1 After this there was a feast of the Jews; and Jesus went up to Jerusalem.
2 Now there is at Jerusalem by the sheep market a pool, which is called in the Hebrew tongue Bethesda, having five porches.
3 In these lay a great multitude of impotent folk, of blind, halt, withered, waiting for the moving of the water.
4 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.
5 And a certain man was there, which had an infirmity thirty and eight years.
6 When Jesus saw him lie, and knew that he had been now a long time in that case, he saith unto him, Wilt thou be made whole?
7 The impotent man answered him, Sir, I have no man, when the water is troubled, to put me into the pool: but while I am coming, another steppeth down before me.
8 Jesus saith unto him, Rise, take up thy bed, and walk.
9 And immediately the man was made whole, and took up his bed, and walked….
How often did the restorative stirring of the water occur? The passage doesn’t say. Perhaps there was no predictable pattern, and that’s why those who wanted healing had to wait there at the site. What a constricted existence that would be, constantly waiting on an event you have no power to accelerate or affect in any way. You would be forever focused on the water, watching for ripples, with nothing but your own pain and infirmity to compete for your attention. The primary definition of impotent is still “lacking physical strength or vigor,” but the word has an additional meaning today, and to modern eyes its use in the passage adds a layer of humiliation to an already bad situation. Perhaps this is not so inappropriate. Chronic illness always has an element of humiliation. All the things you would like to do—perform useful work, move around by yourself, enjoy a meal—are trumped by the words I can’t.
The man has been in this state for thirty-eight years. We don’t know how much of that time has been spent at the pool, but it’s been long enough for him to observe a pattern. The healing at the pool doesn’t work by queue. It doesn’t matter who’s been waiting longest; once the water is stirred, whoever gets in first is healed, and the sick people don’t take turns. There is typically such desperation about serious illness. All you want is to feel better. Your mind has no room for thoughts of equity or fairness, much less generosity. If you let the guy with the thirty-eight-year infirmity go ahead of you, who knows how long would pass before the angel troubled the water again, if ever? And the guy probably wouldn’t make it anyway because he had no one to help him. Someone else would beat him, and you’d have given up your chance for nothing. Your most prudent option is to stay vigilant and be ready to get into that water the moment its surface starts to stir.
So the sick came and went, while this man slowly became a fixture, an institution, all his mental and emotional energy fixated on an impossible dream of restoration and health.
Jesus asks him, Wilt thou be made whole? This is a straightforward, yes-or-no question. And the man can’t answer it in kind. He says, Sir, I have no man, when the water is troubled, to put me into the pool: but while I am coming, another steppeth down before me. He is so focused on the perceived means of his deliverance that he can’t separate it in his mind from the deliverance itself. “Getting to the pool” has replace “getting healed” as his aim.
I can’t say that I blame the guy. I don’t have anything like his excuse, but I often get fixated on some intermediary thing that has become so closely associated with what I really need that they appear to be one and the same. Then God causes me to step back and reassess. Every fixation has some legitimate, God-given desire at the back of it—sometimes so far back that you have to chisel through years of habitual misguided thinking to find it, but still there. That is the need God wants to fill.
Jesus was present at creation, and without him nothing was made that has been made. He has the power to restore what is broken, to cut directly to the heart of what we need without following what we perceive as the necessary steps. He can heal without the pool. He made this man to begin with, put together his genetic code in all its potential for health and strength before sickness ever cast its shadow. He made the angel who stirs the water. He configured the molecular structure of all the water in the world. He is master of all creation, and as such he has authority.
And here’s the really beautiful thing. He has compassion as well. He doesn’t point out the faults in this man’s perspective. He just heals him. There will be time later for the man to reflect on legitimate needs versus felt needs and to ponder the sufficiency of God; now is the time for him to be made whole. He’s already demonstrated faith by staying at the pool day after day when his case appeared hopeless rather than giving in to bitterness and despair. That faith is enough, and Jesus honors it.
A bruised reed shall he not break, and the smoking flax shall he not quench (Isaiah 42:3). These words bring a sting of tears to my eyes every time I hear or read or think them. I am a bruised reed and a smoking flax, and if God’s intervention in my life is dependent on my own right understanding or on some lofty level of obedience or faith, I’m sunk. Praise be to God that it’s not.