Sermon by Reverend Dr. John W. Mann | August 15, 2021
It seems like everywhere you go these days you see help wanted signs. Apply Within! Flexible Hours! Great Pay! Where I recently worked at Ecumen Lakeshore, they have a referral bonus program. If an employee recommends someone for a job and that person stays six months, the employee gets a thousand-dollar bonus.
And then as I go about my business around Duluth, I see people standing at choice spots where cars have to slow down or stop, holding up signs asking for money. Anything Helps.
Like a lot of people, I don’t like being put in the position of having to decide on the spot if someone is worthy cause or an unworthy cause. So I have a policy of not handing out cash. Instead, my wife and I support a number of worthy causes that we believe in.
But if you think about anytime that you have been in dire straits or have needed a helping hand in some way, how do you go about getting the help you need? You know who your friends are, and tough times can shed a light on who your real friends are. Some people are there for you and some people seem to abandon you.
When I see people begging on the streets, I try to remember that they are still human beings. I can’t imagine what they have lived so that their dignity is stripped away to such a degree. The help they are asking for is not the help I can give.
The story is told that in ancient days in Jerusalem there was a pool of water, around which was built a series of veranda-like porches, called ‘porticoes.’ The pool was fed by a natural spring. Occasionally there would be ripples in the water created by the flow of the spring. Local mythology had it that the ripples were created by an angel who stirred the water. The first people into the pool after the water was stirred would be healed of whatever ailed them.
One day Jesus was passing by the healing pool and he saw a man who had been there for 38 years. The immensity of that time frame in relation to one life makes it nearly impossible to grasp. It encompasses the entirety of the man’s life. His existence was to lay by the pool. It was his career, his identity, his life and breath.
Jesus asked him, “Do you want to be made well?” It was a fair question. We might expect him to answer, “Oh sir, more than anything. I pray for nothing else. I would give anything, if I had anything to give, just be well for even a day.”
Instead the man answered, “Sir, I have no one to put me into the water. When I try to get to the water, someone else always crowds in front of me.”
“I have no one to help me,” is probably one of the scariest, saddest and most desperate statements of all time.
Because this story is in the gospel of John, that in and of itself tells us something about what it means. John’s portrait of Jesus tells the story as if Jesus is here and now as much as he ever will be, present in spirit through the life of the church.
One way to see this story is to view it as a story about human nature. It’s our nature to want there to be a reason for why things are the way they are. Some cosmic or divine rule that explains the situation. We might think that the mantra, “It’s not my fault” was invented in our lifetimes, but it’s been around at least as long as people have been telling stories. Jesus is saying that it’s not a matter of who’s to blame for where you are, but whether you want to get well.
We look at the man lying by the pool for so long and there is a word of judgement that springs up, saying, “He’s just lazy.”
It’s interesting to think about blame and shame as part of human nature. At the same time love and empowerment are part of God’s nature. Some folks, usually the preacher types who think their job is tell other people what to do, recreate God in their shame and blame image. Jesus went about trying to reveal the true image of God as empowering love.
Remember the story of the Garden of Eden. The man said, “The woman made me do it.” The woman said, “The serpent made me do it.” In response God said, “You need to leave this idyllic little paradise and learn what it means to grow your own food. In other words, you need to learn what it means to be a grown-up person; a person who may not have it easy, but who at least understands what it means to take hold of the plough with both hands.
Jesus told the man by the pool to pick up his mat and walk. It wasn’t the help he wanted, the lack of which kept him on his mat for 38 years; it was the help he needed, which empowered him to be well.
After the man got up and walked away the rest of the story reveals that his wellness was not merely a matter of physical well-being. The day on which he was healed was the Sabbath. People saw him carrying his mat, which was labour on the Sabbath and thus prohibited. Someone pointed this out to him.
One would think that he would be so filled with joy that he would be dancing on the Sabbath and not just carrying his mat. In a sense, he could not let go of his sickbed. It remained a core part of his identity. He said, “The man who healed me told me to carry it.” It’s not my fault I broke the Sabbath.
He had at least started to act well within a sick system. That will always provoke a reaction. When an individual starts to show wellness in a sick system, the system is threatened. Unfortunately, the man was not so well that he could stand alone. He didn’t go back to the pool, but he seemed hardly better off than before Jesus healed him.
The man by the pool for 38 years was a stranger to Jesus. “Do you want to be made well” is an easier question for strangers than it is for people we know personally. When it comes to the people with whom we are in relationships things can get more complicated. While Scripture encourages us to “speak the truth in love,” we often find it easier to go along with pathological belief systems and behaviour. That’s because we might choose to take the path of least resistance, thinking that if we just ignore certain behaviours, they will go away; or we have be tolerant because people are going through a hard time; or we don’t want to hurt someone’s feelings; or we don’t want to appear to be uncaring. Or we learn to tolerate pain.
Another way to view this story is as a lesson about the way religious systems work. The rules were clear – when the water bubbled up, whoever was first in the pool afterward would be healed. The problem with that set up is that the more able-bodied people in need of healing always got there first. The person with one leg missing had a better chance than the one with no legs. Certainly, blind people who couldn’t see the water or deaf people who couldn’t hear it were excluded.
So if some people were excluded from the blessing, then the story is an illustration of how religious rules tend to exclude the people who would most benefit from the blessing those rules promise to those who follow them. Rules that exclude people ensure that some people will be permanently excluded. As much as they might want to follow those rules, it is just not possible for them to do so.
Jesus went around the rules to offer the man healing by giving him permission to be well. What God had to offer was not controlled by a rule-based system, but by a faith-based response.
Another way to view this story is to broaden its application. It’s all well and good when the story is about “those people” who need to get up and do something about their situation. In some circles this is a “God helps those who help themselves” parable. But like many popular myths about God, “God helps those who help themselves” is not in the bible. More often than not God stands with the helpless and raises up those too weak to help themselves.
The mat upon which the man by the pool had lain for all those years can serve as a symbol of one’s world view. Tidy and convenient; small enough to hold the reasons why things are the way they are; safe, familiar and though limiting, comfortable.
Jesus is saying to folks who are confined to their mats of limitation, “Pick it up, roll it up and put it under your arm and walk on. There’s a big world out there where life is more than the superstitious bubbles in a pool of water. Grasp it, claim it and live it. You have both my permission and the inner resources of faith to do it.”
Later on, Jesus found the man who had been made well. He told him, “Do not sin anymore.” It was his way of saying, “Stand outside the system – the system of rules that keep you down, where God helps those who help themselves, in which first come get served first, and where the realm of God and what God makes possible is only as big as the mat upon which you lay. And always remember, you do have someone to help you – me.” Amen.