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Do We Want To Be Healed?

John 5: 1-9

Deuteronomy 34: 1-12

Rev. Fritz Ritsch, May 26, 2019

“As my sufferings mounted I soon realized that there were two ways in which I could respond to my situation — either to react with bitterness or seek to transform the suffering into a creative force. I decided to follow the latter course.”

― Martin Luther King Jr., 1929-1968, American pastor and civil rights activist

Our Hebrew Bible reading is the story of Moses’ death. It is a sad and poignant, yet all too familiar experience. The Lord said to Moses, “This is the land of which I swore to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob, saying, ‘I will give it to your descendants’; I have let you see it with your eyes, but you shall not cross over there.” This is a very human thing—the thought that we might never finish a task that gives our lives meaning or see the fruit of our labor. Maybe it will come, but long after we’re dead. Or maybe we have labored at something, and it simply hasn’t gone as we planned. We feel unfulfilled.

We aim for great things, or at least meaningful things, and we fall short. To paraphrase  the Victorian poet Robert Browning, “one’s reach ought to exceed one’s grasp, or what’s a heaven for?” Browning’s point is that it is human nature for people to aspire to something better than they can attain, often failing at it–but that the good news is that, though heaven itself is a place beyond our grasp, we can by the grace of God attain it. And so ultimately, we will be fulfilled.

For those of us who believe, one way to overcome our inevitable disappointment about how things turn out is to set our sights on that eternal realm of heavenly joy, as scripture says “a house not made with human hands, eternal in the heavens (2 Cor. 5:1).”

And so we believe that though Moses did not reach the goal he’d strived for his whole life—a homeland for his people whom he’d freed from slavery and had forged, through forty years of trial and error, into the people of God—nonetheless he would live eternally in that place of joy and satisfaction that we find in God’s presence. In fact, perhaps the most important thing that Moses ever did in his life was to forge that deep relationship with Yahweh, the God who had met him in the desert—the relationship that makes our scripture say of him, “Never since has there arisen a prophet in Israel like Moses, whom the Lord knew face to face “ (Deut. 34: 13). What greater joy can anyone imagine than truly and fully “seeing God face to face”? Even arriving finally in the Promised Land pales in comparison.

In our Gospel lesson, Jesus meets a paralytic near some healing pools. I have been to the pools of Bethesda near the Sheep Gate in Jerusalem. It is today a deep, dry pit with the remains of Roman statuary and decorative columns and arches set within it. Those Roman touches would not have been there in the First Century when Jesus meets the paralyzed man. They were added much later, after Jerusalem was destroyed and rebuilt in the Second Century as the Roman city of Aelia Capitolina during the rule of the Emperor Hadrian. Even then, over a century later, the pools had a reputation for having healing powers, and the Romans were all about healing pools. They had located several throughout the world and would travel hundreds and even thousands of miles to visit them. They were the first “medical tourists.”

 While it’s unlikely that many Roman “medical tourists” knew about the pool of Bethesda during Jesus’ day, the fact that the Romans recognized it as a healing spring decades later makes it clear that there was a reason the paralyzed man thought that the waters could heal him—if only he could get to them. The reason the now dry pool is so deep today is that modern Jerusalem rests on its own ruins and so is some twenty to forty feet higher today than it was in the time of Jesus. In the first century it would have been shallow enough for the paralyzed man to immerse himself without fear of drowning; and then, perhaps, emerge fully and completely healed—if he could only get into the waters.

Jesus’ asks a hard question of the paralyzed man: “Do you want to be healed?” It’s a hard question and could even perhaps be viewed as very “un-pastoral”—a confrontational question put to a sick man. But it’s worth pointing out that while we can credit Jesus with many good personality traits, being pastoral is not one of them. Jesus is sympathetic and empathetic, but he doesn’t go about being nice for the sake of being nice, and he doesn’t seem highly motivated to avoid hurting people’s feelings. So when Jesus learns that this man has been coming to the pool for thirty-eight years, he can’t help but wonder—how is it he’s come here all this time, but never gotten in the pool to be healed? And think about it—if he can COME to the pool from wherever he lives, how is it that he can’t then travel a few more yards and get into the waters?

So Jesus has to wonder, and being Jesus he has to put in his wonder into words. “Do you want to be healed?” he wonders.

Now let’s be clear: we don’t know the man’s motivations. People probably waited by the pool for days for the water to be “stirred up,” as the Bible says, which probably means that it would begin bubbling, so that it could heal: and when that happened probably people were crowding, pushing and shoving, making it a challenge for a frail person, even with help, to get to the pool. He was paralyzed, after all. He could legitimately have tried, and failed, to get to the pool many times in his life. Talk about frustration! To be paralyzed itself must be unbearable—you can do next to nothing for yourself. Add to that that the one thing you most desire more than anything—to be healed—is always so close as to be almost in reach, and yet for thirty-eight years you have been thwarted again and again. It’s a frustrated goal before which Moses’ inability to get into the Promised Land must pale in comparison.

But it must be said, some people thrive on victimhood. Some people relish frustrated goals. The man’s answer to Jesus is that “I have no one to put me in the pool when the water is stirred up; and while I am making my way someone else steps ahead of me.” One could easily read that as the paralyzed man blaming other people for his problems. “I could do it if other people didn’t thwart me!”

Some people prefer to blame their failures on others. It relieves them of responsibility, so then they don’t really have to try to do something that might be hard and frustrating and perhaps even end in failure. Playing the victim has all sorts of fringe benefits—it makes others feel sorry for you and perhaps even rally to your cause. It gives you an excuse for not succeeding in your stated goals. It can make you feel better about yourself in a bad situation.

Perhaps now you are thinking of someone else who likes to play the victim card. But the smart thing to do is to look at ourselves, to ask ourselves the difficult question: Do I want to be healed? Because to play the victim has a certain beauty to it. To a certain extent it is a quite logical and sensible response to the fact that we are all limited, we are all finite, we are bound to fail and to make mistakes. At some level, deep down, we have Moses on Mount Nebo inside each of us, looking at some great goal we’d like to attain in life, and knowing fully, profoundly, and completely that even if we try hard as we can, we will likely never reach it. And sometimes it’s just easier not to try.

It is sensible and honest to recognize and to admit our limitations—but those limitations are not what define us. As much as anything, human striving against the odds is what makes us human. I have shared with you before one of things that I took into my possession after my dad died three years ago. It is a small brass statue of Sisyphus pushing a stone. If you remember, Sisyphus was a Greek hero who defied the gods, and as a result the gods set him with the never-ending task of pushing a rock up to the top of a hill, in order to push it over—but at the last minute, the rock would roll back down the hill again, and Sisyphus would have to start over, again and again, for all eternity. My father was a college professor who appreciated the philosophy of the French Existentialist Albert Camus, who used the story of Sisyphus to illustrate the human condition: that we are constantly defying our own limitations, striving for better, defying all the odds stacked against us.

My friend Carol Klocek, the CEO of the Center for Transforming Lives, says she sees this all the time in the many homeless women who come to CTL to learn how to manage their finances, to get jobs skills training, to find a way to get their kids educated, to overcome addiction and poverty and homelessness, often for the sake of their children. The odds are stacked against them, but they refuse to give up. To paraphrase yet another Victorian poet, Alfred Lord Tennyson: They seek, they strive, they find, and they do not yield (Tennyson, “Ulysses”).

Often of course we frame these women and people like them as if they are lazy and unmotivated, waiting for a handout from a social services agency, blaming society for their troubles and not doing anything to help themselves. But that’s not true. They are pushing a rock up a mountain, and even though society keeps making the mountain higher, when the rock rolls down they push it to the top again—and sometimes, they are able to push that rock over.

So let’s look at another way to frame the story of the paralyzed man. Here is a man who despite all the odds stacked against him—a society with no effective social services framework, a medical point of view based almost entirely on a superstition, unable to do much if anything for himself, probably in intense pain depending on his injury, a man who is constantly pushed away from the healing waters by crowds of healthier people with lesser ailments—who has nonetheless persisted, for thirty-eights years, in returning again and again to this pool he can never quite get to. Talk about a guy who persists in pushing the rock up the mountain!

What we see in this paralyzed man is a hope that refuses to die even in the face of insurmountable odds. It’s this hope that in many ways is the best trait about human beings—we will not let our limitations define us. When humanity is at its best, it’s because of our ability to envision a world better than the world we live in, and to refuse to let that vision go, and to keep pushing forward against seemingly impossible odds; and somehow contrary to what everyone else says or believes, we overcome them. Maybe we remove only one obstacle at a time, for years; maybe slowly, and maybe, like Moses, we never reach the goal in our lifetimes—but that doesn’t stop us. To seek, to strive, to find, and not to yield.

Perhaps what Jesus sees in the paralyzed man is that human tension that characterizes all of us—that tension between giving up and throwing in the towel on the one hand, or on the other hand, to persist in hope and keep trying. Most of us are not fully one way or the other. We operate on a spectrum someplace between hope and despair. Perhaps Jesus sees that very tension at work in the paralyzed man—and he honors the hope. He tells the man, “Stand up, take up your mat, and walk.” And the man does it.

Jesus honors his hope.

Next time you find yourself caught in that tension between hope and despair—next time you are faced with some seemingly insurmountable task, something you believe in, that you believe is a good thing, but in which all the odds seemed stacked against you; next time you’re tempted to give up—take a look at it. Ask yourself honestly, is this of God? Is it something which is truly worth pursuing, for the good of the world, for the good of others and myself, and for the glory of God?

And then if it stands up to that scrutiny, remember the paralyzed man and Jesus—and persist in hope. Jesus honors our hope.