Thirty-eight years pinned to the mat of infirmity. Every day, all 13,870, went something like this for the man by the pool of Beth-zatha: scribble another cardboard sign pleading for assistance since the diagnosis, nurse a cup of hyssop tea to soothe the muscle aches, situate the vomit bucket nearby, shift the hips to relieve pressure on the bedsores, wait around for nothing to happen as your failing body surrenders to gravity.
Looking up at the able-bodied world pass by without notice, life on your back is demoralizing enough. But even worse are the proud pedestrians who make sport out of your condition. “Get a job,” “pray harder,” “heal yourself,” they sneer. Overwhelmed by the overwhelm of it all, the man is resigned to life on a two-by-four-foot beggar’s rectangle.
Until Jesus shows up. He walks through this open-air sickbay- past the vacant stares, despondent sighs, and festering wounds- until he arrives at the swollen feet of the one who has waited the longest. Rather than beginning an exam or writing a prescription, Jesus asks a devastating question, “Do you want to be made well?”
In this sign-story from John’s Gospel, what is Jesus offering the man wellness from?
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.
The estrangement of sickness.
The predictability of routine.
Her travel to 39 countries as a disability rights advocate, co-founding of the A.C.L.U., award for the presidential medal of freedom, nomination for the Noble Peace Prize, and global witness as the first blind and deaf student ever to graduate college almost didn’t happen. After brain fever as a child left her shrouded in darkness and severed in silence, relatives thought she should be institutionalized. Her brother declared she was unfit to learn. Unable to communicate, she continually lashed out in frustration, combative towards a world she couldn’t engage. Then her parents hired Anne Sullivan, a young teacher from the Perkins School of the Blind. Despite months of structured lessons, Helen Keller remained confused. Abandoning formal instruction, Anne took to nature’s classroom. In the backyard, Anne put Helen’s hands under the flowing water of a pump and manually traced the letters W-A-T-E-R in her palm. Helen pronounced, in guttural syllables, a word for the first time and cradled her teacher’s nodding head for confirmation. By day’s end, Helen grasped the basics of the English language, mastering 18 nouns and three verbs. For the next half-century, the two were inseparable. Reflecting on their relationship, Helen said, “It was my teacher’s genius, her quick sympathy, her loving tact which made the first years of my education so beautiful…how much of my delight in all beautiful things is innate, and how much is due to her influence, I can never tell…all the best of me belongs to her–there is not a talent, or an aspiration or a joy in me that has not been awakened by her loving touch.”
Just as Anne woke a dormant potential in Helen, so too did Jesus in the man beside the pool. Rather than healing, caring until healthy, or curing, providing a lasting remedy, Jesus extends something entirely other: wellness. To be made well is to be rendered whole. The word elsewhere in scripture translates as salvation, to have the totality of one’s being restored on earth as it is in heaven.
For the man, approaching his fourth decade of unrelenting suffering, his ailment became far more psychic than physical. Based on his inattentiveness to Jesus’ identity and response to the divine physician’s question- the hopelessness of his complaint about someone else jumping the line- he appears to be entirely void of new possibilities.
What Jesus offers the man wellness from most is a condition called learned helplessness. Psychology teaches that after prolonged trauma, temporary paralysis can generalize into certainty, the hardened insistence that circumstances cannot be changed.
Convinced of the opposite, John’s gospel keeps the despondent man anonymous and his condition unspecified. By doing so, he became a fill-in for every one of us pinned to the mat against our will, held down because of poverty and mental illness, injustice and institution, xenophobia and homophobia, addiction and ageism.
Refusing to leave us in the same spot, Jesus arrives just after we’ve conceded, declining to believe what we’ve come to believe about ourselves. Instead, he extends a hand, certain that we don’t have to spend the rest of our lives being looked down at.
Hear the Good News, it’s not your fault and you are never finally helpless.