In this section there are two major things taking place which are worthy of comment – the healing which Jesus brings to the man by the pool, and the subsequent reaction of the Jewish leaders.
Before talking about the healing itself it is important to understand just where this event was taking place. The Pool at Bethesda was a place which had a reputation for having healing qualities. From time to time the waters of the pool would bubble up and the local belief was that the first person to get into the bubbling water would be healed of their ailment. This was a pool where Jewish people gathered for healing. It was also a place where pagan people gathered in the hope of healing. This pool was recognized as a sacred place by many traditions at the time.
At the pool Jesus encounters a man who has suffered from his ailment for 38 years. Jesus has a very simple question for him: Do you want to get well? It seems like a silly question doesn’t it? In one sense you would imagine that the man would be extremely eager to get well – he has been bound with this ailment for so long surely he wants to be free of it, right? On the other hand though, he has been in this situation for 38 years and there is the strong possibility that he has become used to the life that he lives, and the idea of change is more of a threat to him than an opportunity at this time, after all no one really likes change – even when it is for the better. In response to the question the sick man responds by stating that he does indeed want to get well, but each time the pool water is stirred and bubbling someone else makes it into the pool before he does because he has no one to help him. Jesus abruptly responds to him by telling him to get up, take his mat and walk. Immediately he was healed, he took his mat, and he walked.
Just. Like. That.
The sick man, by the word of Jesus, is invited to stand up and walk in a new direction. Not only is his body now able to function properly, but this healing opens up to him a world of new opportunity. He no longer needs to sit by this pool at Bethesda and wait for healing. He no longer is dependent on the help and generosity of others. He is able to stand up and walk into a brand new life so completely different from the old one. Where he was bound and restrained by illness in the old life, he is now free to move. Where he was resigned to scraping his way through life on the generosity of others, he now has the potential to work and create and even be generous to others who might find themselves having to remain by the pool. His old life has gone and his new life is just beginning.
Old life gone.
New life beginning.
Is that ringing any bells with you in regard to what John has been talking about all the way through the first 4 chapters of his gospel? Can you make the connection? Jesus is not simply healing this man so that he can come back to the pool the next day and keep on living life the way he was living it before this encounter. Jesus is removing the shackles of illness and injury in order to give this man the opportunity to live a completely new life. When Jesus heals it is not just business as usual afterwards for this man. When Jesus heals it is an invitation for him to go and live a new life. This is the over-arching message of John’s writing: The light has come and shines in the darkness; the Chosen one of God has come so that all may find this new life and walk in it. Jesus is here to announce and enact the fresh work of God in the world and he is doing that in acts like this one.
It is great news.
There is one problem though: Jesus performed this particular healing, and invited this man to get up and carry his mat on the Sabbath.
In the creation narratives of the Jewish Torah (the first five books of the Old Testament) God worked for 6 days to create the world and on the 7th day God rested. In response to God’s rhythm of work and rest good lawful Jews would operate in a similar way – they would work for six days and then religiously observe sabbath, a day in which no work would be done. Much thought had gone into the careful defining of ‘work’ and lawful Jews would know exactly what constituted work and what did not. Carrying your mat on the Sabbath was definitely work.
Jesus, it would appear, had deliberately instructed the healed man to break the sabbath rules by telling him to carry his mat. And this did not go unnoticed. The Jewish leaders confronted the man and reminded him what day of the week it was and that he was not lawfully allowed to carry his mat. The healed man told them what had just happened and that the the one who had healed him told him to get up and carry his mat.
When I read this text there is huge part of me that wants to take the Jewish leaders aside and give them a good shake. The awe-struck, signs and wonders obsessed side of me wants to ask these guys how on earth it is that they can encounter a man who has been physically healed after 38 years of chronic disability and their only response be to comment on the day of the week that it took place. To me, theirs is an exercise in completely and utterly missing the point. The man has just been physically healed for goodness sake!
But I am not a first century, law observing Jew. Whether I like it or not, the fact that this took place on the Sabbath was important to this group of leaders.
It is also important in this story because John is emphasizing his main point again: Jesus has come to bring light into the darkness and to announce and enact the fresh new work of God.
Think about it.
Jesus knows exactly what he is doing here. He knows it is the sabbath and he knows what is lawful and what is not lawful. Did Jesus have to heal this man on this particular day? No way! The man has been like this for 38 years – one more day is not going to make that much of a difference. Jesus could have come back the next day and healed this man and there would have been nothing more said by the religious leaders of the time. But Jesus’ actions were not simply about making a sick man well. They were about making a bigger point – that God is doing God’s new work, a work that these Jewish leaders and their ancestors before them had been waiting for. Unfortunately these guys could not see who Jesus was (the Truel Light/God’s chosen one), and the words of John’s prologue in chapter one were being lived out: “He came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him.” (John 1:11)
When I consider this I can’t help but ask the question of myself and of you who read this: Is there anything that I/you am/are holding on to, which is blinding me to the work of God and blocking me from embracing and joining in with that work of God? If there is then the question rising out of this passage is very simple: Out of the characters in this story, who do I/you want to be more like?
Do we want to be like the sick man who is given the gift of new life? Or do we want to be like the religious leaders of the time, who were so fixated on rules and regulations that they could not accept or fathom a God who might be doing God’s new work in a new way which took no real notice of the laws and boundaries that had been put in place by human minds?
I know which one I want to be.
How about you?