Sixth Sunday of Easter
6 Easter, Year C
The Rev. Elizabeth A. B. Tesi
Often, when Episcopalians tell each other Bible stories, we comfort ourselves thinking that so much of the Bible is myth. It’s art. It is beautiful truth, but not fact.
Today is different. In the 19th century, archeologists discovered the ruins of a pool with five porticoes. It is called the Pool of Bethesda. It was found near a Crusader-built church called the church of St. Anne. The actual pool did exist, and people believed it healed. The disabled did gather there in miserable masses to be cured. This story could, in fact, be literally real.
The passage our deacon read today didn’t actually include all the information available on the pool. Archeology confirms that the pool existed and that disabled and injured people gathered there, for it was believed the pool had healing properties. Some biblical versions include a section that explains that the waters of the pool were stirred up by an angel of God, and when the waters were stirred up, only the first person in would be cured. That is why the paralytic is so miserably desperate. The healing only happened through divine action. God was involved.
Imagine a crowd of people, sitting at the edge of the water. Who knew how much money was spent on doctors for cures that failed? Who knew how thick the group got to be, all hoping to be the first in? Imagine the chaos: people leaping in at the same time, pushing, shoving, shouting, crying. Perhaps one person got a gouty leg in at the same time another plunged in her arthritic hands, and across the pool someone else was already fully submerged. Who was really the first in? You’d never really know. It'd be easy to blame another when you weren’t the one cured. “It could have been me… if not for ugly old Smith over there shoving his gross feet in at the same time!”
No government or religious agency would get involved in this pit of unclean sinners. It was a free-for-all of misery and desperation.
That is what Jesus walked into. He sees the paralyzed man, who had been ill for 38 years. The cards are clearly stacked against this man. The blind people are obviously going to be much faster at getting through a crowd. The lame are at least mobile, and they could be a fair shot with those crutches. But a man who was paralyzed for 38 years? During my hospital tenure in trauma services, a major issue the team had to address with new spinal cord injury patients was strength. The loss of sensation and the nature of a paralyzing injury usually leaves a person extremely weak, and unless they are rigorous about their strength training and stretching, it just gets worse and worse as paralyzed muscles atrophy. 38 years of paralysis would have left a man hardly able to breathe, let alone move. He lacked friends and family to help him in the melee. What a hopeless, helpless bundle of humanity he would have been.
And let’s push this a little farther. Today, we understand that disability is not a person’s fault or a reflection on their character. Some people are in an accident. Some people get a disease that takes away their ability. Some people, like me, have absolutely no explanation. Back then, disability was seen as a punishment for sin. Not only is disability the direct result of sin, but lack of healing is absolute evidence that God is still angry at you.
Imagine that. 38 years, knowing the entire time that God is actively angry at you.
So here is the pool, where those churning waters meant a slim chance to get out from under God's anger. The actions at the pool were not about faith. It wasn’t about how much you believed in God or how religious you were, but how fast you do an action. Imagine if communion were a race from the back, and I’d only give the wafer to the first person up here. I wouldn’t care how deeply spiritual you were… it would be all about how fast you could move. Imagine how devastating that would be. That is what the man faced every single day.
And Jesus says to the sick man, “Stand up, take your mat, and walk.”
Jesus gives him at one fell swoop everything he needs to be fully healed- strength, balance, ability. Jesus jumps the queue. He declines to participate in the chaos. He asks the man if he wants to be healed- and listen to what the man says. He expalins that he has no one to put him into the pool. He is alone. He has no family or friends. Jesus, in this healing story, stands in for the man's absent friends by this healing, on the spot. And that gives us an image of God who has a different perspective on relationship and wholeness. This healing was made possible because Jesus went where the man was, asked him what he wanted, and gave him what he truly needed: a relationship based on grace. The very first thing this man needed was a friend- someone on his side- someone who showed him grace. God gives this man what he hopes we would give each other.
Jesus gave away God’s grace out of love.
And now consider what that can possibly say to our society today. What if God doesn't sit up there in heaven giving us various trials to make our lives more difficult so we can learn something? I hear that theology all the time and I hate it: "God doesn't give you anything you can't handle" or "God gave you this challenge so you could become stronger" or "God loves you so he gave you this challenge so you could learn to love him better". The funny people say things like "Wow, God has a really high opinion of me." And the rest of us wonder why God is so angry at us and dislikes us so much that he would create us for suffering. I don't want to think that God's grace is finite and found only in the miracle waters, and that you were born to have more than me. I don't want to work for the God who creates the world for misery. I don't want to worship the God who decides that suffering must happen.
Jesus offers hope for a different answer. Jesus modeled a way of being based on grace and personal connection. The pool represented the belief the God's people were made for sadness.
Jesus' action shows that God's beloved people are made for joy. God's people are made for community- we need each other to be fully participant in society. God's people are made for grace.
Every last one of us will one day be that person at the side of the pool. And every last one of us will be desperate to have some free grace walk in from the outside. We will all want to be able to turn to the people for meals, for communion, for understanding, for unconditional care. To the paralyzed man, Jesus was grace embodied, God's forgiveness with skin on. We are going to want that, too, someday: that grace embodied. I am grateful to be in a community that celebrates the God who does see the belovedness within the brokenness of our souls and bodies.
May God's grace walk into your life, whenever you sit sorrowing at the side of the pool, hoping for deliverance. May God's people surround you in your darkness and call to you words of reassurance and hope. And may God's son reach to you in your misery and call out to you, too: "Do you want to be healed? Then take up your mat, and walk."