Lingering near the pool
We don’t know the man’s name in today’s gospel who lingered by the pool for thirty-eight years. But I have a certain affinity for him, so let’s call him Joe.
Now this man had had a bad deal in life, there’s no doubt about that. He had been an invalid for a long time. And he hung out with the other invalids in Jerusalem by the pool Beth-Zatha. This pool was near the gate where they brought the sheep into the city for ritual slaughter, and the other half of this pool was where the priests washed the sheep before sacrificing them in the temple. The other half of this pool was where invalids like Joe hung out, begging for their livelihood, no doubt. I’ll bet Joe made out pretty well there, lingering by the sheep pool.
But daily sustenance wasn’t all that Joe was after, there at the pool. Joe believed, like the other invalids, that if they entered the pool when the water was roiled—stirred by an angel, they believed—then they would be healed. This had actually happened to people, people who had had family or friends who were devoted enough to them to get them into the pool first.
This sounds like one of those made-for-television survival shows, doesn’t it? Only this was real life, seriously real life. Day after day, year after year, Joe watched others get there first, pushing him aside to do so. Can’t you just feel Joe’s spirit curdling? Life isn’t fair! This is all God’s fault! If only… if only… if only!
Yup, that’s how I used to feel, down there by that pool. Stuck there, so near the water. Angry, bitter, and more than a bit cynical.
Have you ever been stuck there down by the Sheep Pool? There were a lot of others there, back when that is where I camped out, where I lingered, where I lived. There was one man—let’s call him Dave—who actually got addicted to drinking the pool water. He was right there at the edge of the pool, could have rolled right in at any time (angels or no), but all he did was put his face in the water and lap that water up. Didn’t heal him, though. Just made him forget for awhile that “Life isn’t fair!” and “This is all God’s fault!”
But you heard the story of what happened to Joe. One day a man came by. Joe didn’t even know that the man was Jesus, didn’t even know that this man was the author of creation, the author of fair, the author of salvation. All Joe knew was that an incredibly charismatic man came by who knew a lot about him. What the man asked Joe was, “Do you want to be made well?”
Of course, you heard Joe’s story when the gospel was read. You know that Joe immediately began to make his excuses, the excuses that he told himself, no doubt, before he went to sleep every night. And, after Joe was finished with his “Life isn’t fair! This is all God’s fault!” litany, the man told him to stand up and take his mat and walk. Healed, just like that! No water, no words of healing, no exorcism of that cynical spirit—but all of that was done, gone.
No doubt Joe later figured out who Jesus was. After all, there was only one person in the whole world who could do those kind of miracles. Then, too, there was the whole brouhaha about him lugging around his mat on the Sabbath, in clear violation of scripture—but that’s a story for another Sunday, and where my affinity for Joe ends.
Today in our lesson we hear no more about Joe. But we do know that the name of the pool by which Joe had lingered all those years has two meanings. First, the pool’s name means “shame and disgrace,” but the name also means “house of mercy.” And these two meanings help us to understand why Jesus might have chosen to heal Joe, and only Joe, of all those who were lingering by the pool. You see, in our human calculation we think, “Why didn’t Jesus heal ALL of those who were lingering by the pool? All of those who ever need healing? Why doesn’t Jesus heal ME?” And when we think this, we are just one short step from “Life isn’t fair! This is all God’s fault!”
What “house of mercy” means to me is that Jesus chose the worst case of shame and despair, the one who had lingered the longest by the pool, and healed HIM to show us that God is the author of mercy. Jesus healed Joe to let us know that we simply can’t obtain healing all by ourselves, no matter how hard we try. Oh, we can go to self-help groups, spend time on retreat, come to all the worship services we can fit into our busy lives… and all of these things (while worthy) mean nothing, ultimately, if we don’t meet Jesus, if we don’t let Jesus heal us from our being stuck, however we might be stuck in this life. We can try and try and try to get into the water all on our own at just the right time, but what we need to heal us is Jesus.
I’ve told you Joe’s story. What about Resurrection’s story?
As I reflected and prayed about this gospel lesson this week, what made a huge impression on me was the realization that we as a congregation are sitting at the side of the Sheep Pool, aren’t we? We’ve been here a long time, rehearsing our “if onlys” and longing for friends, neighbors, and even kind strangers to come to our pool and make us whole. Now I’m no Jesus—just another Joe—but I feel compelled to ask: “Do you want to be made well?”