Time to go back to the questions I had when I first read this passage.
What jumps out at me is that on his day off—it’s the sabbath of a festival after all!-Jesus is visiting a pool where a bunch of sick people gather.What would that look like? Smell like? Feel like?
Imagining the Pool at Bethesda
Bathing for us is a private experience; in the ancient world, it was not. Roman social life centered on baths, they were the Starbucks of their time. Jews also ritualized bathing. Jewish women were (and still are) required to undergo a ritual bath monthly called a mikvah. Jewish meals include a prayer and ritual for hand washing. Again, note the difference from our practice: when I was growing up, my mother would say to my brothers and I, “Go wash your hands” before dinner. Last weekend at a seder, there was a moment where we all got up from the table, went to a sink one after the other and poured water over our hands and offered a prayer. Some healing required a ritual washing to make it complete. So washing and healing are intimately connected and take place in a social context.
With this background, we can go on to imagine the pool at Bethesda. It’s located in an area of Jerusalem near where sheep where brought into the city so there again, like last week’s passage, we have to imagine it as overlaid with the smell of sheep. The pool has been excavated and is trapezoidal, about 20 feet by 300 feet with a central partition. There are columns all around the edges and along the partition and stairways at the corners to descend into the pool.
I suspect the pool would have been crowded. Imagine the buzz of conversation and also people begging for help. This is the last chance for many. It is a hospital ward, it is a place you go when everything has failed. The implication of the man in the story is that others have friends and family there with them as well, so if we looked around, I imagine we would see groups of concerned people with many of those who are ill. So there are people groaning in pain; there are people praying, people encouraging, people just talking. Crows always make an opportunity for people to sell things, so I imagine stands with food for sale and patent medicines.
A key piece of the background here is that it’s the sabbath. The rules for sabbath keeping are strict and detailed. No work can be one and work can be defined as almost every activity in daily life. Healing that is not dealing with an emergency is prohibited. Clearly a part of the focus for John is that this healing violates the sabbath rules. By healing this man, Jesus implicitly proclaims himself Lord of the Sabbath.
Why pick out this particular guy?
There is no clue in the passage why this particular man is chosen. It’s important to point out that the hearings told in the Gospels are representative, not exhaustive. The gospel writers acknowledge they don’t tell the whole story. The healings described are meant as signs of the character and nature of Jesus.
A summary of all (31) individual healing by Jesus can be found here. It’s clear that John reports significantly fewer of these events (Mark 15, Matthew 16, Luke 18, John 5). Although strictly speaking, this healing story occurs only in John, it seems to have connections with a story in the synoptic tradition as noted in the previous post (A healing of a paralytic is recorded at Mark 2:1-12. Parallels are at Matthew 9:1-8 and Luke 5:17-26.)
The dialogue is short and exists in a chiastic structure
- Jesus: Do you want to be made well?
- Paralytic: Answers that he has no one to put him in the pool and others get ahead.
- Jesus: Rise/Take up your mat/Walk
The issue raised by the man connects to the understanding of the way the pool operates. Apparently, the pool occasionally was spontaneously disturbed and bubbled. It was thought at such times that an angel was invisibly stirring the pool and the first person to get in after this would be healed. So if the crowd as a whole is quietly passing the day, we should imagine that when the pool is disturbed, there is a sudden rush to get in the water. Friends and family put their sick person in the pool; the man here is on his own and has no one to help him.
Generally, such a structure points to the middle term. So in thinking about this passage, it’s important to focus there. When we do, the man’s answer reveals two issues: he is alone, others push ahead of him. In preaching this, I find in the past I’ve often run past the man’s reply as an excuse but thinking about it today, I find it asks questions about our understanding of how healing takes place. How important is the helping community? What’s the role of desire of “rationed healing”?
If John is telling a story from an existing tradition linked to the idea of forgiving sins, why has he changed it to focus on sabbath?
I’m not sure he has. It may be that between the formulation of the original story and John, the important question is not the connection of sin and sickness but the controversies over Jesus. In the subsequent encounter with the man, the issue does become sin when the man is told to go and sin no more.
Why does Jesus slip away and return secretly?
John uniquely records the following healing stories.
John 4:46-54 – Healing of a Royal official’s son
John 5:1-15 – The healing of the paralytic at the pool of Bethesda (this story)
John 9:1-54 – Healing of a blind man
John 11:29-57 – Healing of Lazarus
The healing of Lazarus seems to represent a different genre; there the healed person is actually resurrected, named, and has a previous relationship with the healed.
In the first case, the Royal official leaves before the healing is announced. In the healing of the man born blind, Jesus has the same pattern of leaving and then secretly contacting him. Here again, Jesus leaves. In both the story of the healing of the man born blind from birth and here, there is a controversy with Jewish authorities intervening between the healing and the reconnection of Jesus.
Preaching the Passage
Connecting from our setting
We are a small, fairly liberal church, rationalist in orientation. I suspect many are uncomfortable with the tradition of miraculous healing. We go to doctors and hospitals, not evangelists and revivals. So at first glance, I suspect there will be a reluctance to confront this part of Jesus’ ministry. Yet we need to hear it: one of the most consistent testimonies about Jesus is that he went about healing.
Listening to the passage
We need to hear about healing especially because I’ve become more and more aware recently that one of the big motivators for people visiting our church is a longing for the healing of long term hurts. Some of these are physical, many are spiritual or emotional. One man recently came to our church for the first time and was so overcome that he simply wept all the way through the service. Another recently took a moment to offer a testimony of how he had gone through a year of personal struggle over a court case none of us knew about and that the congregation was key to him hanging on.
Points to lift up
We need to hear Jesus’ question because it’s what we need to ask about every person who comes to worship here: “What do you want me to do for you?” What assumptions do we make about the answer to this question? How can we ask it in worship, how can we ask it in other ways?
I’m also intrigued by Jesus’ question because it involves the issue of desire. Buddhists locate the origin of dis-ease in desire.
We need to hear the reply and ask: what does healing mean and what are the barriers to healing?
We need to hear Jesus’ reply because healing is more than just getting well: it also involves picking up your mattress and may involve the person in new struggles.
My sermon on this is entitled, What Do You Want?.