The following is a post by Tristan Sherwin taken from his book, Love Expressed.
It must have been a picture – the pool of Bethesda mentioned by the writer of the fourth Gospel, as described in John chapter 5. A pool of water, mainly stagnant, surrounded by five covered porches, under which sat crowds (John’s words, not mine) of sick people – blind, lame, paralysed. All of them are waiting for one thing; ‘a certain movement of the water’ – this would be the voice that would call all nearby to abandon their comfort and plunge towards the surface. If they were fortunate enough to be the first to enter, then they would be the one to arise healed and free.
John’s Gospel doesn’t tell us if this happened to be true or not, whether John believed it credible or just false hope – did this pool actually heal people? All John is telling us is that those who gathered there believed it was so. This was their system. All they had to do was make an acceptable entrance into this vending machine of liquid and then their desired response would be dispensed. So there they would sit, waiting and watching for the pool’s command which would signal when their obedience should begin.
This is an odd place.
It’s called Bethesda – which means ‘house of grace’ – but this is anything but. Nothing is dispensed for free in this place. As the man’s words in John 5:7 show us, help and love were not the ethos of the community that lay under these porches. If anything, this was more like a house of competition. Can you imagine for one moment, the response of this crowd when that ‘certain movement’ came? How many would be crushed, pushed and hurt by the stampede of people heading towards the water’s edge? One person would leave healed (maybe?), but how many more would be left in a worse condition than when they first arrived? How many would drown?
And another thing; ‘a certain movement’! It’s not the best description to give – what did this movement actually look like? Was it some bubbling up? Was it a ripple going from the east side of the pool to the west? Did you have to get into the water the very second the movement occurred, or could you wait thirty seconds before the healing properties dispersed thoroughly? Did your entrance have to be graceful and elegant, or were you allowed to dive-bomb?
Would you really take the risk in getting it wrong?
I hazard a guess that opinion of this movement would have been divided within the crowd. I imagine a place where different schools of theology had developed, with those of shared conviction gathering together – each denomination holding as sacred a particular style of movement. With every failed healing, every failed attempt to reach the water and every bad entry, not only amplifying these theological divisions, but also serving to reinforce the mystical properties of this water; only perfectobedience to its demands would provide the results one sought.
Everyone here is an expert at classifying ripples, or at the very least an expert in training, but none of them have actually experienced the thing that they specialise in.
This place, that is meant to bring people freedom, actually ends up leading people into captivity. When John describes the occupants as ‘blind, lame, paralysed’, I can’t help but feel – with every reading of the story – that their conditions have transcended from physical to spiritual. None can afford to take their eyes off the water before them, none can afford to look at the conditions of those around them who share their prison, no one can afford to help anybody else, and no one can afford to miss their ‘divine calling’. No one even has the courage to raise a voice and offer the suggestion – ‘Hey, why don’t we all get in and just wait?’ (And, if that suggestion seems ridiculous to you, then you’ve just reinforced my point!)
They are a lost people, trapped within a mechanical system of fear and control – a system that requires broken people to save themselves, using abilities they do not possess. This pool asks, but it gives no answers. This pool calls, but it offers no help. This pool demands obedience, but only highlights the failures of those who attempt to meet its rules. This pool uses the hope of acceptance to entice those in need, but only reinforces their feeling of rejection. It almost sounds like a Greek tragedy.
But here they sit, all waiting for movement – all waiting for the right wave to come along.
Does this sound familiar? In seeing this scene, maybe our minds begin to make a connection with organised religion, but the concept is sown into all our patterns of living. Such an idea should hardly survive within our twenty-first century society, but this same mindset is everywhere. We are drowning in a world full of ‘isms’; we are all living in obedience to the fluid motion of some pond.
Most of the people I have met (myself included), have found themselves waiting for a wave. Maybe our system isn’t a spiritual one, or one that revolves around a deity, but our lives still keep watch on the waters of life, waiting for the prompts and ripples – the signals that will summon our obedience. Our language about our futures is consistently filled with talk of When and Then. ‘If I can be in the right place, at the right time, and produce the right action, then life will dispense my desires’.
And we all have desires – most of which boil down to wanting that elusive/ambiguous/mysterious thing called ‘happiness’. We crave meaning, value, purpose and function. We long to live. And so we’re happy to keep spinning our saliva-coated offering into whatever system we think will guarantee that.
We place our hopes in our own ability to respond acceptably to life’s unpredictable movements. Such thinking places us as the captain of our own vessel, charting the currents, and navigating the deep waters. We feel this false sense of control, that we are the masters, when in reality we are slaves to the water’s allure.
It’s into this mechanical system, this fluid vending machine, where Jesus enters and totally messes with our thinking.
The above is an extract of Tristan Sherwin’s new book Love: Expressed – now available.