In today’s reading, Jesus returns to Jerusalem for a religious feast, probably the Passover. Perhaps he entered the city through the Sheep Gate near the Temple Mount, where the animals meant for sacrifice were led into the city to be penned until needed. Near this gate, Jesus finds the pool of Bethesda – the “house of mercy” in Hebrew, where many sick people lay in a sort of informal hospital. The pool was a place of miraculous healing: when the water was stirred by an unseen angel, the first person into the pool would be healed completely. There, Jesus finds a man who has been an invalid for 38 years. In a pre-industrial society, this man has been so sick he can barely move for most of the average person’s life expectancy. This is someone who has endured decades of hopelessness and pain. This is the man who Jesus heals with a word.
While there are many lessons we could learn from this passage, two things seem especially appropriate for Lent. First, Jesus asks the invalid man a strange question, “Do you want to be healed?” Of course the man wants to be healed, right? Why else would he be waiting by the pool? But Jesus knows the human heart better than to assume any of us want healing. The question cuts to the heart of our daily choices, asking us, “are you content with the life you are living?” If we are honest, all too often we reply, “Yes.” Seeking healing and wholeness seems so hard – it is so much easier to lie here in our familiar misery, numbing ourselves to both despair and hope with a steady diet of Netflix, perpetual busyness, or empty calories. When Jesus asks if we want healing, he is asking if we are willing to turn away from our current course and to turn instead towards a new life. He is asking if we are willing to repent. This Lent, let us consider if we want to be healed. Will we risk giving up our coping strategies in exchange for a new lease on life, with all the unknown joys and challenges that entails? Will we stop listening to the lie that we can manage our current condition, and accept instead that we need help from beyond our world?
The invalid man’s answer to Jesus’ question is also instructive. He tells Jesus that he has no one to help him into the pool to be healed. In other words, he tells Jesus that he does want to be healed, but assumes that there is only one method for his healing. His imagination is as atrophied as his body, unable to recognize that Mercy incarnate has entered the house of mercy and will not be constrained by his ideas of what healing looks like. How often do we do the same thing to God, telling him what type of healing will make us whole? If only I had that job, then I would be okay. If only I were married, I would know my life is on track. If only I had kids, my life would have purpose. If only I had friends to help me to the pool, then I would be healed.
Fortunately for both the invalid and us, Jesus ignores the man’s expectations because he has something better to offer: complete, immediate restoration with no preconditions. Jesus says simply “arise, take up your bed, and walk.” Jesus has healing beyond our imagination – renewal that goes far beyond our dreams and hopes. This Lent, let us be encouraged as we repent and seek healing. The Easter resurrection on offer has no strings attached, no hoops to jump through, no pieces that depend on us or those around us. It is purely God’s grace, freely given to all who will receive it. In that grace let us arise in new life and walk.
Luke Jackson lives with his wife Deborah Tepley, TJ, Bethany and Mary Haley Fleming, and his two beloved cats Pippen and Molly in Petworth.