Limp in, leap out!
I saw those words on a large billboard in Birmingham, Alabama. Naturally I looked to see what they were advertising. Birmingham Springs Company, said the sign. It was a garage for rehabilitating car springs.
My mind turned immediately to this story in the Gospel of John, about the man who had been lame for thirty-eight years and lay daily by the pool of Bethzatha in old Jerusalem. Apparently the pool was thought to possess special healing powers at particular times, when the water would begin to roll from underground pressures. There was a legend that an angel troubled the waters, and that bathing in them when the angel had been there would work miracles.
The whole idea, in other words, was "Limp in, leap out!"
The pool with its five porticoes (or covered porches) was rediscovered by archaeologists in 1871, and may be visited today by those who travel to Jerusalem. It is not a very large or impressive site, but it was obviously important to the inhabitants of the city in New Testament times. It may very well have been a spring-fed pool with medicinal qualities, like some of the famous spas of Europe.
The image of such a pool, and of the many sick and crippled people who entered it to be well, reminds us that there are natural places of restoration in the world around us where people can literally limp in and then feel as if they are leaping out. I am thinking not just of spas and mineral springs, but of organizations and institutions that are in the business of helping us when we are feeling spent or ill or crippled -- hospitals, rest homes, clinics, retreat houses, and the like.
We go at such a clip today, carrying such enormous burdens of stress and responsibility, that we easily become dysfunctional. "Sliding down the razor blade of life" is the way one person put it. Life is tough. Sometimes we break under the pressure. We begin to limp along. Then we go some place for health -- thank God there are such places! -- and, when we are better, we leap out and go home.
But sometimes -- sometimes we become so crippled by the burdens we are carrying that we don't even have the power to limp in. We know that a good rest in a sanatorium would help us, or that we ought to get involved in a church, or that we might find help at AA, but we are simply so tired, and in so deep, that we cannot resolve to do what we need to do and then do it.
A woman recently described for me the state of mind she was in after a series of calamities had struck her. Her business was doing poorly, the bank was pressing her for repayment of a loan, her mother fell ill and had to be hospitalized, and her nephew -- who lived with her -- had an accident on the freeway and totaled her car.
"I felt as if I were out in a swiftly moving river," she said, "and the current was carrying me towards the falls. I kept waiting to go over the edge, and there was absolutely nothing I could do about it. I felt completely helpless!"
This is where the story of the John 5:1-9
speaks to us. He too was helpless. For years, probably, he had sat or lain near the famous pool of Bethzatha, watching others plunge into the waters whenever it stirred. It probably looked like opening hour at a bargain basement sale, with everybody pushing and shoving to get in. But he was too crippled to get in and didn't have anybody to help him.