Now there is in Jerusalem by the Sheep Gate a pool, in Aramaic called Bethesda, which has five roofed colonnades. In these lay a multitude of invalids—blind, lame, and paralyzed. One man was there who had been an invalid for thirty-eight years. When Jesus saw him lying there and knew that he had already been there a long time, he said to him, “Do you want to be healed?” The sick man answered him, “Sir, I have no one to put me into the pool when the water is stirred up, and while I am going another steps down before me.” Jesus said to him, “Get up, take up your bed, and walk.” And at once the man was healed, and he took up his bed and walked.
Now that day was the Sabbath.
(John 5:2-9 ESV)
And since they did not see fit to acknowledge God, God gave them up to a debased mind to do what ought not to be done. They were filled with all manner of unrighteousness, evil, covetousness, malice. They are full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, maliciousness. They are gossips, slanderers, haters of God, insolent, haughty, boastful, inventors of evil, disobedient to parents, foolish, faithless, heartless, ruthless. Though they know God's decree that those who practice such things deserve to die, they not only do them but give approval to those who practice them.
Therefore you have no excuse, O man, every one of you who judges. For in passing judgment on another you condemn yourself, because you, the judge, practice the very same things. We know that the judgment of God rightly falls on those who practice such things.
(Romans 1:28-2:2 ESV)
“Do you want to be healed?” These words are so pregnant with expectation and the man by the pool is so clearly in need of a kind of physician that didn’t exist in the First Century, it is incredible to our Twenty-First Century ears that the man didn’t leap up at the mere sight of Jesus.
Not that he could have.
He was full of the idea that he was an invalid. He had “been an invalid for thirty-eight years.” Given the average life span of the time, this man had done rather well for himself as an invalid. Somehow he had persisted for thirty-eight years without passing away.
Our Evangelical Mind has often delivered commentary about whether the man was merely lazy, content with his lot in life. But our Evangelical Mind never read (or never took to heart) the wonderful juxtaposition of these verses with Romans 2:1. Let’s have no further talk of why the man was still an invalid after thirty-eight years. Instead, can we revel in the miracle that, after thirty-eight years the man walked?
If anything is revealed placing these two passages side-by-side it is that all of us are filled with something. The man by the pool was full of being an invalid. That was his reality. He had most assuredly been in pain from this affliction that whole time. Paul gives us a list of afflictions that are no less painful to bear: envier, murderer, striver, deceiver, malefactor. gossip, slanderer, hater of God, insolent, haughty, braggard, inventor of evil, disobedient to parents, fool, faithless, heartless, ruthless. When one is full of any of these things, one becomes what they are identified with. Societies that have a caste system are not the only places people cannot escape their identity.
Yesterday I was with a group of pastors, and one of them commented that he had been working with a woman living in real poverty. She couldn’t afford cable TV or Internet, was unable to really look for a job that would lift her off the welfare roles. He noted with some discomfort that one of her kids had shown up at church with brand-new $100 athletic shoes. The pastor told the woman that if she spent what little money she had on things like that she wouldn’t have money for necessities. Her response was, “I’m poor. That’s not going to change. Every once in a while I need to do something nice for my kids.”
The woman was full of poverty, and had been for many years. It would take a miracle of Jesus-proportions to “heal” her life. I am not Jesus, and do not have the power to say “rise, take up your bed and walk.” But I am the evidence of Jesus in the world and I can rise and walk and offer a bed to someone who has none.
If Jesus never walks past the squalor of the assembled multitude of beggars by the pool of Bethesda, if he enters the Temple through the main gate and bypasses where the beggars are he can put coins in the alms box, but he will never call a beggar “friend”. The trick, of course, is that before I will choose to spend time with the beggars, or the envious, the murderers, or all the identifiables on the list, I have to come to the place where the label, or even the need, isn’t the first thing I see. I have to come to the place where I see Jesus walk up to me and ask, “Do you want to be healed?”