by MaryBeth Bratrud
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. (John 5:2-9)
The healing at the pool of Bethesda is perhaps one of my favorite stories of Christ’s healings. In this story, a sick man has been waiting, longing, hoping to get into the water and to be made whole. Some manuscripts include that he was “waiting for the moving of the water; for an angel of the Lord went down at certain seasons into the pool, and stirred the water: whoever stepped in first after the stirring of the water was healed of whatever disease he had.”
The name Bethesda means “House of Mercy” or maybe even “House of Kindness,” yet no one had been willing for 38 years to help this sick man into the water so that he could be made well. Jesus, knowing that the man had been there waiting for all those years, asks him a question: “Do you want to be healed?” What could it mean— do you want to be healed? He had been waiting patiently, fervently, for 38 years.
St. Chrysostom in his wonderful homily on John 5 said that it was, “Not that He might learn, that was needless; but that He might show the man's perseverance, and that we might know that it was on this account that He left the others and came to him.”
Of all those sick and suffering at the pool of Bethesda, Jesus approached the one who had suffered long, patiently enduring his suffering, refusing to push others aside to be healed yet never losing hope that he too might one day be cleansed and healed. This story is, of course, rich with baptismal imagery. The waters symbolize ritual purification from physical ailments but more importantly they signify the need to be cleansed from the deeper conditions of sin that are at the root of our separation from God.
In one very real sense the invalid was, upon Christ’s call to stand and walk, healed from his infirmity; but in another even deeper sense, he was also healed from his sin. And in this sense he was truly healed. When Jesus later finds the man in the temple He tells him, “sin no more, that nothing worse may happen to you.” Of course, not all sickness is a result of personal sin but all suffering is the outcome of a broken world — a world broken by sin. When Jesus tells the invalid to sin no more that nothing worse may happen to him, He is telling the man that he has not only been made whole but he has been made holy. Madeline L’Engle writes in her book Walking on Water, “ It is no coincidence that the root word of whole, health, heal, holy, is hale (as in hale and hearty). If we are healed, we become whole; we are hale and hearty; we are holy.”
It was not just that the invalid man had waited for 38 years to be cured from his infirmity, he had waited for 38 years to be healed from his sin. In the House of Mercy, Jesus makes the man well and tells him to pick up his mat and walk. In the House of Yahweh, Jesus calls the man to a life of holiness and tells him to sin no more that he might walk in wholeness all of his days.
Part of the scandal of John 5 is that Jesus heals the man on the Sabbath and that in picking up his mat, the healed man also participates in breaking one of the many laws on Sabbath-keeping. What the Pharisees of course don’t understand is that the Sabbath is not just a day of rest from labor, it is a day of rest from sickness and sin. It is holy day — a day of true wholeness, healing, health. Exodus 21 recounts this aspect of the seventh year (the year of Jubilee) when the Jewish people were required to set their servants free. When Jesus heals the man on the Sabbath, He is setting him free from the slavery of sin. When the man picks up his mat and walks away, he is leaving a life of bondage behind to enter into the temple, into the promised land.
The story of the healing at the pool of Bethesda is a story of hope for those who have suffered long and have not yet received healing. Perhaps it is most especially for those who have waited upon the Lord to be made holy and still feel the pangs of the flesh and of the old Adam. Christ sees the long-suffering, He sees those who have waited upon the Lord without grumbling, who have endured for years upon years and He coms and He asks, Do you want to be whole? May we answer truly, ‘Yea, Lord.”