April 23, 2017
Sermon: “Get Up and Go Back to Life”, Rev. Steve Anderson
Half of the country is struggling to have enough food to survive. Thousands suffer from diseases caused by deficiencies in diet. Untreated infections are contributing to bone deformation and muscle weakness making walking impossible. The people do not understand the causes of these problems, blaming evil spirits and the breaking of religious laws. People with birth defects that prohibited them from working, have no recourse but to sit by the side of a pool of water they believed was occasionally touched by the wing of an angel and try to be the first one into the water after there was some sort of bubbly, swirly action.
They didn’t realize that there was an underground stream that occasionally changed direction due to rocks and currents. This would cause swirling in the water and people would scramble to get into the presumably healing water. There are many unanswered questions in this scripture. How did the man get this way? Had he been born like this? Had it happened because of an accident? Whose fault was it? How did he feel sitting at this pool day after day, hoping to be the lucky one to be the first into the stirring water? Why could only one person be healed at a time?
Jesus’s question to the man seemed strange. Of course he wanted to be healed. Why else would he sit here day after day staring at the water? Who among those seated around the pool didn’t want to be healed? Who among us don’t want to be healed? Jesus wondered if he had given up. Had the man’s condition come to define who he was? Jesus sees the totality of the man’s life.
He had no way to have a normal life and no one to help him get by. Then Jesus does the unthinkable. He instructs him to get up and walk. That would be like you handing me a basketball and pointing to a hoop and net and telling me to dunk the ball in the net. But in this case, a miracle took place. The man gets up and walks like nothing had ever been wrong with him. He does not see Jesus and voice his belief. He does not proclaim Jesus to be the messiah after he is healed. It does not appear that he even thanked Jesus for this great miracle.
The man had been putting his faith in the wrong place. He had believed in the magical power of a pool of water, that the people really didn’t understand, rather than turning to God. This unknown man had been given a great gift, just as God gifts us all the time. We read that the man picked up his mat and went home, back to his wife and family, back to his job, back to his weekly worship in the temple.
Wellness is in a large degree based on our response to what God has done. It more than just belief. It is acting upon that belief, getting up and going back to like. Of course the religious leaders were furious that the man was carrying his mat on the Sabbath since this would be seen as working. The three most important things in Jewish community identity was circumcision, observance of the food laws, and not working on the Sabbath.
Not realizing that a great and wonderful thing had happened here, they zero in on the fact that he had worked and even worse than this, he had carried something from a public place to a private place and this was seen as the ultimate in forbidden work, punishable by death. But it really wasn’t his fault. Jesus had told him to take his mat with him. I’m not sure I would have worried about a mat. I would have hugged Jesus and been halfway home before Jesus could have gotten out a word.
It is incredible what the religious leaders cared about. If the man had been in an accident, then saving his life would have been permitted, but not an illness of 38 years. This could have waited. Jesus, obviously did not care how he looked in the eyes of those who interpreted the laws. Hurting people must always be helped, regardless of the rules. The miracle was forgotten and the focus is on the broken rule, because the rules were always seen as more important than the life of a person.
Has your joy ever been squashed by someone who cared more about tradition and ritual than people? My aunt married a man in a community whose family had been a part of a small church in the western part of the state for several generations. My aunt played the piano there for 30 years, during which time her two kids, my cousins, grew up in that church family.
One of my cousins worked for a large company which transferred him to Anchorage, Alaska. It was there that he married a wonderful young lady. Together they had a baby. Living far from family they came back to Central Illinois once or twice a year. They decided that on a visit home they wanted to have their child baptized in my cousin’s home church, but the pastor would not baptize the baby because my cousin and his wife were not active members of that congregation.
The baby could trace its roots back to the laying of the foundation of that church building. Grandma had played the piano every Sunday for 30+ years and my cousin had grown up in that church. But, rules are rules.
I was serving a church about 20 miles away and received a call asking if I would baptize the baby. “Of course,” I said, “pick out a Sunday morning.”
“Oh, it can not happen on a Sunday morning,” I was told. My aunt had to play the piano for Sunday worship. The pastor would not baptize her only grandchild, but she had to play the piano. So we had a wonderful Sunday afternoon baptism.
I used to live in a community where I was the only pastor in a 15 mile radius who would officiate at a wedding of people who were living together. I remember the hurt in the voices of people who would call and tell me about all the churches that had turned them down before they reached me. A lot of hurt is done by people defending the right way to believe and do things.
In the scripture that we are looking at today, the religious leaders immediately plan to kill Jesus. He threatened their power, authority, and perception of reality. They had much to lose, therefore much to protect. They closed rank rather than admit that there might be a new way of experiencing God.
When faced with problems in life, many people act as if we just need to summon our personal resolve to do all sorts of good things and that we’ll succeed at all this and never be sick or have problems. Better information is not the answer. The solution is not one of willpower. I don’t think that it’s about yoga or finding some self-help book or diet that will improve our state of mind in order to have a better life.
Nothing that this man did or said seemed to set the stage for his healing, but Jesus healed him anyway. We all know people like this man, who deal with terrible illnesses or tragedies and who pray for God to heal them, but do not sense anything happening. Maybe God has another plan? Maybe God’s plan for them is to praise God in spite of the pain they are enduring; maybe even for 38 years.
In the scripture that we are looking at, the man is healed regardless of anything he did or didn’t do. The key is his response. He could have ignored Jesus. He could have responded with anger. How dare Jesus ask him to do something that he is totally unable to do physically. How cruel to add insult to injury. But his response was to obey, to do exactly what Jesus says he is able to do, and then to praise Jesus to everyone that he met.
So what does this have to do with us? I suspect that most of us are dealing with some issue in our lives, maybe even several issues. Some of us are getting older and dealing with pain and physical limitations. Some are afraid they will outlive their financial resources. Some have jobs that are killing them. Some are in disappointing relationships that have been broken for a very long time, but they see no way to fix them. Some of us have children that are making one bad decision after another and it seems that there is little we can do to help them. Some are broken spiritually and emotionally but don’t feel like they have anyone they can talk to; and if they did talk to someone, they aren’t sure where to start or what to say.
In many ways, all of us are like the invalid. All of humanity struggles in some way or another. Many put their trust in science, medicine, and technology, only to find that these triumphs are not enough on their own and do not deliver us from meaninglessness. Many rush from one self-help book to another, one program, one guru, or one political philosophy to another.
Like the “miraculous” pool of Bethesda, they promise healing, but rarely deliver. Many have grown so accustomed to our ruts and limitations that we see no reason to even struggle. We become paralyzed, filled with depression, fear, and despair, and act out depressed. We pray for a lucky break, a healing angel to stir the water, and someone to put us into it, but healing never comes.
The wonderful news of this gospel passage is that God wants to free us. The man is not healed because he wants to be made well. He is not made well because he first knows who Jesus is. This is the good news of this passage, that God comes to us in our brokenness, not to change our minds, or just hear that we want to be healed, but to create anew, to restore our whole selves to wellness, to heal, even when we don’t especially want to made different.
Jesus is motivated by love alone. He acts boldly and consistently, helping particular persons with particular needs, never allowing himself to become overwhelmed with the vastness of human brokenness, never judging the worthiness of the one who calls on him or even those who do not know that they need God’s healing in their life. One by one, God acts in our lives, redeeming us through physical or emotional or relational or spiritual healing. Whatever our cry or our situation, God sees and responds.
Often, God’s work is done by those who have themselves been loved and healed and who quietly work as God’s helpers and healers. As God’s people we are called to treat others, not according to what we think they deserve, but according to the way that God has loved and accepted us even when we did not deserve it. Of course, there are times when we lack the wisdom to discern what is truly needed and the answers to our prayers may not be the ones that we expect.
Jesus did not carry the man to the pool as the man might have expected. He simply ordered him to get up and go on with his life. It is sometimes difficult to see God at work in our messy, judgmental, misguided world.
That is why John’s writing is called a “gospel”, good news. It is not that we have found a correct technique to get out of our messes. It is good news because God comes to us who have pulled away from God: the crippled, the poor, and the terribly needy, including those who don’t even know enough to know that they are in need, who wouldn’t have the vaguest idea how to help themselves, who maybe couldn’t help themselves if they had an idea how to go about it.
We may have gotten so used to the infirmity or dysfunction that the thought of actually being healed is more distressing than remaining in our familiar pain. To be healed would change everything. It would be too much to handle. When we pray for healing, part of our prayer would have to be not only for healing, but also that we would be able to handle the change.
God’s gracious welcome to us is not enough on its own, that we have to let this life claim us and become disciples of Jesus by our own conscious choice, to make each day a wonderful day. God invites us once again to accept the hand of Jesus and be led into the fullness of life. Please God, may that be the spirit in which we leave this building today. Do you want to be healed? Then obey God when God tells you to get up and go back to life in its fullness and its abundance, not the limited, cloud of a life that too many are living.