After this there was a festival of the Jews, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem.
Now in Jerusalem by the Sheep Gate there is a pool, called in Hebrew Beth-zatha, which has five porticoes. In these lay many invalids—blind, lame, and paralyzed. One man was there who had been ill for thirty-eight years. 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?" The sick man answered him, "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." Jesus said to him, "Stand up, take your mat and walk." At once the man was made well, and he took up his mat and began to walk. Now that day was a sabbath.
A new house cost $78,000, 38 years ago. Now it seems impossible to find one for less than 200 or 300 thousand, depending on location. 38 years ago, the median income was $21,050 per year, today it is over$60,000. We now pay nearly three dollars for a gallon of gas and we dream of the $1.25 that we paid in 1981.
Thirty-eight years is a long time.
Within those 38 years the NASA Space Shuttle program was launched and came to its end. It began with 2 astronauts completing the inaugural flight on the Space Shuttle Columbia in April of 1981 and concluded in 2011. 1981 was also the year that we also got to witness lady Diana marrying Prince Charles. She has since passed, her husband remarried, and 38 years later her younger son became a parent, having married an American actress who is the first person of color becoming part of the Royal family.
Within the last 38 years we also went from small, one-piece Tandy computers that couldn’t show a real photo, to large touch screen PCs with wireless connectivity and even portable, photos taking tablets and phones in lieu thereof. Does anybody remember the ping sound that accompanied a connection to an online server back then?
38 years ago, The U.S. Center for Disease Control (CDC) published an article describing cases of a rare lung infection in previously healthy persons – only later would we know that this was the first mention of AIDS, an illness caused by the HIV virus. 38 years later the diagnosis no longer carries the death sentence with it that it did back then, and we even have pills to avoid infection. What a breakthrough!
Thirty-eight years is a long time. A lot of things change in 38 years.
Not so much, however, for the man in our Gospel reading. He has been sitting on a mat for 38 years. That is an incredibly long time especially given the fact that the average life span was only about 40 years and probably less for a sick person.
38 years are a lifetime of things changing around him while his world remains at a standstill as he sits on his mat. Every day is the same. Every day just waiting. Every day watching others.
There is a pool of water not far from him. The pool is called Bethzatha. It is located near the Sheep’s Gate in Jerusalem (John 5:2). Lying in the porticos [porches] around this pool are many invalids -- blind, lame, and paralyzed (5:3). The earliest manuscripts of John do not explain why the invalids are there, but later scribes added an explanation – that appears in certain manuscripts (5:4). According to this explanation, people believed that an angel of the Lord would come and stir the waters, and that whoever was the first to enter the pool after the waters were stirred would be healed of his or her malady. But the man in our reading couldn’t reach it and so lying beside the pool had become his life.And in his mind, I am pretty sure, he constantly thinks “if only” …
“If only the waters were closer, then I would try to touch them”
“If only there weren’t so many others where, then I could reach it”.
“If only I was faster, then I could make it to the water first”.
“If only I could do it, my life would be so much better.
And he is not alone in thinking IF ONLY.
We all have our pools of Bethzatha. The things we want to do or wish to see happening but that we don’t really set a foot toward or we tried but have given up or they just seem too impossible to do in the first place. We all have our pools of Bethzatha – those visions of how life should be and of wholeness for ourselves, those around us, as well as the world and the church.
If only someone would lift me into the water.
If only I had enough money
If only I had enough smarts
If only I had enough faith
If only I had the chance
If only things were different…
If only I knew how…
Anytime we have such thoughts, we are that man there by the pool. Waiting for someone or something to get us where we ourselves want to go or where we want the world to go. IF ONLY puts a damper on our vision for a better tomorrow. It becomes what paralyzes us.
If only creeps up in our private lives – about getting education or changing jobs or buying a house or making other big plans that could better our lives. Or about reconciling with those who have hurt us or whom we have hurt. If only they made the first step. If only we had some sign for when the right time is. If only we had the smarts, the courage, the wherewithal…and so we put things on hold...because...if only.
And IF ONLY also creeps up in our life of faith. It keeps us from being more committed, all-in disciples of Christ and it keeps us from a deeper commitment to the Church and its ministries. It keeps us from spending time with God. It keeps us from engaging with scripture and from being more intentional about our prayer life. If only we could pray like others. If only it wouldn’t feel odd. If only we could see God, feel God, really know God. If only we had the time to sit and pray in the busy-ness of our lives. If only we had the time, the money, the courage, the resources, the faith.
IF ONLY keeps us from being healed but it also keeps us from bringing healing into a hurting world. If only we had the right words to stop the hate, the hurt, the injustice. If only we had all the riches of the world to heal every wound and feed every hunger and quench every thirst. If only we knew how and had the time and wisdom and knowledge and talent. If only we could be like all those civil rights and social justice leaders we know…
IF ONLY holds us back and it robs us of the passionate pursuit of the things that we believe matter.
It becomes a reason to not even try.
And deep inside it becomes an excuse.
I know all about making those excuses.
When I was 30, I had this dream of going to college, of getting a degree and being a counselor or a social worker or a librarian or really...anything. I dreamed of higher education and I even worked for the University of Maryland once – which meant that tuition would be free! But even with my dream dangling somewhat within reach, it felt impossible. I could not see a way, just as the man can’t see how he could ever possible be made well. And when people would tell me what I could do, what the next step was that I could tell – my answer was always YES, BUT…and I would find one or more reasons to name, why this time wasn’t a good time and why I couldn’t. If only I had the time. The money. The smarts. A clear vision. Anything.
The same happens in our story. As our man at the pool is lying there in his misery, one day, a stranger walks by, sees him, stops, and asks “Do you want to get well?” Does he want to get well? Of course, he does – why else was here, by this pool, longing to touch the waters, we may wonder. But it had been quite a while since he had tried. He had given up. The pool just too far away and too many times he tried. His imprisonment is so great that when Jesus asks the man on the porch, “Do you want to be made well?” the man does not even grab the chance and say, “Yes,” but offers an explanation and excuse of why he can’t. 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 (5:7) “.
But Jesus ignores him. Jesus simply tells this man and us to “Stand up, take your mat and walk”. Go for it. Don’t be held back by what you think you can’t do but give it a try. Take your whole self – all that you are and all that you have and do it. I trust that you can do this. Pick up your doubts and excuses and misgivings and fears and get up and start walking.
And the man picks up his mat and starts walking. Suddenly he is unstuck. His life is made new.
Get up and walk…Jesus does what the man expected the pool to do. Jesus is the water of life. Jesus is the one giving this man life. And he tells him to walk.
Walk wherever your imagination can take you and wherever your feet can carry you. The possibilities are endless. You can do this. You don’t need specific ripples in a pool, but you only need what you have. God makes a way. You cannot fail. Every step is a success even if it doesn’t look like it.
As the good old Ghandi quote says: “e the change you wish to see in the world.”
I would add – be the change you wish to see altogether…
Stand up, take your mat and walk.
These where the marching orders Jesus gave this man and nestled here, between Easter and Pentecost, these are our marching orders. Last week we were to love as Jesus loved, and today we are asked to get up and go – to take all that we are and all that holds us back and to walk and to trust that God is guiding us.
Jesus called is into a new way of being because the abundant life Jesus offers does not happen “if only ….” But it happens in this place, at this time, in whatever circumstances there are.
Are you sitting on your mat?
Are you looking for a pool of Bethzatha?
“Stand up, take your mat and walk.”
So, I invite every one of us to ask God what God is calling you to do or be. What direction are you called to walk? Listen to the whisper of the Spirit. Listen to your hopes and dreams and rediscover your passions. Hear the still, small voice calling you.
What direction are we called to walk in as a community? And what is your role in it? We are one body with many parts that all serve a purpose, that each have a mission.
Pray about that - and as you pray, ignore the impossibility of the call and your utter inadequacy to accomplish it. Just sit in silence with God and listen to the call as it arises from within you and grows bigger and louder until it is too much to ignore. Listen to the Spirit as she writes your purpose, your mission onto your heart and gives you marching orders for your life in the church, and in the world. And then, like the paralyzed man, stand up, take your mat, and walk. Say “yes” to God and change the world.
Nobody can change the word by sitting on a mat – we all must get up and Go.
And it is in going that we discover the abundant life offered to us. So, let us go and discover our call, our purpose, our mission, and the abundant life - and may we live it...for the next week or month or year
…. or maybe even 38 years.