February 20, 2011
Now, But Not Yet
What Kind of Question Is That?
Sometimes I get asked odd questions. Years ago, I had been visiting with a man who was terminally ill, and he had survived a good deal longer than anyone could have expected. As his condition deteriorated his family made an unusual request. His wife and son asked me one evening if I would tell him it was okay for him to stop fighting and to die. My first thought was you want me to do what? They felt that perhaps he was fighting hard to continue living for their sakes, and they knew he was very tired by his long struggle. I went into the room where he was and sat down next to his bed. At that point he was in and out of consciousness and I wasn’t sure if he was aware of my presence. But I thought he might hear me, so I started to speak to him. I told him his family knew he loved them very much, and they loved him as well. I told him they would miss him very much, but they would be okay; what they really wanted was for him to be at peace and not have to struggle any longer. And then I told him it was okay for him to let go, to not fight any longer. I assured him he was in the hands of God and then began to pray for him. As I prayed I asked that God would receive him peacefully, but I was praying another prayer to myself, and it was this – Lord, my prayer is that you receive him peacefully in your time, but if you take him as soon as I say “amen” you might as well take me too.
As we continue our series of Now, But Not Yet, we come to the story of a man Jesus heals beside the pool of Bethesda, and that story contains a very odd question asked by Jesus.
The story begins with Jesus in Jerusalem for one of the religious festivals. While in Jerusalem Jesus visits this pool, called Bethesda, and gathered around this pool was a large group of people. John says the group is made up of those who had various physical disabilities – they were blind, lame, paralyzed, and probably suffering many other ailments as well. They were waiting for the water to move, as the belief was that when the water stirred it was God coming to heal, and the first one into the pool after the waters stirred would be healed.
It must have been a sad and desperate scene. Imagine this large crowd of people waiting for the water to move and then a mad rush to be the first one into the water.
Out of all the people gathered around the pool, Jesus focuses on one man. He learns this man has been an invalid for 38 years. That’s a long time. To put that amount of time into some kind of perspective, here is some of what was going on in our world in 1973 – 38 years ago. I was 16 years old and got my driver’s license. We learned of an organization called OPEC, when an oil embargo began and prices skyrocketed and long lines formed at gas stations. Before that event, a gallon of gas cost 40 cents. The average cost of a new house was $32,500. The Dow Jones Industrial Average closed the year at 850. The World Trade Center in New York became the world’s tallest building. The Roe v. Wade decision was handed down by the Supreme Court. The Watergate hearings began. Secretariat won the Triple Crown. Skylab, the first space station was launched. Pink Floyd released Dark Side of the Moon. The bar code was invented. The Soviet Union still existed. And in one of the most significant events ever, Billie Jean King defeated Bobby Riggs in the battle of the sexes tennis match.
Thirty-eight years is a long, long time to deal with a physical ailment. You can just imagine this man’s frustration as he would work hard to get near the pool to be ready for the stirring of the water, and when the water would stir he would drag himself to the edge with hopes and dreams of healing rising within him, but someone would splash in ahead of him every time. So he settles into this cycle of hope and then dashed hopes – over and over and over again.
Then Jesus walks up to this man and asks him a question. And what a strange question it is. It is the kind of question you are taught never to ask when you take a counseling class or a workshop on how to make a pastoral visit. It’s a question that on the surface sounds insensitive and cold. Jesus asks this man – a man who had been an invalid for 38 years – do you want to get well?
Imagine the looks Jesus must have received. Not just from this man, but from the all the others who were around that pool with hopes of being healed; strange looks from his disciples; and from anyone else gathered there. The story John tells immediately before this one is a story of healing. Jesus didn’t ask that person if they wanted to be healed, so why would Jesus ask this man if he wants to get well? Do you know anyone who doesn’t want to get well when they are sick? Do you know anyone who is suffering in some way that wouldn’t hear that question as being a rather odd question?
If we look closer, it’s really not an odd question at all. It is a question that really speaks to the larger human condition – do we want to get well? Do we really want to find healing for the ailments that plague humanity; the ailments that drive the division and break apart relationships; the ailments that drive us into worry; the ailments that allow us to be trapped in unhealthy patterns that keep us from being the people God has created us to be?
I think, on a deeper level, Jesus was asking two larger questions, and those questions are directed at us all. The first question is, do you want your life to change? Again, on the surface, that question seems very easy to answer. Of course we want change to come to our lives. Ask anyone and they would no doubt say they would like some changes in their lives.
But when we really get down to what change means, maybe we really don’t want change. In helping professions there is an old saying – the devil you know is better than the devil you don’t know. It may still be the devil, but at least it’s one you know. What that expression means is this – we may have situations and patterns in our lives we don’t like, but we are willing to tolerate them because we have at least learned how to survive in those situations and with those patterns. Change is scary and difficult and often resisted because we are taken into unfamiliar patterns and unfamiliar situations and we don’t know how to exist in the unfamiliar, so we fall back on what is known, even if what is known is unhealthy for us. Jesus desires to move us into new patterns of life, into healthy patterns of life, and that means we are going to be led into the unknown and the unfamiliar.
The man in this story faced physically paralysis, but there are multitudes of people who face other types of paralysis, and they are very debilitating – they are emotional and spiritual paralysis. And those types of paralysis are part of the second question I believe Jesus is asking in this passage – will we allow him to move us beyond our fears?
We are a very strange culture in how we deal with fear. Do you remember the TV show Fear Factor? I watched it a few times and found it fascinating. People would come on the show and do things to face and, hopefully, conquer their fears. If you were a participant with a fear of spiders they might have that person put their head in a container full of spiders. Bungee jumping has become popular with many people because it’s a way – a very dramatic way – of conquering fear.
There are many legitimate fears we face. The political realities of our world – such as terrorism and political instability – economic stresses, what kind of world our children and grandchildren will inherit – these are but a few of the very real fears we face.
There is a lot of fear in churches these days. Some churches fear the changing culture. Because they are afraid they hide behind their walls and denounce those outside of the church walls. Some churches are fearful of decline. Hopefully they will learn to respond by opening up and reaching out in more determined ways, or they can withdraw into themselves and adopt a survival mentality.
Jesus stepped into this man’s struggle and into his fears. One of the great phrases in this story comes from verse 6 – Jesus saw him lying there. And here’s the beauty of what Jesus did – he wasn’t content to leave him lying there.
The way of Jesus was always to notice people. He noticed this man; he noticed Zaccheus being pushed aside by the crowd; he noticed the children that the disciples tried to keep from him; Jesus was always noticing people who needed to be noticed.
The pattern in our world is too often a pattern of hiding the struggles of people away from view. Out of sight and out of mind can make life easier as we can then pretend those difficulties don’t exist. But Jesus was never one to hide those struggles; instead he brought them out into the light of day and healed those struggles.
Interestingly, there is a very strange response this man has when Jesus asks if he want to be healed. When Jesus asks him if he wants to be healed, he doesn’t really answer. He never says, yes, or for that matter, no. Isn’t that odd? I don’t know if the man had any idea who Jesus was, but even if he didn’t, it was a simple question. Do you want to be healed is a very simple question that requires only a yes or no; there are no other choices. Instead, the man starts to explain to Jesus how there is no one to help him into the pool when the water stirs.
How sad that is. He’s not avoiding Jesus’ question; he’s simply speaking out of the pain of his condition and its attending isolation. The only path of healing that he can see is to have someone help him into the water. He has no one. No one! No family, no friends; not a single soul is with him. Imagine the isolation and despair he must have felt.
And into that isolation and despair steps Jesus. The actions of Jesus ask us to do the same. I wonder what happened to those who had found healing at that pool. Did none of them ever come back to help the others? Did they receive the healing they had wanted so desperately and then went on their way, forgetting there were others desperately in need of healing?
Last weekend I watched a segment on 60 Minutes about the miners who were trapped in that mine in Chile last year. Thirty-three miners trapped for 69 days in that mine. It is unimaginable what they must have experienced. It was so enjoyable to watch their joy at being rescued. It is impossible for us to imagine what it must have been like to be trapped so far underground for so long, especially during those days when before the rescuers were able to make contact with them. Time magazine reported on the role faith played in their survival, especially in those days before rescuers made contact with the miners. At times, the report says, that dark confines of that mine became like a church, as the miners worshipped together. It was as though, one said, Jesus had stepped into that mine with them.
That is what Jesus does. He steps into our need. Just as he stepped into the life of the man lying beside the pool in Jerusalem, just as he stepped into the lives of those miners, he steps into our lives and into our need. And he invites us to step into the lives of others. When our need is met we don’t wander off to our own lives; we are compelled to step into the lives of others so that we may touch them in the name of Jesus.
May we pray.