A Sermon for the First Congregational Church of Albany, NY
by Rev. James Eaton, Pastor
Sixth Sunday of Easter/C • May 1, 2016 • Copyright 2016 All Rights Reserved
Sermon writing is a strange business. You sit down with thoughts buzzing, some about things here and now, some from things you’ve read, some from the scripture you’re preaching and comments on it. Then there are all the things going on in your own life and events in the church and practical issues. Today, for example, it’s the sixth Sunday of Easter, we’re drawing away from Easter Sunday morning, we’re not reading about Jesus appearing in the glory of the resurrection, we’re reading a story of him as a man, as it was summarized by Peter last week, who went about healing and doing good. It’s also the Silver Tea, the day we honor those who have been members here 50 years and more, lifting up their stories of doing good and healing as well. It’s a busy weekend for us at home. Out of all of this, in the midst of all this, I want to catch a glimpse of Jesus with you. I want to hear him. I want to feel him, know what he’s doing, hear what he’s asking me. I’m going to focus on the reading from the Gospel of John we just heard. Hearing it, I can’t help hearing the echo of Jesus asking me as in effect he asks a stranger at a pool in Jerusalem, “What do you want?”.
Jesus is in town for a festival and it’s a sabbath day. We might expect he’d be at someone’s home, taking the day off, enjoying a little down time with his friends. He’s been to Samaria where they’re talking about him after he healed a woman he met at a well; he’s been to Galilee where he healed the son of a Royal official in Cana, the same place he turned water into wine, something I’m sure is till being discussed; never underestimate the value of a guy who brings the wine to the party.
Now he appears in Jerusalem, walking around the city. Up past the temple, there’s a pool near the gate where they bring sheep into the city. Bathing is private for us; we go somewhere all by ourselves, turn on the water, do it alone. If someone asks a question while we’re in there, it’s a little annoying, it interrupts. But the ancient world saw bathing as a social time, as it is even today in Japan and some other places. Roman baths were like our golf courses or Starbucks, places where people met and business was done. Baths were often ornate structures. This one has columns on four sides and a partition down the middle with a fifth column. It may have been fed by a natural spring. Every once in a while the water is roiled by some mysterious force; many think an angel stirs the water and it’s said if you get in the water right away, if you’re the first one in, you’ll get healed.
So there are people around the edges, maybe grouped at the corners, where there were steps. Some are sick; some are healing form injuries. Some have family or friends with them, I imagine there are people selling stuff the way they do at any public event. Maybe someone has a cart full of tacky souvenirs: jars of Pool of Bethesda water, T shirts that say “I GOT WET AT BETHESDA”; surely someone is selling some version of fried dough. The whole place smells vaguely of sheep—it’s near the sheep gate—and cooking oil and water.
What Do You Want?
Is Jesus there alone?—the story doesn’t tell us; it mentions a crowd. So there he is, just one more guy from Galilee, like someone in the park at the tulip festival or Lark Street days. There are sick people laying there and Jesus focuses on a paralyzed man, somehow learns he’s been sick 38 years. That’s a long time, that’s a lifetime. Thirty eight years ago it was 1978. What were you doing? What were you wearing? How much has your life changed in that time?
This man has had 38 years of being paralyzed, perhaps begging for his existence, for his food. He’s alone; whether he was or his family abandoned him the text doesn’t tell us. Somehow he’s gotten himself to this pool. Perhaps it’s his last hope; perhaps it’s his only hope. Now Jesus stands next to him; now he speaks to him, asking just this one question: “Do you want to be made well?” It’s a strange question to ask, isn’t it? Isn’t the answer obvious?. Yet Jesus is peering here into this man’s soul and ours as well, making no demands, inviting an answer to this question: “What do you want?”
You’d think the answer would be quick, concise: “heal me”. You’d think anyone who’d been sick so long, would know exactly what he wanted. Instead, the man says, “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.” How should we hear this? Is it an excuse for 38 years of suffering? Is it an explanation from someone who no longer believes in the possibility of healing? He doesn’t know Jesus, the story makes that clear later; he has no idea this man asking can make him well. He doesn’t know who he’s talking to and all he can think about is his isolation.
That’s the point he raises with Jesus: there’s no one to help. That’s the door he opens; Jesus walks through. Stunningly, his problem in his own eyes isn’t his paralysis, his illness, it’s his lack of anyone to help him. Jesus reacts, but not in the way the man expects. Jesus says: rise, take your mat, walk. Imagine saying to someone in a wheel chair, “Stand up”. The man can’t do that, he knows that. He didn’t ask for that, he just complained about his isolation, about not having anyone to get him in the pool, about the way others cut in line.
Doing the Impossible
Now he’s being asked to do what he knows he can’t do. More, Jesus doesn’t just tell him to stand up but to pick up his mat; you’d think at such a moment, after 38 years of being paralyzed, the guy would just want to leave that mat and whatever else was there right where it was. No: Jesus knows we all carry a life with us, walking means taking it along. He wants all of us, our history as well as our future. The man stands up; he picks up his mat, he walks and, although it doesn’t say this in the text, I can’t help thinking, turns to look for this stranger, Jesus. But Jesus is gone; faded into the crowd. He’s on his own with this new life.
There’s a lot to learn here. One piece is: Jesus doesn’t force us to get well. We have to want that, we have to ask for that. “Do you want to be made well?”—“What do you want?” In another place, he tells his disciples to ask for what the want. This is where things start, always. This is why we spent six weeks going through the Lord’s Prayer because the most important thing we can do here isn’t some new program or project, its to focus ourselves on prayerfully listening for Jesus when he comes, it’s so we can build a relationship with him through prayer and devotion. Jesus never forces anyone to do anything. He only invites. When he invites, though, it’s almost always to something we never thought possible. “Stand up!”, he says to a paralytic; “Come out!”, he says to Lazarus dead and buried. “Believe!” he says to Thomas who can’t imagine his crucified Lord has come back from the tomb. “Feed my sheep” he says to Peter when all Peter can remember is the last time he betrayed him.
This healing is an emblem for us. We are meant to heal people too and we do. Some evangelists make a caricature of healing with piles of crutches and people rising out of wheel chairs. Healing is more than that; it is the moment someone hears God’s love so fully in their heart that they can stand up, they can gather up their mat, they can go forward, walk on, walk out.
We’ve heard two powerful testimonies in the last few weeks here about members right here in this church who felt healed through our presence, our ministry of the love of God. Last year many of us remember how we joined together to redeem a young woman who had been bought and kept in an abusive relationship. Today we’re celebrating the long, long record of folks who have quietly, faithfully, shared in the ministry of Jesus Christ here, in this church, for 50 years and more. We have a job to do; we have a ministry to perform. We are meant to bear fruit and we are. Don’t ever underestimate the importance of this congregation: remember that Jesus over and over again tells parables in which seeds become the means of God’s abundance.
Live in the Presence of God
To do that, we have to do some things we think are impossible. Here’s the most important: live in the presence of God. Nadia Bolz-Weber is a Lutheran pastor who talks about an experience in her training where she learned her role in healing. She was doing an internship in a hospital. Hospitals are hard for clergy; everyone else has a job. She says,
Inside the trauma room, a man was cutting the clothes off a motionless man in his fifties on the table….Doctors started doing things to him not meant for my eyes,…Another nurse was hooking things up to him while a doctor put on gloves and motioned for paddles. A nurse stepped back to where I was standing, and I leaned over to her .”Everyone seems to have a job, but what am I doing here?” She looked at my badge and said, “Your job is to be aware of God’s presence in the room while we do our jobs.” [Ibid, p. 80]
This is us, this is our job: to be a place where people are aware of the presence of God and share that awareness, helping people to heal.
The Path of Eternal Life
There’s one final point to remember about this story: Jesus disappears at the end. The man doesn’t even know who helped him, who healed him. He goes on in the next few verses to encounter a storm of criticism: it’s a violation of sabbath law to walk around carrying your mattress. He says what’s happened to him; they get madder. It later becomes known that it was Jesus who did this and John says that this is one of the reasons his opponents set out to destroy him. It isn’t easy being healed; when you do impossible things, some people get healed, some get angry. It isn’t easy walking a path lit by God’s light. Yet one thing is clear: that path is the one that leads to eternal life.
The Pool of Bethesda