John 5.1-9 - The Ones Jesus Didn’t Heal
Today’s Gospel reading finds Jesus at the Sheep Gate of Jerusalem, at a famous pool – the pool of Beth-Zatha. This pool had a reputation throughout the land as a place of miracles. It was said that from time to time, an angel would stir up the still waters of the pool, and that the first sick person to get into the water after that would be miraculously healed. The Bible doesn’t tell us whether or not this was true – only that this is what people believed.
It's no surprise, therefore, that the area around the pool was packed with sick people, each hoping for their chance to get into the water. They were all over the place – and Jesus went for a visit on the Sabbath.
Try to imagine the scene. Jesus stops at the entrance to the pool. He looks around at the sea of blind, lame and paralysed people. And his eye comes to rest on a man who has been there for 38 years. 38 years of hoping he would somehow manage to be the first in the water. But for 38 years, he had had no-one to help him get into the pool.
What follows is a remarkable story of Jesus’ compassion for this man. He frees him from his sickness. He frees him perhaps from his superstition too…he frees him from putting all his hopes into a strange story of angels stirring up the water. Jesus enables this man to start his life over again. And Jesus does all this on a Sabbath – provoking the wrath of the law-makers of Israel.
Each of these facts would be interesting enough reasons for a sermon. But they are not what intrigues me most about this story. For me, the question is this…why this man, and why not the others? The text describes an area packed solid with the sick, the lame and the dying. Presumably Jesus would have had to step over some of the other sick people to get to the one man whom he was about to heal. Why only one man? Why not heal everyone there?
This is a question which of course plagues everyone who believes that God has the ability to heal. We have all heard tales of miraculous healing. We all know that cave wall over the healing pool at Lourdes is hung with the crutches of those who have been healed. I wouldn’t be surprised if most of us have a friend or a family member whose recovery from some illness or other has seemed miraculous.
And yet, many more of us live with sickness – our own or that of someone we love. Sickness and frailty are a part of the human condition that God seems to purposefully not heal – despite our fervent prayers. It seems as though God steps over our sickness, or that of a family member, to get to someone else. Why? How does this make sense?
Well, to grope towards an answer, I invite you to use your imagination again. Imagine an airplane, on which the engines have failed in mid-flight. Aargh! The passengers and crew cry out for God to help them, for they are about to crash. Hearing their prayer, God’s giant hand reaches down from the clouds, picks up the plane, and deposits it safely on the earth.
I wonder what the effect of such an event would be. I think this is what would happen…human beings would simply stop bothering to invent and create well-designed airplanes. What’s the point of implementing rigorous safety protocols, if God is going to rescue any plane in trouble? In fact, why bother with airplanes at all? Let’s just throw ourselves off the nearest cliff, in the direction we want to travel…because God will catch us and deposit us where we want to go!
The same analogy applies in every area of human suffering. If God intervened every time we human beings do something stupid, or thoughtless, or selfish – how would we grow? How would we develop as a species? How would we learn right from wrong? Sickness – and the other challenges of life - provide a crucible for human beings to do wonderful things. It gives a task to the greatest minds to seek out the cures for diseases. It gives an opportunity for the rest of us to give sacrificially to medical charities, or through our taxes to Government-funded research. From the act of caring for someone else with an illness, we learn compassion and care. From our own illness, whenever we suffer it, we learn humility from realising that we are not, in fact, invincible. We learn, instead, that we need others to help us function. We need the care of medical workers – including Junior Doctors! We need the care of our family and our friends. We learn that it is in relationship with each other that we are at our best…that we reach our fullest potential.
This was true for the man at Beth-Zatha. His problem was not a lack of faith. For 38 years he had believed in his cure. His problem was that he had no-one who could carry him down into the water. He was alone. It was only when Jesus came along, and created a relationship with the man, that he was able to find the healing he needed.
This story then is a model for all humanity. God can and does heal our sicknesses…there is simply too much evidence to deny the reality of miraculous healing, and it is why we pray for it for our ourselves and our loved ones. But, until the new Jerusalem of this morning’s reading from Revelation is established, God permits sickness to be a part of the world in which we must live. He wants us to learn from it, to grow through it. He wants us to learn the value of charity to others, and the humility of receiving charity from others. He wants us to embrace the concept of living in community – for, to quote Shakespeare on his 400th anniversary – “no man is an island”. Just as God finds Godself in the relationship and community of being three in one, Father Son and Spirit – he yearns for us too to discover the beauty and the growth of living in community with one another, and with him.