After this there was a feast of the Jews, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem. 2 Now there is in Jerusalem by the Sheep Gate a pool, in Aramaic called Bethesda, which has five roofed colonnades. 3 In these lay a multitude of invalids—blind, lame, and paralyzed. 5 One man was there who had been an invalid for thirty-eight years. 6 When Jesus saw him lying there and knew that he had already been there a long time, he said to him, “Do you want to be healed?” 7 The sick man answered him, “Sir, I have no one to put me into the pool when the water is stirred up, and while I am going another steps down before me.” 8 Jesus said to him, “Get up, take up your bed, and walk.” 9 And at once the man was healed, and he took up his bed and walked. Now that day was the Sabbath. – John 5:1-9 (ESV)
Psychologists have recently been noticing the age old issue of envy developing in a new medium – social media. As social media becomes more prevalent in our lives, so does Social Media Envy. Here’s how it works: your friends start posting pictures of their exotic vacations on Facebook while you sit on your couch, scrolling through their pictures while simultaneously overindulging Netflix… questioning what you are doing with your life (I’ve NEVER done that before…aaahhheeemmm) Maybe you are single and desiring a relationship and all your Facebook friends are posting sappy status updates or photos of their significant other while you lay in your bed alone, for another night. This issue only seems to get worse when it is all you see; giving the impression that everyone is always doing something great with someone else.
I have recently been in a difficult season in life – a kind of wilderness wandering, asking lots of questions, and feeling disappointed with how some things have recently worked out. I was at a conference a few weeks ago and my friend Kevin who I haven’t seen since Grad School was there. During a conference break, Kevin and I had the opportunity to catch up with each other. Within a few minutes of talking, Kevin commented, “It looks like your life going great man! Beautiful wife, handsome son, working at a university, traveling, and teaching. So good dude! I love following you on Facebook” His words stopped me in my tracks. On one hand, this outside perspective allowed me to see that I did have a lot to be grateful for. On the other hand, I wondered if he was mistaking me for someone else because he clearly had no clue I have been going through a difficult season. I thanked him for his comment – then quickly set the record straight – vulnerably telling him that I might have misrepresented myself on Facebook. We both mused how looking at other people’s lives on Facebook can make us envious – and I confessed I felt the same way about him – to which he also set the record straight, telling me some difficulties he has been up against.
I wonder if the gospel writer John was reflecting on something similar when he told this story about Jesus and the paralyzed man.
John tells us that in the midst of a Jewish religious feast (we are not told what feast) Jesus goes to Jerusalem. The city is packed with religiously pious people who are there to worship, reflect, and socialize. These people were mostly likely the “poster versions” of the religious elite – perceived to be the most devoted.
It would make sense for Jesus to go to Jerusalem for this feast and as John records, Jesus does indeed go. However, instead of going to the main events like the religious elite, Jesus decides to spend his time in other ways.
He decided to spend his time with the “unclean” people – the sick and the infirmed, thus making Jesus religiously unclean. These sick people gathered at the Bethesda pool (meaning “house of grace”) and waited to experience divine healing mercies. This pool was a mystical place of healing, not tied to any particular faith tradition, filled with sick people who had no other hope for healing. They waited. What else could infirmed people do in the ancient world?
Out of everywhere Jesus could have gone in Jerusalem, he goes to a mystical, “spiritualist,” healing pool where a bunch of sick and religiously unclean people wait for the water to mysteriously stir-up. And when that happens, apparently only the first one to jump in the water gets healed.
This is the place where Jesus goes…
Jesus looks around these public “mystery pools” and sees sick people laying around all over. You can only imagine what he saw; young children, elderly, the religiously superstitious who hoped the gods would look on them with favor if they just did everything “right.”
I’m sure he also saw the determined – those sitting at the water’s edge looking for any sign of the water beginning to tremble so they could be the first to jump in. Jesus also saw those who were far away from the pools – those who, although they desired to be healed, knew they really didn’t have a chance.
I don’t know about you, but as the reader of this story, I could make a good case for any number of people receiving healing from Jesus.
But Jesus doesn’t like to play by our well thought out ideas.
Jesus finds the man who had been paralyzed for 38 years (men in the ancient world didn’t live much more than 38 years). John tells us that Jesus noticed this man had been at the pools for a long time… I imagine he lived there, in the back corner, far from the pools, with all his belongings surrounding him – much like a homeless person living under a highway overpass.
This man that Jesus seeks out.
Jesus goes over to him and asks him the question, “Do you want to be well?”
Not, “Hi, my name is Jesus. What’s your name?…
Not, “Tell me about yourself. What happened to you?”
… Just, “Do you want to be well?”
On the surface it seems like a stupid question but on a deeper level Jesus asks the man a profound question which probed the true desires of this man heart, “Do you want to be healed…”
However, the profundity of the question seems to be lost on the man. Instead of probing the depths of his soul, the man starts giving excuses as to why he can’t be healed.
Not only that, but the man doesn’t ask Jesus who he is or why he asked the question. He doesn’t know who Jesus is and doesn’t seem to care… he only seems interested in being a victim of his circumstances.
It’s right then that Jesus looks at the man and says, “Get up, take up your bed, and walk.”
Out of everyone that Jesus healed, why this guy? AND of all times, why on the Sabbath?!
Now I know the lectionary text ends with Jesus healing on the man on the Sabbath but the story continues with this man who Jesus healed not showing any signs of gratitude for the healing. In fact, John tells us that this man reported to the religious leaders that Jesus healed him on the Sabbath which according to John brought Jesus persecution.
The story doesn’t end with this man having some great moment of repentance.
I’m not sure about you, but I must confess that after reading this story, I found myself asking, “Couldn’t Jesus have found someone better to heal?”
Out of the four gospels, only John tells this story. And out of the four gospels, John in the only one that doesn’t tell the Parable of the Vineyard Workers. Some of you might know that story. In that parable, the vineyard owner and workers agree to a certain payment for a whole day of work. A few hours later the vineyard owner and a new group of workers agree to the same pay as the others. At the end of the day, the vineyard owner and new workers agree to the same pay (only working one hour). When the day is over, they all get paid and realize they all got the same payment. Those who had worked all day were furious.
It’s not fair… not fair at all – but that’s the point.
Grace is not fair.
Not fair for the workers in the vineyard,
Not fair for those waiting at the pool to get healed,
Not fair for the religiously pious,
and not fair for you or me.
It’s easy for us to point our fingers at others and envy what they have, or what they’ve received, and ask God, “why not me?” It’s easy to get Facebook envy…
It’s also easy to produce “Facebook envy” in others by giving the illusion that our life is something that it isn’t.
But this story reminds us that Jesus does not work according to our preferences.
It reminds us that no one is outside of the reach of God’s grace.
And it reminds us that Jesus is attracted not to our strengths, but our weaknesses.
May this story remind us that grace doesn’t only go to the deserving,
May we be those who embrace our weaknesses as the places of our greatest strength,
And may we bring healing and love to those around us, even to the ungrateful, self-involved, elderly, paraplegic, who doesn’t know our name, and doesn’t seem to ever care to learn more about us.