What if you had suffered for thirty-eight years from lameness because of something you did while you were young? What if you believed there was a possible place and a time to be healed, but you were always just one step away and a moment too late to get there? What if your life was ruled by the bleak notion that you deserved to suffer and that, for you, defeat might be inevitable? This is the kind of person Jesus healed in John 5:1-47.
One of the most interesting and pivotal stories in the Bible is John’s account of Jesus healing the lame man on the Sabbath. This miracle accelerated the conflict between Jesus and the Sanhedrin, and the passionate argument continued over his claims to be the Son of God and his teachings about the Sabbath. I’m not planning to go into those topics here; instead, I want to concentrate on the Great Physician’s interactions with his patient, the lame man.
Near the temple in Jerusalem, at the Sheep Gate, there was a deep bathing pool called the Pool of Bethesda (often translated “pool of mercy”) surrounded by five porches in which many sick and infirm people gathered. Instead of being a good rabbi teaching his disciples in the temple courts, Jesus chose to visit the disgraceful, sinful, cursed, lame, blind, and sick people waiting near this pool on the Sabbath during the Passover. The Jewish leaders were busy doing “religious” stuff, but Jesus was preparing to turn the religious world upside down.
John 5:4 is considered by most scholars to be text added by a scribe long after John wrote his gospel and should not be a biblical teaching, but as a marginal note, it does explain the possible reasoning of the sick people resting there. The lame man definitely believed that he could be healed if he could be the first into the water when the water was stirred up. (John 5:7)
So, there the lame man lay, day after day, even on the Sabbath, waiting. And waiting. And waiting. Thirty-eight years of suffering from his disability may have made the lame man one of the most senior people at the pool. Jesus knew the man had been this way for a long time (John 5:6). Because he was God, Jesus also knew why the man was in this condition.
Two things intrigue me about this passage:
1) The Question: “Do you want to be healed?” (John 5:6)
God likes to start difficult conversations with questions. He asked Adam, “Where are you?” (Gen. 3:9) Like He didn’t know! He asked, “What are you doing here, Elijah?” (I Kings 19:9) God asked Job, “Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge?” (Job 38:2)
Jesus, God, knew the lame man, and yet, he asked, “Do you want to be healed?” Jesus offered the lame man a choice. The lame man seemed to think that Jesus was questioning his sincerity because he immediately explained that he had no friends to help him down into the pool. But, I think Jesus wasn’t questioning the lame man’s sincerity as much as he was giving him a choice: to be healed or to remain unchanged. Both reasons work and maybe both applied at the time. At any rate, Jesus knew that healing would bring consequences to the lame man, some good and some bad.
Jesus also knew that more than physical healing was necessary. Spiritual healing was even more critical than physical healing (and always is). The physical condition of the lame man – unfit, suffering, helpless, and isolated – was a mirror of his spiritual condition. Anyone who turns to Jesus for spiritual healing must face his or her own state of suffering, helpless, unfit isolation and be able to answer “yes” to His question: “Do you want to be healed?”
Do I? Do I really? Do you? Really? We must make our choice. And, we must accept that healing will bring consequences. In the case of the lame man, his healing brought him into direct conflict with his society and its powerful leaders. That’s still true for believers today.
2) The Caution: “See, you are well! Sin no more, that nothing worse may happen to you.” (John 5:14)
In the lame man’s case, his physical condition was linked to a state of sin. This is different from the case of the man born blind (John 9) in which Jesus was careful to say that the blind man’s condition wasn’t linked to sin, either his own or his parents’.
After the lame man obeyed Jesus and picked up his mat and walked, there was a confrontation between the leaders and the healed man about “working” on the Sabbath. I’ll leave that topic for another day, but John relates that afterward, Jesus had a second, private conversation with the healed man. Jesus met the man in the temple (a promising beginning) which may indicate the healed man’s wish to give praise to God or to participate in the Passover feast. However, Jesus wasn’t concerned about the healed man’s new life among the physically-fit; Jesus was concerned about the man’s spiritual state.
“Sin no more, that nothing worse may happen to you.” What could be worse than being lame and friendless for thirty-eight years? Sin is worse. Sin always makes anything and everything worse. Do you see the care in what Jesus did and said? He sought the man out to finish what he started. The physical healing helped Jesus make a point, as a sign of authority and as an object lesson about keeping the Sabbath, but the spiritual healing for the sinful man was even more important to Jesus.
It’s no accident that John relates this story immediately after the last one where Jesus proclaims himself to be “living water” to the Samaritan woman at the well. The true pool of mercy is Jesus who is the source of living water. The only source of spiritual healing is Jesus. Spiritual healing is dependent on a choice and comes with consequences like conflict and controversy.
For more about Water and Spirit, check out:
Water and Spirit Introduction
1) Water and Spirit and Creation
2) Water and Spirit and the New Man
3) Water and Spirit and Wine
4) Water and Spirit and Nicodemus
5) Water and Spirit and the Jordan
6) Water and Spirit at the Well: Decision, Decisions