Instead, he hems and haws, never providing a direct answer: “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.”
In thirty-eight years this man has yet to be first in the water? Let’s assume he’s got an unusually debilitating handicap. Perhaps he can’t move himself at all, under his own power. Would it not seem strange that in thirty-eight years no one would have taken pity on him and moved him into the pool? In thirty-eight years, wouldn’t the other beggars not have made sure he could be first in the pool if for no other reason than to take over the prime alms-giving spot for themselves? If you believe that this man never had a chance to make it into the pool, I’m sure he would be glad to sell you a bridge stretching from Brooklyn to Jerusalem!
No, this man has no interest in being healed. After all, he’s making a good living. He’s got the respect of his peers. His social, religious, and economic world revolves around the pool. His life is defined by his limitations. To heal this man would be to disrupt everything he knows and has become accustomed to in this world!
But Jesus does heal him. “Stand up, take up your mat and walk.” And the man jumps up, thanks Jesus profusely with great emotion and tears and offers to follow him for the rest of his days, right? Not! The man takes up his mat and walks away, so angry that he never bothers to say thank you or even ask Jesus’ name. A short while later, Jesus will find the man in another location – begging as he was before! Jesus calls him out exclaiming,”See, you have been made well! Do not sin anymore, so that nothing worse happens to you.” At this, the man marches straight to the Pharisees and tries to help them arrest Jesus on the charge that Jesus healed him on the Sabbath and had thus broken the law not to”work.”
Why does Jesus bother healing this man who doesn’t want to be healed in the first place? Probably for the same reason his Living Spirit keeps pushing all of us”into places we wouldn’t necessarily go ourselves.” Jesus knows that the human soul is terrifically buoyant. Its yearning is for the freedom that comes from answering God’s call. Held under the weight of our fears and excuses very long, the soul inevitably revolts. When it wins the revolt within us, we may find ourselves in places we wouldn’t necessarily go ourselves, but we also find that we are terrifically okay with that. We experience a taste of freedom, even joy.
But if the soul loses its revolt within us, significant harm usually comes as a result. The soul gets sick. Like a wild animal caught in the jaws of a trap, it may even try to eat its own substance in its struggle to be free. Failing that, it slackens and grows weak. The”air molecules” in our internal rubber ball compresses to the point where the ball is no longer so buoyant. Superficially, we may feel a relief from strain. But we are always ill-at-ease, restless, and edgy. That’s what happens when a human being resolves to live underwater rather than rise to the surface.
Jesus knew that the man felt superficially comfortable lying beside the pool all day, being sustained solely from the pity and generosity of others. Likely, his hope in healing the man against his will was to awaken and empower the deeper will within him. Tasting true freedom for the first time in thirty-eight years, the man might awaken as if from a long, dull dream to discover that the world was made to be free in. And yes, while the man would have to move from being a beggar at the top of the begging totem pole to living at the bottom end of productive society (at least for a while), Jesus knew that the man would truly be happier if he awakened because his life would finally be filled with soul.