Charles D. Mayer, May 26, 2019
This morning’s Gospel is such a rich and fascinating one. Some of you were present for last Sunday’s visioning meeting, at which our facilitator Bill Cruse invited us to be in dialogue with this text as a part of exploring the histories of our two Ossining Episcopal parishes. Bill intended that work to set the stage for today’s reading of this same Gospel. So let’s honor that intention, and dive in to see what is here.
So: near the gate to the Temple precinct in Jerusalem, called the Sheep Gate, was a healing sanctuary. It contained a pool known for its healing power. Local tradition held that in certain seasons, an angel of the Lord would stir up the water, and whoever stepped in first after the stirring of the water was made well (Jewish Annotated New Testament, p. 186).
In the scene depicted today, Jesus has arrived. Many blind, lame, and paralyzed people are laying in the porticoes leading to the pool. One of them had been ill for thirty-eight years. Jesus asks if he wants to be made well.
The man’s answer is more vivid if we understand the local tradition that I just described. What he is saying is that someone always beats him to the pool and is the first one in. Apparently he can get to the edge of the pool, but would need to be lifted into it. So someone always steps down ahead of him.
Jesus listen to his explanation, and says simply “Stand up, take your mat and walk” (John 5:8). He is made well at once, picks up his mat, and walks.
Now notice that we are not told exactly what the man’s illness is. The story seems to say clearly that he has had the ability to move, just not to climb down into the pool on his own. And all he is asking Jesus for is help being lifted down into the pool first the next time the water is stirred.
Let’s go back to what Jesus says to him again. “Stand up, take your mat and walk.” The change that is effected here is not that the man gets up and walks; it’s pretty clear that he has had at least some ability to move. It’s that he doesn’t have to be lifted into the pool. Jesus is essentially saying, “walk in.”
For thirty-eight years, he has been waiting for someone to do it for him. Then Jesus says, “You can do this yourself.”
It occurred to me as I was preparing the sermon to ask myself, where was I in my own life thirty-eight years ago? Most of us have been alive for at least thirty-eight years, so try it: where were you? Is there anything you’ve been thinking all these years that you couldn’t possibly do without help?
Well, God certainly does have a sense of humor, because it was thirty-eight years ago almost to the day that I was first ordained in the United Methodist Church. So this text challenges me to ask, what have I not had faith that I could do without help in my ordained life?
Psychologically, this is really a question about resistance. All of us, to one degree or another, resist change that we are frightened of. And a common form of resistance is cultivating the belief that we just aren’t capable of changing without help. Our friend laying under the portico at the Sheep’s Gate may seem like an extreme example. But Jesus doesn’t treat it as such. He doesn’t engage in a long conversation about how the man got stuck in the rut he was in. Jesus recognizes being stuck as a very common human condition. He simply invites the man to trust himself and try a new behavior.
It’s something for all of us to think about. For me, well, if I’m honest with myself I have to admit that sometimes I have resisted, or at least delayed, taking decisive action with the thought that I needed more training. Maybe there’s one more book I should read. Maybe that Continuing Education course is the thing I should do first. Maybe I just really can’t function effectively without getting a doctorate first.
And while of course there’s nothing at all wrong with any of these things, they have sometimes kept me on my mat in the portico. We have all spent time on that mat. And it can be just as true for communities as for individuals.
The Holy Spirit was clearly involved in the choice of this text for the visioning meeting last weekend. I thought that the energy in the room last Sunday afternoon was palpable. There was such a feeling that we can do this: that we can grow and change and move forward together as church communities.
It’s a natural thing to be stuck on our mats – Jesus understands it. But often the capacity to grow and change is much closer at hand than we think. And of course, in the end, the truth is that we are never really on our own as Christians. Jesus is right beside us, as he was that day by the healing pool. We are not alone, as individuals or as churches. But the choice to step into the pool is ours.
Do you know what’s been stopping you?