A pastor colleague of mine recently told me an unbelievable story. He said a visitor to worship at his church called him a few days after she’d visited to thank him . . . for healing her.
You heard it, he told me incredulously: healing her.
Baffled at what the woman was saying, my colleague asked the visitor what she meant.
She explained that right when he’d begun pronouncing the benediction that previous Sunday, a warm feeling came over her, starting right at her head and going all the way down to her toes.
And she felt healed.
And, she claims, it was true. She was actually healed from whatever physical ailment she had.
Now, I can’t tell you the name of this colleague because a) I don’t believe he is capable of such a thing, at least on a reliably regular basis, and b) I don’t want you running off to worship someplace else just because you feel like you might be catching a cold.
But I can tell you that I know this: people, everyday, run of the mill people, come to church to be healed, to have experiences of grace and to leave, different. And that’s nothing new. During the first half of the 20th century in this country, in fact, the traveling revival was better than the circus. Folks flocked into tents because they’d heard the preacher could heal people. And they’d bring Grandma, who had been blind for 13 years . . . and Uncle Joe, who had a bad back . . . and Aunt Jessie who couldn’t seem to get the swelling in her feet to go down. And rushing to church for healing isn’t a relic of the past, either.
Just this past Friday, in fact, in advance of what is the Eastern Orthodox Easter celebration today, the Chicago Tribune printed a story about the Assumption Greek Orthodox Church in Homer Glen, where a statue of St. John the Baptist has been emitting tiny droplets of fragrant oil since this past July. Word has spread far and wide that this oil, which the priest has been collecting with a reservoir of cotton at the icon’s base, and handing out to pilgrims and congregants, has healing properties. So far the church has handed out over 5,000 pieces of oil saturated cotton, and the stories of healing have started to trickle in. One man was given some of the oil just prior to seeing his doctor for a blockage in his heart, and when he got to the doctor’s office, miraculously, his heart was healthy. Another reported being healed of cancer. One congregant who stopped by to pick up some oil for an ailing family member said, “At a time when everything seems to be falling apart in the world and for us personally, it’s nice to see.”
The priest himself feels that the oil is a symbol of healing for this parish, torn apart by controversy and scandal just a few years before. “When people see this, it’s just a reminder that God is still alive and still working through us and it’s a reminder that there’s still hope in the world for us,” he said.
Assumption Church is now struggling to handle the thousands of visitors who are flocking to the church in search of healing.
Many of us come to church for healing and many of us do find healing in these places of spiritual nurture and growth. But most often, I’m thinking, the healing doesn’t steal over us like warm honey during the benediction or come in an oil soaked cotton ball. Instead, healing comes from the touch of a hand; the soaring notes of a beautiful choir anthem; the grasping, finally, of a profound truth; the passing of the peace; the sharing of communion; the profound power of being with people who know your name; or the singing of your very favorite hymn at the top of your lungs with your eyes squeezed shut.
But, alas, instant or gradual, neither kind of healing is reasonably predictable, at least not enough to market the service, pull in the masses, and broadcast a television revival. Except maybe in Chicago.
Still, our shared need for healing is exactly where you and I can find ourselves in the story we heard from John’s gospel this morning. We’re in the season of Easter now, several weeks following Easter Sunday and headed toward Pentecost. During this season the threatening subject of resurrection keeps coming up over and over as we read about the struggles of the first church in the book of Acts and revisit some favorite gospel stories—Jesus’ greatest hits, you might say. We find ourselves in today’s gospel—hurting, in search of healing, desperate for hope and faithfully returning, over and over, to a place that we believe might heal us . . . only to find ourselves, not miraculously healed during the benediction in the way we’d hoped, but caught in an increasingly familiar and comfortable pattern, at home with our own pain and suffering, stuck, and unable to summon the courage to step into the threat and promise of resurrection.
Just like we can’t blame Uncle Joe for dragging his bad back down to the revival tent, we certainly can’t blame the sick people in John’s gospel who set up camp next to the Pool of Bethesda, near the Shepherd’s Gate in Jerusalem. This is a real place; you can visit it today. If you did, you would see crumbling ruins of what once was a pool carved out of the side of the rock. It’s about fifty-three feet long and eighteen feet wide, with many steps leading down to its edge, and it is surrounded by a series of stone colonnades, or porticos. Back in Jesus’ day, underneath the pool ran a couple of aqueducts that circulated the water, and a spring that occasionally created a stirring when it sent in fresh water.
If you turn in your pew Bibles to John chapter five, you’ll note something unusual in today’s text—the text skips from verse 3 to verse 5. Verse four is left out of our version, considered later commentary. But were it there it would read: “for 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.”
You heard it: the tradition was that every once in awhile the waters would start to become “stirred up,” kind of like turning on the Jacuzzi jets. And people believed that the first person to make it into the water when the pool was stirred up would be healed. It must have happened from time to time . . . sick individuals plunging into the churning waters and experiencing healing—maybe there were piles of discarded crutches and wheelchairs nearby to prove the point.
And that’s the situation Jesus encountered when he came to the pool that day. Its edges were jam-packed with people who had taken up permanent residence there, each one coming to the pool and hoping for years and years and years that they would be healed.
But something happened to those people in the years of waiting. It seems that the constant jockeying for position, the tedious competition of the hurting, the interminable waiting for the next chance . . . well, it got to be wearing. And, the funny thing was, people who gathered there in the holy city waiting for a miracle forgot why they’d come in the first place. They’d forgotten, and after 38 years it’s understandable, the fervor and devotion that brought them there seeking healing at any cost. Instead it seems they spent a lot of time dreaming up lame excuses for why their lives couldn’t possibly change. There they sat on the edge of resurrection, totally unable to embrace it.
This is very clear in the conversation Jesus had when he met the man who had claimed his spot on the edge of the pool for almost 40 years. That man must’ve been pretty ensconced, because the text says that Jesus saw him lying there and could immediately tell “he had been there for some time.” Perhaps he’d built a make-shift shelter, brought in an old couch to lay on…? We don’t know what malady afflicted the man by the pool but tradition says he was paralyzed, as you heard from the story he had trouble getting into the pool. In actuality, the text just says he was ill. Whatever his trouble, he needed healing.
The text says that Jesus looked at him and asked him the most unexpected question. Not: how are you feeling, how long have you been here or how did you get ill, but “Do you want to be made well?”
I can imagine the man looking up at Jesus with the most incredulous expression. What do you mean, do I want to be made well? I’ve been sitting here by the pool for 38 years, haven’t I? I haven’t had a turn to get in the water! And plus, I don’t have anyone to help me! It’s not fair and it isn’t my fault. I’ve been dealt a bad hand. The miracle of healing never works for me!”
But Jesus said what he meant: “Do you want to be made well?,” because his next words put the onus of healing not on some mystical, miraculous luck, but on the actions of the man himself. “Take up your mat and walk,” Jesus said. No more waiting for a miracle. No more dragging yourself to the shrine, sadly. No more hopeless expressions and foregone conclusions . . . and NO MORE lame excuses. No more.
Jesus came to the pool to wake that man up, to let him know that he was stuck, not so much by his illness, but even more profoundly by his wallowing in hopelessness and his cataloguing of lame, lame excuses. There was healing to be had, Jesus showed him, but it was going to take some cooperation on his part.
In Elizabeth Gilbert’s wonderful book: Eat, Pray, Love, she tells the story of a poor Italian man who goes to church every day and prays before the statue of a great saint, begging, “Dear saint—please, please, please . . . give me the grace to win the lottery.” This daily, desperate prayer goes on for years and years. Finally, the statue comes to life, looks down at the begging man and says in weary disgust, “My son—please, please, please . . . buy a ticket!”
After 38 years it could have been that that spot on the edge of the pool was more comfortable than reaching out and grabbing onto hope one more time. It could have been that dreaming up lame excuses for staying right there in the pain became more familiar than longing for freedom. It could have been that, after all that time, that man had forgotten what he so desperately wanted in the first place—healing—and preferred instead to sit around with a whole crowd of people who’d come to encounter a miracle, who hadn’t experienced what they’d hoped, and who chose instead to live right on the edge of resurrection, their waiting flavored with anger and bitterness and destructive competition, their stamina fueled by…lame excuses.
There’s no shame in longing for a miracle. There have been times in my life when I really could have used a miraculous release from the pain of human life, and if I’d known of a shrine with a statue of St. John the Baptist sweating drops of scented oil I might have actually tried going there. But most days I long for the kind of miraculous healing contained in encountering God, and this is why I come to this place, invest in this community, and try to believe–even on the darkest days–that resurrection and healing are possible.
I’ll bet that’s why some of that is why you come here, too.
We’re all grasping for a miracle of one sort of another: healing of our hearts; relief from the pain; mending of the world; calming of the chaos. And if these were to happen, as they sometimes do at church, well, wouldn’t that be like a miracle?
And so we keep showing up, hoping for the results we want. Some of us for 38 years, or more!
But in the process . . . all along the way . . . the reality of human life in community begins to tarnish our initial hopes. We become used to a way that’s comfortable, a way we expect. Our unhealed realities become the norm. We settle for less than the miraculous in our relationships with each other. We forget about the daring hope of new life that made us risk the threat of resurrection to show up the first place.
But God is not a drive through window at McDonald’s. We can’t drive ourselves in here every week, plaintively lamenting our pain and wallowing in the hurt that keeps us sitting on the edge. Former pastor of this church, William Sloane Coffin wrote:
“I think the central problem of the Christian church in America today [is]: most of us fear the cure more than the illness. Most of us prefer the plausible lie that we cannot be cured, to the fantastic truth that we can be. And here’s a reason: if it’s hell to be guilty [or sick or hopeless or despairing], it’s certainly scarier to be responsible…able to respond to God’s visionary and creative love.”
If you and I could get through all the lame excuses about why we can’t be healed and start to remember why we showed up in the first place, the attention and energy that our own broken and hurting selves demand could instead be turned to the work of resurrection in the world.
This is the miracle of healing Jesus enacted at the pool of Bethesda that day, and that God’s Spirit surely enacts here, if we will participate:
That you and I could come to a beautiful place like this and hope for an encounter with God.
That you and I could contribute to and participate in this strange experiment of building diverse and faithful gospel community.
That you and I walk out of here, arms around each other, relationships healed.
That our encounter with the gospel of Jesus Christ in this very place where we’ve come to be healed walks with us into this city and into the whole world . . . to bring healing and hope, resurrection.
Hear the good news: we have been threatened with resurrection, invited into healing and hope! Will we go?
People of God, please . . . no more lame excuses.
 William Sloane Coffin, The Courage to Love, p. 13.