Several years ago, early one Saturday morning during the Fourth of July weekend, our Associate Minister and I were called to the hospital because a member of our church family had suffered a rather serious heart attack. That’s not so unusual, except that this time the hospital was Grady: Grady Memorial Hospital, the inner-city public hospital in downtown Atlanta.
To begin with, Grady is huge. We must have walked down a dozen different, twisting hallways and through more double-wide steel doors than we could count. Everywhere you looked — in rooms, along the hall-ways, in large rooms with the letters of the alphabet posted around the walls so doctors and nurses could keep up with people, sometimes with police guards and leg shackles — everywhere you looked there was someone in need.
Many were crying out for help, but the medical professionals were over-run with demands and simply couldn’t get to everyone in a timely manner. Some were there because they had pushed life’s envelope way too far in the realm of drugs and alcohol. Some were there because they had been involved in serious altercations the night before that had resulted in life-threatening injuries.
Most were there, though, because it was the only place they could go for help — no insurance, no money, no help from family, no anything: just Grady. A friend of mine once described going to Grady as an experience roughly akin to visiting a Third World Country. I think he might be right.
It was my first visit to Grady, and never in my life had I seen such a mass of humanity with such serious needs. We were looking for just one person, and we finally found her. She was in a large room, against the wall, under the letter “L” waiting in a long line, hoping against hope there would soon be help.
I tell you this today because in some ways, the pool known as Bethesda was Jerusalem’s Grady. It was the gathering place for the sick and infirmed who had no where else to turn. Located near the Sheep Gate, it seems to have been the popular place for the sick in the first century world of Judea.
Archaeologists uncovered, late last century, the reservoir which formed this pool — known in some places as Bethesda, which means house of mercy; and in other places as Bethzatha, which means house of the olive tree. It was surrounded by five great colonnades, which provided limited shelter from the elements.
Invalids of every kind were brought to this pool, because there was a belief that somehow help could be found there. In the remains of this pool, there was also uncovered a faded fresco on one of the walls which pictured an angel troubling the water. This naturally reflects the legend that people associated with the pool in the first place.
It was, in many ways, a place of final hope. According to John, there were many, many sick people gathered by the pool. He further describes the sick people, or invalids as some translations offer it, as being those who were blind, lame, and paralyzed — a word which literally means “dried up.” Quite a collection, wouldn’t you say? Very much like walking down the halls of Grady Hospital, where you see every kind of disease imaginable, and then some, and in so many ways people have come there with the realization that if they don’t find hope here, they won’t find it at all.
This was the world of Bethesda: a mass of humanity at its lowest point of hopelessness. Everywhere you turned there must have been voices of despair crying out for one last chance, one moment of hope.
I’m not sure why Jesus went there. He must not have been like we are — prone to be avoiding such places at all costs. You know how we think, if we don’t see it, or hear its voices, or smell its stench — then it doesn’t exist, and if it does, it will go away all by itself. For some reason Jesus went by the pool, its porticos littered with the bodies of those who could not care for themselves and who were desperately hoping that they would be the first in the pool when and if an angel troubled the waters.
Thirty-eight Years and Counting
It was while walking through these corridors of despair that always characterize such places that Jesus meets a man he will come to love deeply. John doesn’t tell us exactly what it was about the man that attracted Jesus to him over the others, except that he had been sick for such a long time: 38 years. Exactly how Jesus knew this, the Bible doesn’t say.
Jesus begins His relationship with the man by asking a startling question: “Do you want to get well?” The question itself likely implies that this particular man, like many at the pool, had reached the point in life where his sickness had worked on his spirit so long that there was doubt as to whether or not he had the will to want to get well.
Do you think that perhaps Jesus understands the first step to healing, even miraculous healing, is a desire to want to be better in the first place? Sometimes walking down the hallways of the Grady Hospitals in our world, you discover that it is evidently a lot easier to be sick than it is to get well; simply to be placed at the Bethesdas of our world, rather than to be a productive member of society. There is kind of hopelessness in that routine that seems to breed more victims every day.
The man’s response is immediate but rather hopeless. He tells Jesus he wants to get well, but he has no one to put him in the pool when the waters are troubled. Life around the pool of Bethesda was very much an every-man-for-himself kind of life. Sure he wanted to be healed, but there was no hope that he could ever be the first to get into the pool. Human misery often is only increased by such hopelessness. It really isn’t too hard to understand how such a defeated spirit can develop.
Jesus, however, had something far different than a legend about a pool whose water was occasionally troubled by an angel. He simply says to the man: “Get up, pick up your mat, walk!” That wasn’t exactly what the man expected to hear. At the most he probably thought Jesus would help him into the pool at the right moment. But he was so startled by what Jesus had to say that he evidently took Jesus at His word and did exactly what he was told.
The Bible says that “at once” the man was healed. The word John uses means “immediately.” There was no doubt. There was no delay. There was no need for time to pass by to see if it worked. It was immediate! The man, at the word of Jesus, picked up his mat and walked: and that after 38 years of being a hopeless invalid. Perhaps it was an even greater miracle that the man even tried to get up — there must have been something about the look on Jesus’ face, the tone in Jesus’ voice, the depth of His compassion.
There’s always one. You would think that the whole city would be excited. Here is a man who has been an invalid for 38 years. He is a burden on his family if he has one, a burden on his culture, and a hopeless testimony to the power of illness to zap our spirit.
Jesus heals him by the power of His word and what happens: “What do you mean healing on the Sabbath?” For this very reason, the Jews began a series of hostile acts towards Jesus with the goal of killing Him. Jesus had the nerve to heal someone in violation of their traditions, not God’s, about the Sabbath and then tell the man to pick up his mat and walk.
Jesus evidently missed the seminary lecture on marketing and church growth. When He hears of their displeasure, He determines to push it just a step further: “My Father is working until now, and I too am working.” When they hear that Jesus claims God as His Father and affirms that God is working, they are even more determined than ever to get rid of the Sabbath-breaking blasphemer.
Where Do We Go From Here?
Clearly the purpose of this story, at its most basic level, is once again to demonstrate the power of Jesus Christ as the Son of God. It is, like the whole of the gospel of John, written so that we might believe the truth about this One who came from heaven to redeem us. He is no impostor like the false-messiahs who had come before Him had proven to be.
Beyond that, we learn some lessons within the contents of this story demonstrated as valuable life tools. These are lessons that, when taken to heart, can help us to more productively serve Him as the Christ we have come to believe Him to be.
We should take note of the power of Jesus’ Word. He speaks, and the man is healed. There is not the slightest hint of any sort of prayer cloth being passed over to the man; no oil with which to anoint his withered, dried up body; no dancing and shouting on the part of Jesus: He simply spoke, and it happened. We should always be careful that we don’t underestimate the power of the Word of God. Even in situations where healing isn’t the issue, we tread on thin ice when we treat the Word of God and its proclamation with less respect than it deserves.
The naysayers are always around. Even Jesus couldn’t do good without having those who have nothing better to do than complain. Here they are surrounded by hundreds of invalids and Jesus has the compassion to heal one of them, and what do they do? Complain. I would like to think that had I been there, I might have said “Lord, can you heal some more?”
God never liked complaining. The Old and New Testaments give ample testimony to that fact. I suspect that He still doesn’t. It doesn’t mater how much good you try to do, there will always be someone ready to point out what you did wrong. I used to worry about that. But when you read stories like this you realize that even Jesus had to face His own share of people whose chief aim in life was to be miserable and make others miserable along with them. Then comes an awareness that there is no need in letting such garbage get the best of you. “Consider the source,” I tell myself and move on.
There is the obvious lesson of going where the needs are. The truth of the matter is that it is a lot easier to avoid the Gradys of our world, than it is to go there and serve. The only world some of us want to see is the nice, clean, sterile, healthy world in which we live. Grady is for the Mother Teresas; we prefer to follow the more antiseptic world of the Princess Dianas.
Not Jesus. He went directly to the pool — a pool noted for the presence of hopeless masses, whose only bright spot was perhaps being first in the pool when an angel troubled it. Where have you gone lately, where you might be the only spark of hope in the midst of a greatly troubled world?
At the week of camp I directed for fourth and fifth graders this summer, our missionary speaker was Professor Bill Wade, who teaches at Atlanta Christian College. His daughter, Martha is in her late thirties, single, and serves as a Bible translator in a remote jungle village in Papua New Guinea. After you have taken advantage of all the modern means of transportation, you still have about a four-hour canoe ride to where she lives.
Her task is to create a written language for these people and then translate God’s Word into that language. In one of the most moving missionary moments I’ve ever witnessed at camp, Professor Wade told about one of the village elders, who was being used by Martha to help create this new written language. He could help because he and Martha both knew the same trade language and could thus communicate in that manner. When she was finally finished with a portion of one of the gospels, she had this village elder read it. When he was finished, his first words were, “Now I know God speaks our language.”
Our world is filed with Bethesda-like places. We need to go there and speak on behalf of our Lord. I realize that I can’t simply speak and someone who has been an invalid for 38 years will stand up and walk. But I have something far greater than even that to offer — eternal life.
It is far too easy to stay in our comfort zones, while the needs of Bethesda call out. It is far too easy to quit when the critics point out our failures, but they aren’t God, and we need not quit.
This man came to understand something that day that you and I will do well to learn: even the most hopeless of moments can be redeemed by the Word of our Lord. I don’t know where you are in life at this moment; no doubt some in this very place are in the pits of despair, looking for someone to help. That is what this church is here for, and we must work hard to offer that hope.