Every Eastertide Sunday brings us a story from the Gospel of John. Today, we read that Jesus healed a paralyzed man at the pool of Bethesda, which is exclusive to John, though in Acts 3:1-10, we find a similar healing that Peter and John performed in Jesus' name. Bethesda does have an archaeological location, uncovered in 1956, and is believed to have been a mikveh, a ritual bath, that supplied water to the Temple. Its proximity to the Sheep Gate might suggest that the animals intended for sacrifices were washed in its waters, and its name (“the house of mercy/grace”) – that people used it to perform ablutions before entering the courts. Its reputation for healing endured past Jesus’ time, and the Romans constructed medicinal baths there a couple of centuries later. As for the stirring of the water that purportedly enabled the healings, the author of John doesn’t tell us that it actually occurred, only that the disabled people expected it to happen; perhaps, as a legend hinting at the known medicinal properties of the waters.
In contrast to the synoptic gospels, in which Jesus only took one, fatal trip, in John, Jesus visited Jerusalem several times. Notice that while the purpose of this particular visit was worship, Jesus was open to extending help to the lowliest and most disgraced people, by: 1) noticing and acknowledging the person, 2) asking questions and listening without judgment, and 3) following up.
Today, many of us are sitting “at the side of the pool” in need of healing. Sometimes, as was the case with the paralyzed man, the very condition that needs healing is what prevents us from drawing nearer to God or each other (e.g. depression, punitive image of God, trauma, betrayal). This is where the community comes in. The ultimate healing is from God, but we can, and already do, help his work of “making people whole”. Like Jesus, you do come to our own temple to praise God; but, every Sunday, I notice that several of you make connections with someone in need, and offer to help; with what you do best, or simply with what you could try. We’re not here only for the rituals, to be sure!
In doing so, like Jesus, we first and foremost alleviate isolation and hopelessness. Notice that the man assumed that even if/when the miraculous stirring of the waters occurred, he wouldn’t be able to avail himself of it. However, Jesus presumed nothing, and first, asked him – one with a 4-decade-long disability! – if he wanted to get well; then, he listened without judgment, platitude, or explanation (“can’t you arrange with your friends to take you in?”, “well, maybe one day!”, “you can do anything if you really want it”, “how can you believe this old superstition?”). As you know firsthand, people don’t need our attempts to put their situation in (our!) perspective. It’s not helpful to say “you still/will have your X/Y/Z,” “I know how you feel”, “it’s not that bad,” or “you must have done something wrong.” Instead, consider saying “I don’t know exactly how you feel, but I’m happy to help in any way possible,” or simply, “this sounds really hard”.
Another important thing to realize and take seriously is that, as soon as we offer to help, we enter a relationship, whether we or the person want it or not. Jesus, after having turned the man’s life around physically, approached him again and addressed his spiritual state. It’s not clear from the gospel what prevented the man from being whole, but it was Jesus’ follow up that completed the healing. As for us, many of our physical needs, chronic conditions, and significant difficulties, will never go away. And, while those who grieve eventually learn to reimagine their lives, the sorrow and yearning will keep resurfacing. People may be overwhelmed with kindness in the immediacy of a crisis, but let the person know you're still thinking and praying for them even as the time passes - it may be appreciated then even more.
So what can we truly do in situations that we cannot fully imagine, that put us at a loss for words, and that we will never really “fix”? We can be present, and allow “the waters of our hearts to be stirred” with compassion. We can pray, and let the Spirit help us find words or remain silent. By using the example of Savior and the guidance of the Spirit - plus, the willingness to help and listening skills that can and should be cultivated! - we, too, can learn to find a need, listen and learn, and follow up. In doing so, may our presence with others become that place of healing – Bethesda, the “House of Mercy”. Amen.