A hot dusty city teaming with tourists. While driving to the hotel from the airport I noticed that the streets of Calcutta were full with people sleeping in the only clothes they had. Entire families huddled together, for security rather than warmth, as even in the small hours it’s uncomfortably hot. Poverty abounds in India. It was a familiar scene for festival pilgrims to Jerusalem, at the time of Christ, entering through the city’s gates. Heat, sweat, dust and poverty greeted them everywhere. Next to the sheep gate (or as some translations prefer "sheep market") is the pool – with many people around it who were miserable and needy: "…sick people were lying in the porches – the blind, the lame and the paralysed." (v.3). Bethesda, as it’s known in Hebrew, was excavated at the end of the 19th century. Archaeologists unearthed a rectangular spring-fed pool and the remains of five porticoes. Modern day pilgrims can now stand where Jesus stood at Bethesda which literally means "house of mercy".
It’s not surprising that the pool attracted those with physical disabilities. Local tradition believed that healings took place when an angel stirred the waters. But you had to get to the pool pretty quick before the rippling stopped, moving between the colonnades which were crowded with people suffering from a variety of illnesses. A thermal spring, rather like that at Lourdes today, gave hope of healing for sufferers. In fact patients at Bath Royal Hospital suffering from rheumatic diseases still use the ancient Roman mineral baths of that city for restoration of health. In thousands of health clubs, and in our own homes we relax in radox bubble baths. What’s interesting in this chapter is the presence of water:-
It’s been in every chapter of John’s Gospel so far. After Jesus’ baptism in ch.1, water into wine ch.2, being born of water and spirit in ch.3, being thirsty at the well in ch.4 – and here we find water is also a source of healing. I love the symbolism. There are many things in the gospels which have symbolic meanings. The five porches have often been interpreted as representing the five books of Moses – the Pentateuch: the books of the Law which could not adequately deal with the human condition and the problems lying around. And here at the "house of mercy" is Jesus, a person far greater than Moses, whose word alone is sufficient to cure our illnesses, contending that helping human beings in need is not violating God’s Law. Think about it: where else would the Shepherd go to look for His lost sheep? Not in the places of luxury and ease, but in the places of pain and despair. And Jesus saw, among the masses, a paralysed man lying there, thoroughly helpless and unable to plunge himself into the pool. The fact that he’d been there for 38 years meant that he was pretty notorious – perhaps mocked by the more fortunate and preyed upon by others. Nonetheless, Jesus was especially attracted to him and asks him: "Do you want to get well?" (v.6).
What a surprisingly strange question! Or is it as naive as it sounds? This was the man’s first glimmer of hope in nearly four decades. Having been ill for such a long period of time he was probably in a routine and had developed a pattern of daily living that enabled him to cope. But once he was healed everything would change. It’s like a prisoner being released back into society after years inside. A scary prospect. The man tells his own sad story: "Sir, I have no one here to put me in the pool when the water is stirred up; while I am trying to get in, somebody else gets their first." (v.7). He hasn’t answered the question! Life’s not fair he’s saying. "I’m not quick enough to get down into the water." He’s relying on superstition. "I can only be healed when the water’s moving." He has no faith to say "Yes I want to be healed." He’s isolated both physically and spiritually. That’s why Jesus says, "Do you want to get well?" or "are you ready, are you willing for me to change your life?" Jesus Christ gives life to whom He wishes. But He never chose to help people against their will – only if they had the desire for His help would healing come. Let’s not forget that God is patient and wants everyone to come to repentance (2 Pet.3:9).
Because that’s what it’s about. As we see later on, it’s not just about the man’s physical healing, but rather his spiritual rejuvenation from selfishness, "Sir, I have no one" – to humility: "Sir, give me your living water! Then I will never be thirsty again." (4:15). That’s precisely what the text is saying to our hearts today. Do we really want to be forgiven? Are we prepared for the changes that conversion will inevitably bring? Which parts of my life have dried up and withered? Can I trust Jesus? Do I want to be healed? The challenge confronts us just as much as it does people in the Gospel.
Whilst training for ministry I served as a hospital chaplain for over a year. Now spinal injury patients are in for the long haul. At first, it was difficult to talk to Leon. After a tragic accident he was facing an uncertain future, clearly he didn’t know me and it took a few weekly visits to win his trust. During my initial visit he told me in no uncertain terms: “Don’t talk to me about God. Don’t tell me I’m going to be ok!” I obliged, as I not there to cause offence, or indeed add to his distress. On about the third or fourth visit he stubbornly said that didn’t want to talk. Yet, I was with him for over 20 minutes. I got him talking about his background, his life on the trains, his RAF service; his wife and family. The added difficulty with Leon was that he could not see any point in living with his paralysis. He was struggling for answers and there were none. He even admitted he was thinking of suicide. "It’s not fair. There’s nobody to help me." On a later visit he had just come back from physiotherapy and was in his wheelchair. I remarked how good it was to see him now mobile and asked how he was finding the chair. He was quite positive, though tired, but this time he started asking me questions about my faith in God. Naturally, we got onto the subject of suffering. Now Leon was not a Christian and, therefore, I didn’t want to make him feel uneasy. I know we should be prepared to preach the Gospel in and out of season, but what was going through the back of my mind was remembering the writings of Julian of Norwich, a caring woman, whose words of comfort, healing and advice were a real witness to God. So briefly I told him a bit about her. He seemed fascinated that she had lived in a cell in Norwich Cathedral all her life. Talking of cathedrals we somehow got onto the subject of paintings and he commented how much he appreciated watercolours. In fact, it turned out that he was quite an artist. Now I told him I had a pretty good book on watercolours – would he like to borrow it? His face lit up and he said, “Yes.” This was progress, because Leon had previously told me that he could not be bothered to read a book. At the same time I asked if he would like to see William Blake’s Illustrations to the Book of Job and borrow some of Julian’s daily readings. He was slightly hesitant, but said yes. And so Jesus came into future conversations. Subsequently, our relationship developed and over the many weeks Leon became more receptive and accepting of his condition. His bitterness, anger and despair were channelled into searching meaningful conversations based around the concept of theodicy (how to explain good and evil and suffering in the world alongside the love of God). I believe that I helped to lift the veil of depression and made him contemplate the sovereignty of God. Finally, imagine my surprise when, one Sunday morning, he wheeled himself up to the hospital chapel and joined in worshipping God! That’s atonement – that’s reconciliation. That’s inner healing.
One of my favourite psalms is 103 describing God’s compassion and healing:"Bless the LORD, O my soul, and all that is within me, bless His holy name! Bless the LORD, O my soul, and forget not all His benefits, who forgives all your iniquity, who heals all your diseases, who redeems your life from the pit, who crowns you with steadfast love and mercy, who satisfies you with good so that your youth is renewed like the eagle’s." What wonderful words of thankfulness. It thanks God for healing, for forgiveness of sin, for justice and compassion in the world. It acknowledges that human beings are mortal, while God’s love is everlasting. These themes both comfort and challenge us in almost all situations.
Back to the Gospel – it’s interesting that it shows that faith isn’t necessary for healing. But the surrender of the will is:"Get up, pick up your mat, and walk." (v.8). Immediately, without any physios to tone up his muscles, the man’s useless legs function properly once again:"At once…he picked up his mat and started walking." (v9). He could have said, "I can’t", but he didn’t. He arose and did the impossible, as Jesus, out of compassion, had performed another miracle. Here was this man made completely whole. His youth renewed and strong like an eagle. He doesn’t even know who his Saviour is. Healing has nothing to do with how much faith we have. It’s whether we have the will to accept and respond to the challenge of Christ: "Pick up your mat, and walk." It’s a matter of choice.
However, as a responsible preacher of the Word, I also have to tell you that the Bible does not teach that God will always physically heal those who come to Him. In His sovereignty He reserves the right to heal or not to heal as He sees fit. However, as I’ve shown, it’s our spiritual healing that’s crucial. For you see, a person without Christ is in a far worse condition than the one without health but having Christ. When Jesus finds the man in the Temple (I believe he was there to give thanks). He first points out that he is now well and then warns the man "to sin no more, so that nothing worse happens" (v.14). In effect: "don’t lapse back into your old self-centred attitude like the one you had at the poolside because before I met you your will was paralysed." To us it means this – that no matter how trapped we feel in our physical infirmities God can minister to our deepest spiritual needs – if, and only if, we have the will to be cured.
Finally, the entire world is Bethesda – "house of mercy" – because Christ the divine Healer, by dying for our sins on the cross, has made it so. And all who really desire to be grateful can be!
Part 2 of this sermon continues next time…let us pray…
PRAYER: Great God, may the boldness of your Spirit transform us. May the gentleness of your Spirit heal our souls. May the power of your Spirit equip us to serve and worship you now and always. AMEN.