John 5: 1-9
Our gospel reading tells of Jesus healing a man at the pool of Bethzatha, also known as Bethesda.
There are only a few of Jesus’ healings in John. Each is included to illustrate a wider point or symbol. With this story at the pool, the healing opens up a debate with the Jewish leaders, for whom what matters is that work was done on the Sabbath, breaking the law of Moses.
But this morning I would like to look at the healing itself.
The first thing to say is that this pool with five porticos is well supported by archaeological evidence – one with a close resemblance was discovered in the late 19th Century. At the time of Jesus’ visit, the pool was already 800 years’ old. Belief in the healing powers of the stream which fed it is believed to go right back to Canaanite times. It was said that when, from time to time, the waters were disturbed from within, the first person who went into the pool would be healed.
Jesus arrives at the pool and sees a man who has been waiting each day for 38 years, without ever getting to the waters first – as he explains wearily to Jesus. We might note ironically that his contemporaries had not learned the English art of queueing!
As in many healthcare systems, there was bias in favour of the fittest, or those with resources – in this case servants at hand to rush them into the waters ahead of the others. Our old man is neither fit enough nor wealthy enough, yet still he comes each day, after all these years – his hope, irrational though it may be, is a thing of beauty.
This is the person Jesus notices and is drawn to – that combination of disadvantage, of being the least in the eyes of the world, with resilient hopefulness.
And so he asks the old man a question, “do you want to be made well?” You might think that the answer was pretty obvious! But there is something important going on here. In spite of what is apparent to all those present, and any further insights Jesus may have, when encountering this other person, a child of God, he assumes nothing.
And in deferring in this way to the old man he preserves his dignity, he shows respect. The person healed is not secondary in the story, for it is they who are in control.
So, once given permission, Jesus commands him to take up his mat and walk and he is healed.
We learn later in the story that, having set out, the man does not look back and it seems Jesus slips away in the crowd – for when the Jewish leaders first ask who healed him, he does not know.
So no “thank you”s, no exclamations from the others gathered there, crowding round the miracle man. What we find is a picture of modesty, a healing in which the healer is scarcely visible. His personality, his ego, are not on display. His attention is only on the person to be healed.
When I reflect on this brief story, itself told by John as a preamble to a wider debate, it seems to me like a picture not just of a healing, but of an act of pure love. Jesus notices the man and his suffering, he honours their sacred dignity in his question, he defers to them in the humility of his act. This is love in action.
Last week Jane encouraged us to reflect on how we might love one another as Jesus loved – and here we have an example to inspire us.
Here the connections with our first and second readings become apparent. In Acts, Paul is called to a country and a city where he knows no one – he is reduced to guessing that a place outside the gate by the river might be a place of prayer, and so waits there. He meets some women – perhaps, I wonder, come to wash clothes? And in this encounter he finds the reason for his journey.
And then in Revelation, we learn that in the heavenly Jerusalem there will be no temple, for God the Father and Christ the lamb are the only temples needed.
The thread that joins these three readings together for me is the challenge to meet people far from our religious or institutional setting – emotionally and perhaps also physically - where they are, without pomp or profile, where all we have to offer is the love of Christ.
I am conscious that in a few weeks we start a year of celebrations for the 150th anniversary of this church. And it is indeed a lovely place, imaginatively reordered, with a rich history, steeped in prayer.
But today gives us a reminder of a truth which holds our celebrations in perspective: That what we celebrate is not primarily the buildings or the institution of the church, but the unnumbered acts of love of all those who came before us.
At the heart of our vocation is a calling to love others, without drawing attention to ourselves: Not to glorify the church, but to be barely visible, as Christ was at the pool of Bethesda.
Richard Young (Rector)