My sermons never go exactly as written… but here’s what I wrote (and I think came close to preaching). It’s all God’s anyway. 🙂
THiS is where the healing begins
given to New Leaf Church in College Park, MD
In my line of work, I see what can happen in a person’s life – or a family dynamic — when there is serious illness. When I walk into the trauma room as the chaplain on duty, I am going to be with someone who is having one of their very worst days. Ever.
- It could be that they are victims of the insurance industry bureaucracy, so they did not keep up with preventive health care, and might have avoided what they are going through.
- It could be difficulty with getting an accurate diagnosis or a finding a good medical practitioner who is on their health plan.
- It could be that they made poor lifestyle choices
- It could be they inherited bad genes that resulted in a predisposition to cancer.
- And sometimes, it is just a perfect storm of all of the above.
It makes you stop and wonder. And ask questions. Questions I’ve asked – maybe you have too…
- Why IS there illness and disease?
- Why does it happen to GOOD people?
- Why doesn’t God heal all the time?
- What does it mean to be “healed” anyway?
In matters of faith, I can’t provide all the answers. But there are things we can find in the Scriptures to consider together. We may not be able to get a 25-point plan for health care from the Bible, but I think we can hear God’s heart, and see what that might mean for our lives.
So let’s look at John 5…
This story probably took place during the Feast of Booths or Tabernacles (Sukkot) – established by God in Leviticus 23. It’s suggested that the Feast of Booths had three purposes:
- to celebrate God’s faithfulness in the present harvest time
- to remember God’s deliverance of the Jews from captivity in Egypt, and
- to then give out of their abundance to the needy around them.
As an observant Jew, Jesus was in Jerusalem for this feast, and he was in the area of the pool of Bethesda by the Sheep Gate of the wall of Jerusalem and the Temple.
The Pool at Bethesda –
Bethesda in Hebrew would be Beth Hesda – it means “God’s Mercy” or “God’s Grace”– and had come to be known as the place where healing comes by the mercy of God. A nice word picture of the hopes of these desperate pilgrims!
There was a Jewish custom that when an angel stirred the waters, that the first person in the pool would be healed. Of course, if you were really infirm, you could not get in the water first. So many had servants or relatives with them who would help them into the pool.
Archeological digs have confirmed the presence of this pool with the 5 porches (actually columns) outside the Temple. But they are not sure if there was some kind of underground spring that fed the pool with ebbs and flows in the current, or another explanation for the water being “stirred.” It doesn’t really matter, of course. That’s not the point of the story.
This story is one in a series of miracles that Jesus performs right under the nose of the Jewish leaders (the Scribes and Pharisees). Unlike his many miracles in the countryside, or in private homes, this one is literally on the doorstep of the seat of Jewish authority. It is early in Jesus’ ministry (at least in terms of John’s chronology). And it occurs after Jesus met the Samaritan woman at the well, and after he heals in Cana – a Roman official’s son who was dying. The word was getting around. John carefully records for us in his Gospel that Jesus cared about the needs of everyone he met – A Samaritan! A Woman! A Gentile! And in this healing event, a Jew.
The Healing Event
It’s important to remember that a devout Jew, one who wished to worship in the Temple, would do their best to avoid the sick. Remember the story of the Good Samaritan told by Jesus in Luke’s Gospel? The priest and the Levite were on their way to Jerusalem and they carefully avoided helping the injured man. They did not want to become unclean.
Jesus chose to walk through this area where the outcasts would be lying. He probably came into the Temple area through the Sheep Gate – a gate that is believed to be on the east wall of old Jerusalem, where the herders could drive their sheep and goats right through the gate and into the Temple. Imagine this… the Lamb of God walking into the Temple Grounds where the sacrifices entered the Temple. Ponder that for a moment…
It was not a place where scribes and Pharisees would be hanging out. It might have been a strategic entry for Jesus to enter the Temple in a more covert way. But the point is – he chose to walk among the outcasts.
Outcasts – who were not even allowed into the Court of the Gentiles.
Outcasts – who could not offer sacrifices.
Outcasts, who in some cases were isolated from their families because of their “unclean” condition.
According to the writings of Josephus, a Roman historian, the areas surrounding the pools were crowded. It probably was smelly, loud and full of disease. The animals driven through this area probably left a lot of dung behind. It was noisy, smelly and chaotic. Picture the worst photos you’ve ever seen of a village clinic in a remote part of the world – add the sounds and smells of suffering – very few of us would choose to walk in there.
The person Jesus helped is reported to have been disabled all of his life. In 1st Century reality, to have lived for 38 years as an invalid probably with some form of paralysis, you would be close to your life span. You would be well-known. You would have been a beggar. You wouldn’t have been able to run a business or learn a trade. You wouldn’t get married, SOooo you probably didn’t have children to care for you in your old age, the Jewish version of Social Security. And so this hopeless condition was where the man found himself.
In verse 6 Jesus asked him, “Do you want to be healed?”
The man responds that (essentially) he “can’t” be healed because he has no one to help him get into the water first.
So Jesus tells him to “just do it” (that’s a rough translation) and the man gets up and walks!
I wonder… Was he startled into it? Into standing up, picking up his mat, and walking? Like he hadn’t wanted to do that before? Or even TRIED to do that before?
And yet he did. He carried his mat and was seen by the Jewish authorities. He was roundly scolded for “working” on the Sabbath. He defended himself – “the man who healed me” told me to! But he couldn’t identify who healed him.
Then in verse 14 Jesus meets the man in the temple and tells him to sin no more. Jesus challenges him to live a new, healed, changed life, to live as though he had never been afflicted. Instead of reminding the man to fulfill his purification requirements, Jesus instead directs him to live a changed life. Focus FORWARD.
When the Jewish authorities discovered it was Jesus, they were ticked. This rabbi from Galilee told someone to WORK on the Sabbath. What was he thinking? They began to harass Jesus. The persecution and plotting to kill Jesus began to escalate. He flouted the rules of the Midrash. He told a man to WORK on the Sabbath. He HEALED on the Sabbath. He was among the UNCLEAN and then entered the temple. And then – he claimed he was equal with God. He walked in a position of authority. They were not happy.
Besides ignoring some points in the midrash, the common interpretation of their religious practices, Jesus was up against a mindset that had some serious prejudice against those who were ill. To be sick meant that you had surely sinned. To be an invalid for so many years – to be born that way – your parents had sinned. They religious leaders were focusing on the minor details of obedience. They were making theological mountains out of molehills.
Remember that Beth Hesda meant “God’s Grace”? To the Jewish religious authorities, the pool of Bethesda was a place of DISgrace. In fact — a bit of trivia – the word in Aramaic means “house of disgrace” or “shame.”
Illness was viewed as a disgrace
In the Old Testament – disease, illness seen as a form of punishment, of disobedience against God. It was part of the Law:
58 “If you are not careful to do all the words of this law that are written in this book, that you may fear this glorious and awesome name, the Lord your God, 59 then the Lord will bring on you and your offspring extraordinary afflictions, afflictions severe and lasting, and sicknesses grievous and lasting.
…and it goes on to explain that they will not only die from their disease, they will lose the Land that God promised them.
In some respects, then, illness could have come from disobedience – the laws of health/purity/food prep were in part a way of protecting the Jews from disease. The dietary laws helped keep them healthy during their wilderness wanderings. Pre-germ-theory, it’s about the best they could understand about disease.
But in addition,
Illness was seen as a judgment
David and Bathsheba’s first son died when he was 7 days old. Nathan the prophet told him that it was because he had disobeyed God.
Solomon urged the people to follow God wholeheartedly so that they would not go through famine or pestilence or drought or be besieged by their enemies — to seek God’s forgiveness and restoration instead of being belligerent and rebellious.
Later in the stories of the Kings of Israel, God shows judgment by causing the wicked kings who “did evil in the sight of the Lord” to become ill and die.
So there was this institutional memory among the Jewish people that God punished by causing illness and death. Understandable. It clearly influenced the Jewish people in the time of Christ, too.
Remember the story from John 9 where the disciples asked… Who sinned? This man or his parents that he was born blind? (It was a fair question! It’s one that we ask isn’t it? “WHY DID THIS HAPPEN?”)
Jesus said, “Neither he nor his parents. This happened so that God’s mighty works might be displayed in him…”
Christ saw illness as an opportunity
- to show God’s power and to show his positional relationship of authority with God
- to show he was doing God’s work
- and ultimately, on the cross, to defeat sickness and death once and for all. (I don’t know about you, but I long for that day when suffering and sorrow will flee away and “everlasting joy” shall be ours.)
To our western minds, we can understand that Healing can be physical, spiritual, relational or all three
We know that God is Jehovah Rapha – the one who heals Ps 103:3
- To make us whole
- To bring restoration
- To bring wholeness/peace within (shalom)
- To meet your needs – your deepest needs — The biggest need we have is a sense that our physical bodies, our physical needs are not the important part of us. On some deep, personal metaphysical level, we know we need God.
- To join in community together – if you are united in prayer about a grave concern, many other small, petty things fall by the wayside.
- To increase awareness of the pain around us — Everyone has hurts. Everyone faces loss. Everyone struggles with physical pain. Even the politician from that other party will die and his devastated family will need comforting.
In my work there are times that I have had to extend comfort and compassion to patients or their families, and I confess I struggled to feel compassionate towards them…
- the bereaved family of a diplomat who was from a country that I know represses women (By extending compassion to his widow, was I accepting their culture? No – I was representing the Christ I worship, who brings people together, who speaks peace.)
- the heroin addict who did not quite die of an overdose and her broken-hearted parents watched her paraplegic body waste away over the years (By comforting them, was I condoning her drug habit? No – I was empathizing with a parent’s pain and loss.)
- the young staff member who comes into work with a hangover and feels terrible (When I listened to her complaints, I then had an opportunity to be trusted, and now I am someone she will turn to for accountability and encouragement.)
Christ calls me – calls you – to stop judging and see the human needs around us, and as best we can, to offer our assistance, or at the very least, our prayers!
One of the difficulties with the whole issue of disease and wellness is that there is a huge disparity between the HAVES and HAVE NOTS. I’m not talking about the 1% or even the 47%.
I’m talking about basic health insurance – for people who work less than a full-time job, who work under a contract, or who are part of a small business – basic health insurance is unreachable. Realistically, you and I can’t meet all of these needs. But what is a Christian’s response to the needs around us? What is just? What is right?
I confess that I can get a little angry at the bureaucracy and politics which surround providing for the needy around us. I don’t want to wander too far from the text 🙂 but I think it is important that, as people who name the Name of Christ, we pass over politics and consider the human quotient here. The opportunities to respond with a Christ-like attitude are endless.
We can follow the clear example of Christ
- See who we CAN help
- Ascertain if they WANT help
- Help network to get the resources or the means to make it happen
- Pass the credit to God
- Expect criticism, misunderstandings and perhaps unwillingness to be healed (after all – the man at the pool could have said, “no thanks, I’ll just sit here and let the world come to ME.”)
I noticed on your church website that you are partnering with CASA and CUCE– These are simple, personal ways to make a difference. (By the way, you might also consider looking into sites like Manna Food or the Maryland Food Bank, helping them process donations of produce or other items for their shelves.)
Yes, these are “just” conversations. Working on a common tasks. Pooling resources, money and personnel. Offering a welcoming presence. These small things accumulate – and they make a difference.
Mother Teresa said, “Not all of us can do great things. But we can do small things with great love.”
And she also said, “The hunger for love is much more difficult to remove than the hunger for bread.”
You and I cannot heal every person we meet who has cancer, or arthritis, or diabetes. We can’t remove every addiction, or bring about restoration to broken relationships. We can act – in small ways – to show the compassionate, personal love of Christ. We can speak to that deep human need to love and be loved. We can show acceptance.
I commend you for where you have been faithful… and for where God would lead you next to care for the hurting around you.
Remember – All Jesus asked the paralyzed man was to get up, pick up his mat and walk. So Go – Carry on. And do your small things with great love.
Start where you are… let the healing begin.
Let us pray…