written by Dorothy Sanders Wells
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 paralysed. 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. [John 5:2-9]
“Do you want to be made well?”
It seems like such an odd question for Jesus to ask of a man who is clearly suffering. But in chapter 5 of John’s Gospel, Jesus encounters a man who has been ill for 38 years, and who has been for a long time sitting beside a pool in Jerusalem, likely having come, as have many sick, blind and lame persons, hoping to be made well in the pool’s healing waters.
But when Jesus asks the man if he wants to be made well, the man quickly responds with the impediments between him and being made well: He hasn’t found anyone to lower him into the pool when its waters were stirred up – when he believes that the healing properties are at the highest.
Without any further hesitation, Jesus tells the man, “Stand up, take your mat and walk.” The man, now made well through this encounter with Jesus, picks up his mat and walks away.
Why does Jesus ask this man if he wants to be well? Wouldn’t anyone who is sick want to be made well?
No doubt, after 38 years of being sick, the man knows well what it means to be sick. But “sick” may be the only thing the man knows; he may have forgotten what it meant to ever have been well. The impediments to being made well may seem insurmountable: He may truly believe that the help that he perceives he will need to get to the healing waters will never come. The risks may seem too great: Being well will mean change; it will mean living differently. Where will he go when he is well? Will his family or the community from which he has been separated accept him, welcome him into their midst, now that they have learned to live without him? What will he do? Where will he find shelter and food, once he leaves the pool and the place that has come to be familiar? Will he be able to find a place among the laborers to work each day? Will his return to the healthy be perceived as a threat to the way of life that everyone has come to know without him?
In order for him to live as a “well” person, and to overcome the mental barriers to wellness, he must really want to be made well.
The sickness of a global pandemic – and the disproportionate effect that it has borne on Black and brown persons in this country – has revealed for us that the sickness of racism continues to plague our nation. The sin of racism is a sickness that has plagued our country for more than 400 years – since the first economic decision was made to bring human beings to this soil as chattel (indeed, not a notion that originated with European settlers in the Americas) to perform the backbreaking labor that was necessary to build a new nation. But even after a deadly Civil War which took the lives of over 600,000 persons, even after the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments to the Constitution freed the slaves, granted them citizenship, and afforded due process, equal protection under the law, and the right to vote, the notion of the equality of these new citizens was such an abhorrent one that states resisted with all their might, intentionally restricting black persons from education, and enacting Black Codes and Jim Crow laws to continue segregation, separation and inequality. The result was a virtual guarantee that black persons, though free from legal slavery, would be undereducated, work low wage jobs, be restricted in their movement and travel, and unable to participate fully in the society. Race massacres took place across the country between 1866 (Memphis) and 1921 (Tulsa), and the lives of innocent black citizens were taken with impunity as their property was destroyed. Lynchings became spectator events for which commemorative postcards were sold. The persons who committed those crimes avoided arrest and prosecution, as our justice system too often afforded no justice for black persons.
And the Church too frequently sided with those who would deny justice to human beings who also were made in the image and likeness of God.
The faithful did not give in to the sickness, and persevered in the struggle for justice, ushering in a second wave of federal legislation in 1964-68, in a new Civil Rights Act, Fair Housing Act, and Voting Rights Act, and a second attempt to try to right the wrongs of 350+ years.
But standing at this vantage point that 2020 has brought us, we seem to have proven that the legislative process alone cannot and will not eradicate the sickness. Growing to see one another as made in the image and likeness of God, to see one another as neighbor and not threat, will require intentional and hard work.
To be made well will require us to put aside all thoughts of the perceived impediments to wellness; we’ll have to help each other into the stirred up waters of the pool. To be made well will require us to not fear change or the collective healthy growth of our community; we will have to come to the table together, to have honest conversation about how the sickness of racism continues to impact our communities, and work together to plan for whole-community transformation.
Then, we must take action for lasting and systemic change. Food must be returned to our food deserts. Reinvestment in forgotten neighborhoods must become a priority; tax credits should be made available to businesses that return to forgotten inner-city neighborhoods to employ the neighbors and increase wealth. If our schools will never truly be desegregated, there must be a significant reinvestment in underperforming inner-city schools – and a renewed commitment to improve educational outcomes so that all people will be part of a well-prepared workforce. As we prepare people for work, adequate and affordable housing must be a priority; transitional housing must be made available for those experiencing homelessness, to help them get on their feet. Slumlords must be sent packing. Law enforcement leaders will need to adopt zero-tolerance policies for police misconduct, bias and profiling; prosecutors will need to carefully monitor recommendations for prosecutions and allocate sufficient resources for investigations, to ensure that everyone is treated fairly in the criminal justice process.
In the midst of an election process, as we examine our slates of local, state and national candidates, we are reminded of our duty to one another and to our country to hold our leaders accountable – and to demand of them the kind of leadership that promotes the welfare of all people and respects the dignity of every human being.
And, most critically, the Church must take the lead in these conversations, and not remain on the sidelines; the silence of the Church is complicity with the Empire. Faith communities descending from the Abrahamic tradition are the “people of the Book” who have been commanded to love God and to love neighbor. True transformation of hearts must emerge from that love.
There has been much sickness; it may be that the only way we know to live is in sickness.
The fact of the matter is that until we all can be made well, we will all be sick: The cost of poverty – poor health, a poorly educated labor force, food shortages, unemployment and homelessness – is staggering, and we are all affected. But when we are all well, our entire community thrives, and we live as God intends for us to live, and we love one another as God intends for us to love – just as God loves all of us as God’s created beings.
Lately, I’ve heard folks say of this pandemic, “I don’t want to get back to normal…I want to get better.”
Indeed, 400 years later, I pray that we all want to get better.
The Rev. Dr. Dorothy Sanders Wells is the rector of St George’s Episcopal Church in Memphis, TN. Her other writings can be found at HERE.