Several years ago now, on the occasion of the 20th anniversary of my ordination, the church we were serving at the time gave our family this incredible gift of a trip to the Walt Disney World Resort in Florida. It was the first time we’d ever been there, and it was a wonderful time all the way around – but I have to tell you that one of the most memorable aspects of it was that it ended up happening on the heels of my having undergone emergency back surgery (on Easter Sunday, no less!).
Now, it wasn’t as dire as that sounds – at the time we were to leave, I was three weeks out from the procedure, the doctors all said I was fine to go and that a little Florida sunshine might actually be good for me, and besides, before we went I promised everybody – in my family, at the church, even at the supermarket (I am not kidding!) – that I would be careful, not overdo, and, if necessary, use a wheelchair, which I actually did… for a day.
That day was, to say the least, a unique experience, in which I had a small taste of life and the world as only the disabled experience it. To begin with, if you’ve ever wondered, yes… when you’re in a wheelchair, you do get to the head of the line for some of the rides at Disney (which, admittedly, was OK…), but at the same time, a whole lot of what you see is at waist high level, which is very limited on a crowded Saturday in the Magic Kingdom! Moreover, you quickly make the discovery that while most people, including every Disney “cast member” we encountered, are very considerate of those who are in wheelchairs, there are many who are downright rude about it, or simply don’t care that you’re there; you’re just in the way and that’s all that matters.
And it is an awkward feeling, no doubt about it; I’ll bet I said “excuse me” and “I’m sorry” a hundred times through the course of the day; and, trust me, it was just as bad for those who traded off on the job of pushing me around all day. That’s why I can forgive my wife Lisa for almost dumping me head-first along the trail to the Kali River Rapids (something she vehemently denies to this very day!); and why I can now laugh at how one of our friends who was traveling with us accidentally “parked” me and my wheelchair so that I was facing a brick wall! Talk about feeling disconnected from the rest of the world!
Needless to say, by the end of that day I was ready to “pick up my mat and walk!” I remember promising Lisa that I’d be careful, that I’d rest when I needed to, and I wouldn’t do anything stupid (well, there was the incident at Space Mountain, but that’s a story for another sermon!), but that I absolutely couldn’t do the wheelchair thing anymore. And I was fine; the walking absolutely helped me, and it turned out to be a great week. I also have to tell you that throughout the next several days I had a whole new sensitivity toward those around me who were disabled, as well as a profound awareness that while I had a choice about my situation, the vast majority of them did not, which certainly changes one’s perspective on matters of compassion, inclusiveness and basic accessibility.
As I think about this now, however, it does raise another question; kind of the flip side of all this, but pertinent to our gospel reading this morning: what if you do have a choice, but you don’t choose? How would it be to sit in a wheelchair when you don’t have to? What if you have the opportunities, the resources and the options available to you to make your situation better, but you won’t avail yourselves of them? What if you are, in fact, for whatever reason, stuck where you are and how you are? That’s at the heart of this question Jesus asked of the “invalid” at the Pool of Bethsaida.
To give a little background, the Pool of Bethsaida was located near the Sheep Gate of Jerusalem and was a public source of water fed not only by five large reservoirs that surrounded the pool, but also by an underground spring that bubbled to the surface. So the water there was pure and natural, and considered amongst the best in Jerusalem. In fact, legend had it that whenever the water from this particular pool was stirred and agitated (something, it was assumed, that only an angel could do) then the first one in the water would be healed of their affliction. Consequently, there would always be a great many disabled people waiting at the edge of the pool: those who were “blind, lame, and paralyzed,” the so-called “crippled castoffs” of society, all waiting for the next moment the waters were agitated so they might be first in line for healing.
Among those waiting on this particular day was a man who, we’re told, had been sick for 38 years, and presumably had been waiting at the edge of that pool every day for almost as long – this is the man who is approached by Jesus as he’s making his way to Jerusalem, and who is asked by him, “Do you want to be made well?”
Now, on the face of it, this seems a pretty obvious question! I mean, having been sick that long, why else would this man have been waiting there unless his greatest hope and desire was to be healed? So of course his answer would have been, “Yes! Finally! Now, please!” Or at least it should have been, because strangely enough, he doesn’t even really answer Jesus’ question; but instead makes excuses: “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.” Whereupon Jesus immediately tells him, “Stand up, take your mat and walk,” and the man does just that.
What’s interesting about this little exchange in John’s gospel is there’s no mention of the man having faith; we’re given no indication that this man believed in Jesus or anything else, for that matter, except that there might be magic water in this pool. Moreover, after the fact, he offers no thanks for what’s been done for him, and when the religious uprights see him walking around with his mat, he can’t even tell them who it was who did the illegal healing! No faith, no gratitude, no humility; you start to wonder if this man even deserved to be healed, and truth be told, he probably didn’t! But that’s the nature of God’s grace, and what this story’s all about: the undeserved, unmerited love of God demonstrated in Jesus’ healing of a man who wasn’t even sure he wanted to be healed at all!
So when Jesus asked, “Do you want to be made well,” it was something of a loaded question! Because yes, for 38 years this man had been coming to this pool as though it were his only source of hope; day after day in the same place waiting for something to happen that never comes to pass! There’s a maxim in the counseling profession that says that “when you do what you always do, you get what you always get,” and even though this man claimed to want healing and to get his life back, his actions – doing the same old thing again and again to no effect – seemed to say otherwise. So in typical fashion, Jesus cut to the heart of this man’s situation by asking him a simple and direct question – and notice, by the way, that it’s not, “Do you believe that I can heal you?” It’s “Do you want to get well?” Friends, I would say to you this morning that this is about as valid a question as Jesus could ask any of us as well!
Let me ask again: what if we have the choice – the choice to change, to grow, to become, to be healed – but we don’t choose?
To put a finer point on it, why is that we so often fail to try something that can help us? Why do some of us have such a hard time to quit smoking, or to change our diets, or to start to exercise or to take better care of our bodies? Why do so many of us ignore the opportunities we’re given for rest, relaxation, and time to spend with the people we love? And why do so many Christians, in times of stress and struggle, seem treat prayer as some sort of act of last resort, even when we know the kind of comfort and strength that we might bring? Why don’t we choose to be well?
For some, I suppose, it’s fear: fear of change, fear of being vulnerable and having to admit weakness or powerlessness before others and even before God. For others, it’s clearly a matter of stubbornness: nobody’s going to tell me what to do and how to be, even if what I’m doing and how I’m being is hurting others and killing me. And yes, there are those who enjoy being “the victim,” wallowing in self-pity, wanting others to feel sorry for them. We don’t know exactly what was going on with the man at the Pool of Bethsaida, but in fact, there were opportunities before him and he only saw obstacles. Likewise, there are so many of us who go through life wandering around aimlessly, crashing into all of life’s obstacles as we go – sometimes even when there’s been a good and clear pathway before us all along!
When Jesus asks, “Do you want to get well,” he’s confronting us with our heart’s true desire – the very life that each one of us longs to live — understanding that receiving new life means the death of the old one. And, honestly, that’s not always an easy choice.
If you’ve ever seen the movie Shawshank Redemption, you’ll know that this is the one in which Morgan Freeman plays an old prisoner named Red – he’s been on the inside of the Shawshank Prison most of his life, but finally he’s being paroled and the opportunity now exists for him to leave prison. But for Red, this becomes a huge dilemma – he’s been in prison so long, so enslaved to the life of a prisoner, he doesn’t even know how or even if he can change and live on the outside. So Red faces a choice: is he really willing to take on this new life of freedom, or is he going to keep the security of prison life, a horrible and unjust life to be sure, but the only one he’s ever known after all those years in prison?
Well, friends, here’s Jesus, offering us freedom: the freedom that comes with new life, along with love that has no end and the peace that comes in believing. Jesus brings to each one of us the means to reorder our lives and to move forward on a clear and straight trajectory. This we can receive; but first we need to answer Jesus’ question: Do we want to get well? Can we make the change? Are we willing to put old habits and shopworn ideas away, and let his Spirit inspire us to new ways of thinking and acting? Are we truly able to make the choice to rise up and walk? Our answers to these questions make all the difference as to whether we keep on “doing what we always do” to “get what we always get,” or whether we can truly receive the healing that Christ desires for us.
I remember that day at Disney, I got asked about a hundred times by all sorts of people behind the scenes if I was “ambulatory.” What they wanted to know, of course, is whether or not I could get out of the chair and climb into the seats on the rides, or if they had to pick me up, wheelchair and all, to put me in – but when I think back on it, maybe I was afraid they would think I was faking or something, because I realize now I probably sounded a bit incredulous about my answer: “Yes, I’m ambulatory… I’m recuperating!”
Well, friends, as regards our faith in the midst of all the challenges and struggles that come our way in this life, I hope and pray that we will answer Jesus in the same way (minus the incredulous tone of voice, mind you!) – yes, Lord, of course we’re ambulatory …we’re recuperating and thanks to you, we are going to rise up and walk, and what’s more, follow where you lead! Yes, we want to be well!
Thanks be to God who in Christ, brings the healing.
AMEN and AMEN!
c. 2013 Rev. Michael W. Lowry