According to an old legend, the Bethzatha Pool was supposed to have healing powers whenever its waters were troubled and agitated, presumably by an angel, a heavenly messenger. So we can understand why, as the story says, numerous invalids were usually lying around down by the poolside. They were waiting for a chance to get in the pool when the waters were agitated so they could be healed. You had to get wet to get well.
Well, the story zeroes in on one of those castoffs of society--a crippled man who had been lying down by the poolside for 38 years. And here's what the text says. Listen again. Listen carefully.
Jesus observed him lying there and realized he had been there a long time. "Do you want to get well?" Jesus asked. The cripple replied, "Sir, I don't have anyone to put me in the pool when the water is agitated, and if I try to get in by myself, someone else beats me to it." Then Jesus tells him, "Get up. Pick up your mat and walk around." And at once the man recovered, picked up his mat and started walking.
He never got wet. He did get well. Jesus healed him.
Now who is this person down by the poolside? Who is this 38-year, crippled castoff of society? Most of the time, we hear this story, read the story--I'll admit, preach on this story--and we celebrate him and romanticize him as a combination of genuine faith in Jesus and the intestinal fortitude to pull himself up by his own bootstraps. After all, didn't he believe Jesus and so was healed? Didn't he obey Jesus when he got up, picked up his mat, and walked around? This is the kind of person who really deserves to be healed. One who decided to "trust and obey, to be happy in Jesus, because there's no other way." You see, he played by the rules of both faith and practice--down by the poolside.
Is that really what this story says? I'm grateful to Fred Craddock and to Will Willimon whose insights made me take another look. I said in our last sermon conversation back on Easter Sunday, Sunday Morning at the Improv, that preaching is improvisation. And I'm indebted to the improvisations of Craddock and Willimon on this text. So who is this castoff? Well, there's not one word about his faith in this text. Not one hint that he believed in Jesus or anything else except the magic water in the pool. And, if we read just a little further, we find out that he wasn't even grateful for being healed. In fact, when the religious authorities see him walking around carrying his mat, they ask him, "Who healed you?" and he says he doesn't even know. Then when the authorities go on to inform him that healing and mat-carrying is illegal on the Sabbath, he squeals and fingers Jesus as the one who healed him and told him to carry his mat. "Jesus broke the Sabbath laws, not me!" This is the one Jesus healed.
Who is he? He's a real bum, that's who he is! He had no gratitude, no faith, no humility, no guts. He didn't deserve to be healed. He didn't deserve anything. This is the one Jesus healed. This is the one, the one who had been on the welfare rolls for 38 years. Who is he? He's one of those people right here in the United States that Michael Katz calls "the undeserving poor." The undeserving poor. And Katz puts it this way in his book From the War on Poverty to the War on Welfare. These are Katz' words:
For the most part, Americans talk about the poor as them. Poor people usually remain outsiders, strangers to be pitied or despised, helped or punished, ignored or studied, but rarely full citizens...on the same terms as the rest of us.... They are, as Vice President Dan Quayle once said, "Those people...."
Now those are the people lying around, down by the poolside. Those people are the ones Jesus healed.
Let me tell you a true story using a fictitious name. We'll call him Steve. Steve comes by the church I serve in California regularly to get a handout. Every time I see him, he has a different story about why he needs a little money. He's a complete bum. He's refused and wasted every opportunity to help himself. He's no longer welcome in most churches. He's no longer welcome around private and government agencies designed to help folks like him. Steve just won't play by the rules. He breaks all the rules. In fact, several years ago on a Saturday morning during a Bar Mitzvah over at our local temple, one of the guests asked the rabbi when the temple started charging for parking. And surprised, the rabbi went out to check on the situation. Guess what! There was Steve, charging $5 a car. Friends, Steve is the one Jesus healed down by the poolside. Why? Why?
The answer to that question is the message of this text. Jesus healed this man not because of who the man was, not because of who the person was, but because of who Jesus was. Fred Craddock talks about this story as a parable of God's grace, the undeserved, unmerited love of God. That's a radical idea, and it's right at the heart of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. It's the reason Jesus taught. It's the reason Jesus could teach "Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you," not because of who they are, but because of who you are as my disciples.
Now we talk a lot about the grace of God in church, that God loves us because of who God is, not because of who we are. We say God even loves us in spite of who we are. And, yet, when we talk about helping others, loving others as God has loved us, reaching out to those on the margins of our society, doing something about poverty, we're really talking about helping the "deserving poor," those we call the "truly needy." So we pass laws that make it more and more difficult for those down by the poolside. We make it more difficult for them to qualify for public assistance and health care. We pass laws that make it more difficult for children who don't speak our language to get an education. We support laws that perpetuate the status of gay and lesbian persons as second-class citizens, and so on and so on. The bottom line as a nation and often as churches, we heal not because of who we are but because of who they are, not because we're called to be healers and instruments of God's grace as disciples of Jesus Christ, but because, and only if, they deserve to be healed.
By the way, I am asking, not telling, but asking you what this story from John asks me. Does all this talk about the grace of God have anything to do with how we live our lives, how we vote, how we decide our politics, or even how we perceive ourselves to be the church of Jesus Christ?
I don't know how it is with you, but I'm grateful everyday that God deals with me according to who God is, not according to who I am. I don't have any trouble at all singing the hymn, "Amazing grace, how sweet the sound that saved a wretch like me."
Interesting, isn't it, that the pool in this story from the Gospel of John is right in the shadow of the temple, right in the shadow of the church. How many people do you know, I mean really hurting people you know, who have left the temple, left the church for the pool? In John's story, the temple (institutionalized religion, the church) wanted nothing to do with the undeserving poor. So they went to the pool. So did Jesus. And that's where Jesus healed. Down by the poolside.
Let us pray.
Grant to us, Gracious God, the wisdom and courage to love others as you have loved us, to be ministers of your amazing grace when it's seldom expected and often undeserved. Help us to relate to each other more according to the grace you give and less according to the grace we give. Translate our words and our worship into politics and policies that proclaim your will being done on earth as it is in heaven. Through Jesus Christ our Savior and Sovereign. Amen.