To Bathe in the Sheep Gate Pool
Robert J. Elder, Pastor
First Presbyterian Church, Vancouver, Washington
Ash Wednesday: 2-13-2013
John 5:1-9 (NRSV)
After this there was a festival of the Jews, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem. Now in Jerusalem by the Sheep Gate there is a pool, called in Hebrew Beth-zatha, which has five porticoes. In these lay many invalids—blind, lame, and paralyzed. One man was there who had been ill for thirty-eight years. When Jesus saw him lying there and knew that he had been there a long time, he said to him, “Do you want to be made well?” The sick man answered him, “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.” Jesus said to him, “Stand up, take your mat and walk.” At once the man was made well, and he took up his mat and began to walk. Now that day was a Sabbath.
Everyone who reads the papers knows what an “unprovoked attack” is. Among the anxieties of modern life there is the fear that we may be walking alone one night, or resting quietly in our own home, and suddenly, out of the darkness, a stranger attacks us with malevolent intentions. Scoundrels have always been able to use the element of surprise to accomplish evil ends.
But what about an act of “unprovoked grace”? I recall a blossoming of bumper stickers years ago calling for a bit of unprovoked graciousness through “random acts of kindness.” Perhaps you have been on the receiving end of a randomly kind act, say when struggling to manage two large full grocery bags and a stranger stepped forward and opened the door for you.
When we are on the receiving end an act of unprovoked graciousness, we won’t have expected it, that’s the delight of it, isn’t it?
It was so for the man who lounged for 38 years by the pool called “Beth-zatha” or “Bethesda.” For 38 years, he had in mind one goal only: to get to the pool any time the waters were stirred and receive the healing that everyone said would be available only momentarily for the lucky few who could jump in time. That pool must have been something like those call-in contests on the radio: “We will offer this prize for the correct answer from caller number 10!” Caller number 9 and caller number 11 are no closer to winning than caller number 243. It isn’t fair necessarily, just a random chance in a dialing sequence. Today could be your lucky day, but very likely it won’t be. The air stirs, the aroma of fresh water invades the stagnant atmosphere around the cisterns of the Bethesda pool, and everyone realizes it all at the very same instant. There is a rush like nobody’s business until that all-too-brief moment has passed. A missed opportunity means more endless waiting until a magic moment occurs again.
38 years. Perhaps in that first year the man remained beside the pool with nerves on edge, waiting, waiting, waiting until, WHAM! the instant arrived when healing was only a fleeting few ticks of the clock away. But others were faster. Then, that opportunity having been missed, there remained only more waiting on edge. But for 38 years? By the time 38 years of waiting go by, we have spent so much time biding our time that waiting itself has become our whole life’s work. Day after dreary day, his focus had become waiting. Hour by hour he waited. Days stretched into weeks and months, until he could hardly remember a time of his life not characterized by endless waiting.
Then, one day, a voice startled him from his usual stupor into an unaccustomed state of alertness. He looked up. He was blinded by the sun silhouetting the stranger’s face. “Do you want to be healed?” the stranger asked. What a cruel, silly question! Hadn’t he devoted almost his entire life to waiting for an opportunity to be healed? So his answer sounded ambivalent, explaining that he had no one to help him. He had almost forgotten the whole reason behind lying beside the pool. It had been so long since he had really thought of the effect of the healing waters that he had come to think only of getting in them.
We have all known the secret pleasure that can characterize a temporary illness, which requires that we stay home, leaving the real tasks of life unfinished, unattended for a while, giving us the luxury of temporary unaccountability. For the man by the pool, means had become ends. Getting into the water had become the whole life’s goal. Getting a handout from passersby had changed places with the original target of actually becoming mobile enough to work. What healing meant, what work is, these had been forgotten, maybe somewhere around the 24th year of his endless waiting.
Do you want to be healed? What a question! But after 38 years … interim answers, lesser answers offer themselves when our lives involve waiting. “Perhaps he has never been well. Perhaps he doesn’t know what it is to be well.” Abraham waited all his life for a son. Job waited endlessly for an interim answer to his questions about suffering.
It has occurred to me that a lot of us throw away a pretty good portion of our lives believing that waiting for real life is our task, when the fact is that real life is only what we have right now. Life today is not a practice for some future time of real living. Sometimes chronically ill patients have reported that one of the key adjustments to life with their disease was to discover who they were called to be now that disease is a given in their life. The person they had been is gone. A new goal and task to life need to be discovered, or else the remainder of life could seem only that: a remainder, a time of endless waiting.
Congregations can do this too. Members of churches may sit year after year waiting for the church to turn into the church they really wanted it to be, withholding themselves from real work on behalf of the church until that far-off time when their vision of what the church should have been will be realized.
Me? Healed? The man beside the Bethesda pool said, “No, I want to get into the water, but no one will help me.” We may respond, saying, “I haven’t had anyone provide a church for me the way I have really needed a church to be. I know what I’m looking for in a church, and I’ll just wait to be healed until that comes along, thanks.”
Jesus bent over, got close enough to the man’s face that he could smell what he had had for breakfast, looked right into his eyes and said “Stand up, take up your mat and walk.” Nothing further about pools of water and a thousand other excuses. Just, “Get up and walk.” Unprovoked grace! And the man did. And so may we.