The lesson for this week is from John 5 and it concerns health care, begging, powerlessness, and radical healing.
Bethesda Before going into the interpretation of this fascinating story, there are some technical points that you might find interesting. This is another passage in John that suffered in copying. There are a number of variant readings in the ancient manuscripts, particularly over the name of the place. The traditional reading is Bethesda, which means “house of mercy,” which is appropriate for both hospitals and churches. But many scrolls say it was Bethsaida or Bezatha. Bethsaida was a town in Galilee mentioned in the other gospels, that a scribe probably confused with Bethesda. Bezatha was an area of Jerusalem near the temple so that may be the right name, but there is evidence that there was a pool named Bethesda near the temple. We’ll go with the traditional name.
John gives an unusually detailed description of the pool with its five porticoes. In the last century archaeologists excavated a pool in Jerusalem that fits this description well. It is trapezoidal in shape and the longest side is over 300 feet long. There was a partition that may have separated the men and the women, and stairs led down into the water. Once again, we have evidence that at least portions of John were written by someone who lived in Jerusalem before the city was destroyed by the Romans.
This passage was probably written before 70 AD and later incorporated into the gospel.
Sheep: Another point of confusion among the ancient manuscripts the mention of a place named for sheep. It is not clear if this was the name of the pool as it was known in Greek. John likes to give the Hebrew and Greek names for things, but this might have been referring to the Sheep’s Gate near the Temple. Whether it was the gate or a pool, clearly John connects the pool of Bethesda with the area where sheep were taken into Jerusalem to be sacrificed at the Temple. The fact that modern archaeology has corroborated the geography of this story does not reduce the symbolism intended by the author. As John tells the story, a man lying near the Temple was healed by the Lamb of God who was to be sacrificed.
Early Christian theologians and preachers got too fanciful in interpreting the symbolism of this passage when they made it into a baptism story. The waters of Bethesda were compared to the waters as baptism as a means of healing. There is simply no evidence in the text to support that claim, especially since the man was never immersed in the pool. If this story refers to baptism, then it would appear to be anti-baptism rather than pro-baptism.
Pentecost There is a liturgical context to this healing story, but it is not provided by the sacraments of Christianity. Jesus was in Jerusalem because he was observing one of the three major festivals of the Jewish calendar. Jewish men were expected to make a pilgrimage, if possible, to the Temple each year for Passover, Pentecost, and Tabernacles. We will talk more about Passover as we come closer to Easter. Modern Jews refer to the other two feasts generally by their Hebrew names: Shavuot and Succoth. These were both harvest festivals, but in a warmer climate you have more than one harvest. Shavuot is a spring festival and Succoth is in the autumn when wheat is harvested.
We do not know for sure which of the three festivals drew Jesus to Jerusalem in this story, but it was probably Pentecost since he had already celebrated Passover. As the name implies, Pentecost was fifty days after Passover. According to Leviticus (23:15f.) it was the day after the seventh Sabbath after Passover. In other words, it was seven weeks plus a day. In Christianity, this feast of Pentecost was transformed because it was during the feast of Pentecost that the Spirit came upon the disciples. Perhaps the church should also take this story of healing as the model for understanding the season of Pentecost.
The Story The story itself is fairly straight-forward. The pool of Bethesda was reputed to have healing powers. From time to time the waters were stirred, and that was taken as a sign that the healing power was available. Later copies of the gospel added a line that said that an angel descended to stir the waters, but that was not in the original text. No explanation is given for why the waters would bubble. Most likely, it was an underground spring or thermal activity. It is interesting that there is no discussion recorded in Scripture about this idea that a pool could have wonderful healing powers. It was not only Jesus who brought healing.
The point of the story is that this man has been infirm for 38 years and has been lying by the pool with the other blind, lame, and suffering souls. The King James Version states that this man was impotent, which is one reason that we need to keep retranslating the Bible. His condition would be misunderstood today if we said his was impotent, but the KJV translation highlights an important feature of this story. Impotent simply means powerless. We don’t know how long he was lying there by the waters hoping to benefit from their mysterious powers. All we are told is that he is alone, powerless, and nearly hopeless. No one will even help him into the water.
The words Disabled or infirm do not quite capture the full significance of his condition. It is not just that he was lame, sick, and unemployed. He was powerless in a world that rewarded power. He was alone in a world where family connections were vital. He did not have a doctor to call an ambulance. He did not have a wife to wait and pray for him. He did not have nurses to attend to him. He did not have medical insurance to help pay for his treatments. All he had was a fading hope that some day he would be able to crawl into a magical fountain walk again.
Today: We miss the point of this story if we think of this simply as Jesus resolving a medical problem. This man was like too many Americans who lie on the streets or in homeless shelters each night. This man was like too many people in this world who are living in isolation and misery; who feel their powerlessness in ways that I can only imagine. This man was like too many of us who have given up on the hope of strength and love and happiness. This man lay there day after day watching the light reflect off of the water of the pool hoping that someone would have mercy on him and let him feel its renewing power. Day after day his hopes were disappointed and the dancing light on the water seemed to mock his misery.
The Healing: But then a wandering Son of Man comes to him. Notice that the Gospel lesson does not tell us why Jesus picked this man out of all of the people lying by that pool. The ways of God remain mysterious. Jesus chose this man and asks if he wants to be cured, or more accurately, to be made whole. There is something moving in his question. The question itself may have been part of the healing. How many of us do not really want to be cured of our pet illnesses? Many of us have gotten used to our infirmities and weaknesses. People would demand more of us if we were strong and whole. Do you want to be cured? Do you really want to leave this undemanding life sitting by the pool and rejoin the hustle, bustle, and anxiety of living in the world?
The man doesn’t answer. Instead he explains to the stranger why he hasn’t been cured. He described his powerlessness to Jesus. Perhaps he expected that this kind young man to lift him into the water. Instead, Jesus gave him a surprising order. “Take up your mat, and walk.” How strange that must have sounded to this man. For 38 years he had been too sick to walk, and now this stranger with the piercing eyes is telling him to walk and carry the pallet that has been his security blanket for years. How tempting to turn away, roll over, and wallow in familiar misery and powerlessness. Perhaps that is what others did when Jesus tried to heal them. We don’t know. All we know is that somehow this man got enough courage from Jesus to stand up. He was cured, but he would not have been if had not made the effort.
There are clear parallels between this story and the story of the paralytic man in the Synoptic Gospels to whom Jesus also says “Take up your mat and walk,” but the differences are even more striking. In the story in the other gospels, Jesus was amazed at the devotion of friends who carried the sick man on his cot and then took tiles off of the roof to lower him to Jesus. In John’s account, it is Jesus who takes the initiative to heal this man, and first he asks if he wants to be healed. This is a parable of salvation. Jesus comes to offer of life and wholeness, but we have to want it enough to stand up.
Sabbath: What comes next in the story may not have been part of the original story. If you skip the second part of verse 9 and go straight to verse 14, the story makes perfect sense. It appears that John or a later editor added a dispute over healing on the Sabbath. The Jewish authorities questioned the man because they saw him violating the 39th Sabbath prohibition. It is clear from the gospels that one of the most significant things that Jesus did during his earthly life was publicly violate the Sabbath laws of the Pharisees. This is the only such story in John, and its meaning of the story is a little different from Mark. The issue here is not the Sabbath itself, but the fact that the authorities were more concerned about the violation of a religious custom than the sudden healing of a man who had suffered for 38 years. They could not see that life and wholeness had come into Jerusalem. All they saw was a violation of the rules.
Not many years ago in Saudi Arabia there was a fire in a girls’ school. The students rushed to escape, but they were not wearing their head scarves. The religious authorities forced the police to keep the gates of the school locked so that these young women would not be seen uncovered in public. Dozens died while the authorities looked on. In America, we have religious authorities, Catholic and Protestant, who effectively oppose any attempt to educate Africans about simple and effective ways to prevent the spread of the AIDS virus. Millions of women and children are dying while Christian religious authorities watch to make sure a religious law is not violated. In the first century, people saw a powerless man suddenly gain the strength and health to walk on his own, and their main concern was who had violated the rules. It is far easier to cure the body than it is to cure a sick society where those who heal are persecuted and those who kill are glorified.
Sin Our passage for this week ends with Jesus finding the healed man in the temple. I suspect that Jesus was looking for the man because he had more to say to him. Like a doctor who has brought a patient through surgery, Jesus had post-healing instructions to give. He tells the man to remember that he has been made well. He is no longer defined by illness and weakness, but he should remember the change in his life. Then Jesus says something that has been a subject of controversy over the centuries. “Sin no more, for fear that something worse will happen to you.”
Many people have interpreted this to mean that Jesus thought this man’s illness was the result of something sinful he had done. In a similar account in the other gospels Jesus heals a person by forgiving his sins. But we should not immediately conclude that is the case here. Jesus did not say “sin no more so that you will not get sick again,” the way a doctor might say, “stop smoking or you’ll have another heart attack.” In the context of John’s Gospel where the focus is on enlightenment and eternal life, the “something worse” probably refers to spiritual deadness rather than physical illness. One of the most important teachings is that there are things that are worse than death and illness. Losing your soul is worse than losing your life. Moral cripples are more miserable than physical cripples. I think Jesus was taking a “teaching moment” to help this man see that wholeness or wellness or health involves more than the body. Walking away from Bethesda was only part of the story; now he has to stand on his own as a moral agent in society. Before he had little opportunity for sin; now he had to live in the world.
And the first thing he does is inform on Jesus; to tell the authorities who it was who violated the Sabbath. Did he do this out of fear of the authorities? Did he do it to shift blame off of himself? Did he do it because he was naïve and did not know what they were plotting? Did he do it in the hopes that the authorities would also seek out Jesus to heal the disease that was corrupting their souls? We don’t know why, but the irony is almost tangible. Jesus warns him not to sin and his first act as a free and healthy man is to rat on the man who helped him.