May 1, 2016
It is an unusual account in our gospel today; Jesus wandering around a pool with the sick and blind and lame and opened up a conversation with a man waiting for the water to be stirred up for a healing to take place. It's a snapshot of one moment of one day in the ministry of Jesus; one moment in one day in the life of that man who had been ill for 38 years. And Jesus asks him this question, “do you want to be made well?”
A little background here. The Bethzatha pool was a pool large enough and deep enough for people to swim in. Beneath the pool was a stream that apparently was the source for water in the pool. Every now and then, the stream would bubble up and cause a disturbance in the surface of the pool. There was the belief at the time that the disturbance was caused by an angel, and the first person in the pool would be healed from any illness. It is seen as a superstition to us today, but there must have been an occasion of some kind to lead to this belief. Of course, water does have certain curative powers and combined with the stirring of the water, someone, sometime may have made a big assumption about cause and effect. Conclusions are often drawn with only part of the facts known.
Back when Maggie's mom Beth was expecting Matthew Jr. we stopped by for a visit. I was just standing there and Maggie came up, patted my stomach and informed me, “Mommy's got a baby in her tummy.” She saw a rounded tummy and.... I don't think she thought there was a baby in there, but the question was stirred up.
Last summer Katie and David sponsored a 4th of July party. They had a water slide, a wading pool, games, food. At one point, Katie announced to the kids, “We're going to have water balloons.” Allie, Stephen and Julie's oldest, got so excited, she announced, “Water balloons, this is the funnest day ever!” I'm pretty sure she didn't know what water balloons were and she was actually kind of scared of them when they came out. But she heard the excitement in Katie's voice and felt the excitement from the other kids and assumed water balloons would be the funnest things ever.
In each of these situations, there was some information known and some kind of deduced. Grandma and Grandpa only show up on bikes when we are outside, therefore they only ride bike when we are outside. Mommy had a baby in her big, rounded tummy, all tummy's are a possible haven for a baby. Water and balloons are both fun, water balloons must be the funnest. In the gospel, when the water is stirred, something beyond our comprehension happens; angels must be here to heal.
I'm reading a book right now, Healthy Congregations by Peter Steinke. The author makes the point that every system, from the smallest to the largest, is made up of parts that connect and interact. Some of his science is above me so I will quote directly, “The subatomic level of reality is a system...when a particle travels through a vacuum, it stirs up other particles, which in turn affect the original particle's path. These tiny particles called 'quanta' come into being only in relationship to something else. All quanta are connected. A quantum universe knows nothing of independent particles.”
We can see how that connection can be made to the church, both local and universal. None of us is an independent Christian. We are united in the Holy Spirit given to believers by Jesus. We are connected by the sacraments, baptism and communion which we share today...and the liturgy reminds us we share the bread and cup with the saints of every time and place. We are connected by doctrine, the core beliefs, the fundamentals of the Christian faith that are shared by common denominations. Connected by things we see, say and do.
And yet there seem to be so many things that divide us. Tens of thousands of separate denominations divided by baptismal beliefs, ordination requirements, the understanding of the meaning and practice of the Lord's Supper, who is allowed membership, what translation of the bible works and so on. It is sad and not, as I understand the establishment of the church, what Jesus had in mind. He spoke of unity...we have disunity. We are related to each other but divided by details. We each have our portion of the Truth which we see as most important and yet may fail to see the other portions of truth that we like to ignore.
Back to our gospel reading. Does any one else thing it a little strange the question Jesus asked of the crippled man? "Do you want to be made well?" Seems like a foolish question, but perhaps not so much. John tells us the man had waited 38 years. Perhaps hope had died and he would be content to remain as he was. It was a life he knew, he didn't have many of the worries and concerns of the man with many responsibilities. But his response was immediate...he wanted healing but in his limited view his only possible course of action was to get into the pool first for the angel to heal him. And that was impossible since he had no one to help him. And so he responded to Jesus and found the power he was looking for in the waters of the pool in the person of Jesus.
If we are to connect to the power of Jesus we need to have a desire for it. The church talks about the power of the Holy Spirit to change lives. Do you really want to be changed? It is a question that we easily avoid. We live an often safe faith, a faith that demands little of us. But a faith that demands little also provides little. The man at the pool knew what he wanted but didn't know how to get it. We know the source of our spiritual power, but do we know enough to truly seek it?
Jesus told the man to get up. Jesus didn't raise him up, didn't even offer him a hand. In the working of God's power, it is seldom displayed in our lives without the cooperation of God's people. God uses us to work in this world. It is true that we are helpless to save ourselves, but in living out the gospel—love your neighbor as yourself—we need to get up, get up out of our pews, get up out of our easy chairs and do something. We cooperate with God to bring the kingdom of God to the world in which we live.
I began this message talking about the information we know and what we deduce. I just finished an interesting book called Amazing Truths about how science and the bible agree. The author, Dr. Michael Guillen proposes ten basic truths about the world in which we live. He shares how science views them and how the bible has approached them and then connects the two. In his chapter “Seeing in the Dark” he makes the point that significant parts of reality are hidden from us; both scientifically and spiritually.
Science is about theory. It has developed theories since its inception. A couple of interesting theories—for centuries, scientists were in the dark about fire. Why did some items burn easily and others did not? They taught a theory that explained it: combustible materials contained a colorless, odorless, tasteless, massless flammable substance called phlogiston. Materials with lots of phlogiston burned easily...and when all the phlogiston was burned up, the fire would go out. We are no longer taught this scientific “fact”. Oxygen was discovered in the late eighteenth century and scientists realized that it was oxygen that fed fires...there was no invisible phlogiston. He gave another example, ether, another colorless, odorless, tasteless, massless substance that was the medium through which light traveled from the stars to earth. Another scientific fact; it was disproved in the early 20th century. Guillen writes, “The fact that science is still in business is a consequence of it considerable success, but also its never ending failures. Never ending because at any given time, significant parts of reality are hidden from us. Our science is 95% in the dark about the universe it seeks and claims to understand.”
He then moves on the the bible and what we cannot know from its pages. He uses the very familiar experience of death. “We wonder, is death a permanent, moribund state? Or is it, like birth, a remarkable metamorphosis, resulting in an altered form of life?” It is not hard to find people who deny the possibility of an afterlife. But, he points out, that like in science a huge amount of knowledge is hidden from us, the afterlife is not a reality we can perceive here on earth. What we see tells us this is all there is. When the body dies, it decays and returns to the earth. That is observable, measurable. But like science and its black holes and dark matter and dark energy the biblical teaching of life after death remains credible because we know we don't know so much. Even Paul in his letter to the Corinthians admits, “For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known.”
That man at the pool knew only that he couldn’t help himself and maybe that's what we need to realize over and over again. We are helpless to save ourselves without the power and grace of Jesus Christ. We can't see the details of faith always, but we have a great cloud of witnesses which we follow. And the power of the Holy Spirit dwells within each one of us who have called on the name of Jesus. May that power to save and the grace to forgive and the desire for relationship fill our hearts and minds. May faith conquer doubt and may the bread and cup we share in community bind us together in love and in purpose—purpose to live out the love and compassion of Jesus in our day to day lives. Amen.
Bread and Cup insert (Hymn to Joy)