THE WHOLENESS QUESTION

DO YOU WANT TO BE MADE WELL?

JOHN 5:1-15

 

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            One day a cowboy in Arizona was riding down a trail.  As he rounded a bend, he saw an Indian lying down in the middle of the trail.  He had his ear pressed close to the ground.  As he got closer the Indian began to speak "Wagon," he said, "drawn by two horses.  Horses both dapple gray.  Passengers in wagon.  Two passengers.  One man, one woman.  Man driving."

            The cowboy was amazed.  He just couldn't believe it.  "That's incredible, I can't believe it!  You can tell all of that just by listening with your ear to the ground?"

            The Indian replied, "No, they ran over me half an hour ago!"

            Most of us get flattened out in life from time to time.  Something comes along - some disease, some circumstance, some broken relationship, some loss - something comes along that knocks us off our feet and sends us staggering through life.

            The man in our passage for today was flattened permanently, at least so it seemed.  There he was among a great multitude of sick people - blind, lame, paralyzed.  We don't know precisely what was wrong with him, other than he had his infirmity for thirty-eight years.  He couldn't get up and walk.  He was on his pallet, waiting beside the pool of healing water, hoping that someone would put him into the water when it began to stir and the healing power was present.

            And as a quick aside, did you notice the occasion for Jesus being in Jerusalem?  John says he was there for a Jewish festival.  Now, we don't know what particular festival.  Whatever celebration it was, Jesus was there.  Had you been in Jerusalem at the time of that feast, where would you have expected to find Jesus?  The common answer is in the Temple.  Perhaps you recall that when he was twelve years old and was brought by his family for the festival of Passover.  They lost him, left him in Jerusalem, discovered him missing at the close of the day.  When they went back to look for him, where did they find Him?  In the Temple.  Jesus responded to them, Why were you searching for me?  Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?” (Luke 2:49).

            Now that's probably where we would have looked for Jesus at festival time.  We would have looked for him in the Temple, but if we were more reflective of what Jesus was about, we probably would have looked for Jesus right where he was - at the Pool of Bethesda, by the sheep gate, because all the sick people, the blind, the lame, the deaf gathered there.  It was there that Jesus was more likely to find someone needing his healing touch, and who needier could Jesus have chosen for healing than this man who had been flattened for thirty eight years, an invalid, always too late to reach the water when it stirred and the water’s healing quality was present and active?

            In this story we see one of the grandest messages of the Christian faith.  Not only is there power in Jesus to cleanse us from sin, but also there is power to heal us and to free us from what binds us in day to day life.

            It's one of the most fascinating stories in the New Testament, and in it we come upon another one of Jesus’ questions we are considering during Lent.  In our Lenten Questions sermon series we have looked thus far at two questions.  The first was the life question.  Anyone remember what that question was?  He posed it to Andrew and John?  It is “What are you looking for?”  Then last week we looked at the grace question, the one Jesus posed to Nicodemus.  Remember he had a conversation with Nick at night, and asked “Are you a teacher of Israel and yet you still do not understand these things?”  Today we turn to the wholeness question that Jesus posed to the man at the pool: Do you want to be made well?   Do you want to be put back together?  Do you want to be made well, whole? 

            In this question, and in this particular episode we see two sides, two ingredients of wholeness.  Those sides, those ingredients, are will and faith.  Remember the old television sitcom, Will and Grace?  Well, that’s not what we have here.  We don’t have will and grace, we have will and faith.  When it comes to wholeness we need to focus on a couple of things: our will and our faith.  Let's look at them.

            First, will.  The first thing Jesus does with the man in our story is to challenge him to focus on his will.  That's the point of the question, “Do you want to be made well?”

            Maxie Dunham, former editor of the Methodist publication The Upper Room refers to will as “the citadel of our personhood.”  So Jesus made a frontal attack on the man’s citadel by asking, "Do you want to be made well?"  This question pierces to the very core of who we are.  The question calls for a decision, an action, not a passive wish or vague desire, but an exercise of will.

            Let me offer some background about the Pool of Bethesda.  We are familiar with that word because of Bethesda, Maryland, and the Naval hospital there that treats many of our presidents.  Bethesda literally means “House of Mercy.”  Our translation, however, reads Bethzatha not Bethesda which means “House of Olive.”  The reason for the different names has do to with the ancient manuscripts.  The better manuscripts, according to scholars, calls this pool Bethzatha.  And the word used for pool here means “to dive” which means it was deep, not a wading pool.  Beneath the pool was a subterranean stream, and every now and again the stream bubbled up and disturbed the waters in the pool, and tradition held an angel did the stirring.  John didn’t say that, but that was the traditional belief.  And people believed that when the water stirred it had healing power, and the first one in the pool, after it stirred, would be healed of their malady.         

            So every day the water would stir, but the man couldn't get in, and Jesus came not to stir the water, but to stir the man's will.  Over those long years of being an invalid, over those long years of disappointment and apparent hopelessness, the man's will had been numbed.  So Jesus addresses the essential core of who he: his will.

            Some of you may remember Bernie Segall's groundbreaking book, Peace, Love and Healing.  In the book Dr. Segall described an older man who had cancer and made remarkable recovery.  In talking about that man's recovery, Dr. Segall said, "John is too busy living to be sick, that's his real secret."

            Now, a quick disclaimer: just because we will it doesn’t always make it so. Nevertheless, research points outs that much of our healing and wholeness - whether it’s spiritual, emotional, physical, relational - depends upon our will.  So Jesus begins with the wholeness question: "Do you want to get well?"

            Well I could talk about this for an entire sermon, but let’s move on.  Bottom line: the exercise of our will is essential for wholeness.

            Before we go to the next ingredient that speaks to the issue of wholeness, which is the ingredient of faith, I want to take a quick detour and consider a primary barrier to wholeness - self pity.

            I think of the little girl who injured her knee.  Like most little girls, she came to her mom and dad to show them the full extent of her scraped knee.  After taking time to bandage it, they sent her on her way to play.  Some hours later they found her in her room, crying.  They were concerned about this and questioned her if her knee was still hurting.  "No," she sobbed, "but when I hurt it, you and Mommy didn't feel sorry enough for me, so now I'm crying for myself!"

            Sort of sounds like the man in our passage doesn't it?  We catch a little self pity in his response to Jesus:  Sir, I have no one to put me into the pool when the water is stirred up; and while I am making my way, someone else steps down ahead of me.

            Self pity is a barrier to wholeness, there was a possibility that the man, in a perverted sort of way, may have enjoyed and was comfortable being sick. If you are sick, you can get out of a lot of responsibility, so Jesus had to make sure this man really wanted to get well.  So he asked, "Do you want to be healed?"

            If we mire ourselves in the mud of self-pity, we run the risk of remaining bound and paralyzed, and life will pass us by.

            OK, detour over.  Let’s move onto the next thing we need for wholeness in addition to our will, and that is faith.

            Let’s go back to our story.  Notice the movement Jesus orchestrated in the life of that man.  He asked him first if he wanted to be made whole. He wanted to stir up the man's will.  Next he called on the man's faith: Stand up, take your mat and walk.  

            And note, he didn't give the man's faith any outward assistance.  He simply called it forth. He didn't take him by the hand and lift him up; he told him to get up.  When the man obeyed - when he acted in faith - he discovered a new strength.  In fact, John writes, At once the man was made well, and he took up his mat and began to walk.

            Now let me offer another disclaimer.  Just as sure will power does not guarantee our healing and wholeness, neither does faith.  Faith, no matter how great, does not always bring physical and emotional and mental and relational healing and wholeness.  We need to be careful when talking about this.  It's evident as we look around us that some folks are healed by faith, and others are not. It happens with me all the time. I pray with and for people for healing, and healing takes place. I pray for and with other people for healing and I hold their funerals.  There's a mystery that surrounds it all.  But here's the point: because some people are not physically healed does not nullify the place of faith in wholeness.  We can know wholeness even when we're limited, even when we are physically ill, even when we may be experiencing emotional distress.  And faith is a big key.

            Let me see if I can further clarify this matter.  Some time ago a pastor received a joyful letter written by a person in his congregation.  This woman had an experience of rebirth, liked we talked about last week, and the pastor didn't really know her when he received her first letter, after all it was a large congregation, but later, she called for an appointment.  He pulled out her letter before she came, reread it to acquaint myself with the person who had been so aglow in faith.  When she came, he was surprised.  Could this be the person who wrote me that letter?  She was deep in the pits.  She had just been released from the hospital in psychiatric care caused by an unexplainable hallucinatory dream.  Much of her thinking was distorted.  She shared with him the fact that she lived in a constant state of prayer to protect her from magnifying fears.

            Well, let’s fast forward six months to a second letter she wrote her pastor.  A lot had happened since that visit.  In the second letter she told him about the ministry of this church in her life. She described the power of their Sunday Communion and her counseling with a man named Fred, and the loving, lifting, spirit of a woman in the congregation named Jewel.  The letter was three long singled spaced type written pages.  Let me share the last part of it.

 

            What does all this mean? In therapy I uncovered and discovered that I am a survivor.  A survivor of adult and childhood sexual abuse and dysfunctional family. In childhood, I completely eradicated the memory from my mind.  The dream brought to the surface hidden fears and memories.  I held on to reality with the thumbnails of my faith!  In His infinite wisdom, God Almighty has used this strange experience for His glory.  He is taking one damaged child of God - healing her body, mind and soul.  He is rebuilding and transforming.  I feel like I'm under reconstruction, in a transition, maybe even a metamorphosis.  A caterpillar that God will change into a butterfly.  This healing is not just about the body or the mind or the emotions.  It's about the soul.  It's about washing away all the residue of sin so we can see clearer.

 

            That says it all.  By will, the desire to be whole - and by faith this precious one is being healed.

            Do you want to be made well?