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. So the Jews said to the man who had been cured, ‘It is the sabbath; it is not lawful for you to carry your mat.’ But he answered them, ‘The man who made me well said to me, “Take up your mat and walk.” ’ They asked him, ‘Who is the man who said to you, “Take it up and walk”?’ Now the man who had been healed did not know who it was, for Jesus had disappeared in the crowd that was there. Later 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.’ The man went away and told the Jews that it was Jesus who had made him well. Therefore the Jews started persecuting Jesus, because he was doing such things on the sabbath. But Jesus answered them, ‘My Father is still working, and I also am working.’ For this reason the Jews were seeking all the more to kill him, because he was not only breaking the sabbath, but was also calling God his own Father, thereby making himself equal to God. — John 5:1-18 (NRSV)
Sometimes it doesn’t take much to get some people upset. A wrong word, an unintentional act, a perceived slight can be all it takes to get someone (or a group of someones) uptight and ready to fight. Families have split over who seems to get more attention (or goodies) than the others, political parties have split over how far something can go before it no longer represents what members feel are their defining principles, even churches have become acrimonious and expelled people who don’t seem to toe the line doctrinally or in line with the prevailing interpretation of the church. It seems Jesus was one of those pot-stirrers who people either seemed to love or hate. In this case, John seems to want us to believe that the Jews as a group began to persecute Jesus because not only did he break the rules (doing something on the sabbath that he wasn’t supposed to do) but that he was claiming a relationship that was not possible or proper. And it all started with a pool of water, a disabled man with a mat and an act of charity.
Archaeologists have found what appears to be the site of Beth-zatha, called in other tongues and translations Belzatha, Bethsaida or Bethesda. There aren’t five porticos in the excavation site, but never let a few porticoes get in the way of a discovery. Luckily, the imagination can provide what is scientifically missing, so therefore in my mind’s eye, I see some pools of water sort of like swimming pools or spas, surrounded by porticoes and with edges wide enough to accommodate several rows of people as well as walkways to lead them down to the water. Periodically the waters would roil and bubble and people who were ill or disabled or injured would do their best to get into the water to get the benefit before the waters stilled. Was it an angel? A place where the air was vented from the pipes that heated the water? A geological vent that, like those in Yellowstone and other places, occasionally bubbled and steamed? It’s above my pay grade to decide about that. All I can do is picture the waters moving and let the ambiguity do its own thing.
The picture that builds itself in my mind is of the water beginning to move, and people crowding down the steps or the edge to get in. I see lots of people, some who were able to step into the pool by themselves and others who needed a lot of help getting to the water. Of those people, only those who had servants, family or friends to help them get there are able to immerse themselves in what was a healing place. Then there’s this guy, all alone, unable to move very fast or even very far, but who kept trying, year after year, to get to the water only to find others who were more able take the place in the water that he had hoped to have for himself. Still, he kept trying, kept getting pushed out of the way, kept getting more and more isolated and in danger of losing hope of ever being cured or healed of his infirmity. Then this man shows up, asking if he wanted to be made well. I’m sure the guy with the mat thought to himself, “And why else would I be here?” but he was polite and explained the situation to his questioner. I wonder what he thought when all of a sudden he hears, “Stand up, take up your mat and walk” and felt sensations in his limbs that he hadn’t felt for thirty-eight years. He did what he was told and the story moves on.
I can’t stop thinking about the scene at the pool, though. In my mind I see the guy with the mat struggling and people getting in his way as if he were invisible or some sort of bug to be ignored or stepped on by his betters. I think of the great pool of life that stretches out in front of all of us and look to see who gets in the pool and who is pushed aside. It isn’t hard to imagine at all. I see people of all races and ethnicities whose way to the pool has been deliberately and sometimes maliciously blocked. I see women victimized by rape and slavery because of their gender, because they offended a male family member or because they were of the wrong village or clan. I see Native Americans and other indigenous people pushed off their lands and spiritual homes by conquerors who saw material benefit to be gained from that same land. I see children and the elderly punished for their inability to actively contribute to the family, their inability to fight on one side or another of a conflict, or caught in a gap that leaves them without the ability to secure good schooling, access to medical care, or security from abuse, neglect or external threat. I see GLBT folk who are encouraged to pay taxes and work to contribute to the economy but who are denied many of the benefits their heterosexual brothers and sisters enjoy simply by virtue of their heterosexuality. I see religious people, bishops like Oscar Romero and women like the American nuns, who were/are being silenced or threatened or even marginalized because they follow a reading of the gospel of Jesus that others claim to follow but whose actions belie their words. There are so many wanting to get to the waters and be healed and so many others equally determined not to allow them to get there, often stepping into the vacant places themselves, whether or not they need the healing. Again and again, my mind turns to those people and why it is so hard for so many to not see their plight and do something to help them get to the pool.
And then I wonder — who have I stepped in front of on the way to the pool who might have needed the immersion more than I? Lord knows I’m no saint, much less Jesus, who can do great things (and sometimes the small things that often mean more than the big ones) but where could I have done more to clear a path or offer a shoulder for someone to lean on? I can think of dozens of incidents where totally unaware of what I was doing I did block someone else’s path and the shame is a heavy burden. Knowing that I need healing too, and even if I think I can make it to the pool myself, I find I can’t do it alone and need some help. Can I expect mercy when so often I have denied it to others by my silence or my actions?
In my mind’s eye I see Jesus approaching, asking if I want to be made well and to pick up the mat and walk, just as he did to the guy at the pool. That’s what God’s grace does for a person. The thing is, I know that this is a changing moment and one which is not a figment of my imagination. It is as real to me as it was to the guy with the mat. Now I face the challenge as did he – do I have the courage to actually get up and walk? More important, what am I going to do to help others to get in the pool, take up their mats and realize that they are whole persons, beloved and welcomed as full and complete members of the family of God, worth being heard and valued for who they are.
The water is starting to bubble