Now, take that fear and frustration and anger and resignation and project it across 38 years. That’s how long a particular lame man had lost the use of his legs. Now he sat at the Pool of Bethesda in Jerusalem. The story went that, when an angel stirred the water, the first person to get into the pool was healed, and as people kept going back there, something must have been going on.
Whatever it was, it wasn’t happening for this man. Those who successfully made it into the water had someone to help them; meanwhile he sat there, watching others get to the pool edge before him, feeling abandoned. And this pool was next to the city’s Sheep Gate, through which daily herds of animals passed through to be sacrificed at the Temple. Not that the man could turn to God for help – Leviticus 21:16-20 taught that the lame would not be allowed to bring a sacrifice to the Temple. Being next to the Sheep Gate every day was a bitter reminder of that.
Bethesda. ‘House of Mercy’. Yeah, right.
And then someone stands – or sits, I like to think he sits – next to him. It’s Jesus, and while this means something to us, to the man he’s a stranger. “Don’t you want to get well?” Jesus asks, in what seems to be one of the most obviously insensitive questions in the Bible.
Or maybe it isn’t – after all, 38 years is plenty of time to shape a personality. We don’t know how long he’d been sitting by the pool, but the implication is that it was quite a while- years maybe. And does it really take years to get to the edge of a pool? And as the guy probably wasn’t working, was he earning a living through begging? Being healed might actually threaten his income – 38 years is a long time to be out of the workforce, especially when the average life expectancy was in the 40s. This may explain the ambivalence of his answer, a reason for not being in the pool rather than a desperate plea for healing.
And yet it’s healing he gets. Jesus tells him to pick up his mat and walk – and he does.
Only it’s a Sabbath, and some religious watchdogs immediately lay into the guy for carrying his mat – it’s a form of ‘work’ after all.
It’s a fundamentally messed up attitude to have towards a miraculous healing, and you’ve got to wonder how it affected the man – years on the outside and even when he’s healed he’s still being looked down upon. It’s these attitudes that are key to the story.
It’s easy to be legalistic. It’s easy to dismiss someone because of your prejudices, it’s easy to be more interested in policing your beliefs than living them out. In 38 years, no-one had done much to help the man, and so all the symbols around him speaking of grace and salvation must have seemed hollow and mocking.
Until he meets Jesus, who offers him that grace, who actually speaks to and treats him as a human being. This draws some flack about healing on the Sabbath, but Jesus does it anyway because it’s his nature, the ultimate agent of grace and mercy.
So what’s more important? Following rules? Ignoring someone who may take some of our precious time?
Or showing grace?