Such a lovely room

Such a lovely room

Monday, May 23, 2022

YEAR C 2022 easter 6

Easter 6, 2022
Acts 16:9-15
Revelation 21:10, 22-22:5
John 5:1-9
Psalm 67

In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  Amen.

So, this is a very strange story isn’t it?  I mean, I think we don’t notice the strangeness because Jesus ends up healing the guy, and that’s obviously the most dramatic and important part.  And with that miraculous distraction, we end up maybe not noticing all the particularly strange things in the story.  But let’s take a moment to imagine the scene.

There’s this pool with five porticoes; think of those as five covered walkways leading to the pool.  And in all these walkways there are desperate people in need of healing.  That could be anything from, you know, a headache, all the way to leprosy and missing limbs.  As we heard in the reading, there were blind, lame, and paralyzed people.  And the reason they’re all there is because they believe that at particular times—when the water is stirred up—the first one into the water would be healed.

But think about what this means.  Only one person—the first person in—would receive the healing powers of the water.  Which means the healthiest person would be first, while the most needy person—the one unable to push to the front of the line—would be the least likely to get healed.  The least needy—that is, the most healthy—would receive the powers of restoration from the water.  So, each time the water is stirred up, somebody with a little headache runs to the pool and jumps in first, while the blind, lame, and paralyzed slowly crawl to the edge, only to be disappointed.  Day after day.

In other words, the first shall be first, and the last shall be last.  That doesn’t sound right, does it?  Backwards, right?  Is this pool some kind of miraculous gift from God given for healing of the people?  Well, let’s think about the situation we see here . . . when do we ever see God rewarding the one who pushes to the front of the line?  When do we see God punishing the weak and powerless, while giving more advantages to those who already have the advantage?  The answer is never, that’s when.

Humans work that way; capitalism works that way; but that is not how God works.  The rich getting richer is never what Jesus taught.  God is always lifting up the oppressed, freeing the captives, caring for the widows and orphans, giving to the have nots, rather than the haves.  So, this is not God’s pool, sorry.  But if this magical pool is not a gift from God for the healing of the sick, what is it?

The answer goes back to Greek mythology.  Hang in there with me for a minute.  The god Apollo had a son named Asclepius, and taught him the arts of healing.  At some point, a grateful snake licked the ears of Asclepius and whispered healing secrets in his ears.  (Which is why Asclepius is always pictured with a snake wrapped around his walking stick—an image you’ve seen before if you’ve ever been to a doctor’s office or a hospital.)

So, Asclepius is connected to miraculous healing, and to snakes, and so the Greeks built these temples in his honor, called Asclepeions, where people would go for healing.  These temples featured non-venomous snakes slithering around, because of the magical powers of that snake that licked the ears of Asclepius.  The pool described in today’s gospel is generally thought to be part of one of these Asclepeions.  You hang around the temple when you need healing, and one of the ways you might get that healing is to get yourself in that pool at just the right moment.  (When the guy who only has a headache is hopefully distracted by a snake slithering over his foot.)

So all that is just to give us the background, to explain why everyone is gathered around this pool in the first place.  And the guy in our gospel reading says he has been sitting by this pool for 38 years.  Thirty.  Eight.  Years.    If people really are getting healed at this pool, one at a time, this guy has seen lots of people come and go, probably mostly with headaches and common colds, while he tries to drag himself back and forth to and from the water.  For 38 years.  The implied message here is this:  This system is not helping those who need help the most.  The healing system of Asclepius would tell us that god helps those who help themselves.  Which is not in the Bible.  Anywhere.

You know where the phrase “the gods help those who help themselves” comes from?  Ancient Greece.  That’s where.  You know, the very civilization that gave us pools where the healthiest people get more healthy, while the sick people can just lay there for 38 years.  So, yeah, the gods might help those who help themselves . . . or not . . . but then, here comes Jesus, the actual son of God.

Jesus asks the man, "Do you want to be made well?"  It’s a yes or no question.  And the man says, "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.”  This man immediately goes to why it is impossible: the unjust system prevents him from being healed.  And he’s not wrong.  Maybe he’s hoping that Jesus will carry him to the water at the appropriate time.  Maybe this stranger Jesus guy will help him to finally beat the system.  Get him to the water before Mr. I Have a Headache can get there.  He wants Jesus to work within this system of first-come first-served.  Which also means, if he does get healed, someone else will not get healed.  It’s a zero-sum game, this healing water of Asclepius.  Only one person can get healed, and it’s the able-bodied person at the front of the line.

But notice that exchange they have:  Jesus asks him, “Do you want to be made well?”  It’s a yes or no question.  Jesus doesn’t ask him, “Why haven’t you been made well?”  Jesus doesn’t ask him, “How come you ended up so sick?”  Jesus doesn’t say, “After 38 years, couldn’t you have beat this unjust system of the first being first and the last being last?”  No, Jesus simply asks, “Do you want to be made well?”  And the guy never says yes.  He doesn’t say yes.   He never says yes to Jesus.

In the third chapter of John’s Gospel, Nicodemus comes to Jesus seeking spiritual truth, and he hears that he must be born again.  In the fourth chapter of John’s Gospel, Jesus talks to the Samaritan woman at the well and she learns about living water and proclaims that Jesus is the Messiah.  And here in the fifth chapter of John’s Gospel . . . we get . . . nothing.  No spiritual insight.  No deep theological content.  No hint of faith, or even self awareness.  It’s just a guy—who has no idea who Jesus is—who has no expectation of getting healed, other than beating everyone else to the water.  He can’t even answer a yes or no question, because he can’t imagine that world.

And Jesus heals him anyway.  This man does nothing to earn it.  He does nothing to prove he’s worthy.  He does nothing to show he even knows who Jesus is.  And Jesus heals him anyway.  It is pure undeserved and unexpected grace.  He is healed in spite of himself, not because of himself.

That’s not how this is supposed to work, right?  We expect people to act a certain way, to believe a certain set of things, to understand who Jesus is, so that he can save them.  Like, people have to meet God halfway.  The Lord helps those who help themselves . . . if that lord is Asclepius.  But that’s not Jesus: that’s Greek mythology.  Because Jesus heals the man anyway, asking and expecting nothing from him.

As Christians, sometimes we do actually look and act like the people of God.  Like the people who know who Jesus is.  Like the ones who can answer a simple yes or no question about whether or not we want to be healed.  And sometimes . . . we don’t.  Sometimes, we can’t.

This gospel story reminds us that Jesus always heals, always forgives, and always raises us to new life.  Jesus asks us, “Do you want to be healed?”  And our first instinct might be to explain why things aren’t going as they should, or why we aren’t better at living up to someone else’s standards, or explaining how the system is keeping us down . . . because it actually is.  But that’s not the question.  The question is, Do you want to be healed?  

Jesus has come to the pool and announced that he is here for everyone.  And he comes first to the ones who are farthest from the water.  That is what makes the difference.  Jesus is here for everyone.  But especially the ones farthest away from the water.  You do not need to say yes to Jesus; you do not need to get yourself to the water by your own strength and effort; you do not need to bargain with Jesus to carry you to the water.  

In a system that says you need to get yourself to the water, that you need to get ahead in order to survive, you just need to let Jesus do what Jesus does.  To make you whole, and restore you to who you were meant to be all along.  God helps those who can’t help themselves.  And that is every single one of us.  And no matter how we might respond to him, Jesus still comes to makes us whole.  Thanks be to God.


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