Do You Want to Be Made Well?
By Dr. Philip W. McLarty
As all good teachers know, students learn as much by the questions we ask as by the information we impart. And so, in the sermon this morning, I’d like to take a closer look at one of the most poignant questions Jesus asked, “Do you want to be made well?” I think you’ll find that, even though it was asked of a man who was paralyzed from birth, it speaks to us, as well, because to be made well is to be made whole, and to be made whole is to experience the gift of life in all its abundance.
The story is set in the city of Jerusalem. John says, “After these things, there was a feast of the Jews, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem.” (1)
In Jesus’ day the Jewish calendar contained three high and holy days – Passover, Pentecost and Tabernacles. If you were a devout Jew living within sixteen miles of Jerusalem, you were expected to attend them all. If you lived away from Jerusalem, you were expected to attend at least one each year. Jesus was a devout Jew, and, like other devout Jews, he made pilgrimage to the holy city as often as possible to observe the feast days.
John says when Jesus got to Jerusalem he entered the city by the Sheep Gate and went to the pool of Bethesda nearby. The Sheep Gate still stands today. It was called the Sheep Gate because shepherds would drive their sheep into Jerusalem through this gate and on over to the Pool of Bethesda to the right, where they would be washed before taking to the temple for sacrifice.
The pool of Bethesda was separated by a dividing wall in the middle, creating two bodies of water. The sheep were washed at one end of the pool, and people bathed at the other end.
Around the sides of the pool where the people bathed, there were five porticos and, under the porticos, people with various infirmities gathered in hopes of being healed. According to John, “In these (porticos) lay a great multitude of those who were sick, blind, lame, or paralyzed…” (3)
Now, the pool of Bethesda was fed by an underground spring, and when the spring overflowed, it would bubble up from beneath causing a disturbance in the waters above. In Jesus’ day there was a legend that this rippling of the waters was caused by the fluttering of angels’ wings, so that the first person to enter the turbulent waters would be cured. According to John, Jesus met a man who had been coming to the pool of Bethesda for thirty-eight years in hopes of being healed, but because he was paralyzed, he had no means of getting into the water on his own, much less getting there first. And so, Jesus asked, “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, but while I’m coming, another steps down before me.”
Jesus said to him, “Arise, take up your mat, and walk.” Immediately, the man was made well, and took up his mat and walked. (6-9)
Now, at first, Jesus’ question seems like such an odd thing to ask: “Do you want to be made well?” What kind of question is that? Why, of course, he wanted to be made well. He’d been coming to the pool of Bethesda all his life. Why else would he have been there?
Yet, when you think about it, thirty-eight years is a long time to wait for a miracle, especially when the conditions were so obviously impossible to meet. From the man’s own admission, he had no hope of reaching the water before the others. You have to wonder why he kept coming back, day after day, year after year. Given the circumstances, he had no reasonable chance of ever being made well. So, in this sense, it was a good question: “Do you (really) want to be made well?” Because, if you do, you’re going about it the wrong way. Unless something gives, it’s not going to happen.
There’s a lesson to be learned here: When it comes to being made well, physically or otherwise, repetition is not necessarily a virtue.
Several years ago, the Alban Institute in Washington, D.C. conducted a study of pastors who had recently moved from one church to another. They found that, as a rule, ministers tend to repeat themselves; that is, they go about getting acquainted and establishing a relationship with their new congregation in much the same way every time they relocate. So do congregations, for that matter. For successful ministers, this isn’t a problem. Their pastoral style works well for all concerned. But for ministers with a track record of recurring failures, the researchers found that they tend to make the same mistakes over and over. They get off on the wrong foot every time.
So, the Alban Institute put together what they called a “Start-up Seminar” to teach ministers who were planning to move new ways of going about getting started. The results were remarkable. These same ministers who had failed over and over in the past were now able to get started in a new way and so, form the basis of a positive and long-lasting relationship.
When it comes to being made well, repetition is not necessarily a virtue. Too often we simply repeat misinformation, rehearse old prejudices, practice tired patterns of behavior and replay thoughts and opinions formed years ago without first checking to see if they’re still valid and, more importantly, if they serve the cause of a healthy faith and good relationships.
Jesus asks us today, “Do you want to be made well?” Do you want to experience life in all its abundance? Then, maybe you need to try a new approach. If you’re one, say, to blurt out what you think at the first drop of a hat, you might need to try holding back. Let someone else do the talking. On the other hand, if you’re one who never says a word, then you might need to speak out more. Let your voice be heard. The point is, dare to do things differently. Dare to alter your routine. Change your diet. Cultivate new friendships. Break old habits. Learn new techniques for relating to others more effectively. This can be an important first step toward experiencing a new and more abundant life.
And a second step is to venture out of your comfort zone. The story is told of a man who had an offensive body odor. He went to the doctor to see if something could be done about it. The doctor examined him and could find nothing physically wrong. He scratched his head and said, “What do you do for a living?” The man sighed and said, “Well, that may be the problem. You see, I work at the airport, and it’s my job to empty the holding tanks from the restrooms aboard the aircraft. It’s all over head, you know, and invariably, some of the spillage ends up getting on me. Try as I may, it’s hard to get it all off.” “Hmmm,” the doctor said, “Sounds like you need to look for a new job.” The man looked at the doctor and said, “What? And get out of aviation?!”
It’s a silly anecdote, I admit, but it illustrates how we often get locked into the mind set that where we are and what we’re doing is a given while, in fact, there are other options, and God often calls us to venture out into new frontiers of life and faith.
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Before we go on, take a moment to ask yourself: Where am I today in my life … my work … my relationship to others? Is this where God wants me to be?
It’s just a guess, of course, but, when I read the gospel lesson for today, I get the picture that this paralyzed man first started coming to the pool of Bethesda as a child. Perhaps his parents brought him as an infant or a toddler. In the early years, they would have stayed with him and been ready, on a moment’s notice, to rush him down to the water to be cured. But this bubbling of the water only happened every once in a while, and after watching and waiting for what could have been a long time, the parents may have gotten discouraged. They may have felt a need to go on to other things. Perhaps they had business to attend to or other children to look after. I get the picture that, over the years, they may have started bringing their son to the pool in the early morning and leaving him there to interact with the others, so that, in time, he became one of the regulars. In time, lying in the portico by the pool of Bethesda became his way of life. For thirty-eight years, it was all he’d ever known. So, when Jesus asked, “Do you want to be made well?” he would have had good reason to think twice, for to be made well would mean he’d have to give up his old way of life.
When I was living in Odessa, I served as a chaplain for the Odessa Police Department. One night I got a call from dispatch, who asked me to meet a police officer at this run-down, flea bag motel over on 2nd Street. A man staying there had called the local AA chapter and said he was contemplating suicide. They called 911, of course, and a police office was sent over to intervene. When I got there, I found the police officer standing at the door of the man’s room.
The man was drunk, of course. I went in and sat down on the bed beside him. Sobbing and slurring his words, he told me how he didn’t have much to live for any more, how he’d been injured on the job and was no longer able to work, how his wife had left him, and how he’d lost his house and car and most of his belongings. He said he spent most days in this depressing motel room by himself watching television. “Why don’t you get out of this place and move into Lincoln Tower, where you can be around other people?” I asked. Lincoln Tower was a fairly affordable, nice little retirement community nearby, where the coffee pot was always on, and there was usually a game of dominoes or bingo or Skip-Bo going on in the game room. “Why don’t move over to Lincoln Tower?” I asked. “Oh, I couldn’t do that,” he said, “Why, this is where all my friends are.”
“Do you want to be made well?” Because if you do, you may need to step out of your comfort zone and take a leap of faith and venture out into the unknown. Like Linus and his blanket, if you’re determined to hold on to what you have, you may well be closing the door to the possibilities God has in store for you.
Well, here’s the question Jesus is asking us today: “Do you want to be made well?” In the final analysis, it’s a question only you can answer. You can start by asking yourself, what do I need to be healed of? What’s my impediment? Is it self-imposed?
What’s standing in your way? What sort of things do you need to change about your life in order to be whole? Are there things you need to let go of? For example, are you holding on to anger, nursing some injustice or hurt from years back? Are you holding on to grief, looking back to something or someone you once held dear? Perhaps you’re holding on to a destructive habit, wanting to be healthy and whole, but not willing to stop smoking or drinking or eating your troubles away.
Well, the gospel lesson ends on a positive note. Jesus tells the man, “Arise, take up your mat, and walk.” Immediately, the man was made well, and took up his mat and walked. (6-9)
And this is the Good News: Jesus came into the world that we may have life and have it abundantly. (John 10:10) In the words of a hymn, “There is a balm in Gilead to make the wounded whole; there is a balm in Gilead to heal the sin-sick soul.”
The question is, do you want to be made well? In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.