Sometimes the Revised Common Lectionary offers two Gospel readings to choose from. The Sixth Sunday of Easter in Year C is one of those times. They don’t explain why, and I frankly cannot guess.
I suspect it is an attempt to get me to write more blog posts.
In any case, I already wrote about the first option (John 14:21-29).
Today I’m taking a quick look at the second.
It is a healing story.
In John 5:1-9, Jesus is walking with his friends in Jerusalem one Sabbath day, and they come to Beth-zatha (aka “Bethesda”), where five porticoes, or covered colonnades, surrounded a pool.
John says it was near the Sheep Gate, though for those of us who have never walked the streets of the holy city that detail doesn’t add much.
These shady porches by the pool seem to have become a place for disabled people to hang out. John tells us that there were many, their problems varied:
In these lay many invalids—blind, lame, and paralyzed.” (John 5:3 NRSV)
There’s no way to know whether this is where the disabled people wanted to be, or if someone else stuck them there.
The Disabled Man
But it seems that for some it was a regular thing:
One man was there who had been ill for thirty-eight years.” (John 5:5 NRSV)
It sounds like he’s been hanging at the pool for a long, long time. But really, we don’t know that he was there all the time. We only know that he had been ill for thirty-eight years. Maybe today was a special day out.
In fact we don’t even find out what ails the guy. From the conversation it is easy to infer that he was paralyzed — but nobody actually says so.
The heart of the passage is Jesus’ conversation with this man.
Jesus looks at the man and asks
Do you want to be made well?” (John 5:6 NRSV)
The man answers with a complaint:
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.” (John 5:7 NRSV)
He sounds so sad, so frustrated. That’s understandable.
It’s actually a pretty realistic bit of dialogue. I’ve had similar conversations with people who are hard pressed by life. Face to face with someone who is at the end of their rope, a total stranger, I ask “How are you?” And their whole saga pours out without any context.
There are a lot of people who face hard struggles, wishing someone cared enough to ask and listen. The results can be a bit awkward. That’s love sometimes.
But his complaint is also pretty enigmatic. Maybe Jesus and John knew exactly what the guy was talking about, but we readers don’t.
So the man’s statement leaves us begging for a background story.
Apparently some early scribe understood our plight. Verse 4 (which doesn’t appear in the NRSV or many other modern Bibles) looks like it was a scribe’s little explanation jotted in the margin of a Bible. Then when that manuscript was copied, the next scribe thought it was an actual verse, and it got written into the next manuscript. Then it got copied into many others.
Here’s what that missing verse 4 looks like in some manuscripts:
For an angel went down at a certain season into the pool, and troubled the water: whosoever then first after the troubling of the water stepped in was made whole of whatsoever disease he had.” (John 5:4 KJV)
Nice explanation. Makes total sense of the disabled man’s frustrated comment to Jesus.
But whether verse 4 was there or not, Jesus responded to the man’s need — in fact, even thought the man himself didn’t really articulate his problem or his request:
Jesus said to him,
‘Stand up, take your mat and walk.’” (John 5:8 NRSV)
If the reading went on, we’d find out that this healing was on the Sabbath, and that was a big problem for some people — but that’s not part of the lectionary text.
My Usual Misinterpretation
The way I’ve generally heard this story (whether from preachers or in my own imagination), Jesus is using his divine powers to know the man’s inner motivations.
Jesus decides he needs to press the disabled man, make him articulate his desire for healing, name his problem. It’s sort of an argument to get people to make very specific requests in prayer.
When Jesus saw him lying there
and knew that he had been there a long time,
he said to him,
‘Do you want to be made well?’” (John 5:6 NRSV)
“Well,” we think condescendingly, “maybe he doesn’t. Maybe he should stop being lazy and actually seek some help.”
Maybe, we think, he’s an example to us of how we need to articulate our desires in prayer, name our problems, take a step of faith in seeking healing.
And, we think, if the man won’t ask specifically, Jesus isn’t going to help him.
I’ve come to think that this is a pretty rotten interpretation. Why? Two reasons.
- It infers a kind of withholding, stingy, maybe even bullying character to Jesus that isn’t true to the Gospels.
- In the text the man does not, in fact, name his illness or ask to be healed. He just complains — and Jesus heals him anyway.
Seeing Hints of Jesus’ Character
Better to hear Jesus’ words and see Jesus’ actions in light of his character — and find clues to his character in the actual words and actions in the text.
Thinking more kindly about Jesus’ question, we say, “Of course he wants to be made well. He’s been laying there, waiting for a miracle, for nearly half a century.”
Why, then, does Jesus ask at all?
In the words of famous theologian Aretha Franklin, “R-E-S-P-E-C-T.”
I’ve come to think of it this way: Jesus knows all about the guy’s problem. Without being told, Jesus “knew he had been there a long time”. Surely he knew why he was there as well, and probably how the guy felt about his life.
So Jesus might have started with that knowledge. Instead he doesn’t even hint at it.
Do you want to be made well?” (John 5:6 NRSV)
There’s a respect thing here, not a blame thing.
Jesus gave the man relationship first, letting the man say what he wanted to say, rather than blustering in and zapping him with a cure.
And that really does say a lot about prayer.
The fact that we are invited to pray means that God treats us with respect.
One of the biggest obstacles people bring up regarding prayer runs like this:
If God knows everything,
If God is all powerful,
If God really loves me,
Then why do I have to pray?
When we put it up as a logic problem, it sounds so convincing.
But when we put it up as a relationship issue, the logical problem melts away.
I don’t really want the all-powerful all-knowing God to step in and resolve everything in advance.
The life of faith is rich and wonderful because instead, the all-powerful, all-knowing God is loving enough to treat me with respect.
God asks me to tell about my problems.
And God listens.
And God responds.
God asks, listens, and responds even when I don’t put my problems in the proper words.
God asks, listens, and responds even when I sound kind of whiny.
You know, that’s awfully good news.
If you are looking for faithful ways to grow in prayer — deep-rooted ways for every different need and every different personality — then check out my award-winning book, Kneeling with Giants: Learning to Pray with History’s Best Teachers (InterVarsity, 2012).
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