I have heard this story of Jesus healing the blind, lame, and paralyzed man at the pool of Beth-zatha hundreds of times, and every time I hear it what stands out to me is Jesus’ question to the disabled man, “Do you want to be made well?” I think to myself, “Well, duh Jesus, of course he wanted to be made well, why do you think he had been dragging himself to this pool for almost four decades?” This man is desperate to be made well. He’s dedicated his whole life to getting well. He knows the legend about this pool, that an angel comes early in the morning and stirs up the waters and the first one in the pool is then healed of all infirmities. He has been trying desperately to be the first one in that pool for his whole life, but someone always gets in ahead of him.
So why then does Jesus ask this man this question? It seems clear from scripture, that Jesus’ questions are always deliberate, they are never offhand, and they are always intended to teach the person to whom the question is directed and us the readers of Scripture some important lesson. Is it possible that Jesus understood this man better than he understood himself? Is it possible that Jesus understands us better than we understand ourselves? It is clear that when Jesus looked at a person, he didn’t just see the surface of that person. When Jesus looked at a person he would see deep within that person’s heart and soul. He would see the deeper longings and troubles residing below the level of the person’s conscious thought. Jesus would truly “see” the person—the whole person—the light and darkness present in the person.
Perhaps when Jesus looked at this man, he saw that this man had ambiguous feelings about being healed. Perhaps he could see that physical disability had become a part of this man’s identity. Perhaps he could see that this man really did not want to be made well, because he did not know how to be well. Perhaps he could see that for this man lying by the pool day in and day out had become a way of life. Maybe he could tell that this man had let the circumstances of his life determine his entire life. Maybe he could see that this man had developed tunnel vision and could only imagine one way out of his very limited life.
We certainly see later on in this chapter that this man was not inclined to take responsibility for himself and for his life. The story continues beyond the passage we heard this morning. The religious leaders come to the man, and they challenge him because the cured man is carrying his mat on the Sabbath. They tell him that this is illegal. The man immediately says, “I only did it because the man who cured me told me to carry it.” In other words, it isn’t my fault. They ask him who cured him, and he tells him that he does not know. Later Jesus finds him in the temple and tells him not to sin anymore. The man then immediately goes to the religious leaders and turns Jesus in. You would think that he would be so grateful to be made well that he would do anything to protect and defend the man who gave him this gift. You would think that he would want to join Jesus’ ministry and pass the healing on to others. But this is not what happens. The man turns Jesus in and from that day the religious leaders “started persecuting Jesus, because he was doing such things on the sabbath.” As the saying goes, no good deed goes unpunished.
I think Jesus asked the man the question, “Do you want to be made well?” because Jesus knew that this man’s true disability, what he really needed to be cured of, was not physical. This man’s true disability was how he viewed his life. For 38 years he had been trying the same solution and getting the same result. For 38 years he hasn’t lived his life, he has waited to live his life.
You remember the definition of insanity, don’t you? Doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.
And why does he keep doing this? Well, it is much easier to remain passive. It isn’t my fault that I’m not doing anything with my life, the others cut in front of me. It isn’t my fault that I broke the Sabbath. That man told me to do it. Go talk to him.
Now, you heard me say earlier that when Jesus asks a question it is also for us, the readers of Scripture. So, Jesus wasn’t just asking this man, he was also asking us, “Do you want to be made well?” When Jesus sees each and every one of us, he also sees deep below our surface. When Jesus sees each and every one of us, he also sees our dark side in addition to the light. We all find ourselves in the midst of circumstances in our lives that are less than desirable. Frequently we can’t change the circumstances. Frequently we aren’t in control of what happens to us. However, this does not mean that we are powerless. We are in control of how we respond to any circumstance in which we find ourselves, and God is with us in all the various circumstances of our lives. And God is with us not to change our circumstances, but to change us.
Perhaps a story will help you understand what I am trying to say. There was a man who joined the congregation I served in Arlington, Virginia. When I first met him, he was 86 years old, and wheelchair bound because of a stroke that had paralyzed the right-side of his body. He joined my parish when he moved to the area from California. He had never lived on the East Coast before he moved to the D.C. area. He had loved California and had never intended to move from there, but 3 years prior his wife of over 60 years had died. He had just begun to remake his life when he suffered a life-changing stroke.
He had the financial means to live out the rest of his life in a more than decent long-term care facility, but that was not what he wanted. He realized that travel would be difficult for him now and he wanted to know his grandchildren in the remaining years of his life. So, he decided that he needed to leave his beloved California and move to Arlington, Virginia. He found himself an independent living facility near his family located in an area with public transportation, shops, restaurants, and an Episcopal church. Church was very important to him.
He learned how to operate a motorized wheelchair and from this facility he could go in that chair to all the places he needed to go—stores, restaurants, his family, and his church. But even more importantly he could be active in the pursuits that were so important to him—serving those in need and painting. During the time that I knew him, he taught himself to paint with his left hand (non-dominant) and he headed up the 5 day a week feeding program that served hot lunch out of our church to anyone in need.
I asked him what gave him the strength to recreate his life in the midst of so many losses and he answered, “God.” He shared with me that at first the death of his wife and then his stroke flattened him. He was ready to give up and just passively wait until he died. But a part of him stubbornly refused this fate, and he began praying to God to heal him. When his therapists and doctors finally told him that he had made as much progress as was possible and he would never use his right side again, he became angry. Why wouldn’t God heal him? And then one day it came to him that there was more than one kind of healing.
Perhaps it wasn’t possible for God to reverse the laws of physics and restore his damaged brain to its pre-stroke condition, but God was offering him a life all the same, if only he was willing to accept it. He heard God asking him, “What is most important to you in your life and what do you need to do to get that back?” He realized that his family, his church, serving those in need and painting were what mattered to him, and from that time forward he found the strength to build a new life. He considered himself healed, even if his brain remained damaged. He decided he did want to be made well, maybe not physically whole, but well all the same.
Whenever I find myself stuck, convinced that the circumstances of my life are what defines me and that there is no way out of the place in which I find myself, I think of this man from Virginia and then I think of this story from the Gospel of John. We are more than the circumstances of our lives. Life is not found outside these circumstances but within them. God is not found outside these circumstances but within them. “Do you want to be made well? Stand up, take your mat, and walk.” Amen.