The Man at the Pool (take two)

Jeff Garrison

Skidaway Island Presbyterian Church

May 8, 2016

John 5:1-18

 

As I indicated last week, this will be our second take on the same text: the story of Jesus healing a man who had been an invalid for 38 years.   This guy had spent the equivalent of a career waiting by a pool at the Sheep’s Gate into Jerusalem.  Last week, I focused on the man who was healed and suggested he lacked gratitude.  Instead of being excited that he had been healed, he pointed the figure at Jesus, not in praise but to blame Jesus for having him carry his mat on the Sabbath.  Today, we’re going to look at the response of the crowd and the Jewish authorities and see what we might learn from their actions.  Are their times when we let our traditions hinder God’s work in our world?  That’s the question that I would like us to ponder.

Before reading the text, I want to explain a bit about it.  There was a legend that when ripples appear in the water, the first person in will be healed.  You may have heard these ripples were caused by an angel.  Some Bibles, such as the King James Version, tells us in verse four that an angel came down and touched the water, giving off the healing ripples.  However, most modern versions, including the New Revised Standard, the NIV and the Message eliminate verse 4 which doesn’t appear in the oldest manuscripts.[1]  So, in my sermon, you’re not going to hear about how people were healed at the pool when the water was stirred.  That’s not what our story is about.  Instead, we’re to focus on Jesus work and the response of the crowd and authorities.  Let’s listen to this passage again.  Today I’ll read it from The Message translation.  Read John 5:1-18.

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You’d think that everyone would be happy to have one less beggar, one less person on the public dole vying to make a living from the goodness of others.  You’d think people would be happy that there is one less mouth to feed, one more laborer in the pool, but this is where our story takes a comic twist.

We all know that the Jews in the first century had some strange rules concerning the Sabbath—prohibitions that made the blue laws in America of the 1950s seem pretty tame.  Jesus encounter with this man in question was on the Sabbath.  This guy who hasn’t walked since Carter was President, is now strutting around carrying his mat.  Instead of people being excited about his healing, they want to know why he’s breaking the Sabbath.  Its work to carry your mat and you’re not supposed to do any work on the Sabbath.  You’d think they’d over look this little transgression and focus on the miracle, but they don’t.

They want to know why he’s not obeying the law.  Again, the man doesn’t answer the question posed to him.  This seems to be a particular problem of this guy—maybe Jesus should have also checked out his hearing.  When Jesus asked if he wanted to get well, he didn’t say yes, he gave an excuse.  Then, when asked why he’s toting his mat on the Sabbath, he gives another excuse.  He could have said, “Praise God, I’ve been healed and for the first time in 38 years, I can do this.”  But instead of answering the question, he tells them that some guy told him to pick up his mat.  “Someone or some circumstance is always to blame,” according to this man.  We know people like that!

This guy should have been a politician.   Ever notice how most politicians only answer the questions they want to answer, not the ones they’re asked?  If you don’t believe me, just watch a debate.  It doesn’t matter which political.  They all come prepared with speeches for questions they want to answer and whether or not they’re asked the question, they give the answer.  It’s like that with this guy.  He doesn’t answer anyone’s question. Not wanting to take responsibility, this dude blames everyone and everything else and the miracle gets lost in the rhetoric.

Those challenging this man now want to know who healed him.  If I saw someone who had been sick for nearly 40 years walking down the street, I’d want to know that too.  I’ve got this quad tendon issue I’m dealing with…   But that’s not why they’re interested.  They don’t want to have their own ailments cured nor do they want to thank Jesus for his successful welfare program.  They want to go after him for healing on the Sabbath.

The man doesn’t even know who it was that healed him, another sign of his lack of gratitude, as I pointed out last week.  The text is clear, this wasn’t a guy healed because of his faith.  Actually, it appears he was healed despite a lack of faith.  This is a story about Jesus responding to a man in need and giving him what he needs even though he isn’t willing or able to ask for it.

After they learn it was Jesus who healed the man, they focus their attention on him.  Jesus ties his work with that of his father’s work in heaven…  Since his father is working, he’s working, even if it is the Sabbath.  At other times, Jesus did call upon the interpretation of the Sabbath, indicating that if we had a child or an ox fall in a well on the Sabbath, we’d take of the situation.  We would not wait till sundown (the end of the Sabbath) or to the first day of the week to rescue the child or beast.[2]   But here, Jesus choses to raise the ante as he puts himself on the level of God.

John ends this story, cluing us in to what will happen.  In verse 18, we learn the Jewish leaders are now out to have Jesus killed.  This is not just because he ignored the Sabbath laws, although that was serious.  Even more damaging is that Jesus calls God “Father,” thereby making himself equal to God.  This tension will continue to grow throughout this gospel as John focuses on Jesus’ relationship to this Father.

We can take from this passage an understanding of this relationship between Jesus and the Father, which informs our Christology.  This is important, for our Trinitarian belief is that Jesus and God are one.  Later in John’s gospel, Jesus will inform the disciples that by seeing him, they have seen the Father.[3]   We encounter Jesus, who came in the flesh, as a way to help us understand God and God’s love for us.

But this passage can also show us our often arrogant ways in which we use traditions to stifle change.  This is what I want us to consider this morning.  Sadly, some of the greatest cruelty in human history has been at the hands of people who felt the need to protect God’s honor: the inquisition, witchcraft trials, abortion clinic bombings, persecution of gays, persecution of those of other faiths, and even support for slavery and segregation.

This past week I read a memoir from a former history professor of mine titled Separate Pasts: Growing Up White in the Segregated South.  In this book, Melton McLaurin tells about his adolescent years in the town of Wade, North Carolina.   It was the 1950s.  From the time he started the seventh grade, he worked in his granddaddy’s store, which set between the village and “The Bottoms,” an area mostly inhabited by African-Americans.  The store served both groups and gave a young McLaurin insight into both communities.  He wrote about all the traditions and customs that helped maintain the separation between the two groups.

Sadly, many such traditions were supported by the churches.  They became, like the Sabbath tradition of Jesus’ day, a way to maintain the current structure.  It was a way to keep those in power, with power. Yet, strict adherence was destructive for many.  It also stifled God’s vision for uniting everyone in Jesus Christ.[4]  I came along seventeen years after McLaurin, as segregation was fading, but I still experienced some of it.    And it’s not completely gone today.

It’s Mother’s Day, so let me tell you a story about Mom and me.  Not long after we moved to Wilmington, we had a rainy day at school.  For recess, instead of us going outside to play ball, we were taken into the auditorium for dance lessons.  This didn’t go well with us boys.  None of us wanted to dance!  But making it even worse, in our eyes, was the possibility of being partnered with the one African-American girl in our class.  All my friends were saying they weren’t going to dance with her.  The N word was used repeatedly.  I came home, repeating what had been said and my mother blew a gasket.  She told me I better never use that word in her house and that I better be willing to dance with the girl the next time around.  I was chastised.  But it didn’t end there.  My mother then asked her favorite question, “How would you feel if you were her?” “How would you feel if you were the only white boy in the class?”  Thanks Mom, I got the point.

Sometimes we become so concerned in maintaining the status quo that we overlook its impact on other people.  Certainly, that happened with segregation in the South and it also happened in Jesus day with the Jewish leaders’ over-emphasis on the strictness of the law.   The law was supposed to provide freedom for the faithful to enjoy life as God intended, but in time the keeping of the law became so strict that they drained any joy out of abiding by it.  They felt that they were doing right, that they were protecting God and his law.  God doesn’t need that kind of help.  Regardless what we do, God will always be God!  Instead of rejoicing that a man is now able to walk and care for himself, they saw the miracle and Jesus’ work as a stunt that threaten their system.  Therefore they attacked Jesus.

This healing story should force us to examine what kind of ways that we might attempt to hinder God’s work in the world.  Are we graceful people, who would have rejoiced with this man?  Or would we be like those who felt that this miracle was a threat to their beliefs and positions of authority?  Friends, if ever in doubt, let me give you this piece of advice.  If you are in doubt about what to do, err on the side of grace, not on the side of law.    For you see, God is graceful with us, and we should be graceful to one another.  Amen.

 

©2016

[1] For a more detailed explanation, see Bruce M. Metzger, A Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament (Germany: United Bible Society, 1971), 209.

[2] See Luke 13:15, 14:5.

[3] John 14:8-11.

[4] See Galatians 3:28.


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