Monthly Archives: November 2013

Bethesda

John 5

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. 

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The Grinch and John 4

            The Grinch endorses a different type of Christian theology. The villain in the Grinch is a petty figure who lives in isolation, warmed only by his resentment and his hatred. He is indeed Satan in the Christian tradition, a pathetic twisted figure who exiled himself from happiness. Like Satan, the Grinch works at night, secretly slinking into town to steal what he thinks is the source of happiness. He takes all of the trappings of Christmas, but he does not enjoy what he is has stolen because all he knows is resentment. But in his moment of apparent triumph, he discovers that Christmas does not depend on presents. Presents are merely symbols of the joy the Whos know every day. It is the persistent joy of those he hoped to harm that transformed the Grinch, and made it possible for him to make a moral choice. He chose freely to embrace joy and love and giving. He returned what he had stolen, and was welcomed by those he had hated. This is what redemption and reconciliation are all about. What we have here is the theology of the early Christian theologians, like Gregory of Nyssa and Origen. The redemptive work of Christ will not stop until all have been reclaimed by the love of God.

Overview:      This leads us into our lesson for this week, which is the story of the woman at the well. Lehoma Goode discussed this story earlier in the fall, but it is such a rich and complex story that I think we can safely revisit it in order to show how it fits in the context of John’s narrative. It is one of the longest stories in the four gospels, and it can be nicely divided into three separate scenes. First, Jesus meets a woman at the well. In the second scene, she has left and the disciples converse with Jesus. In final scene, she returns with the townspeople who believe in Jesus because of his witness. We do not have time to read the entire story over the air, so I hope you will read it on your own as I go through it with you.

            Before reading a portion of the passage, I want to note that I used the word “scenes” intentionally. This is one of the most literary stories in the Bible, which is one reason it is so popular in churches today. The conversations of Jesus work on more than one level of meaning, and there is dramatic tension throughout the story. Some of drama is lost to modern readers since we are not Samaritans, as we shall see. To say that this is very well-written drama is not to say that it is fictional. As usual with the Gospel of John, there are details here that are remarkably accurate, but I think Raymond Brown is correct that the evangelist has taken traditional material “and with his masterful sense of drama and the various techniques of stage setting, has formed it into a superb theological scenario. Misunderstanding, irony, the quick changing of an embarrassing subject, the front and back stage, the Greek chorus effect of the villagers – all these dramatic touches have been skillfully applied to make this one of the most vivid scenes in the Gospel and to give the magnificent doctrine of living water a perfect setting.” (Brown, 176) Rather than getting bogged down in discussions of whether the conversation with the Samaritan woman happened exactly as told by the evangelist, we will focus on the meaning of the narrative itself and the teaching Jesus gives here.

Read: 4:4-10

Samaritans:  Most of ancient manuscripts identify the town here as Sychar, but some researchers think this was probably a scribal error since the town that is described is clearly Shechem. That is where Jacob’s well is located. Shechem is also at the foot of Mt. Gerizim, the sacred mountain of the Samaritans. The woman says that her ancestors worshiped “on this mountain,” which indicates that she was standing near Mt. Gerizim. This story displays a good knowledge of Samaritan culture and religion. Even the reference to four months before the harvest later in the story indicates that the author was familiar with the Samaritan calendar, which reckoned months according the wheat and barley harvests.

            Even more important is the fact that the evangelists apparently understood that the Samaritans had a different understanding of the Messiah than the Jews did. For the Jews, the Lord’s anointed was a descendent of King David who would defeat his enemies and rule from Jerusalem. That is the messiah that we sing about in Advent, but the Samaritans were looking for someone called the Taheb, which means the one who returns. The Taheb was to be a prophet like Moses. This prophet would be a teacher of the true law of God who would restore right relationships.

            Since this story displays surprising familiarity with the geography and culture of Samaria, and the portrayal of the woman and the disciples is very true to life, it is safe to assume that it was based on actual events. But we should not read this text simply as history. For one thing, there are some unavoidable difficulties in this passage. For one thing, the other three gospels state that Jesus avoided Samaritans and instructed his disciples not to preach in Samaritan towns (Matt. 10:5). That may simply reflect the anti-Samaritan prejudice of Matthew rather than the practice of Jesus since Luke’s Gospel gives a more positive view of Samaritans.

            In Acts chapter 8 we have a story of the conversion of the Samaritans after the martyrdom of Stephen. There is no indication in that story that anyone in Samaria had believed in Jesus before the apostles preached to them. It is intriguing that John was one of the apostles sent by the church in Jerusalem to teach the new converts and lay hands on them, according to Acts. It seems quite likely that the apostle John maintained ties to the Christians in Samaria and that this story reflects that special relationship between John and the Samaritans. I have often wondered if the anti-Jewish sentiments in John’s Gospel were a reaction to the hostility of the Jews to the Samaritans.

            The Samaritans were descendents of the Israelites who had not been deported by the Assyrians when the kingdom of Israel was destroyed in 722 BC. For centuries the kingdoms of Judah and Israel had quarreled over land and over which temple was the true house of God. The Judeans believed that the Samaritans were no longer Israelites because they have intermarried with the various peoples who moved into the region during Babylonian rule. The conflict between the Jews and the Israelites in Samaria grew worse after the Babylonian captivity, especially after the Temple was rebuilt in Jerusalem. Jewish leaders insisted that only the Jerusalem Temple was the house of God. In 128 BC Jewish soldiers destroyed the Samaritan’s Temple on Mt. Gerizim, and Jewish rabbis instructed the faithful that Jews should have no contact with Samaritans. Intermarriage was especially forbidden. Thus, it was shocking that a Jewish rabbi and prophet would have been talking to a Samaritan, but doubly shocking to be talking to a Samaritan woman.

The Woman:            If we keep in mind the Book of Genesis, the encounter at the well becomes even more intriguing. The women specifically mentions Jacob, I think, to remind the reader of the famous story of Jacob meeting Rachel at the well. The Samaritans had this story in their Scripture, too. Jacob removed the stone so that Rachel could draw water, and they fell in love. Here, Jesus meets a strange woman at Jacob’s well and offers her living water. It is probably not accidental that this reminder of the Jacob and Rachel story comes immediately after John’s declaration that Jesus is the Bridegroom. This story looks like it will lead to the marriage of Jesus and this woman, but then it takes a different turn. Jesus offers her something more lasting that earthly love and marriage. He offers her living water.

            Preachers through the centuries have been overly harsh to this woman at the well. The discussion of her five previous husbands has been used to brand her as immoral, but that is unfair for many reasons. On the practical level, women did not have the right of divorce, so her situation was probably not her choice. Most likely, she was divorced because she was barren rather than immoral. More importantly, Jesus never condemns her or even mentions sin. This is different from the story of the woman caught in adultery. Lastly, it is possible that the reference to five husbands was symbolic. The Hebrew word for husband was ba’al, which was also the word used for pagan deities. This may have been John’s way of saying that the Samaritans had worshiped pagan ba’als in the past and now worshiped the true God without really knowing who him. We can’t say for sure.  

            What we do know is that Jesus and this unnamed woman carry on a fairly sophisticated theological discussion, which is an indication of the high value that the early church placed on women. That changed rather quickly after the first century, but we can be grateful that the Scriptures recorded the memory of a time when the gospel was for men and women equally. We can even contrast this story with that of Nicodemus. The Jewish man did not profess his faith publicly, but this unnamed woman preaches openly about Jesus. In John’s gospel, she is the first evangelist to spread the news of Jesus. She is also the first non-Jew to believe in Jesus; therefore she is the first fruits of all the nations. It is so sad that we do not know her name, but I bet she was remembered as a saint by the church of the Beloved Disciple.

Living Water             We cannot address all of the rich themes of this lesson, but the focal point of this story is Jesus’ discussion of living water. Like the earlier conversation with Nicodemus, Jesus uses a phrase that his listener misunderstands by focusing on the earthly meaning. Normally, living water means running water from a spring as opposed to water in a cistern. Living water is preferred because it is fresh and less polluted. Living water could also mean water that gives life as opposed to water that has gone bad. The Dead Sea, for instance, does not have living water.

            The woman naturally thinks Jesus is speaking literally here, and she gently mocks him for offering her water when he does not even have a bucket to draw from Jacob’s well. Jesus presses home his point by telling her that the water he gives means that she will never be thirsty again, but she again takes him literally, if not exactly seriously, and she challenges him to provide this water so she will not have to come to the well again. Throughout John’s Gospel, we have these stories to teach us not to take the Word of God too literally, and yet people still do. Jesus challenges the woman at the well, and us, to look beyond the needs and concerns of the moment; to look beneath the surface and draw life from the source of life.

            Jesus teaches her that the water he gives will cause a fountain to open up inside her and give her eternal life. In the movie Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, a wealthy industrialist is searching for the Holy Grail because his workers found an ancient inscription that said that the cup of Christ gives living water that grants eternal life. He was looking for a way to perpetuate his own pitiful existence on this earth, and completely missed the point of eternal life. The life Christ offers this woman is a form of living that starts in this world and continues beyond the death of the body. It is not simply existence; it is a living engagement with the source of life, an interconnection with all that is. Jesus tells this woman that her physical thirsts and longings are less important than her spiritual longing. She is thirsty deep down, and Jesus can make it possible for a fountain to spring up in her soul. It is likely that the evangelist or Jesus himself had in mind Psalm 42 “As a deer longs for flowing streams, so longs my soul for you, O God.” Some of you know this deep aching thirst for a meaningful and hopeful life, for a connection with the creator.

            Scholars have long debated the question of what Jesus was offering the woman. Some think he was offering himself, but the water he mentions seems to be a gift other than himself. It is likely, based on what we have read in John so far, that Jesus was offering the woman a new revelation of God. He was the one who would give the true teaching that would be available to Samaritans as well as Jews. It is also likely that the water was a metaphor for the Holy Spirit, which is often connected with water in John’s Gospel. The early church connected this passage to baptism, and we can see why. Not only does this story immediately follow a discussion about baptism; it makes specific mention to water as the source of life and salvation.

Worship in Truth:    This, in turn, leads to another vital theme of the Gospel of John. You will worship the Father neither on Mt. Gerizim nor on Mt. Zion. Instead, true worshipers of the Father will worship in spirit and truth because God is Spirit. There is some evidence in NT that there was a division among Christians over the importance of Temple worship. In the Book of Acts, the church in Jerusalem, under the leadership of James and Peter, continued the practice of Temple worship, but the so-called Hellenizers (or Greek Christians) associated with Stephen and Philip did not. It appears that the Beloved Disciple sided with the Hellenizers. We saw in the cleansing of the Temple that according to John, the appearance of Christ meant that the Temple was no longer necessary.

            This rejection of the centrality of the Temple by some apostles made it possible for the church to survive the destruction of the Temple in 70. It also made it easier for the church to spread throughout the world, which is a theme of this passage. According to John’s account, Jesus broke the bonds of Judaism and traveled beyond the borders of Judea to bring the good news of salvation to the Samaritans. Whatever else we or scholars may say about this passage, it is clear that it is a message of radical inclusion. The work of Christ, as Paul indicates in his letter, included the breaking down of the walls that divide people by race and nationality. Samaritans, Jews, and pagans could be brought into the new spiritual Temple of God.

            There is another aspect of this idea of worshiping in spirit and truth that is meaningful for us today. Through the centuries, spiritualist sects have used the Gospel of John to justify their rejection of traditional worship forms and houses of worship. I not sure that John’s Gospel is as anti-institutional and anti-ritual as they assert, but I do think we agree that the key to understanding this statement is to remember that John wants us to look beyond the literal and earthly to the spiritual. Even the sacraments themselves must point beyond themselves to genuine transformation and worship of the one who made all things. Rather than fighting over rituals or styles of worship, we need to move beyond style to substance. What is important in worship is not the where or the when or the how; it is the why. Do we worship God spirit and in truth or do we merely perpetuate our prejudices? Do we worship in spirit and truth or do we use worship and doctrine to erect barriers and deny thirsty people the water of life?