Sermon 6 Easter Yr C

6 Easter Yr C, 9/05/2010

Jn 5:1-9

Rev. Garth Wehrfritz-Hanson

Chaplain of The Good Samaritan Society’s

South Ridge Village, Medicine Hat, Alberta

“Jesus visits Bethesda Pool”

Billie Burke found herself seated on a plane with a man who was struggling with a head cold. She proceeded to advise him about taking care of it. “Drink lots of water, go to bed, do this, do that,” she went on, and then added: “Now do what I said; I know what I’m talking about—I’m Billie Burke of Hollywood.”

The man thanked her and then introduced himself: “And I’m Dr. Mayo of the Mayo Clinic.”1

We may laugh at such a joke; however, there is a serious side to it that I believe has some relevance to our gospel story today. Just as Billie Burke thought she was an authority on head colds, when, in fact, Dr. Mayo would most likely know a lot more; so too, in our gospel story, the man who was ill for thirty-eight years and lying beside the Bethesda Pool thought he could be healed if he was the first into the water after the angel had stirred it up. However, to his great surprise, he is healed by this stranger, Jesus, whom he didn’t know and hadn’t met before.

The story of the ill man of thirty-eight years beside Bethesda Pool is a most interesting one. What would life have been like for this man who was ill for that long? In Jewish society at that time, he would have been an outcast, because many believed that to be sick meant you had sinned in some way, and your illness was a punishment for your sin. Only if you repented of your sin could you be healed of your illness. If you repented and were not healed, then that meant you were still guilty of some sin and hadn’t properly repented of it. Does that sound familiar? Many televangelists and so-called “faith healers” would have you believe the same thing. Jesus did not believe this approach to illness; nor did he avoid the outcasts. In fact, oftentimes he actively made the effort to associate with sinners and outcasts—going to forbidden places where they hung out.

So in today’s story, Jesus pays a visit to Bethesda Pool, the meeting place of those who were ill, because such people, being unclean, were not allowed to go and worship at the temple. The religious leaders and people in the temple were too good for such unclean people. Besides, to associate with outcasts who were ill might mean that they could get ill too by falling into the same sins as these outcasts. So whatever you do, avoid the outcasts at all costs—especially if you were a religious leader in the temple. If you were a religious leader in the temple and you associated with such outcasts, you ran the risk of being banned from your work and publicly scorned by your colleagues. The temple, a holy place, was “off limits” for society’s unclean outcasts.

So the ill gathered at a safe place; a place which gave them a seed of hope and the promise of healing. A place where, as outcasts and folks suffering from various illnesses, they were among equals and could, ideally, support and encourage one another. According to tradition, the place was named Bethesda, meaning House of Mercy or Bethzatha, meaning House of the Olive. So here was this safe place for outcasts; a place of mercy where Jesus who epitomises mercy comes to visit. A place of the olive; olive oil, of course was used to anoint kings and the Messiah himself is the anointed one. In the history of the Church, olive oil has also been used for healing. So here is the place of mercy; the place of the olive; visited by Jesus the Messiah of Mercy; Jesus the Healer; the Great Physician.

The sick and the outcast need a place of mercy; a place of healing. When the Rev. Dr. Wm Willimon asked a woman, “Why haven’t I seen you at church in the past few months?” she responded. “Well, it’s been tough. I’m working two jobs to try to keep the family together. After ten hours on my feet on Saturday, my feet are so swollen that I can’t get my Sunday shoes on. And I know how people would look at me if I showed up at church, dressed in my old work shoes.2 How sad, that this woman would feel so unacceptable among other members of her church because she might happen to wear what they regarded as the “wrong” shoes! For this woman, the church, rather than being a place of mercy and healing was perceived as an unsafe place, a place of judgement.

How many other folks in our communities today perceive the church as an unsafe place, a place of judgement? Too many, I think. In a recent Reader’s Digest article, Canadians were surveyed as to which of forty-one different professions they trusted the most. Guess where clergy came in on the list. They came in twenty-third. Obviously this is not good news for us “men and women of the cloth.” We have a serious credibility problem. Tragically, the news these days has not raised the trust-level and credibility of clergy either. The sex scandals, secrecy, and cover-ups within the Roman Catholic Church have succeeded in violating the trust between clergy and laity even further. For too many, the church is not a safe place; not a place of healing. Rather, the church has been a place of abuse and oppression—making people ill instead of promoting their health and well-being. You, I, every human being needs a safe place; a place of acceptance and healing. So for us leaders in the churches today and our faithful, active members; we have, with Christ’s help of course, some very serious work to do to ensure that our congregations are safe places and healing—especially for the most vulnerable in our society.

Coming back to our text, we learn quite a lot I think from Jesus’ question addressed to this ill man of so many years: “Do you want to be made well?” At first, we might take Jesus’ question in an offensive way, and answer in a defensive way and say: “What do you mean do I want to be made well?! I haven’t hung around this pool for all these years for nothing! Of course I want to be made well!”

Now take a look again at the wording of Jesus’ question. Notice that the word “want” is used to hint at perhaps the man’s will or motivation—does he have the will power to become well? I don’t know about you, but some folks do seem to choose illness over wellness because there is something in the illness that satisfies them or they benefit from.

For example, many a marriage counsellor will tell you that he or she cannot help a couple unless both partners want their marriage to work and be a healthy one. Or ask an addictions counsellor about folks that come to him or her with addictions problems. The counsellor will tell you that the addicts have to want to recover before they can be helped by someone. I’ve known some people who grieve the death of a loved one for years because they do not want to recover from their grief. If you speak with them and listen carefully, often they are stuck in their grief because they feel guilty about the death and somehow responsible for it and because of that they do not believe they are worthy of being forgiven.

So, Jesus asks, “Do you want to be made well?” The man’s answer is, interestingly enough, neither a clear “yes” nor “no.” Rather, the man gives Jesus an explanation about how he might be healed if he could be the first one into the pool after the angel stirs it up. He does not realise Jesus can heal him. He’s thinking about getting into the healing water of the pool. Perhaps in a round-about way, the man is asking Jesus to help him into the pool first so he can be healed.

Look at the last three words of Jesus’ question, here is another telling key unlocking the story. Jesus asks: “Do you want to be made well?” Notice here we have more of a passive sense of the man; of someone doing the action other than the ill man. Is this not hinting at the grace of God through Christ? The man does not seem to have faith—at least we’re not told that he does. Nor does the man repent of any sins. In fact, his answer to Jesus’ question could almost be taken as a complaint, perhaps even self-pity, with the sense of: “See how hard done by I am; won’t you feel sorry for me because I’ve nobody to help me? How much longer do I have to put up with this wretched illness?” So the last three words “be made well,” could suggest God’s grace towards this ill man. Nothing that he has done deserves God’s grace. Yet, it is God through Christ who has chosen this man to receive God’s favour and be healed.

Now comes the “punch line,” the surprise of the story. Jesus basically responds to the man’s answer by telling him he is looking in the wrong place for his healing. The waters in the Bethesda Pool are not going to heal him. No. Rather, Jesus shocks him into reality by a firm and confident command: “Stand up, take your mat and walk.” In other words, because Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, the Second Person of the Holy Trinity, he has the power to heal by speaking the words which make it a reality. The story is actually reminiscent of God creating the heavens and the earth in Genesis. God speaks creation into being. God’s word has the power to create life. So it is here too. God through Jesus speaks new life into this ill man by healing him immediately. The man does exactly as Jesus commands him, and is healed, given a new life.

Where is the grace of God through Christ working to give you healing and new life right now? Do you see it and celebrate it? Do you, like that ill man long ago want to be made well? If so, then the one who can make you well is Jesus. He may not always heal you the way you think he has to; the way you expect him to; he may not always heal you physically. Jesus heals in many and various way; in his own time; on his own terms. His healing may come immediately or only after many years of waiting and seeking it. The healing may be physical, psychological, emotional or spiritual—or all of these combined, or any combination of them. So a question I leave with today is: How is Jesus working in your life right now to give you healing?

1 Cited from: Bernard Brunsting, The Ultimate Guide To Good Clean Humor (Uhrichsville, OH: Barbour Publishing, Inc., 2000), p. 198.

2 Cited from: Wm. Willimon, “The Undeserving Poor,” in: Pulpit Resource, Vol. 26, No. 2, Year C, April, May, June 1998 (Inver Grove Heights, MN: Logos Productions Inc.), p. 32.



About dimlamp
I am, among other things, a sojourner, a sinner-saint, a baptized, life-long learner and follower of Jesus, and Lutheran pastor. Dim Lamp: gwh photos:

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: