Sunday, February 16, 2014

Do you want to be made well?

This sermon was preached at Presbury United Methodist Church as part of our exploration of the Gospel of John using the Narrative Lectionary.

Scripture: John 5:1-18
After this there was a festival of the Jews, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem. Now in Jerusalem by the Sheep Gate there is a pool, called in Hebrew Beth-zatha, which has five porticoes. In these lay many invalids—blind, lame, and paralyzed. One man was there who had been ill for thirty-eight years. When Jesus saw him lying there and knew that he had been there a long time, he said to him, “Do you want to be made well?” 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 making my way, someone else steps down ahead of me.” Jesus said to him, “Stand up, take your mat and walk.” At once the man was made well, and he took up his mat and began to walk. Now that day was a sabbath. So the Jews said to the man who had been cured, “It is the sabbath; it is not lawful for you to carry your mat.” But he answered them, “The man who made me well said to me, ‘Take up your mat and walk.’” They asked him, “Who is the man who said to you, ‘Take it up and walk’?” Now the man who had been healed did not know who it was, for Jesus had disappeared in the crowd that was there. Later Jesus found him in the temple and said to him, “See, you have been made well! Do not sin any more, so that nothing worse happens to you.” The man went away and told the Jews that it was Jesus who had made him well. Therefore the Jews started persecuting Jesus, because he was doing such things on the sabbath.

But Jesus answered them, “My Father is still working, and I also am working.” For this reason the Jews were seeking all the more to kill him, because he was not only breaking the sabbath, but was also calling God his own Father, thereby making himself equal to God.

Sermon: “Do you want to be made well?”
Let us pray:
Patient Teacher, Holy Healer, we come to you this morning seeking wholeness.
May the words of scripture as interpreted through the words of my mouth,
and the meditations of all our hearts point us down the path of wellness! Amen.

Jesus' ministry on earth is a healing ministry. The Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke are filled with story after story of people lining up to be healed by Jesus. There is a scene in Jesus Christ Superstar that shows us how overwhelming the need was for those seeking healing. You can see in the picture of the scene how it is as though Jesus will be swallowed up in a sea of needy people. The Gospel of John does not describe people coming after Jesus in such physical desperation, but healing is still a central part of Jesus' ministry in John's Gospel. Healing points ultimately to God's power, and can be a sign by which people begin to believe in the Good News Jesus brings.

But what strikes me in this story is not so much the extravagance of the healing itself. The majority of the story focuses not on the healing itself but on the response of religious authorities who want to punish Jesus for breaking rules about the Sabbath. But none of this is what haunts me in this story. What haunts me is Jesus' question, “Do you want to be made well?

Seems a bit of a rhetorical question, doesn't it? Of course, we want to be made well. No one likes laying in bed coughing up a lung for days, or that feeling of when you forgot to buy the tissues with lotion and now the skin on your nose is raw so just the thought of blowing your nose makes you tear up in pain, or how much it stinks not to be able to eat real food for days after you've had an upset stomach. Now those are all examples of passing illness, and we know there are many of us whose “not-wellness” has nothing to do with a virus or allergies. The man who Jesus approaches has been ill for thirty-eight years, the Gospel writer tells us. We're not sure what kind of illness he has, but we know that he cannot walk on his own, and we know that he sits by the pool of Bethesda hoping that the water will change him.

We don't know too much about the pool of Bethesda other than archeologists uncovered a poor on the north side of the temple in Jerusalem that follows its description. But water, as common and as necessary as it is for human life, holds a mystical element to it in most cultures. As Christians, our baptismal ritual shows us this, how we see God's salvific presence at work in a dabble of water. According to our scripture, people come to the pool in hopes that being immersed in the water will change them, heal them maybe. So perhaps, when Jesus asks the one man the question, “Do you want to be made well?” the man could respond, “If that were not so, why would I be here?”

But that isn't how the man responds. He is kind of defensive, actually, explaining to Jesus that yes, he wants to be made well, but how can he be made well if no one will help him? People won't help him, and thwart his attempts to help himself. He says to Jesus, “Sir, I have no one to put me into the pool when the water is stirred up; and while I am making my way, someone else steps down ahead of me.”

Do you want to be made well? Jesus asks.
Yes, but... we respond.

Perhaps it is a bit unfair of me to read the man's response as a bit defensive. He, after all, does not know who Jesus is, so why would he just respond, “Yes, please”? But even when we do know who Jesus is, I think we respond defensively to this question--- which reveals the way we call on God's help at the same time we refuse to trust God's presence. Yes, we do want healing, God, but we can't be bothered to take all that medicine, or make an appointment with the doctor, and you know God how much we hate talking to that psychologist! Yes, we do want healing, God, but it takes too much effort to eat right and exercise, too much effort to set aside time every day for prayer and bible study. Yes, we do want healing, God, but we can't bear to imagine our lives without that person, no matter how toxic they are. Yes, we do want healing, God, but we can't get to church and feel weird about calling someone over to pray with us.

We know there is something wrong with us. We can sense something is not right, whether it be a physical concern or whether is is something deeper. But often we want God to work on our terms. We want God to wave a magic wand and heal us without requiring any life changes on our part. We won't accept answers of healing if they don't look exactly like we want them to look and occur exactly when we want it to happen. We become impediments to our own selves as we seek to be made well.

But the thing about God is that, even when we put ourselves in the way, God can still answer prayer. So Jesus just says to the man, “Stand up, take your mat, and walk.” And so the man does. We have no narrative description of his joy and perhaps shock at his encounter with Jesus. We don't know what those who have known him for thirty-eight years have to say. All we know is that he stands up, rolls up his mat, and carries it with him to find home.

We do not know, either, if this man puts himself in the way of his continued healing. But we do know that there are others who try to keep him from being made well. Rather than celebrating his healing, religious authorities stop the man and chastise him for carrying his mat. And the man, as he did with Jesus, responds defensively while pointing out that he has undergone this miraculous healing. The authorities do not grab the bait. They are only concerned with making sure everyone follows their own little rules. So they demand to know who, without acknowledging him as a healer, said to the man to “take up his mat and walk.”

Much in the tradition of the religious authorities in Jesus' day, the church can be keeping us from being made well. There are others too--- commercials telling us that even if we feel well we aren't skinny enough and we don't have the right gadgets, for instance. But I was thinking recently about the ways that the church is so concerned with rules and propriety that we don't celebrate wellness.

In seminary, I was in a class with a vibrant, powerful woman who pastored nearby in New Jersey, and one day she shared with us a story about her first marriage. Her husband had become violently abusive, and finally she decided that she did want to be made well and she acted on it. She left her husband, took her kids, but was still stuck living in the same community. It was her church that came to her trying to get her to reconcile with her husband. When she refused, the pastors kicked her out of the church--- until they realized she had been the one tithing to the church and then they tried to invite her back!

I have always been deeply shamed by that story, by the church standing in the way of a woman's healing, the church punishing her for seeking to be made well. This is what the religious authorities did to the man Jesus healed. They belittled him, scared him, so that, though he didn't know who Jesus was at first, later when Jesus came to him, his response was not to get to know Jesus, the Light of the World, but to get his name so he could report back to the authorities.

The man was in the Temple, praying, giving thanks, but now there was a shadow over him. A sorrow, a fear maybe, that these religious authorities placed over him. So when Jesus found him praying, Jesus also found yet something else in the way of this man's full healing. Jesus told him not to sin any longer, hinting at the fullness of life that God's salvation could bring. But the man did not respond. When Jesus left him, the man went and told the authorities Jesus' name.

Do you want to be made well?” This question is not as simple as it appears. Even our own selves and even those people in our lives who we would think would most want to see us well and whole and happy, like our own church, can be a stumbling block to the complete healing Christ offers each and every one of us. But this does not have to be the end of the story. Today we have the opportunity to open ourselves up, to come together in prayer, and to respond fully and joyfully to this question Jesus asks us. Yes. Yes! Yes, we want to be made well.

A Service of Healing with Anointing:
As the man waiting by the pool in Bethesda, we too wait for healing, healing of physical pain and ailments as well as healing of deep grief and emotional pain. Confession is not a prerequisite to healing, as we can see over and over again in stories about Jesus healing people. But, as we learned in the story of this man by the pool in Bethesda, we see how often we let others and even ourselves get in the way of Jesus' healing presence. So today we pray to keep ourselves open and willing to be made well.

O God, Our Great Physician, Healer of every affliction, we know that too often in our pursuit of healing we reject you. We choose to listen to the voices that tell us we aren't good enough or that we are breaking rules that are more important than we are. We speak words of destruction rather than healing to our neighbors. We refuse to put our trust in your presence. Forgive us. Free us to be made well by you.

God doesn't need our hearts to be right to heal us. God offers us grace upon grace, over and over again, always offering to make us well, no matter what.

In Christ's name we are forgiven! Glory to God! Amen!

PASSING OF THE PEACE: Part of confession is reconciliation. That is why we pass the peace before communion, and why we should pass the peace this morning as well. Let us share signs of Christ's peace with one another!

OFFERING: As we have been blessed by Christ's offer of healing, let us bless others with our gifts, tithes, and offerings.

O God, the giver and health of salvation, we give thanks to you for the gift of oil. As your holy apostles anointed many who were sick and healed them, so pour out your Holy Spirit on us and on this gift, that those who in faith and repentance receive this anointing may be made well, may be made whole; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.


1From Healing Service 1 in The United Methodist Book of Worship.

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