Read John 5:1-18
Jesus just asked him straight out, “Do you want to be healed?” At first that seems like a ridiculous question. Maybe the man thought so too. After all, he had been disabled for 38 years. Of course he wants to be healed, doesn’t he?
I love this story. There is a lot of things going on here if you’re paying attention, and the story is unique in a lot of ways. I think we may be seeing Jesus, the real Jesus—the Jesus that surfaced when the crowd wasn’t pressing in on him. I know Jesus wasn’t disingenuous; he wasn’t a different person in public than he was when he was by himself or with just his friends. Jesus was Jesus all the time.
Most of the time, though, we see him surrounded by crowds demanding his time and attention, or by people trying to trip him up or question him or arrest him. Once in awhile, though, we’re given a glimpse of Jesus when he is alone with one another person, like the woman at the well, and we see this Jesus who is engaging, freely gives his time to the other person, and is attentive to the other person’s story. I think this was probably the Jesus that Jesus wanted to be all the time, but the crowds and the persistence of the religious leaders made this a rare pleasure for him.
I see this as one of those times because Jesus, the healer, is here at the pool of Bethesda, surrounded by a bunch of ill and disabled people who are waiting for the water in the pool to be stirred so they can be the first one in and be healed, yet none of them are clamoring around him asking to be healed. I think Jesus is somehow incognito—I don’t think anyone recognizes him.
It could be that Jesus was there without his disciples and that’s partially why nobody recognized him. The disciples aren’t mentioned once in the story, in fact, they aren’t mentioned again until the next chapter when he returns to Galilee. And, later in this story we’re told Jesus disappears into the crowd. It is kind of hard to melt into a crowd when you’ve got a dozen guys following you everywhere you go.
Jesus being incognito also makes sense because of the way the man responds to him. I think if the man knew who Jesus was, and Jesus asked if he wanted to be healed, he would have answered differently. If Bill Gates walked up to you on the street, and you knew it was Bill Gates, and he asked, “do you want a million dollars?” your response might be different than if just a regular old person asked you in conversation if you wanted a million dollars. To Bill Gates you might say, “you bet, and I’ll take it in twenties.” To the other person you might just say, “where would I get a million bucks?”
I think option 2, from the man’s point of view, is what is happening here. Some stranger strikes up a conversation with this guy and was listening to his story. John tells us, “When Jesus saw him lying there and learned that he had been in this condition for a long time, he asked him, “Do you want to get well?” Jesus “learned” what was going on with the man. As the man relates his story, he tells Jesus he’s been disabled for 38 years. And Jesus, the stranger, asks, “do you want to be healed?”
I know I said earlier that the man might have answered differently if he had known who Jesus was and that Jesus could heal him. But I find it interesting here that the man never really answers Jesus’ question at all. Maybe, had he known who Jesus was, he might have felt some pressure to answer yes. After all, it would likely have been taken as an offer that demanded a yes or no answer. But in a casual conversation there was no such pressure. Under those circumstances the man chose to skirt the question.
Perhaps the man was taken aback because the question does seem silly. Maybe under his breath the man said, “really?” But, instead of answering yes or no, the man starts relating to Jesus all the reasons why he hasn’t been healed and why none of them were his fault. That sounds a lot like a person who is more concerned for being blamed for where he is than a person who wants to change where he is.
I’m not meaning to imply the man didn’t want to be healed, maybe he just thought the situation was hopeless, but I do think there is a good chance that the man didn’t know if he wanted to be healed.
Before you write that theory off as preposterous, hear me out.
A couple of things we know about human beings. One, is that we are creatures of habit—we each have a comfort zone and most of us cling to it pretty tightly. This man had been an invalid for 38 years. He knew how to do that. He had a routine--probably family members or friends would take him to the pool every day before they started their workday. He may have had a regular gang that hung out in the same spot by the pool, and they solved the world’s problems together each day. This had been his life for 38 years and he may have felt sorry for himself, but it was his comfort zone.
The second thing to consider about humans is that psychologists tell us many people are afraid of success. There are many talented and aspiring musicians, athletes, writers, artists, actors, architects, cooks, doctors, engineers (you name the area of human endeavor)…who dream but never really work toward their goals. Some never really pursue their dreams because they are afraid to fail. But there are also many who never pursue their dreams because they are afraid to succeed.
Why would a person fear success?
One reason might be expectations. If you’ve never accomplished anything no one expects much of you. Success attracts responsibility and responsibility inhibits freedom.
In 2010, when I was interim pastor at Holladay Park Church of God in Portland, there was a homeless man and woman who slept on one of the church’s porches. They were very considerate of the church’s routine. They would set up after the office closed in the evening and were gone by the time it opened in the morning. They never left a mess, and on those occasions when I would come in during off times, they were very friendly and conversant.
Debi and I invited them to our Thanksgiving dinner. Paul (I’m not sure why I remember his name after 10 years) a man who appeared to be in his 50s, didn’t really fit the stereotype most people would have of a person who lived on the street. His hair was kept neatly groomed and he sported a well-trimmed Van Dyke—I know it was a Van Dyke and not a goatee because when I complimented him on his goatee he explained the difference to me. He also was very intelligent, articulate and a college graduate.
When I found that out, I asked him if he had a plan to get himself off the streets. He looked at me like I was crazy. “Why would I want to do that?” he asked, “Why would I want a house payment and a car payment? Why would I want people to expect me to show up at a particular place at a particular time to do a particular thing every day? No one expects anything of me right now. I’m free. I can go where I want and do what I want. Why would I want to change that?”
Expectations can be intimidating. Perhaps the disabled man had grown accustomed to no one having expectations of him after 38 years. Also, after 38 years of laying by the pool, he would have no saleable skills. What if he couldn’t get a job? What if he still had to live off his family? It was bad enough to be an invalid, but to be perfectly healthy and still be dependent on others—that had to be immeasurably worse.
Another reason many fear success is that they feel they don’t deserve it. It is kind of like having that million dollars show up in your bank account without reason or warning. You see it there, but you know it’s a mistake so you don’t spend it in case the goof is discovered and you have to pay it back.
When I was growing up I was constantly told by my mother that I took after her. I loved reading and stories and music. That was all very true. But I was also told that my brothers had taken after my Dad and had oil in their veins instead of blood. They were handy, and mechanical, and could make things and fix things, and I just wasn’t born with those skills.
When I joined the Navy I was given the ASVAB (Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery). The test results showed that I had the aptitude to do any job in the Navy including the most technical field they had—the nuclear power program. The recruiters put on a full court press to convince me to choose that program and I did.
I was trained as an electrician in a Nuclear plant. I graduated pretty high in my Electrical schools and in Nuclear Power School. I did well enough in my prototype training that they picked me up as a staff instructor without any sea experience. A couple years later, when I finally got to sea on the submarine, I became the division leading petty officer and qualified as Engineering Watch Supervisor, the highest watch an enlisted man could stand in the engineering plant.
When I got out of the Navy, I told people I had left because I had been at sea for my son’s first step and first word, and I didn’t want to miss anything like that again. That was very true, but even if I hadn’t missed any of those things I would have left. Deep inside me there was this gnawing sense that I really wasn’t any good at those kinds of things. I was convinced that all the success I had over those 8 years was a fluke and that I was a fake. Somehow, I had fooled the system and eventually something would happen that would uncover my ineptitude. I couldn’t wait to get out of there.
Looking back, I realize that the Navy is not cavalier about who they allow to operate complex and sensitive million-dollar equipment or stand watches that might jeopardize the lives of an entire submarine crew. But back then none of those facts cluttered my reasoning. I just believed I didn’t deserve to be where I was.
In Jesus’ day, physical impairment was usually viewed as some form of God’s judgement for sins committed. If the man was disabled from birth the belief would have been that the man’s parents committed some form of sin which caused him to be born disabled. Chances are this man wasn’t born disabled. In a few chapters Jesus will heal a blind man and John is careful to tell us that the man was born blind. John doesn’t include that detail here, instead he merely tells us that the man had been paralyzed for 38 years. That leads me to believe this man was born perfectly mobile and experienced some form of accident at a young age that disabled him. If that was the case, whatever sin was believed to have caused the accident would have been the man’s, not his parent’s.
What if the man believed he deserved the condition he was in? What if the man thought that he couldn’t walk, and had been unable, for 38 years, to get in the water and be healed because God had passed some kind of judgement on him? What if he didn’t tell Jesus he wanted to be healed because he was afraid if Jesus healed him something worse might happen to him because he didn’t deserve to be whole?
In fact, Jesus finds the man later on and does tell him to quit sinning or something worse might happen. I don’t think Jesus did this to reinforce his fear that God was mad at him and was going to find him take away his healing. Perhaps Jesus was sensing his fear and was addressing it. I think he was freeing the man from his past and letting him know he had the power to choose the condition of his life from here forward.
Fear has a significant effect on what we do and don’t do, what we choose and don’t choose, what we believe about ourselves and what we don’t believe. Looking at this story through the eyes of the disabled man leads me to wonder what people might be accepting in their lives because they feel they deserve it? How many people stay in abusive situations, or choose directions in their lives that God never intended for them, or live with an image of an angry and vengeful God because they think that is all they deserve? I wonder how many people don’t develop their gifts and talents, or don’t pursue their passions because they don’t believe they deserve that kind of joy, fulfillment and success?
I think Jesus sat next to this man at Bethesda and asked him about his life. When he heard the man’s story his heart broke for the man. It was obvious that Jesus didn’t heal the man because of his great faith, or piety. The story doesn’t paint the picture of a man who had either of those. John shows us that Jesus turned the tables. The man wasn’t disabled because he had done something to deserve being disabled; neither was he healed because he had done something to deserve healing. Jesus healed the man because he wanted to heal the man.
I think when Jesus spoke to the man at the end of the story, he was completing the healing he had begun when he fixed the man’s legs. I believe Jesus longed for the man to be free, not only of his physical limitations, but maybe even more from all the fears and misconceptions that held him more captive than his physical limitations did. I think Jesus wants that for all of us. I think Jesus’ heart breaks for all of us when he sees the things that hold us captive.
I think Jesus wants to see us all take up our beds and walk.