Ten lepers were cleansed, but only the healed Samaritan turned around, prostrated himself and praised God with a loud voice. She clutched his cloak with her bloodied hands, and Jesus responded to the hemorrhaging woman by saying, “Your faith has healed you.” Enduring shackles and self-mutilation, the demoniac rushed out from behind the tombs, and declared, this is the “Son of the Most High God.” In return, Jesus dismissed the unclean spirit, leaving the man clothed, in his right mind and eager to become a disciple.
From Christian conversations, to biblical commentaries, to Sunday sermons, certain Gospel miracles get all the attention while others languish in unread obscurity. So why then is today’s text from John so overlooked?
John 5:1-9 After this there was a festival of the Jews, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem. Now in Jerusalem by the Sheep Gate there is a pool, called in Hebrew Beth-zatha, which has five porticoes. In these lay many invalids—blind, lame, and paralyzed. One man was there who had been ill for thirty-eight years. When Jesus saw him lying there and knew that he had been there a long time, he said to him, “Do you want to be made well?” 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 making my way, someone else steps down ahead of me.” Jesus said to him, “Stand up, take your mat and walk.” At once the man was made well, and he took up his mat and began to walk. Now that day was a sabbath.
Because the Church prefers Sabbath regulations over saving Messiahs.
Most people would rather bypass the invalids of life, comfortably numb.
The more popular miracles stories always include faith.
Only sinful systems that we all perpetuate keep a man suffering four decades.
In 1495, England passed a law called the Vagabonds and Beggars Act. It stipulated that any able-bodied person was banned from receiving charity. Every employable panhandler arrested was punished by being immobilized in the market square with feet, hands and head chained. For three days and three nights, the public was encouraged to pepper each offender with rotten food, to mock each criminal with shame.
In the 500 years since, we have further incentivized our worthiness. Put some skin in the game, earn your keep, get what you deserve, it only works if you work for your miracle.
This text is so often overlooked because the invalid man doesn’t turn around in thanksgiving like the Samaritan leper; he doesn’t reach out with conviction like the hemorrhaging woman; he doesn’t beg to become a follower like the demoniac. The only thing he does do is believe in the black magic of stirred up water, complain about 38 years of being second in line and, a few verses later, turn Jesus into the authorities for breaking the prohibition of healing on the Sabbath.
Instead of being demoted to the silence of oblivion, this narrative of unprovoked grace should be our manifesto of mercy, a story we tell and retell for what it reveals about the indiscriminate character of God and the meritless economy of Jesus. A divine love that repudiates the qualified injured or the justifiable sick or, worst of all, the deserving poor. (Informed by Rev. Dr. Homer Henderson’s sermon “Down by the Poolside”)
People at the poolside, all of us who have worn out our tired pallets, resigned to pathologizing and victimizing our condition at the water’s edge, Jesus is now asking you and me the same question, “Do you want to be made well?” And according to Gospel of John our response of “yes” or “no” or an indifferent “maybe” actually doesn’t matter.
All that does matter is the Good News of a scandalous, infuriating and amazing grace, the eternal truth that faith doesn’t work miracles, God does. So stand up, take your mat and walk.