May 26, 2019
Do you want to be healed? – J. Barry Vaughn – May 26, 2019
Today’s gospel reading is one of the most poignant stories in all of the gospels. The author tells us that Jesus was in Jerusalem because of a festival and visited the Pool of Bethzatha. Some translations render the name as Bethesda or even Bethsaida, and there’s a lot of uncertainty about the meaning, but the best guess is that it means either “house of mercy/grace” or “house of shame,” and either translation is just about equally likely.
Regardless, Jesus was at a place of healing, and the author tells us that the area around the pool was full of “many invalids – blind, lame, and paralyzed.” It could not have been a pleasant place. Where there is severe illness, there is often odor – the odor of wounds, the odor of bodily fluids, and so on. It was unpleasant because of what illness does to the body: there were people missing limbs or eyes or ears; people whose bodies had ceased to work properly because of diabetes or strokes; and surely there was all manner of infectious disease.
In other words, it was exactly the kind of place you were likely to find Jesus!
The sick gathered near the pool because of the legend that from time to time an angel “troubled” or stirred the water, and the first person to enter the water would be healed.
Something drew Jesus’ attention to a man lying near the pool, and Jesus said to him, “Do you want to be made well?”
Theologian Debie Thomas wrote,
Is it just me, or is this an uncomfortable-making question? How would you feel if you were unwell for close to four decades, and a stranger came along one day and asked if you really wanted to get better? Implying that your ongoing sickness was at least partially your fault. Implying that you were benefiting, consciously or unconsciously, from remaining sick. Implying that you were somehow invested in your brokenness, that you had a stake in it, that your identity was so wrapped up in your infirmity, weakness, or defeat, you couldn’t imagine your life without your illness.
How would you feel? How would you respond? Would you hear pure insult in the question? Or would you hear a faint echo of the truth? The kind of truth that hurts?
Let me be clear. I don’t believe that Jesus is “blaming the victim” in this story. All four Gospels attest to his deep compassion for the sick and the disabled. Not once in Scripture does he respond to pain or illness with contempt, mockery, or condescension. Not once does he tell a sick person that her illness is her own fault. In fact, he corrects that cultural misunderstanding about disease and disability at every opportunity. (“The question that hurts” in Journey with Jesus, May 19, 2019)
I think Thomas is on to something. I have always felt anger when a religious leader implies or even says outright that a person with cancer or kidney failure or some other dreadful disease would be healed if only they had enough faith. On the other hand, there ARE people who use their ailments to create sympathy or even an income. And in this case, the author tells us that the man Jesus healed was ill for thirty-eight years and in that entire time could not find anyone to help him get into the healing water.
My first parish was in a small town in deepest, darkest southwest Alabama. One of the good things about it was that the clergy who served the churches in the center of town had good relationships with each other. There was a man who would go from church to church to church asking for help with his prescriptions, his food, his rent, and so on, and this went on for over a year. Finally, we all got together to talk about the situation and realized that we were being taken advantage of and together we confronted this guy. We said that we did not doubt that he had real needs and real medical problems, but we believed that he could be doing more for himself. He wasn’t very happy with us and even told us that Jesus wasn’t very happy with us! But we stood our ground, and I believe that we did it in a compassionate way. I’m sorry to say that I don’t know what happened to the man, but I hope he eventually found someone who would help him deal with his unhealthy dependence on handouts.
Another writer, Homer Henderson, had a story similar to mine. He wrote of a guy named Steve who systematically went to all the churches in town asking for help. One day someone came to the local rabbi during a bar mitzvah and asked why the temple had started charging for parking. It turns out that Steve was in the temple parking lot asking each driver for $5 for the privilege of parking there! These days I believe they call that being entrepreneurial.
Another of my colleagues points out that this story tells us not one word about the faith of the man Jesus healed.
Not one hint that he believed in Jesus or anything else except the magic water in the pool. And, if we read just a little further, we find out that he wasn’t even grateful for being healed. In fact, when the religious authorities see him walking around carrying his mat, they ask him, “Who healed you?” and he says he doesn’t even know. Then when the authorities go on to inform him that healing and mat-carrying is illegal on the Sabbath, he squeals and fingers Jesus as the one who healed him and told him to carry his mat. “Jesus broke the Sabbath laws, not me!” This is the one Jesus healed.
Who is he? He’s a real bum, that’s who he is! He had no gratitude, no faith, no humility, no guts. He didn’t deserve to be healed. He didn’t deserve anything. This is the one Jesus healed. This is the one, the one who had been on the welfare rolls for thirty-eight years. Who is he? He’s one of those people right here in the United States that [some call] “the undeserving poor.” (Homer Henderson, Day 1, “Down by the poolside,” May 16, 2004)
Sisters and brothers, we have a problem. Homelessness is on the rise in Las Vegas. That’s why we see so many homeless folks hanging out on our property. I don’t want to minimize that problem, and I don’t want you to think that I believe that it is our mission to feed, house, and otherwise take care of every one of the homeless and needy who come to our doors.
There are people we can help and people we cannnot help. Just as my colleagues and I did back in Alabama, sometimes we have to make the difficult decision that there is nothing more we can do. But that is not at all the same thing as distinguishing between the “deserving poor” and the “undeserving.” The phrase “deserving poor” was not in Jesus’ vocabulary.
I personally believe that Jesus’ mission was not to those who deserved help but to those who had no claim on his help at all. As St. Paul says, “God proves his love for us in that while we were STILL sinners, Christ died for us.” While we were still hanging out by the edge of the pool, waiting for the angel to stir the water with his wings, Jesus came along and said to you, to me, “Do you want to be healed?”
When I interviewed to become your rector, I noticed a disturbing fact. When I carefully read your profile I perceived a relatively small congregation that was doing an enormous amount of outreach, and I wondered if it was sustainable. I wondered about the wear and tear on this physical plant; the number of volunteers it took to administer such an outreach program; and so on. And I came to the conclusion that it would be necessary to balance outreach with “in reach,” that is with an emphasis on programs that would build up the congregation, such as pastoral care and religious education.
The current homelessness crisis in Las Vegas makes it even more urgent that we make hard decisions about where to place our priorities.
Please note that I am not saying that we should neglect the needy, but we do have to be good stewards of our resources and decide how best to use them, and the sad fact is that our resources are limited. Jesus could not and did not heal everyone, and neither can we.
But please note that Jesus did not go to the pool of Bethzatha and look around for the person most likely to make a difference in society if only she could get a hand up. He did not look for the person who was most eager to jump in the pool the next time the angel fluttered her wings. He went to the guy who had been there for thirty-eight years and had done nothing to help himself.
I want to say one more thing about the topic of healing. We would like to believe that there is a prayer or a treatment or a magic pill that will cure every disease, but there isn’t.
Healing is not just for individuals; it is also for institutions. Institutions need healing just as much as individuals.
Christ Church has gone through periods of health and periods of illness, and I believe we may be going through another period of illness.
As I’ve said before, when I came here Bishop Edwards cautioned me about the level of conflict at Christ Church. He characterized the conflicts at Christ Church before I arrived as being nearly fatal, and I had to think long and carefully about whether or not I wanted to be your rector. And I have to say that I’m so glad that I decided to come here. Being your rector has given me more happiness and satisfaction than anything else I have done.
But sometimes I think that Christ Church is a little like the guy who was hanging out by the pool of Bethzatha for thirty-eight years waiting for someone to help him get in the water. Are we waiting for someone to do for us what we must do for ourselves?
Sometimes I feel as though there is a desire for a magic pill or a magic spell or a special ritual or some quick and easy method that could be applied to fix everything that’s wrong with Christ Church.
Sisters and brothers, that’s just not the case.
I hope you’ve read the article that I wrote in the last Epilog. Christian churches in North America are beginning to look at lot more like churches in Europe. In the last twenty years, church membership in the U.S. has declined from seventy percent to fifty percent.
In other words, in 1999 seventy percent of Americans said that they belonged to a church or other religious institution; today only fifty percent of Americans claim church membership.
Two weeks ago Jim Waggoner, our provisional bishop, came to talk with members of the vestry and finance committee and cautioned us that Christ Church is dealing with the same problems that confront every other church in the developed world: declining membership, declining giving, and so on. And he cautioned us that there is no quick fix for these problems.
They can’t be fixed by adopting some new program from the national church. They can’t be fixed by putting up new signage. They can’t be fixed by replacing the organ with guitars and getting rid of familiar hymns. They can’t be fixed by getting rid of the rector or the vestry.
As Jesus said of an especially nasty case of demonic possession, “This kind can come forth by nothing but prayer and fasting.” (Mark 9.29) In other words, the only thing that will work in this case is a whole lot of very hard work.
But the good news, sisters and brothers, is that we worship a God who is in the business of making broken things whole and old things new.
As G.K. Chesterton said, “The Church has died and risen again many times, because it worships a God who knows the way out of the tomb.” Amen.