03/19/23 “Encounter with a Man on the Sabbath”

John 5:1-21

The story of Jesus’ encounter with the man at the pool of Bethesda is one of those stories that seems so simple and easy to understand on the surface. Many of us have heard it multiple times and, if you’re like me, you’ve been touched by the poignancy of Jesus’ healing a lonely, disabled man. If the story ended with the man taking up his mat and walking away on his own two legs, we could walk away from the story ourselves, pleased with our loving and healing Lord. But, the story doesn’t stop there. The story continues with a sentence that would have made John’s original audience sit up and take notice. He writes, “Now that day was a sabbath.” You can almost hear the listeners gasp and then say, in unison, “Uh oh.”

The man from the pool is walking along (no doubt very happily) on this fine Sabbath Day with his mat in his arms. John tells us that some Jewish authorities showed up and confronted him. John doesn’t tell us whether the men whom he labels as “the Jews” witnessed or even knew about the man’s miraculous healing. From the questions they ask him later, it appears that they didn’t. But it might not have made any difference, because what upset them, early in the story anyway, is that the man is carrying his mat. On the Sabbath.

Before we go any further, let’s remember that when John talks about “the Jews,” he’s not talking about all Jews. After all, Jesus was a Jew. Many of the disciples were Jews. John himself was likely a Jew. But, John’s community of Jesus-followers was painfully at odds with their Jewish faith community, even to the extent of being ejected from their synagogues. So, when John talks about “the Jews,” he’s talking about a group of Jews—especially ones with authority—who had rejected both Jesus and those who followed him. Whenever we read John, it’s a good idea to put some mental quotation marks around “the Jews.”

It’s also important to remember that the Jewish people and their religious leaders were under tremendous pressure to protect their faith. Their land was occupied by the Romans. Their way of life was being influenced by Greek culture, which threatened to erode the religious practices which were so important in preserving the Jewish people’s distinctive way of living. So, the religious leaders of the community were alert to anything that would weaken their faith and the way they lived it out.

One of the ways they had done this was to create a system of laws that regulated daily life. Their foundation was what we call “the Ten Commandments,” but scripture is pretty much silent on exactly how to honor them. The rabbis searched the scriptures for anything that could give them some guidance for daily life and used what they found to create rules for the Jewish people to follow. Many rules—thirty-nine of them, to be exact—were about how to keep the fourth commandment: to remember the sabbath day and keep it holy by not doing any work. One of these rules prohibited carrying anything from one place to another.

So, we have some religious authorities encountering a man who’s engaged in an activity that is clearly prohibited on the sabbath. They confront him: “It’s the sabbath, and it’s against the rules to carry your mat.” The man explains himself: “The man who made me well said to me, ‘Take up your mat and walk.’” Now, we may be justified in raising an eyebrow at these particular Jews. The man has just told them that he has been made well. But they have no interest in learning more about that—no interest in what the man’s condition had been, no curiosity about how he had been made well, no joy over the fact that his life has been transformed. No, what concerned them is just who had the nerve to tell this guy to do something that was against the laws of God. But, they’re out of luck. The man doesn’t know! Jesus healed him and then blended back into the crowd, without the man ever registering even Jesus’ face, let alone his name.

But Jesus remembered the man and, later, Jesus sought him out in the very place that the man would not have been allowed to enter when he was ill. His disability would have excluded him from participating in worship at the temple. But now, thanks to Jesus, he can rejoin his community. He can worship the God who healed him in the place that was designated as God’s home. Jesus must have known that the man would make his way there, because that’s where Jesus seeks and finds him.

Jesus says to him, “See, you have been made well! Do not sin anymore, so that nothing worse happens to you.” Now, there hasn’t been any suggestion that the man’s illness was the consequence of any bad behavior. For John, sin isn’t a moral transgression. It’s a spiritual transgression. It’s refusing to recognize Jesus for who he is. It’s refusing to believe in Jesus as God’s Word made flesh. Jesus’ warning to the man is to avoid the sin of disbelief, and the “something worse” is the lack of relationship with God that disbelief leads to.

Jesus’ warning may have been a little cryptic for the man he had healed. The man may not have understood that it was God in Jesus who healed him, but at least he can now identify Jesus by name. The man leaves Jesus and gives “the Jews” the information they wanted: it was Jesus who had made him well.

What motivated him to do that? John doesn’t tell us. A lot of scholars are pretty hard on the man. They label him as an ungrateful tattle-tale, eager to hand Jesus over to his critics. I’m not prepared to do that. Isn’t it just as likely that the man wanted to give credit where credit was due? Isn’t it likely that, after being questioned by people in authority, he felt responsible for telling them what he now knew? Did he know that his questioners would turn on Jesus as a result? John doesn’t tell us.

What we do know is what happens next. According to John, “the Jews” began persecuting Jesus. Until this point in the gospel, Jesus’ only contact with the Jews who would become his opponents would have been in the temple courtyard, when Jesus created such a ruckus. “The Jews” had challenged Jesus on his claim that, if they destroyed the temple, he would raise it up in three days. They didn’t understand that he was talking about his body, but then, neither did his disciples. Nicodemus had come for his night-time visit, but he acknowledged that the Pharisees knew that Jesus was a teacher come from God, who was doing signs that would be impossible apart from God’s presence. So far, Jesus hadn’t yet faced the opposition and hostility that would soon arise.

Sabbath law allowed only life-saving medical care to be performed on the sabbath. “The Jews” felt that Jesus had broken the law by healing a condition that, in their opinion, wasn’t life-threatening. But, Jesus has a different view. The man’s condition was life-threatening. Think of what we know about him from the beginning of the story. He had been ill for thirty-eight years. There was a wide range for life-expectancy in those days, but poor people didn’t live much past thirty, owing to hard labor, military service, and, for women, childbirth. So, it’s likely that this man had been ill for most or all of his life.

We don’t know how long the man had been lying there—only that Jesus knew he’d been there for a long time. Maybe he had tried other remedies before. Maybe he, like the woman who suffered from hemorrhaging for twelve years, had spent all he had on doctors without success. So maybe he had come to the pool because, as some ancient sources add to our passage, “an angel of the Lord went down at certain seasons into the pool, and stirred up the water: whoever stepped in first after the stirring of the water was made well from whatever disease that person had.” Maybe the pool was the man’s last hope for healing.

From what the man tells Jesus, he’s not able to get himself into the pool. John tells us that the man was lying among the lame, the blind, and the paralyzed. But, John only tells us that this man was ill. He doesn’t tell us exactly what was preventing the man from getting into the pool. Physical paralysis would do it, of course. But there are many kinds of paralysis. We can be paralyzed by depression. We can be paralyzed by hopelessness. We can be paralyzed by isolation or lack of needed resources. We can be paralyzed by systems that give more opportunity to some than others. We don’t know what was keeping the man from getting into the pool—only that he wasn’t able to get to the water on his own and had no one to help him.

“The Jews” may have thought the man’s condition wasn’t life-threatening. But, for Jesus, life is more than mere physical survival, so the healing he gave the man was life-saving. It was in keeping with the law Jesus came, not to abolish, but to fulfill. His work on the sabbath is entirely consistent with honoring the sabbath.

Jesus explains his actions to “the Jews”: “My Father is still working, and I also am working.” This ups the ante for Jesus’ persecutors. He has escalated the situation by moving from sabbath-breaking work to claiming that God is his Father which, in their view, means he is making himself God’s equal. They see Jesus as setting himself up as another god—one who seeks to be the equal of their God. This is enough to move them from persecuting Jesus to wanting to kill him.

As so often happens in the Gospels, Jesus’ opponents unwittingly speak the truth. Jesus is equal to God, but not in the way they mean. His actions aren’t in opposition to God’s will but are in concert with it. The Jewish faith acknowledged that God didn’t rest on the Sabbath. If God did that, the world would cease to exist. Life continues only because God sustains it without ceasing. As God’s own Son, Jesus sees what his Father is doing and does that, following in the ways his Father has shown him, as any obedient son would do.

“Indeed,” Jesus adds, “just as the Father raises the dead and gives them life, so also the Son gives life to whomever he wishes. That’s exactly what Jesus offered the man. Jesus’ challengers may not have thought his condition was life-threatening, but in many ways that man was dying. He was sick and had been for a long time. He was alone, apparently without the support of family and friends. His illness had cut him off from his faith community; he wouldn’t have been allowed to worship in the temple. Whatever it was that prevented him from making his way into the pool also prevented him from living the life God intended for him to have. When Jesus made the man well, he did more than heal a physical or mental illness. Jesus gave the man life.

Whether we are among those whom Jesus has raised to new life depends on how we answer the question that Jesus posed to the man by the pool: “Do you want to be made well?” Do you want to leave behind the things that paralyze you: feelings of fear and discouragement, unworthiness and loneliness? Do you want to be healed from the wounds that the world inflicts: the wounds of not being accepted, of not being loved, of not being valued? Do you want to shed the sense of powerlessness, pick up your mat, and walk? Do you want to be made well?

The man answered Jesus only with reasons for why he hadn’t achieved the healing he sought. Other people had let him down. No one would help him. Others pushed in front of him. To paraphrase an old country song, he was looking for help in all the wrong places. We, too, are prone to look for help in the wrong places. We change ourselves so that we can be accepted by the people around us. We seek to soothe our pain with worldly things—frantic activity and overindulgence. We choose the path of least resistance when a more satisfying path looks like it will result in the shame of failure. But, like the man at the pool, we will not find in these things the healing we need.

What the man at the pool didn’t know, we do. Our help does come through a man, but not an ordinary man. It comes through the man who is the human incarnation of God, and we know the One from whom our healing comes. We know the One who raises the dead to life. Our healing comes when Jesus asks us, “Do you want to be made well?” and we say “yes” to his power to raise us to new life. Our healing comes when we accept the truth as Paul proclaimed it in his letter to the Ephesians: “At one time you were like a dead person because of the things you did wrong and your offenses against God. You used to live like people of this world. You followed the rule of a destructive spiritual power…However, God is rich in mercy. He brought us to life with Christ because of the great love that he has for us. You are saved by God’s grace!”

For Paul, the things we do wrong are moral and ethical failures. For John, the failure that matters is the failure to believe in Jesus as the Son of God, God’s Word made flesh. Of course, when we accept the gift of life offered to us in Jesus by God’s grace, we are moved to live differently. We live with boldness and without fear. We live without the fear of being unloved, because we know ourselves to be the beloved children of God. We live without the fear of powerlessness, because Jesus has given us the power to take up our mats and walk—to work for the will of God to be accomplished in this world, in righteousness and justice and compassion. We live without the fear of death, because we have been given the gift of eternal life by the only one who can give such a gift: Jesus Christ, the Son of God.

When we read the story of Jesus’ encounter with the man beside the pool, we might ask, “Why did Jesus choose to heal this particular man, and to heal him on the sabbath? The man didn’t ask Jesus to heal him. He didn’t even know who Jesus was. he had been sick for thirty-eight years. Surely, he could have waited one more day, when his healing wouldn’t have stirred up so much hostility against Jesus.”

I think that Jesus made a deliberate decision to heal this particular man on that particular day. The fact that the man had no knowledge of Jesus proves that his healing wasn’t the result of anything the man did. It was a gift of grace alone—grace that only God can offer. So, as God’s Son, Jesus is free to do whatever his Father is doing. Jesus is free to give life whenever and wherever and to whomever he chose.

In our passage today, we find perhaps John’s clearest declaration of who Jesus is, what he offers, and how we can receive it. Jesus is the Son of God. His will is in perfect concert with his Father’s will, and the Father’s will is to raise the dead to life—eternal life, now and after our physical deaths. We enter into this life by believing in Jesus. Jesus’ own words make this clear: “Anyone who hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life, and does not come under judgment, but has passed from death to life.”

Thanks be to God that Jesus still offers this gift. Thanks be to God that he offers it to us. And thanks be to God that we have only to answer a question to receive it. When Jesus asks us, “Do you want to be made well?” we have only to answer, “Yes! I believe that you are the Son of God, and that in you we find healing and life!” Amen.

~~ Pastor Carol Williams-Young