Earlier this month we were in Jerusalem at the pool of Bethesda. It’s down a few layers in the city now, but it is still possible to see that it was an impressive place. Partial excavations show that in the time of Christ Bethesda pool was probably the size of an Olympic swimming pool.
The story of the man with a debilitating chronic illness who Jesus healed there has always caused me wonder because of the question the Healer asked him: “Do you want to be made well?” or as the Amplified version suggests, “Are you really in earnest about getting well?”
What an odd question. He was obviously disabled and obviously in a place where people went to be healed. Why the question?
I like the Amplified version’s telling of the story in John 5 (perhaps because of my own tendency to expand a thought in parentheses –a tendency an old English prof strongly disliked, but there you go. I’m not looking for a good mark.)
Now there is in Jerusalem a pool near the Sheep Gate. This pool in the Hebrew is called Bethesda, having five porches (alcoves, colonnades, doorways).
In these lay a great number of sick folk—some blind, some crippled, and some paralyzed (shriveled up) waiting for the bubbling up of the water.
For an angel of the Lord went down at appointed seasons into the pool and moved and stirred up the water; whoever then first, after the stirring up of the water, stepped in was cured of whatever disease with which he was afflicted.
There was a certain man there who had suffered with a deep-seated and lingering disorder for thirty-eight years.
When Jesus noticed him lying there [helpless], knowing that he had already been a long time in that condition, He said to him, Do you want to become well? [Are you really in earnest about getting well?]
The invalid answered, Sir, I have nobody when the water is moving to put me into the pool; but while I am trying to come [into it] myself, somebody else steps down ahead of me.
Jesus said to him, Get up! Pick up your bed (sleeping pad) and walk!
Instantly the man became well and recovered his strength and picked up his bed and walked. But that happened on the Sabbath.
So the Jews kept saying to the man who had been healed, It is the Sabbath, and you have no right to pick up your bed [it is not lawful].
He answered them, The Man Who healed me and gave me back my strength, He Himself said to me, Pick up your bed and walk!
When I was still ill from more than one chronic condition that caused my body to fall apart, a couple of women prayed with me. In the middle of adding to their prayer and trying to sound as spiritual as they did, one of them stopped me and said, “Wait. Do you want to be healed? What would it cost for you to be well?”
Frankly I thought that was a bit of an insulting question. My life and plans and dreams had gone down the tube because of illness. People who knew me “before” didn’t even recognize the “after.”
Now I am not a person who blames victims of the evil one –the one who came to steal kill and destroy -for not receiving healing because of a lack of faith. How horrendously cruel is that? I don’t know why some are healed and, at the time of writing, most are not. My heart aches with frustration when I see a person suffering and I don’t know what to do. I hate it! Sometimes it feels like a capricious angel comes down and stirs the water and then goes back to harp-strumming on a cloud or something. All I know is that people who pursue Jesus see more healing than people who accept illness as the natural order of things.
For many years I believed that illness was my lot in life, that my calling was to accept it graciously as “my cross to bear,” as “God’s will” and forge on. I actually became rather proud of my reputation as an overcomer.
The problem with people who label themselves “overcomers” is that their identity becomes permanently attached to whatever victimized them in the first place. Overcomers need things to overcome. It’s hard to let go.
Here’s the thing: God understands what is deep in our hearts. His purpose is to restore our hearts at least as much, if not more, than our bodies. He wants to go deeper. He wants to restore our relationship with him and renew our thinking. Healing and miracles point to something bigger; they are not the destination.
I realized then that if I were miraculously healed I would have no excuse for avoiding commitments. An illness that went in and out of remission unpredictably gave me an excuse. If I were healed I would need to tell people how it happened. The active, living Jesus would be more than a comfort in my preparation for death. Healing would require me to live, a prospect that was more daunting than I could admit out loud; it could delay my pie-in-the-sky day. (Silly girl! But I didn’t know Abba as a good daddy then.) If I were healed I would need to take up my responsibilities and walk out of that place –publicly. I would need to pick up my comfortable familiar bed and get on with life. I could face uncomfortable conflict with friends who held to different doctrines.
Since those days, when he did heal me, I have asked others if they want to be healed. Sometimes they say, “I have learned so much from this condition and have had it for so long that I have adapted and don’t want to be healed anymore. This is who I am,” or “I need more time to grieve for my losses,” or “I am sick of having hope deferred. I can’t take another disappointment,” or, if they are very honest, “If I were well nobody would bother to pay attention anymore. My life is a disappointment, but at least I have doctors and therapists and lab technicians and care-takers who talk to me on a regular basis and tell me how brave I am.” or even, “I have nothing to live for anyway.” (Notice the Bethesda man said he was alone, so he had no relationships to live for either.)
I hear something else in the Bethesda man’s response. When asked if he wanted to be healed, he didn’t say yes. He gave an excuse for why he had not been. Perhaps I am projecting here, but I wonder if he had become comfortable with self-soothing and resigned to being alone. I wonder if the bed he had made for himself was a poor-me bed. I wonder if he secretly thought, like I sometimes did, that there must be something special about me that God would assign me to a life of suffering because he knew I could take it. I wonder if that was sin Jesus warned him not to go back to.
I wonder sometimes if we graciously accept the “impossibility” of reaching the stirred-up pool method of healing when the Saviour Himself is holding out his hand to us, because that alternative is just too scary. I wonder, as was the case of several other biblical characters, like blind Bartemeaus, or the Syrophoenician woman with the tormented daughter, or the woman with the perpetual period, if we need to exercise the bit of faith granted to us by pursuing him, by impolitely crying out to him, by barging in to contend for our child, by breaking social taboos and going after the healing he provided with His bloody striped back.
The enemy of our souls has not yet admitted defeat. We are in a conflict with an enemy who, although defeated and stripped of legal authority, is still powerful and fighting, and in such a conflict there are still casualties.
I don’t know why some are healed and some are not and I admire the lack of bitterness in many people who face huge physical challenges and the things they can teach us. Sometimes, in the course of bringing in the kingdom of Christ, we will lose battles and we mourn. But sometimes, when we work our way past disappointment, when we “find the gold” gained through suffering and put our foot down, when we realize the authority Christ gives the ones totally dependent on His goodness, then we can dare to declare, like Gandalf on the thin bridge, “You shall not pass!” Then we see the Saviour turn his face to us as he smiles and raises us up to battle again.
Then, like the Bethesda man, we can let go of our familiar spot under the five stone colonnades, get up, move the inadequate beliefs we have been resting on, and follow Him.
How grateful I am for the ones who stood with our family when our loved one faced certain death. They put their collective foot down, reconciled petty differences to band together and declared, “He shall not die!” This week he encouraged the ones who battled for him when he walked into church, unaided, stood before the congregation and gave glory to God.