For thirty-eight years he had sat by this pool, day after day after day, just North of the Temple Mount, near the Sheep Gate. For years, John’s description was questioned, but archaeologists have now found the pool and excavated it; John’s description matches what they have found. Under the pool ran a subterranean stream, and every now and then when it bubbled up, the waters of the pool were disturbed. The pool may have had some healing properties.
Different religions of the day had different explanations for why people were healed by the water when it was troubled. Jews believed that when the water bubbled up, an angel had disturbed the water and the first person into the water after it was disturbed would be healed. For 38 years he had sat beside this pool on his stretcher and never had he been the first one in. Perhaps he had seen other people healed. But this man had long since given up on being healed.
The average life expectancy in 1st Century Israel was about 35 years. This man has outlived his friends. He has been coming to this pool longer than most people live. It is all he knows. He no longer has anyone who comes, expectantly, with him to help him be the first into the water when it is disturbed. His community is the group who gather here at the pool. If he is healed, who would be his support, his friends, these people at the pool are like his family. He hasn’t learned a trade; he doesn’t have land to farm. If he isn’t one of the invalids at the pool, how will he support himself?
When Jesus asks him “Do you want to be cured?” His response essentially is, “Well, I won’t be.” His reply is his excuse. “Sir, I have no man to put me into the pool when the water is troubled, and while I am going another steps down before me.” There’s nobody to help me, and when I try to do it on my own, I get trampled by others who are beating me to it. He has no hope, no dream, no aspirations. This is the way it has been, and he is resigned that this is the way it will always be. And maybe there’s comfort in that.
Rev. Dr. Homer Henderson asks, “Who is this castoff? Well, there’s not one word about his faith in this text. Not one hint that he believed in Jesus or anything else except the magic water in the pool. And, if we read just a little further, we find out that he wasn’t even grateful for being healed. In fact, when the religious authorities see him walking around carrying his mat, they ask him, “Who healed you?” and he says he doesn’t even know. Then when the authorities go on to inform him that healing and mat-carrying is illegal on the Sabbath, he squeals and fingers Jesus as the one who healed him and told him to carry his mat. “Jesus broke the Sabbath laws, not me!”
This is the one Jesus healed. Who is he? He’s a real bum, that’s who he is! He had no gratitude, no faith, no humility, no guts. He didn’t deserve to be healed. He didn’t deserve anything.”
And Jesus said to him, “Get up. Take your mat and walk.” And at once, he was healed and he got up and gathered up his pallet and walked.
There are at least two messages here for us:
One is that this man was lying beside a pool that literally is within the shadow of the Temple, and because he knows that there is no help to be sought from the church, he is hoping God will heal him here. He knows the church doesn’t welcome people like him – a life-long beggar, a cripple, one of the undeserving poor. Who knows better than to seek help here? Who knows better than to seek community here?
The other message may actually be harder for us. Jesus asked the man by the pool, “Do you want to be cured?” And his response is “Well, I won’t be.”
When we are faced with a difficult problem, with a handicap – whether that is physical like the man at the pool or metaphorical – handicapped to respond to climate change, handicapped to reform the healthcare industry, handicapped to address the worldwide refugee crisis, handicapped to live in peace and not make war – we, like the man on his mat, struggle with inertia. Inertia is defined “as a tendency to do nothing or to remain unchanged.”
It is easy to greet one another with “Peace be with you” without believing that peace in our world is possible. It is easy to sit beside the pool and wait for an opportunity for peace instead of getting up, taking our mat, and seeking it.
It is easy to vilify refugees as illegals, to declare climate change natural, to say that the uninsured should not receive medical care. It is easy to say these problems have been going on a long time, to make excuses for why nothing will change. It is harder to get up, take your mat, and walk with people who are affected by these crises. But it is what Jesus tells us to do, and it is how healing happens.
On this Memorial Day, may we remember those who have gotten up, taken their mats, and walked into battle for us, and made the ultimate sacrifice. And may we consider the sacrifices we are called to make.