By Dennis R. Atwood
Friday, January 01, 1999
I suppose we all have our challenges to face. As children we were either too short, too tall, too fat, or too skinny. Someone else was always smarter, or faster, or more popular. As adults we are either too young or too old, too inexperienced or too overqualified, too busy or too alone.
Sometimes it's more serious. We carry the baggage of being abused in some unfair way, we worry about how to pay the bills, we grieve over a loss of someone close, we agonize over a rebellious child, or we face an uncertain future of chronic physical problems.
We all experience disappointments and failures which are often beyond our own control. We get frustrated, impatient, and angry at the way life has treated us. We may then become resentful and bitter.
There are some of us who appear to have it all together while on the inside we wonder why life seems so empty and meaningless. Maybe we can't exactly put our finger on it, we just know that something is missing. But this is usually a temporary state, what with so many distractions around. As Neil Postman says, thanks to our culture, "We can easily amuse ourselves to death."
Then for many of us, I suspect, we're so accustomed to our predictable, safe pattern of living that we become unaware there's more to which God is calling us. We get so accustomed to the familiar -- day after day, week after week, month after month, year after year -- that we fail to realize the difference between living and simply existing. Our status is quo, and thus we fail to recognize the abiding sickness which resides within our own souls.
38 Years and Counting
Whatever pain we carry, it seems rather insignificant compared to the man in this morning's story. He had been an invalid for 38 years. We don't know the cause of his suffering. We just know that for a very long time he had been unable to do the things most of us take for granted. But, apparently he still had a sliver of hope.
This man took his place with many others who shared a similar plight. After all, misery does love company. They gathered at the pool of Bethesda in Jerusalem where some said that every now and again an angel would disturb the waters, and the first one in would be healed. But that's a mighty tall order if you can't get up. It was the kind of atmosphere that TV preachers dream about.
Then, one day, someone better than an angel, or a televangelist, comes along -- though no one really knows this at the time. His name is Jesus -- the friend of sinners, the compassionate man, the divine healer. Surely Jesus will tell them to forget about their superstitions and throw a healing party for them all.
But something strange happens next. The compassionate Jesus takes a look at the man lying on the ground and asks a very insensitive question: 'Do you want to be made well?" Talk about "politically incorrect" speech! What was he thinking? This poor sick man could have rightfully come back with some sarcastic response like, "Sir, I really enjoy being here completely unable to move!"
Yet there was something about the way Jesus looked at him, something about the way he asked the question, that made it not so foolish a question after all. The answer was not as obvious as it must have seemed. Jesus wanted to know. Did the man really want to be made well or not?
He had waited in this condition for 38 years and it might have been that all hope had died. The man might have been content to remain an invalid. After all, if he was cured he would have to bear all the responsibilities of making a living for himself. There are people who find a sense of security in sickness, and for them, suffering isn't that unpleasant because someone else does the work and worry for them.
"Do you want to be made well?" Maybe it wasn't such a dumb question after all. The man failed to give a direct answer. Why not a simple "yes"? 38 years is a long time to be able to settle into a kind of comfort and safety even in misery. Being well holds more responsibilities. Being well holds more accountability.
But the man did respond quickly. He wanted to be healed, but he didn't see how since he had no one to help him up when the waters stirred within the pool. Besides, someone else always managed beat him to the punch when he did try to make his way down to those magical waters.
Still, Jesus had to know if the man really wanted to receive the gift of healing. So he quickly cut right to the heart of the matter: "Stand up, take your mat and walk."
The Question Behind the Question
Jesus spoke the word, but God's healing power could not be let loose until the man assumed the responsibility of choosing life and risking the possibility of transformation! What's true then is still true for us.
The deeper question Jesus asks is, "Do you really want to be changed?" If we are content to stay as we are -- no matter how miserable that may be -- there can be no change, no possibility of healing for us. It is almost as if Jesus said to the man: "Bend your will to it and you and I will do this thing together!" (William Barclay, The Gospel of John: 178-79)
The gospel truth is that we all must recognize our own utter helplessness apart from God. That is our shared human condition. But then we must realize it is also true that miracles can happen when our will cooperates with God's power to make them possible. (Barclay, 180) The question Jesus asks is the ultimate question each of us must answer, "Do you really want to be made well?"
Even God himself can do little for us if we are comfortable with our place in life. Too often we plod along in our debilitating condition, craving to be healed, yet resisting any change whatsoever. Carl Sandburg once said: "There is an eagle in me that wants to soar, and there is a hippopotamus in me that wants to wallow in the mud."
A part of me wants to fly like an eagle, but I get too accustomed to wallowing in the mud. We all have our dreams and visions, but then as we get older, life's realities convince us to settle for less -- or to forget them altogether. We get the message, "This is just the way the system works," and eventually we get sucked into the system while our dreams fade away.
An article in the Bergen (NJ) Record illustrated just how complacent we can become to our immediate circumstances. It told of a zoo in Copenhagen, Denmark that put a human couple on display. Henrik Lehman and Malene Botoft lived in a see-through cage, in the primate display, next to the baboons and monkeys.
Their 320-square-foot habitat had a living room with furniture, a computer, a television and stereo. The kitchen and bedroom were also a part of the display. Only the bathroom was hidden from public view.
Unlike their neighbors, who weren't allowed out, the two humans occasionally left their fishbowl existence to shop and water the flowers on their porch back at home. "We don't notice the visitors anymore," said Lehman. "If I want to pick my nose or my toes now, I do it." (Parade, Dec. 29, 1996)
Yes, we humans have an innate ability to adjust to just about any kind of circumstance in order to survive. Sometimes survival is the best we can hope for. Our problem, however, is that we too often settle for surviving rather than authentic living.
Jesus' question to the man was about physical healing, but the man's physical condition was not the main point. The question behind the question is about life itself: "Just what do you want from life? What is it you really need with God?" I'm afraid that many of us really don't know what it is we need.
Then Healing Doesn't Come
Most of what we come to expect out of life comes straight from the television or movie screen. We buy into the false reality that our culture hands to us. We sell our souls for an illusion of life -- not the real thing.
We also buy into the false reality peddled of a God who can be manipulated in order to make us healthier, wealthier, and wiser. With this god, everything happens by cause and effect. If you are suffering, then you have sinned. If you aren't being healed, then you don't yet have enough faith.
Did you notice in today's scripture there was a crowd of sick people surrounding that pool? There were many invalids -- the blind, the lame, the paralyzed. And as far as we know, Jesus asked only one of them if he would like to be healed. What about the others? What became of them?
Surely Jesus cared about them too, but he offers no explanation as to why grace came on that day to this particular man. There is a mystery about God's healing and grace that we cannot fathom or predict. Sometimes, though we want it desperately, healing does not come -- at least in the way we want it.
What Will It Be?
The well being Christ offers to all of us is greater than our physical world. It has to do with the sickness of our souls. St. Augustine said, "We are all restless until we find our rest in Thee." This is what God offers to us in Christ -- rest for our souls. But maybe we have something different in mind -- something more material. If so, then maybe we don't really want to be made well after all.
Jesus asks us the question today, and He deserves an honest answer. Healing will come on God's terms, not ours. It is really a question of faith. Can you trust God to change you without manipulating the results? Can you let go of your own fear of change and allow God to make all things new? A new life, a new way of living, that is the Good News of God in Christ.
If you really want to be made well, then you must cooperate with God's power. Jesus said to the man, "Get up ... and walk." That is His invitation to you and me this morning: "Get up ... walk ... put one foot in front of the other ... follow me."