Anyone who reads this blog regularly or even occasionally knows that I love movies. Solidly in my top ten, maybe even in the top five, is the 1989 film “Field of Dreams.” About half way through the story, Ray Kinsella (played by Kevin Costner) and Terrence Mann (played by James Earl Jones) are in the bowels of my beloved Fenway Park. Ray has brought Terry there in an attempt to involve him in a ludicrous scheme that Mann is trying to resist getting sucked into. Mann was a major player in the 60s civil rights and anti-Viet Nam protests who now, twenty years later, is tired of being everyone’s unofficial guru and voice of the flower power generation. He just wants to be left alone. “So what do you want?” Ray asks Terry.
Terry: I want them to stop looking to me for answers, begging me to speak again, write again, be a leader. I want them to start thinking for themselves. I want my privacy.
Ray: (gesturing to the concession stand they are in front of) No, I mean, what do you WANT?
Terry: Oh. Dog and a beer.
Sometimes, “What do you want?” is just a question about one’s lunch or dinner preferences. At other times, the question raises far more important issues. In the lectionary reading from John’s gospel today, we find a classic “What do you want?” situation where a man’s health and happiness hang in the balance. It’s an odd story, relatively straightforward on the surface but with many layers of complexity underneath.
While in Jerusalem early in his ministry, Jesus and the disciples come to the Pool of Bethesda, rumored to have healing powers, but only under special circumstances. “An angel went down at the stirring of the water; then whoever stepped in first, after the stirring of the water, was made well of whatever disease he had.” A strange phenomenon, for sure, but hey, this took place before modern science told us that this sort of thing is impossible. Not surprisingly, the perimeter of the pool is crowded with “a great multitude of sick people, bling, lame, paralyzed, waiting for the moving of the water.’
Among this multitude is a man who has been afflicted with an unspecified infirmity for thirty-eight years. When I first heard this story in Sunday School as a kid, I thought that this guy had been at the pool for thirty-eight years, which would definitely suck. But in truty, we are not told how long he has been there, nor why Jesus chooses him at random out of the dozens, perhaps hundreds of people seeking healing to strike up a conversation with. Jesus asks the man a strange, seemingly stupid question: Do you want to be made well?
I can imagine the man saying something like “no, moron, I love laying here by the pool,” or “I’m waiting until my insurance deductible lowers at the end of the month.” Ask a stupid question, you usually get a stupid answer.But Jesus’ question reminds me of a character from Louise Penny’s Still Life. Myrna, proprietor of a small bookstore in Three Pines, Quebec, and Inspector Gamache, Penny’s talented murder-solving hero, are having a conversation about the inevitability of change and the various ways in which human beings deal with it. Fro twenty-five years, Myrna was a psychologist in Montreal, one hour’s drive to the north, before chucking it all, moving to rural Three Pines, and rebooting her life entirely. why did she do it?
I lost sympathy with many of my patients. After twenty-five years of listening to their complaints I finally snapped. I woke up one morning bent out of shape about this client who was forty-three but acting sixteen. Every week he’d come with the same complaints, “Someone hurt me. Life is unfair. It’s not my fault.” For three years I’d been making suggestions, and for three years he’d done nothing. Then, listening to him this one day, I suddenly understood. He wan’t changing because he didn’t want to. He had no intention of changing. For the next twenty years we would go through this charade. And I realized in that same instant that most of my clients were exactly like him.
So maybe “Do you want to be made well?” isn’t a stupid question after all. It’s interesting that the man at the Bethesda pool doesn’t simply answer “yes” or “no.” Instead, he provides an excuse and defensive explanation for why he hasn’t been healed already. “Sir, I have no one to put me into the pool when the water is stirred up; and while I am making my way, someone else steps down ahead of me.” Roughly paraphrased: “It’s not my fault that I’m in this position–I have no friends or family to help me out, everyone hates me, there’s a vast conspiracy to keep me from the pool, it’s unfair that only the first person in gets healed, yadda, yadda, yadda.”
Maybe he realizes, for the first time, what the cost of being healed might be. Is he ready to live without the limitations with which he has lived so long, which have in a strange way become his friends and enablers? Who will he be when he is no longer defined by his infirmity? Sure enough, Jesus heals him, he rolls up his mat and walks, and he immediately gets into trouble because Jesus chose to heal him on the one day that it is illegal to do any work (including carrying your mat). Be careful what you ask for.
“What do you want?” It’s a question each of us would do well to consider carefully. As well as “What changes are you willing to undergo in order to get there?” We need to be sure that we wouldn’t prefer to keep things as they are.