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A Letter to the Man at the Pool at Bethzada (or Bethsaida)

by Rev. M. Gayle MacDonald

John 5:1-9(10-18)

Dear Sir:

I hope you donít mind my writing to you like this, but I read about you in the Gospel according to John and there is so much I want to ask you.

First, did you want to be made well? That seems like an odd question and you would think it had already been answered centuries ago. Yet, when I thought about you sittling by the pool at Bethzada, recalling 38 years of illness, I wondered: did you really want to be made well. I also wondered what kind of illness you had that in 38 years in those ancient times you did not die, but you also did not get better. Some scholars tell us that you likely had one or more atropied limbs. You who had no one, as you said, to put you into the pool when the waters were stirred--that is, when the likelihood of benefitting from their healing was the greatest.

How long did you sit there, by the healing waters of Bethzada, watching the waters become agitated and then still again? Did you go there hoping that at the right moment, someone would volunteer to drop you into the healing pool? And how did you get the pool anyway? And did you really want to get well?

Iím sorry to belabour the question, but I mean, did you really try hard to be first at the pool when the waters stirred up, or were you watching and waiting to see if the stories were true--letting a few others try it first? Were you afraid of disappointment and so you hesitated? Did you maybe not trust the water? How did you get there without having anyone to help you into the water? Help me out here. Iím trying to understand. Did you really want to be made well?

Iím trying to picture that pool--the ones at Bethzada and Siloam that were a source of water by the temple. They say that Bethzada had two pools and that when the sluice was opened water would rush from the north poor to the south pool. I assume it is the south pool where the healing took place. It seems more technical than mystical to me. Did you think so too? Or were you certain that it could heal like the others that crowded there in hope?

While you were there (I assume sitting, maybe you were lying on your mat0--how did you get your mat there anyway--did someone take you there and leave you?) anyway, while you were sitting there, what kind of day was it? And what kind of people were in that crowd at the opening? Were they all watching and waiting for the waters to stir? Were many ill? Were they maybe shoving and pushing their way hoping to be first when the waters seemed ready to heal?

When Jesus spoke to you were you thinking about being made well? Was that uppermost in your mind? Were you surpised at his question? Did you know who he was? No, of course, you didnít--not at first. Did you know when he asked you that he was the wellsrping of healing--a channel for the healing power of the one who created us?

I picture you there--alone in spite of the crowd around you--ignored, forgotten--and then this man, obviously not ill at all speaks to you, asks you the pointed question--were you surpised? Was this a pleasant intrusion or not?

And when he said to you, ďStand up, take your mat and walk.Ē what made you do it? What impelled you or compelled you to obey to this stranger at the portico to the pool at Bethzada? And were you surpised you could do it? Why werenít your legs atropied from disused? (But then perhaps I know too much science . . . Or too little.)

You see, it doesnít surpise me that Jesus would heal you, just like that- because you wanted it. It surpises me that you would accept his offer so fully and without question.

Have you any idea how complicated healing is today? We know so much about the body and about the mind --- and yet we know so little sometimes about both --- and even less about the spirit. Tell me, do you think that was there in Jesus question to you--the spiritual healing--was that part of it? Or would you have made those distinctions--would you have separated spiritual and physical illness? We do, you know--at least we work hard at it.

Let me tell you a couple of stories to explain what I mean.

In her book "Operating Instructions," Anne Lamott tells the story of a family interviewed on 60 Minutes. The family was a religiously devout mother in her thirties, a somewhat older and painfully shy father, and their ten-year-old daughter bound to a wheelchair by spina bifida. Every year this family made a pilgrimage to Lourdes, where healing is reputed to occur.

According to Lamott, the interviewer, Ed Bradley, was giving the family a hard time for being so gullible. At one point he turned to the little girl and asked, "When you pray, what do you pray for?" She replied, "I pray that my father won't be so shy. It makes him terribly lonely."

That stopped Bradley for a few seconds, but then he pressed ahead, questioning the family's wisdom, saying to the mother that they spend thousands of dollars every year going to Lourdes and that still they have no miracle. Looking at her loving daughter, the mother answered, "Oh, Mr. Bradley, you don't get it. We have our miracle."

Bradley had his expectations, and the only miracle worth noticing, the only miracle that would count, was the one that fit his definition: the little girl would get up out of the chair and walk. But he missed the miracle of a daughter's growing love, the miracle of a family held together in faith. He missed the miracle of joy growing in soil that should not, by all rights, sustain it. God does not work in the world in the ways we expect, because God's mercy breaks the bounds of our narrow imaginations.

To tell the truth, Ed Bradley is probably like most of us: he really didn't expect any miracles. We live in a world that has stopped expecting them. Jesus, the Messiah, has promised, however, that one day the deaf will hear, the blind will see, and the lame will walk. One day, in ways that we least expect, that little girl and all like her will get up healed in the power of God. And those of us who have expected far too little will be genuinely surprised. "Seeing What We Expect to See," Thomas Long

Does that story make any sense to you? Did you receive that healing too- soul healing?

We have many kinds of counsellors in this age to deal with peopleís emotional problems--their addictions and depression and despair and anxiety and fears of all sorts. And these counsellors might ask the same question as Jesus asked, though maybe not in the same words? They are looking to see if the person is seeking help of their own accord and if they are willing to participate in their own therapy, in their own healing. If they are not, then there is little that can be done for them. They have to be willing to be healed. So here we are in this day, suspicious of you and your motivation and why Jesus asked the question. Does this surprise you--that we read so much into the question.

The question is really a no brainer. After being ill for 38 years, who wouldnt want to be healed??? But healing takes courage. Did you know that when he healed you? Did you know that how different your life would be? Did you know more would be expected of you? Did you know people would treat you differently?

I know another story, told to me by a friend of someone he knows who had such a hard, hard life. This person who had the difficult life was so, so faithful and compassionate and good. She lost her husband and her son and still she was faithful. And one day she was in a terrible car accident and almost died. But she didnít. And in her recovery they didn,t know how she would ever live at home again with no one to help her recover--but the people in her church rallied and they started taking shifts. It all worked out well--until she started to really get well. Then she began to be demanding and began to complain and ask for things she really didnít need. Being physically disabled for a time, she got the help and healing she needed and she got something else--for the first time she wasnít the caretaker, she was being taken care of and she liked it. She didnít want the care to stop and so she began to act more ill and disabled than she was, tried to prolong her illness. Her friends had to become tough with her and speak to her about the fact that, like it or not, she was getting well.

So, you see, ďDo you want to be made well?Ē is a very complicated question for some of us. Weíve learned a lot of fine distinctions in our day with regard to wellness and wholeness--and physical and mental and spiritual illness. And all these distinctions make the question very involved and your story loses its simplicity for us.

We take this simple story about your healing told to us in the Gospel of John and instead of getting the obvious point of the whole retelling, we want to clarify all these things about being made well. And the point is obvious isnít it? And you got it, didnít you--even though you didnít understand it all, you got the point clearly enough to benefit from it. And those people John calls the Jews, the oneís getting all uptight about carrying mats and Jesus healing on the Sabbath, they sort of got it too, but they didnít much like it.

And the simple point which you and they got, but which we try to complicate with details is this: on that day, for you, Jesus--not the waters at Bethzada, not the temple, not the priests of the temple or the keepers of the law, or the laws themselves--but Jesus, was the channel for Godís healing--Jesus was the healing waters--and the healing he provided and can still provide flows all the time--even on the Sabbath. In the presence of Jesus, wholeness and well-being can be found.

So you see whatís happened is that instead of understanding this simple message John wants us to get by telling your story, we spend hours and hours analyzing you--someone we could never really know--and analyzing others around us, trying to figure out degrees of willingness to be healed -when the story isnít really about you or them or us at all--itís about where healing is found.

So maybe I should give it up asking you so many questions. You were asked the most important question some 2000 years ago and you gave your answer.

Maybe it is time now, as I consider your story, to ask myself a couple of questions. If there was a pool known for its healing as the waters are stirred, would I go there today? And if I went there, why would I go? What part of me seeks healing on this day? What does it mean in my life that Jesus stirs the healing waters of the spirit and asks: ďDo You Want to Be Made Well?Ē

Respectfully yours,

Red Bank Pastoral Charge - United Church of Canada
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