After this there was a Jewish festival, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem. In Jerusalem near the Sheep Gate in the north city wall is a pool with the Aramaic name Bethsaida. It had five covered porches, and a crowd of people who were sick, blind, lame, and paralyzed sat there. [a] A certain man was there who had been sick for thirty-eight years. When Jesus saw him lying there, knowing that he had already been there a long time, he asked him, “Do you want to get well?”
The sick man answered him, “Sir, I don’t have anyone who can put me in the water when it is stirred up. When I’m trying to get to it, someone else has gotten in ahead of me.”
Jesus said to him, “Get up! Pick up your mat and walk.” Immediately the man was well, and he picked up his mat and walked. Now that day was the Sabbath.
In John 5:1-9, we read about Jesus healing a man at the ritual purification pool. And what we read today, to give you some context, isn’t even the whole story. The translation we read today, and most translations, leave out verse 3 from the passage.
It says this: “Sometimes an angel would come down to the pool and stir up the water. Then thefirst one going into the water after it had been stirred up was cured of any sickness.”
So the purification itself is great, and on top of that, angels could actually stir this water so that people who enter it first will be cured of their illnesses. We hear this, and then we read how Jesus healed the man, and it feels like we’re going to have another interpretation of Jesus’ healing power on our hands.
But what seems to be another story about healing, is actually an indictment against a society that chronically ignores ‘other’.
The folks around the man without access, the sick man, aren’t helping him, even though they see him in need. Imagine, he’s been there 38 years and everyone saw him, yet nobody would recognize his presence. This scripture does speak to Jesus’ healing nature, of course. And that healing nature is powerful, especially under the terms which Jesus healed here. Jesus himself defied Torah law in this story. He healed on the Sabbath, and he told the man to pick up his mat, both things that should not happen according to Torah. But Jesus was too busy helping people to pay attention to the societal rules and standards to the T.
So Jesus healing is miraculous, and it’s worth noting in this passage, but that’s not what we’re focusing on today. Today, we will focus on how this passage is an indictment on society, critiquing our priorities of rule-following and comfort and routine over seeing and helping people in need.
Let’s picture ourselves as this man. You are coming to this place for the first time, looking to be purified and healed. Somehow, you end up near the water, but you can’t get in it. So you lay there, watching people go in and out, waiting for someone to notice you, asking if you need help, believing you too deserve to go in the water. But nobody does that. You continue to have faith, that the next day, someone will notice you. Days and weeks and years pass, and 38 years later, you’re in the same spot you began in, watching and waiting, discouraged, but still with a tinge of faith that the next day might be different, that the next day, someone might see you. But they never do.
Too often, we are the ones who never see the sick man, the ones who aren’t focused on seeing things that are outside of the task at hand. We are reminded today of the need to get outside our comfort zones, in order to see the people in need. We need to not be shocked by outbursts or distractions that feel out of place to us, when in reality, they are exactly in the right place. We must recognize that there is more that connects us than is different.
We are just like the sick man in so many ways. Each of us are looking for healing. It doesn’t matter what kind of healing that is. Each person who went to the pool in Jerusalem was looking to be purified. That alone levels the playing field. Like those at the pool, you and I are no better off or more whole because the healing we are seeking isn’t as obvious.
If we weren’t in need, we wouldn’t be at the pool. We wouldn’t be seeking purification. We wouldn’t be following God or learning from Jesus. We wouldn’t be showing up to this sanctuary, week after week, seeking that which is bigger than ourselves. So who are we to say that this man, is any less well than we are, or is any less deserving of that life-giving water? Similarly, who are we to give judgmental stares or whisper or ignore the people we deem as ‘sick’?
Sojourner Truth, an activist for women and a key leader in the antislavery movement in the 1800’s, gave a famous speech called ‘Ain’t I A Woman’. Go read it if you haven’t heard it yet, but she is arguing for equality by stating the similarities between herself and white women, or people with more power than herself.
“Ain’t I a woman? They talk about this thing in the head; what’s this they call it? Intellect. What’s that got to do with women’s rights or black rights? Ain’t I a woman? I have borne thirteen children. Ain’t I a woman?”
She continues, by talking about God, the equalizing nature of belonging to a God who created us, women and men and all genders, to turn the world upside down, and who are we, she says, to encroach on God’s will for us all to do that. In addition to being known for her activism, Sojourner Truth was also an itinerant preacher, which makes a lot of sense. Her story and this speech especially, almost mirrors the sentiment of this passage we read today from John.
We have this man, who has differences that are very public to the world. He needs healing, so he goes to the place where it can happen. And when he gets there, he sees people that don’t look like him, but are there for the same reason. They too must need healing, like him. Each of those gathered at the pool, there for their purification, are looking for something. Each of them recognizes their humanity, their limits and their need for God. Each of them knows the value in this pool, and the ritual of purification they came to take part in. Rather than asking “Ain’t I a woman?”, the man is asking “Ain’t I a Christian?”. Aren’t I just as worthy to receive the life-giving water as my neighbor, the person to my right or left? Aren’t I in need of healing just like the rest of them? Then why is nobody seeing me?
Maybe there are times when we see ourselves as that man, lying by this pool of living waters that we haven’t been able to access for decades. And we are lying there, surrounded by people, but feeling alone and unseen.
And maybe, and this is our challenge today, maybe we are the ones who are to the right and the left of this man, there to seek the same water as the man, yet unwilling to turn our heads. Maybe we are the ones who have been in and out of the pool so much that it’s almost become second nature, like we go into autopilot mode, unable to focus outside the routine. Maybe we are the ones so bogged down in polity and tradition and societal expectations that we can’t hear the ones calling out to us, “Ain’t I a Christian too”.
The story of the man at the water ends with Jesus healing the man. But it begins with erasure, with society ignoring those who are ‘other’, society deciding who is worthy of healing. What would it take to see them? What would it take for us to redefine what is ‘normal’ for us, based on something bigger than our comfort zones? What would it take for the sick, the homeless, the mentally ill to know that when they show up, just like we do, to be healed at the pool, for them to know that they will be helped into it, welcomed in to the hope and grace filled life of God’s love?
In the face of overwhelming difference, that challenge and that erasure continues to grow, people growing further apart than they ever have. And in the face of that, these are important questions for us to be asking, then acting on. My hope is that we as a church, and we as disciples, are able to ask them often, truly changing our hearts and minds towards resurrection, towards an openness to the future of God’s kindom.
Friends, may we continue to go to the water, expecting healing and renewal. May we look around us, outside of us, noticing all of God’s creation, none less worthy than the next. And may we recognize each person we encounter as beloved, walking with them into the deep waters of grace. Let us pray.
God of abundance and wholeness, we give you thanks for your healing, for your abundance of pouring out into our lives. Empower us God, to see the ‘other’ as our sibling in Christ, helping one another to the pool of life. In your name we pray, Amen.