This fall semester I’ve been teaching a course with my colleague Dr. Mark Stamm, Professor of Worship at Perkins School of Theology on preaching and worship in life’s transitions. We’ve talked about major transitions like weddings and funerals. Our latest unit is on times in life when people are stuck and need the healing touch of God, the presence of Jesus, and the love of the community. We’ve talked about how healing and cure are not the same thing, that being “made well” or “saved,” means restoration to relationship with God, to the community and to oneself. Physical improvement may be involved but healing cannot be reduced to the disappearance of physical ailments and limitations.
As I was reflecting on these matters, my mind turned to John 5:1-9, the story of Jesus healing the man by the pool of Bethzatha. I love this text for lots of reasons, but for one thing, I love the seemingly contradictory way it starts out. “Seeing that the man had been lying there a long time, Jesus asked him, “Do you want to be made well?’ The Greek could also be rendered, “Are you willing to be made whole?”
The text tells us that the man had been ill for thirty-eight years. That is almost as long as the Israelites wandered in the wilderness. It’s much longer than the woman in Mark 5 suffered from the flow of blood or the woman in Luke 13 suffered from being bent over. Thirty-eight years signals this is a hopeless case, that if a miracle happens here, it will have to be a big one.
At first it seems ridiculous that Jesus would have to ask someone who has been suffering so long if they wanted to be made well. But then again, maybe not…
I know a woman, Jan, who is a nurse in a hospital in Dallas. She says there is a look that she and her colleagues exchange when faced with a certain category of patient. She refers to the (usually male) heart by pass patient who, as soon as he is able to sit up, calls for all his electronic devices and sets up an office in hospital bed. The look Jan and her colleagues share across the room is the “He’ll be back” look.
“Knowing that he had been lying there a long time, Jesus asked him”….It seems like a ridiculous question, but then again, maybe not.
My mom told me about how several years ago, she and my dad were attending a newspaper publishers’ meeting at a lovely resort in Bermuda. One evening they went into the dining room for dinner and stood for a moment enjoying the beauty of the sunset through the windows, the white linen table cloths, the lit candles and fragrant flowers on each table. They were seated at a table with another couple they had met the day before. The man looked up and smiled at them and said, “Join us. We are celebrating our 35th wedding anniversary tonight.”
Whereupon his wife hissed, “Make that 34th!” You took a year off from our marriage with that bimbo from the office.”
“Knowing she had been there a long time, Jesus asked her, ‘Do you want to be made well?’ ” It seems like a ridiculous question, but then again….
I remember a man I knew in the first parish I served. He was then in his mid 50’s. After his divorce, he had moved back in with his parents. Gradually, he took over more and more responsibility for their care as they became older. He would come in a couple of times a week complaining to me about what a burden they were to him. How they kept him from being able to date. How they took up all his time and much of his money. How his life could be so much freer if he didn’t have them like an albatross around his neck.
Then his mom and dad both died in the same 6 month period. Oscar Wilde once said, “When the gods wish to punish us, they simply answer our prayers.” I thought, Now John will be happy. He can date if he wants to. He has his freedom.
Until John showed up at my office door a few weeks later. “My life is so empty. I have no purpose. I miss them so much. They were the best parents a man could have had. What will I do without them? I can’t find anyone who appeals to me to date. My life is so empty.”
A line from the musical The Sound of Music popped into my mind, “My Favorite Things.” “When the dog bites, when the bee stings, when I’m feeling sad, I simply remember my favorite things, and then I don’t feel so bad.”
I thought, though I didn’t say it, “John, your glass is full to the brim with all your favorite things: an ounce of ‘if only,’ a dollop of discontent, and a cup full of ‘I can’t wait until.’ You need to face up to who you are. You are a person who enjoys being unhappy. Face it and embrace it. It is who you are. It is who you will always be.”
To Be Continued….