Third Sunday after EPIPHANY 2018
“Do You Want to Be Made Well? Click here for audio
Pastor Marty Raths
Isaiah 58:6-9, John 5:1-9
We are now in the Season of Epiphany, and in this season we hear stories about Jesus’ public ministry, and at the heart of his public ministry were his teachings and healings. To be honest, a part of me is a little hesitant to talk about the healings of Jesus. I believe that healing is an essential part of our faith, and that we experience healing in many different ways. But I have also learned through the years that we have to be so very careful about how we talk about healing in the church.
When we were back at the Redwood Falls UMC this past fall, we were visiting with a couple that we had gotten to know really well. She had undergone treatment for breast cancer while we were serving the church, and as we were visiting with them last fall she recalled a visit from Donna while she was in the midst of her treatments. She had been reading a book about healing, and the main point of the book was that you could be healed if you just had enough faith, and this was really troubling for her. She knew that it just was not that simple. So at one point Donna said to her, “Maybe you should just throw that book away.”
“That was one of the wisest things you ever said to me,” she said to Donna. All these years later, she could still recall Donna’s words with gratitude. “Maybe you should just throw that book away.”
So, as I said, I am little hesitant to talk about healing. There are a lot of theologies out there, some more and others less helpful, especially when it comes to our experience of healing and wholeness, and, as Donna suggested, maybe we should just throw some of them away.
So I want to be really clear here. We are going to be talking about only one of Jesus’ healing stories, and in this story Jesus asks a question that could be quite insensitive if asked in lot of circumstances. Of all the healing stories this is the only one in which Jesus asks this question, so I do not want to imply in any way that this question is appropriate to ask in all, or even in most, circumstances of illness.
To a man who had been ill for 38 years, Jesus asked, “Do you want to be made well?” You see what I mean. Even in this circumstance, it seems insensitive. The text says that Jesus knew that the man had been lying there beside the pool for a long time, so why would he do that unless he wanted to be healed. But Jesus must have known something else about this man, so let us open up this question a little more, and think about what it might mean in some different circumstances.
Do you want to be made well might mean do we know that we are not well? Now we may say to ourselves what kind of question is that. Of course we know when we are not well. But do we always know that? Are there not circumstances in life when we are not well and we either do not know it or we choose to ignore it or overlook it or deny it?
This is one of the most difficult aspects of addiction. Even though others around us may know that we have a problem, may even tell us that we have a problem, we can still go for years without acknowledging it, before coming to the realization, if we ever do, that we really do need help, that we really are in need of healing.
This can happen in our relationships too. Early on in my ministry I was often surprised by how quickly a marriage could come apart. But what I finally realized is that almost always things were already coming apart long before the separation, but often the couple either could not see it or did not want to see it, for whatever reason.
We can devote a lot of time and effort to getting married, but we can be far less devoted to staying married. When problems arise, as they do in every marriage, we can be so slow to see them and even slower to get the help that we need. Some years ago I began telling couples this in my premarital sessions with them: when things are not going well in your marriage, deal with it sooner rather than later. Waiting only makes matters worse, and if we wait too long, we can grow so far apart that there is no way for us to get back together again. And I have come to believe that for many of our marriages it does not have to be so, if we could just be made to see the problems and then to deal with them sooner rather than later.
Other conditions can become so chronic that they begin to seem normal to us after awhile. In a perverse sort of way we can become so attached to our hurts and grievances and resentments that we are not content unless we are angry at someone or complaining about something. Or we can have such a diminished sense of worth as a person that we end up feeling guilty and ashamed all the time. Or we may live for crisis, going from one to another. And if there is no actual crisis going on in our life, then we will create one just to feel some sort of sense of normal again.
But just because something has come to seem normal in our life does not necessarily mean that it is healthy. There is the old saying, “The red sock colors the whole load,” and that is what can happen with these chronic conditions, they can end up giving our whole life a certain tinge. And since everything takes on this tinge, it can make it really hard for us to see these chronic conditions for what they are, signs that all is not well in our life.
And sometimes we may even know that we are not well, but we lack the resolve to try to get better. One faithful Christian has written this about his own struggle with depression, “One of my most painful memories of my experience is my memory of that part of me that wanted to stay depressed, for as long as I chose a living death, life became less demanding: little was expected of me, certainly not serving others.”
Perhaps this was a part of what afflicted that man by the pool. He knew that he was not well. But, for whatever reason, he lacked resolve. This is one of the few healing stories in the gospels where Jesus took the initiative. It was Jesus who spoke first, and when he asked the man if he wanted to be made well, the man’s response was one of resignation, “I have no one to put me in the pool . . .“ Contrast that with the woman who forced her way through the crowd to touch Jesus’ garment, or the leper who came and knelt before Jesus begging to be made well, or Bartimaeus beside the road crying out, “Jesus, have mercy on me!”
So in this circumstance Jesus’ question might have meant are you willing to do what is needed to be made well? Again, this may seem like an odd question. But is it? If you have not seen the movie The Shawshank Redemption, it is about life in a prison, and at one point an older inmate named Brooks is released after having spent 50 years in prison, nearly his entire adult life. But after all those years, he did not look forward to his release. In fact he was terrified by the thought of it because he did not know how to be free, and he ended up hanging himself shortly after his release.
So this man beside the pool may not have been willing or even able, like Brooks, to handle being made well. Jesus would cure him that day, but that is not the same as being healed and made whole. There was still the next day to face, and the day after that, and the one after that. To get on with this new life that Jesus had given to him, the man was going to have to rebuild his life, restoring relationships, securing a livelihood, making a way for himself far beyond that pool. No more could he use his illness as an excuse to do nothing, and I suspect that he may have had moments when he longed for that old way of life beside the pool, like the Israelites in the wilderness who got to longing for their days of slavery back in Egypt. As someone once said, there are times when we can prefer the certainty of misery to the misery of uncertainty. And change, even change for the better, makes for uncertainty.
This man’s life had fallen into disrepair. Not necessarily through any fault of his own. Life happens sometimes. That was not the issue here. The issue was that, no matter what had led to his life beside the pool, it was going to take a lot of hard work for him to build a new life once he walked away from the old one.
Are we able and willing to do what we need to do to be made well? We can be resistant sometimes. There was a man who went to his doctor because he felt tired and run down all the time. After giving him a thorough exam, the doctor said to him, “You know, tthe best thing you can do is to stop smoking, and to start eating better and exercising more.”
The man thought for a moment and then he asked, “What’s the next best thing?”
More seriously, when we was serving in Redwood Falls, we heard 5th steps for those who were in treatment, and there is no doubt that that moment of recognition, when someone comes to see that they have a real problem with alcohol or drugs, that moment is a healing, a gift of grace from God. But anyone who has been able to overcome such an addiction knows that that recognition is just the first step. It is the gift of a second chance, like the gift Jesus gave to that man that day when he stood up and walked for the first time in 38 years.
But then we must make the most of such second chances. God helps us. Grace helps us. But we must do our part. We cannot ask God to do it all. Staying sober is hard work, with a lot of resistance to overcome. It involves finding a support system, making good choices, avoiding temptation, day after day, one day at a time.
Marriage is the same. Staying in love is hard work. Doctors have their healing instruments. Marriages do as well, instruments like patience, kindness, forgiveness. Someone once wrote, “Love at first sight is easy to understand. It is when 2 people have been looking at each other every day for 50 years and they still choose to stay together that it becomes love.”/
There is another question that may be implied in the question that Jesus asked the man. Once we leave behind a past affliction, can we live with it, and can we be at peace with it. We all have pasts. But for some of us, they haunt us, even if we have left them behind, or tried to leave them behind.
But Jesus never expected people to reject their pasts, in the sense of trying to forget them, or pretending that they never happened, much less enduring a life sentence of guilt and shame over them. Jesus wanted people not to reject their pasts but to redeem them. Someone once said that Jesus wants us to make spiritual compost out of the garbage of our lives. I like that image. Jesus want us to bring whatever good we can out of whatever has happened to us in life, not rejecting it as garbage, but instead putting it into a spiritual compost and changing the chemistry, so to speak.
Take Paul. Passionate, passionate man. In general passion is good. But like Paul we can be passionate about the wrong things, like persecuting those first followers of Jesus. But Jesus redeemed Paul’s past. He did not do away with his passion. He just redirected it, changing the spiritual chemistry, putting it to far better use, putting in service to the kingdom coming.
“The world breaks everyone,” someone once wrote, “and afterward some are stronger at the broken places.” Some are stronger. Not all. It depends whether we allow the grace of God to work that healing which brings wellness and wholeness. We all get broken in this life. None of us gets out unscathed or unscarred. What matters is whether we stay where we are in our brokenness or move beyond it, becoming better for whatever has happened to us. This too is an experience of healing. And maybe, just maybe, this is the most important part of Jesus’ question do you want to be well. Are we willing to become better for it, for whatever has happened to us, for whatever we have gone through, are we willing to become better for it, and more faithful for it, more patient and kind and forgiving, more understanding and loving. This is really one of the most important questions that we need to be answering in life, come what may, are we willing to become better for it