The Trouble With Healing, John 5:1-15, 4/22/12

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Apr 242012

Rev. Jim Zazzera

1After this there was a festival of the Jews, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem. 2Now in Jerusalemby the Sheep Gate there is a pool, called in Hebrew Beth-zatha, which has five porticoes. 3In these lay many invalids—blind, lame, and paralyzed. 5One man was there who had been ill for thirty-eight years. 6When 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?” 7The 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.” 8Jesus said to him, “Stand up, take your mat and walk.” 9At once the man was made well, and he took up his mat and began to walk. Now that day was a sabbath. 10So the Jews said to the man who had been cured, “It is the sabbath; it is not lawful for you to carry your mat.” 11But he answered them, “The man who made me well said to me, ‘Take up your mat and walk.’” 12They asked him, “Who is the man who said to you, ‘Take it up and walk’?” 13Now the man who had been healed did not know who it was, for Jesus had disappeared in the crowd that was there. 14Later Jesus found him in the temple and said to him, “See, you have been made well! Do not sin any more, so that nothing worse happens to you.” 15The man went away and told the Jews that it was Jesus who had made him well.

As many of you know, about a month and one half ago 7 of us from the church returned from a visit toEthiopia. We were ready to observe. We were ready to learn. We were ready to be touched. But something else began to happen for some of us. Some of us began to look at reality a little differently.


Here is my favorite picture from our trip toEthiopia (photo of two young smiling children).
I love this picture, because to me it demonstrates some of the pride, the joy, and the community I experienced with the people we met. It also reminds me how this visit changed my perspective. Poverty is oppressive and painful. The lack of basic physical necessities of life can rob people of hope. Day to day existence that includes shortages of dependable food sources, diseases that are difficult to control and the back-breaking grind of gathering water daily makes fullness of life more than difficult.


Yet, in the countryside ofEthiopia, I saw a small glimpse of a different reality. People can be in need, yet still find joy. People can face poverty, yet still have hope. People can be without much in the way of material goods, yet still lead full lives. That is what these faces communicate to me. My old narrative tells me that lack of food, shelter, clothing and health completely robs people of humanity. Yet because of these eyes I am forced to consider a new narrative, that the image of God is so strong in us and the capacity for joy and community is so powerful, that these things are not so easily taken away. God’s handiwork is not so easily defaced.


Though I believe with all my heart that we need to be part of providing “daily bread” for everyone on this planet,

I no longer accept the narrative that implies that the “haves” experience a fuller life than the “have-nots.” In this small way, I know my view of reality has been changed. [Slide off]


Have you ever experienced something that radically changed your view of reality? Maybe you remember when you were first married, and how everything changed when you choose to join your own way of life to the hopes and dreams of another. Maybe you have experienced a natural disaster, when things beyond all human power and control took away people’s possessions and lives, and you were left to pick up the pieces in the wake of a storm, or flood, or earthquake. Perhaps you have found your life dramatically altered by a devastating illness, when the weakness of your human body (or the body of a loved one) is revealed in stark relief. Clearly, our outlook on reality can be changed and altered.


In fact, illness is the doorway into the reality change that happens in today’s Bible reading. This scripture text is a fascinating tale, one of the many healing stories that appears in the Gospels. Jesus comes into Jerusalem, the center of Jewish life, for one of the most important religious festivals of his people. Lots of faithful Jews would have been in town that day. He comes to a man made pool near one of the gates of the Jerusalemwall. The pool, perhaps called Beth-zatha, perhaps Bethesdawas legendary for its healing properties. Though not a part of official Jewish practice, many Jews and non-Jews of the time thought this to be a place of healing. So important was this place, that many who were ill (the gospel tells us there were blind, lame, and paralyzed) traveled and gathered there to receive some measure of healing. The problem, it seems, was that the pool’s healing properties were only good after the water bubbled or was stirred up a bit. Evidently, only the first person in the pool after the waters were stirred received healing.[1]


The gospel tells us that Jesus discovered a man who was there that day. This man had been sick for 38 years.

We are not told what his illness was, but because of what happens in his healing, we might guess that he had some sort of paralysis. Jesus sees the man lying on the ground and “knows” that the man had been sick a long time

(Isn’t it interesting how Jesus always “knows” things?) Jesus then says to him these unforgettable words: “Do you want to be made well? Do you want to be healed?” The man hadn’t sought out Jesus, but Jesus initiates a conversation.


“Do you want to be made well?” Who asks these kinds of questions? Does you doctor ever ask you, “Do you want to be made well?” Mine doesn’t. Of course Jesus has a long history of asking strange and important questions. Think about it:  “Who do you say I am?” “Do you love me?” “Who is my mother?” “What do you want me to do for you?”


But, “do you want to be made well?” That’s a hard one for some of us. Hard enough that the man at the pool offers a couple excuses. “There is no one to help me into the pool…” “Someone else always gets in ahead of me…” But Jesus doesn’t respond to these questions but instead leaves the question hanging there, “Do you want to be made well?” He asks the question and so gives the man a choice. Yet the man seems to resist. Don’t you wonder what the man’s resistance is about?


But Jesus doesn’t hesitate. Remember, Jesus “sees” the man. Jesus “knows” the man. And so Jesus makes a simple statement that changes this man’s life. “Stand up, take your mat, and walk.” “Get up, grab your mattress, and start moving into your new life.” Jesus doesn’t ask the man if he has faith. He doesn’t tell him to get into the pool. He doesn’t ask him to practice any religious ritual. Just – “Get up and walk!”


The text tells us, “immediately the man was made well, and he took up his mat and began to walk.” In a flash, this man’s whole world is changed. In an instant, this man has a whole new outlook on reality. 38 years of being carried around. 38 years of living in a narrow world. 38 years with very little was expected of him. 38 years of experiencing the pity and disdain of others. 38 years of accepting this humiliating fate And then it changes. A bright and frightening reality opens up in front of him!


Then the story offers a surprise that the Gospel writer doesn’t let us in on until after telling us about the healing. It appears in the second half of verse 9. Don’t miss this. “Now, that day was the Sabbath.”  If in the healing story, Jesus changes one man’s life, in this part of the story we see the beginnings of how Jesus changes the lives of a whole people and ultimately the world.


Contrary to popular Christian understanding, healing of most acute illnesses would have been permissible on the Sabbath, Jewish law and practice was compassionate in this regard. Healing a chronic illness may have been postponed for another day. Healing, for the most part, was not a violation of the Sabbath. But “The Jews” as John called them (which is shorthand for “the religious leaders who opposed Jesus”) were not at all interested in the healing. What they were worried about was a man violating the Sabbath by carrying his sleeping mat.


To be fair, the law was clear on this point, and the Jewish leaders were simply trying to maintain their religious identity in an alien culture with the primary means they had at hand. According to scripture, the Sabbath was Holy from the time of creation. And carrying anything on the Sabbath was work and so a clear violation of its holiness. Sabbath was a way of both honoring God and defining community, and breaking Sabbath destroyed community and defiled faith.


What is intriguing about these leaders is that no where in the story do they take an interest in this man’s healing, but were far more motivated by deep suspicion about a person who was telling people to carry mats around. Seven times in these few passages the word for “healing” or “made well” is referenced, yet only in the mouth of Jesus or the healed man himself. The leaders ignore the healing and are only intent on finding out who told someone to take a walk. It is this fact that reveals the broken nature of the religious world Jesus was challenging. Throughout the gospel Jesus criticizes many  kinds of Sabbath observance he saw people practice,[2] and he seems to do this not out of a lack of respect for Jewish law and practice, but out of concern that the religious establishment had gotten its priorities way out of whack. Doesn’t it seem odd that the leaders only want to know who told the man to “take up his mat and walk?”


It is at this point in the Gospel of John where the real opposition to Jesus begins. And it begins not because of an individual healing. Not simply because of Sabbath breaking. The conflict with Jesus starts because Jesus is asking them to see their world differently. As one commentator puts it, “The Jews” (the religious leadership) made Jesus their enemy because Jesus threatened their “power, authority, perception of reality”[3]



What is Jesus doing here? And what is so threatening about what he is doing? What can be wrong about healing a man who presumably was paralyzed and now can walk? What can be wrong about doing good things, doing the work of God on the Sabbath? And why could this be wrong enough that it would begin a cycle of events that would ultimately lead to Jesus’ execution at the hands of religious and governmental authorities?


I think most of us resist change. But what makes us resist change (as individuals and institutions) so much that we will resort to violent opposition? A few days agoLenaand I saw a movie called “The Kid with the Bike.” The central character of the film is a 10 year old boy who refuses to believe that his father no longer wants to care for him and really doesn’t want him around anymore. So in the movie we see the boy desperately searching for his father, passionately questioning anyone who would have knowledge of his father’s whereabouts physically resisting those who tell him his father is not available, and in the end willing to commit an act of violence to gain his father’s love. You see the reality he wanted to live in was that his father loved him and wanted him around. The truth of the matter was that this father wanted nothing to do with his son. It was a painful and tragic reality that the “kid with the bike” did everything in his power to resist or deny.
In a way, we are all like the “kid with the bike.” We have accepted certain things about our lives that we do not want to change. Maybe we secretly cherish our addiction, maybe we find certain benefits in our brokenness, maybe we can barely scape together the energy to hang onto a way of life that we acknowledge is going nowhere—but we do it anyway. Jesus came to change all that. In fact the word that is used here for the command to “get up,” is the very same word regularly used in the New Testament for “resurrection.”[4] (Think about that!) Jesus knows he is not just empowering the man to “stand up,” He is both commanding and empowering the man to embrace new life. Like the picture of the one on the throne in the book of Revelation Jesus says “Behold, I am making all things new.”[5]


In a way, healing is easier than we think – Jesus simply speaks the word and it happens. But healing is also way harder than we think—because our lives will be forever changed.


What is true for individuals is also true for a community – it is hard to change. It is challenging to welcome God’s life and presence into our world. Maybe even harder for communities than individuals. Later in this same Gospel Jesus says “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.”[6] It is a free gift of God, but not all of us (and I include myself) want this new life. I am certain that not all institutions in the world want this new life. And I often wonder whether the church really wants this new life.


For you see, like the religious institutions of Jesus’ time, we believe we have God safely within a box. One writer says this about the religious leaders in this passage, “The rejection of Jesus in this story, then, is a rejection of the possibility of new and unprecedented ways of knowing God and ordering the life of faith.”[7]


In a recent Newsweek cover article called “Christianity in Crisis,” author, blogger, (and Christian) Andrew Sullivan makes this comment about what he thinks Christianity may be becoming:


This Christianity comes not from the head or the gut, but from the soul. It is as meek as it is quietly liberating. It does not seize the moment; it lets it be. It doesn’t seek worldly recognition, or success, and it flees from power and wealth. It is the religion of unachievement. And it is not afraid.[8]


I love that last line, “and it is not afraid.”


I don’t know what God is doing in and with the church. But I do believe that God is changing Christians, and the institution of the church – for the good. And it (in my mind) has something to do with letting go.  It has something to do with not being afraid. It has something to do with letting Jesus heal us and change our lives It has something to do with the releasing of religious structures that serve only to categorize people. It has something to do with trusting God. It has something to do with trusting that thekingdomofGodis at work—right now, in our world, not just later in a far off heavenly realm. It has something to do with the fact that Jesus calls us into a community of his followers—both within and outside the church. It may mean changing. It may mean giving up. It may mean trusting and living into a new reality.


The trouble with healing is that it doesn’t just fix the old broken stuff. It completely remakes everything.

The trouble with healing is that it doesn’t just repair a flawed reality. It welcomes us into a world made new.


And that is where I want to leave with you. Do you want to be made new as an individual? Are you willing to have your life change that much? Do we want to be made new as a church?  Are we willing to have our institutions change to reflect how thekingdomofGodis breaking into this world? Are we willing to offer the broken pieces of what we are, and have them completely transformed into what God wants us to be? Do you want to be healed? Do you want to be made well? Do you want to be made new?  [Jenny sings “Broken Things” by Julie Miller]


Next Step 4/22/2012


What is one event is your life that dramatically reshaped your view of reality? How did it change your outlook?


Read the passage from John 5:1-15. What do you notice here? What questions come to you?


What do you notice about the man who is “made well?” Is there anything that surprises you about him?


Can you ever imagine saying “no” to the question, “Do you want to be healed?” Why or why not?


Can you think of a person/life situation where someone did not want to be healed? What did that look like?


Why do you think the religious leaders of the time became so angry at Jesus’ command for someone to “take his mat and walk” on the sabbath?


Jesus changed a man’s whole world by healing him. Jesus challenged the religious community’s experience of God by healing on the sabbath. In what way do you think that God is changing church’s view of reality today?


In a recent article from Newsweek, writer Andrew Sullivan argues for a Christianity he claims is an emerging, authentic faith: “This Christianity comes not from the head or the gut, but from the soul. It is as meek as it is quietly liberating. It does not seize the moment; it lets it be. It doesn’t seek worldly recognition, or success, and it flees from power and wealth. It is the religion of unachievement. And it is not afraid.” Do you agree? Why or why not?


Jesus invites us into a new reality (sometimes called thekingdomofGod). How does this kingdom challenge the fundamental values (the reality) of the world?


What new view of reality is Jesus trying to open for you? In what ways does Jesus want to heal you?

Scripture Texts for this week


Monday – Matthew 16:13-20, Who do you say I am?

Tuesday – Matthew 6:25-34, Why do you worry?

Wednesday – John 13:12-17, Do you know what I have done for you?

Thursday – John 21:15-19, Do you love me?

Friday – Luke 22:39-46, Why are you sleeping?

Saturday- John 5:16-30, (for Sunday, May 6th)




[1] John for Everyone, N.T. Wright, p. 56.

[2] The Gospel of John, Dale Bruner, p. 299.

[3] The New Interpreter’s Bible: Luke, John, p. 581.

[4] John for Everyone, N.T. Wright, p. 56.

[5] Revelation 21:5, NRSV.

[6] John 10:10, NRSV.

[7] The New Interpreter’s Bible: Luke, John, p. 581.