My New Testament seminary professor, Sharon Ringe, once said that reading the book of John is like peeling an onion. That is, you study a scripture passage in John until you think you know it inside and out, but behold, another message waits beneath the first one. So, you patiently study this second layer of onion until you think you know it inside and out, but behold, there’s another daggone message under that one. I thought about Sharon’s analogy this week, as I studied this passage about the man who is healed at the pool of Bethsaida. See if like me, you don’t see several layers to this story.
To understand this story at all definitely requires that we know something about Roman and Jewish cultures, their history and even a little geography. To get us started, I’ve included an insert in your bulletin of what the pools of Bethsaida probably looked like.
In the 1st Century BC, the pools were part of a healing sanctuary. The Greek word for a healing pool is asclepion, so I am thinking more than one pool is asclepia? Anyway, these pools were scattered throughout the Roman Empire. The one mentioned in today’s story was situated just outside Jerusalem’s city walls—you can actually see Jerusalem’s city wall in the background of the insert. We can imagine that the Romans had it built outside rather than inside the city walls to avoid pushback from the Jewish population. Asclepius to whom the asclepion was dedicated and from whom the asclepia derive their name was the son of Apollo. He was the Greek God of healing. The city of Jerusalem, of course, was dedicated to the Jews’ own God.
As you can see from your bulletin insert, the Romans constructed porticos around each pool. That was part of the asclepion. Sick people lay under the roofs of the porticos—sheltered from sun and rain. They lay there waiting for the water in the pools to stir. According to legend, if you so much as touched the water when it stirred, you would be healed.
Don’t you think it was weird that Jesus would visit a Roman asclepion? Why would he do that? Shrug. While he is there, though, he cures a sick person, and in the blink of an eye, Jesus does something that the Greek God Asclepius has been unable to accomplish in 38 years. That is the first layer of our onion. The message is: You want healing, forget those Greek and Roman Gods and follow Jesus!
However, there is much more to this story. So on to the next layer.
Let’s look now to the person Jesus encounters by that pool.
The text doesn’t tell us a whole lot about him. All we know for sure is that he has been lying beside those healing waters for 38 years, which according to my math, is 13,870 days. So, if he was a young boy when he first came to the pools, now he is middle aged. Or, if he first came to the pools as a young man, now he is approaching old age. During that long time, sitting by the pools, this man has had incredible bad luck, right? In fact, the fact that he has not been able to get into the water in all that length of time makes us a little suspicious.
Jesus’ question to the man, then, under the circumstances, is right on the mark. “Do you WANT to be made well?” That’s what I would want to know, wouldn’t you? The man doesn’t answer the question. What does he do instead? He makes excuses. He’s a whiner. “Everybody keeps getting in my way, Jesus.”
Although John doesn’t out and out tell us about this man, he has dropped plenty of clues besides his whininess, that speak to his character--or perhaps lack there of. Did you notice that he never thanks Jesus, for curing him of an ailment that has cost him 38 years of his life? In fact, after he is healed, when he is reprimanded by the authorities for carrying his mat on the Sabbath—he turns right around and BLAMES Jesus for the infraction. That’s gratitude for you!
This story, then, is about our human proclivity to fail to take responsibility, to invent excuses for ourselves, to live in self denial—Who among us hasn’t made up excuses for why we are the way we are, do the things we do---my parents are to blame, it’s my metabolism, it’s bad genes; I tried to do what was right but other people stood in my way. Sounds familiar, right? So, this story is also about, as the gospel itself, the totally unmerited grace of God. If God can care for a thankless, whiny man at the pools of Bethsaida, then perhaps God can love you and me too. That IS AMAZING grace, isn’t it?
But there is still one more layer I want to touch on, in our scripture reading for today. I studied this passage in seminary. We were sitting in a circle, I don’t know, maybe 15 of us, Bibles in our laps. One of us, says, “You know what gets me about this story. There are maybe hundreds of sick people at the pools of Bethsaida. Why didn’t Jesus heal everyone?” Good question, right?
I know some of your stories. I am still learning others. Many of us have been or are currently in care-giving roles. When our loved ones need help, we want to BE a help—binding up wounds so to speak, even to the extent that we are depressed and feeling overwhelmed.
Now don’t get me wrong. Care-giving can be a gift—that’s the word Cathy Mercer used. She’s a woman I have known since elementary school. At a high school reunion, catching up on each others’ lives, she told me that she had taken care of her mother for many years, until her mother’s death. I offered the requisite, “Oh, I am so sorry,” to which she replied, “No, don’t be, it was gift.” And maybe it was. You lose someone suddenly, as I have lost several loved ones suddenly—you can’t put a period at the end of that sentence that is the relationship you share—it’s a comma, or a semi colon at best. But with long goodbyes—well, then there’s an opportunity to say it all. When that loved one passes on, you can end that relationship with a period. New paragraph.
Cathy didn’t say this, but caregiving can be a gift in that it builds character, don’t you think? Anne, a 50-something-year-old at one of my previous churches, moved her mother into her own home, when her mother was diagnosed with terminal cancer. Out went Anne’s fancy dining room table, in went the hospital bed—in that act, and in others during the course of her mother’s illness she was setting priorities. Right priorities.
Again, at a previous church I served, a member’s teenage daughter contracted an illness with mysterious symptoms—including daily fainting spells. Those fainting spells were so frequent, that she couldn’t attend school and had to be tutored at home. Doctors could not readily make a diagnosis. They suggested it was all in the girl’s head. That mom learned to NOT be bullied by doctors; As caregivers we learn determination and perseverance.
In caring for others, of course, we take our cue from Jesus. Jesus was a caregiver, a healer of the first order, and yet—and yet as we read in today’s scripture, he could not or would not heal everyone. Why not? Which leads directly to another question that has stymied theologians for centuries, no eons. It is this: “Why do we have to suffer at all?” Some folks have concluded that through suffering God is teaching us important life lessons. Others surmise that suffering is God’s punishment. Not very appealing answers, and of course, both would seem to deny God’s love for us.
Although this answer isn’t totally satisfying, and feel free to poke holes in it--I choose to believe that God is not the author of suffering, but God does use our suffering to accomplish a greater good.
So as one final example for you, from my now 20 years of ministry—it’s been a ride, I tell you--I share with you Betty’s story. An elderly woman at a church I served, Betty was in her early nineties when she was diagnosed with a slow-growing but terminal stomach cancer. She invited me out to her home, several times, over the course of her physical decline. We met in her family room. Windows stretched the entire length of one wall, so even in her invalid state, she could keep an eye on nature—birds, a family of foxes. At one end of that family room was a large pastel portrait of a young girl. Under that portrait was a table, on which Betty kept fresh flowers. It was, I think now, a kind of shrine.
It soon became obvious that although Betty said she wanted to work with me to plan her funeral service, that was not the primary reason I had been called in. I quickly took on the role of mother confessor. Betty shared with me that the young girl in the portrait was her daughter. She had been born with serious mental and physical handicaps. Betty had tried to care for her daughter at home, but she had two little boys, her sons, besides. Her husband owned his own business. He had little time to help with the caregiving. They lived in the country—away from support services. Reluctantly, heart-breakingly, Betty had put her daughter in a home; that is where her daughter resided—and probably still resides. Betty confided that she had not loved her daughter enough.
And here I should just ask all of you, “Do any of us ever love—enough?”
Betty’s last days were plagued with thoughts of should’ves, and could’ves; self recriminations fed perhaps by a wrong interpretation of scripture—because in MY BIBLE, and I hope yours too, the gospel message is clear--God’s grace is available to us all, even when we fail to DO it all.
At Betty’s funeral there were tearful testimonies from mourners who had benefited from Betty’s and her husband’s generosity. It turns out that in their mature years, Betty and her husband had built a care-facility for disabled people like their daughter. I hope Betty was able to witness her funeral and here the good words spoken about her from her chair in heaven. Even if we here don’t have the wherewithal to build a health care facility, it is true that each of us touches other people for good, people we may never know, in ways we may never have imagined. Which sounds cliché, but is true, nevertheless.
I will end this sermon with a quote from the theologian Reinholdt Niebuhr. I am sure you have heard it before—it’s the mantra for Alcoholics Anonymous: God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference. Amen