Readings: Acts 16:9-15 • Psalm 67:1-7 • Revelation 21:10, 10:22-22:5 • John 5:1-9
This week’s theme is God makes us whole. Acts shares the story of Lydia’s conversion. Lydia, from Thyatira, is regarded as the first baptized convert in Europe. In Psalm 67 we are reminded that all are invited to praise God for his universal mercy. He brings us to perfection as all are ruled with equity. Revelation reminds us that Jesus is the temple. Through him God restores our heath and makes us clean. All are given access to the water of life. The sermon is developed from the story of the healing at the pool of Bethesda. Jesus tells us to stand up before God and receive the blessings he provides.
Stood Up by Jesus
Read John 5:1-9, NRSV, before sermon:
Have you ever felt stood up by God? And when we say “stood up,” what we mean to say is that we have been let down. Maybe that’s how the person with a disability felt “who had been ill for thirty-eight years.” That’s practically a lifetime of being down on the ground. Enough time to convince us that God doesn’t see us, doesn’t know our situation and basically doesn’t care. Have you been there? If so, maybe this little story told by the apostle John can lift your eyes to see a different perspective.
The story begins with John telling us “Jesus went up to Jerusalem.” John has used this “up to” language many times in his stories of Jesus. The word in Greek is “anabaino” which simply means to ascend but it’s the word used to translate many ascensions in the Old Testament—stories like Moses’ ascent of Mount Sinai or the ascent to Mount Zion or to Jerusalem. Within Jerusalem the same language is used in going up to the temple, and then within the temple there is a further ascent into the holy of holies. More examples could be listed, but in essence, when John uses anabaino, he is using a word that points back to God’s presence in Israel’s history. God is the one Israel’s priests and leaders have historically ascended to. So, when Jesus enters the story by going up to Jerusalem there is more than a change in physical elevation taking place, the story has to do with Jesus ascending in order to stand us up in the presence of God. Let’s look at the text:
Now in Jerusalem by the Sheep Gate there is a pool, called in Hebrew Beth-zatha [Bethesda], which has five porticoes, (John5:2 NRSV).
John gives us some details to ponder in the story. The setting is at the pool of Bethzatha or Bethesda depending on translation. Bethesda means “house of mercy,” so you will see a number of hospitals named Bethesda.
Until the 19th century, there was no evidence of this pool and people believed John was creating a metaphorical illustration. However, archeologists later discovered the remains of the pool fitting John’s description. It is in the Muslim quarter of Jerusalem.
John also wants us to note that the pool is next to the Sheep Gate, which was the gate sacrificial lambs were brought through. As the story unfolds, John is creating a picture of contrast between the rituals of sacrifice—along with the superstitious waters of “healing”—with Jesus himself, who is both our true sacrifice and our living water. John was a good storyteller.
In these lay many invalids—blind, lame, and paralyzed. One man was there who had been ill for thirty-eight years (John 5:3-4 NRSV).
We are introduced to our poor cast- down soul as “one man” who was among “many invalids—blind, lame, and paralyzed.” This description of disabled people serves as a rather poignant pointer to life in this fallen world.
This refers to a life without direction, a life with distortion and pain, and ultimately a life that is hopeless. Like this one man, we can find ourselves among many people with disabilities, people who are paralyzed and unable to find any healing or wholeness for their lives. We can feel there is no one to help us when we forget that we are made to walk with the Lord.
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).
Jesus enters the scene. Keep in mind that John is primarily concerned in his Gospel account of showing us that Jesus is the full revelation of the Father. The first thing we see Jesus do is take notice. He “saw him lying there” and he also “knew that he had been there a long time.” No matter what our lifelong experience has been, the Father sees us and he knows our situation. It’s out of this deep personal knowing Jesus asks the man the question “Do you want to be made well?”
At first glance it sounds like a “tongue-in-cheek” question. Of course, he wants to be made well; who wouldn’t want to be well. But good questions are grounded in personal awareness. Jesus must have known that this man would need to wrestle with that question. Thirty-eight years of anything is a lot of undoing. The man’s healing would amount to a whole new life of change for him.
- Who has been bringing this man here for the past 38 years?
- Who has been caring for him and feeding him?
- Are you ready to do things on your own?
- Are you ready to stop depending on others and learn a skill to earn an income?
- Are you ready to enter society in a new way, with all its blessings, and all its requirements?
- Are you ready to start showing personal responsibility?
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” (John 5:7 NRSV).
The man’s answer didn’t tell us explicitly if he wanted to be well. But it did tell us that he had been trying to make himself well for a long time. His description of all the reasons he couldn’t make it to the pool was placing blame on others who refused to help. This is what happens when we are working a program for our own healing, or what we may call legalism.
When you can’t live up to the program—and you never can—you can always look down at others. It’s easy to put the responsibility elsewhere—to blame others—to get the attention off ourselves. Jesus knew this about this man, and he knows this about us. And his response is one of grace.
Jesus said to him, “Stand up, take your mat and walk” (John 5:8 NRSV).
Here’s a man who has been let down for thirty-eight years by legalism, a man who is unable to stand up, and Jesus’ response to him is a powerful word of grace: “Stand up, take your mat and walk.” These weren’t empty words. They were words of power that created a new reality. The man only needed to believe and to respond.
At once the man was made well, and he took up his mat and began to walk (John 5:9a NRSV).
Jesus gave him legs to stand on and told him to take the mat home—he no longer needed his mat to protect him from the ground. He no longer needed to wait for others to take care of him; his healing was complete. Jesus stood him up. The story doesn’t end here:
Now that day was a sabbath (John 5:9b NRSV).
This lectionary selection cuts the story in half by ending with “Now that day was a Sabbath.” What? Why this little bit of information from John?
It’s not another example of a story culminating into a nasty showdown between the legalistic religious rulers of the day and the Lord of grace and healing, but John has a significant point to make. In this story we are given this little twist to aid us in our understanding of what the Sabbath rest is all about. Here, on the Sabbath day, Jesus tells the man to pick up his mat and walk. He wasn’t trying to goad the religious leaders—he was helping this man and us understand that resting in him is not lying around all day; resting in him is experienced as standing and walking in the presence of God. Jesus is our Sabbath rest.
We all face times in our lives when we feel like the man at Bethesda. We are waiting and waiting for someone to help us—for someone to come and fix the problem. We’ve all had times when we’ve blamed others for the situation we are in—there is no one to help me get to the healing water.
This week, ask God to help you see that he is the living water—in fact, the living water came to you. Ask him to help you see you need to pick up your mat and enter his Sabbath rest. Ask him to help you remember that he has stood you up—that is, he has helped us stand.
Jesus has forever stood us up in him, and in him we will never be let down.
Small Group Discussion Questions
- Can you think of experiences in your life where you felt that God had let you down? How does the story of the man who was “down” for thirty-eight years help you reflect on your own story?
- Reflect on Jesus taking notice of the person and knowing his situation. What does this tell us about the Father’s heart toward us? Does this feed your faith or leave you with more questions?
- What do you think about Jesus asking the man if he wanted to be made well?
- How does the detail that this healing took place on a Sabbath inform us what true rest is?
- Read the passage from Revelation and talk about what it means that Jesus is your temple and that you have been given access to the water of life.