As miracle stories go in Scripture, this one would not be a favorite of mine.
See? I like miracle stories like the one where everyone is hungry and all the disciples can find are five loaves and one fish, but at the end of the story, everyone gets to eat. Everyone experiences a miracle. And, there’s food left over! Now, that’s my kind of miracle story!
I also like miracle stories with a surprise: Like the one with the Canaanite woman who pleads for healing for her daughter but the disciples keep shushing her and sending her away. Nevertheless, she persists. At the end of the story, she surprises Jesus with her intelligence and quick wit and faith. And, Jesus surprises her – and his disciples – with the healing she seeks.
And then there are the dramatic miracle stories, the kind that make even his disciples gasp: The healing of the leper. I mean, a LEPER, for goodness sake! No one goes near, much less heals a leper. Or the Gerasene demoniac in which Jesus commands the demons to leave the man and enter a herd of swine who then – OMG – jump over a cliff to their death. Talk about dramatic!
Those are some wonderful healing miracle stories, right? If Oprah were talking about this, she’d say, “And YOU get a miracle! And YOU get a miracle! Everybody gets a miracle!”
Not so with this story from John about the paralytic who has been waiting there, at the Pool of Beth-zatha (or, as it is known today Bethesda) by the Sheep Gate (now known as the Lion Gate) in Jerusalem. He had been there, waiting for healing, for thirty-eight long years.
He is one among many invalids who wait by the pool for an angel to come and ‘trouble the waters’ – to stir up the waters – which was when the miracle of healing had been known to happen. The problem is that there was apparently a small window of time when one could get oneself into the pool while the angel was there, troubling the waters, and because the man was paralyzed and the crowd so large, he could never get there on time.
Well, the belief at the time was that the ‘troubling of the waters’ was done by an angel. Other said it was the miracle of Nature – that the flow of water feeding the pool at Bethesda was intermittent, giving the impression of being occasionally – and mysteriously, magically, miraculously – stirred.
If the story about the angel were true it would mean that the fittest and ablest person would be healed first while leaving the needy and frail to continue to suffer. But, those of us who have heard the other miracle stories of Jesus know that this is not how He works. Jesus always, always, always ministers to the neediest of all those seeking healing, in this case, one who was an invalid for 38 years and who had no other hope!
Which, I suppose, is the point of this healing story. Jesus healed the neediest. I get it. But, I don’t like it. I mean, if Jesus can heal one, he can heal them all. Can’t he? What about all the other people who had come to the pool, desperate for healing? Why were they left out?
Instead, Jesus singles out one man and gives him his full attention. There’s no clue as to why, except that he has been there a long time. Lots of commentators surmise that he is the only one who responds to Jesus’ offer for healing, but that’s not in the text. It remains a mystery.
Why him? Why only him?
It makes the healing and miraculous work of Jesus look arbitrary and capricious. That is not what we know to be the nature of God as revealed in Jesus but, you know, that’s exactly what some people believe.
I’ll never forget the image I saw of the devastation of one of those awful tornados in Texas or Kansas or Oklahoma. It was an arial view of the total destruction of a neighborhood in which you could see the arbitrary, winding path of the tornado. Everything for miles was reduced to sticks and rubble except for two houses – one was still standing, although the back end was blown off – and the other was standing fully intact, not even a flower pot out of place.
In front of that house, the owner had placed a sign which read, “Thank you, God, for saving our home.” I gasped. “Really?” I heard myself say. “I wonder what his neighbors think about that. Why was his house saved but not there’s? Was that divine intervention or just dumb luck?”
I’ve never heard a satisfying answer to this complex query into the mind of the Divine. Here’s the thing: Everyone has something. We’re all afflicted by some illness, some hardship, some shame, some dysfunction. You may never know it, watching the streams of people who seem to be healthy and whole pass you by or sit next to you in church. And not all afflictions are on the same scale. But you can count on it. Everyone has something.
Why then doesn’t God heal us all?
I do not know the answer to that question. But I do know that God has healed me, in ways that people wouldn’t call miraculous or supernatural but that seem so to me. God has healed depression, brokenheartedness, financial insecurity, grief, doubt and yes, my own racism and internalized sexism and homophobia are being healed every day. Like the man at the sheepgate, I have been healed not only for my good but for the hope-filled proclamation that God can – and, indeed, does – work miracles. It’s that the nature of miracles is a deep mystery.
I also know that miracles have happened in others. The same dis-eases with which I have been plagued have troubled the lives of others as well. I have seen confrontation, confession, forgiveness, reconciliation, and healing in situations which I had originally thought hopeless. But, the miracle happened slowly, over time, with a lot of work and some sacrifice on both sides. It happened so slowly you might have missed it. But it happened. And, it was miraculous.
How many miracles are happening around us daily, but we miss them because we’re looking for the modern equivalent of demons jumping into pigs and pigs jumping over cliffs? We want the drama of angels troubling waters but then we miss the miracles that can come out of troubled times in our lives.
The grand sweep of God’s love may be universal, but the application is personal. Jesus deals in particulars. We do too. The church – the Body of Christ – gets to pay attention to the condition of individual people and to confront merciless systems which shrug its shoulders at the troubling increase in homelessness. The church gets to expand the definition of healing from just physical to emotional and spiritual. And the church gets to be honest and, when necessary, speak truth to power in ways that can bring both individual and systemic change.
On this Rogation Sunday, when we ask for God’s blessing on creation – on the seeds that will bring beautiful flowers and trees that will bring luscious fruit and earth that will bring nourishing vegetables – we are witnesses to God’s healing power on what was once hard, cold barren earth. And, in that, we are recipients of the greatest healing miracle of all: Hope.
Truth be told, hope is my favorite healing miracle story of all time. Hope is what Jesus gave to ever person he ever healed. Hope is strong medicine. Hope can heal a broken heart. Hope can open the eye of those who have been blind to prejudice. Hope can lift the clouds of darkness and bring the light of insight and wisdom. Hope can inspire someone knocked down by life again and again to pick himself up, dust herself off, and try one more time.
I believe hope is what helped the paralytic man to believe he could stand up, pick up his mat and walk. Hope troubles the waters of our faith, and helps us to believe Jesus when he said, “. . . . with God all things are possible” (Mt 19:26)
“Hope,” wrote Emily Dickenson, “is a thing with feathers.” Perhaps it was that thing with feathers that appeared as an angel to the ancient people around that pool at Bethesda. I believe hope is a bird that has always lived within the human soul and sings whether there is rain or shine, wind or calm, plenty or scarcity, good times or bad.
It is the song of hope, my friends, which helps us to push through the numbing, paralyzing, constant drone of bad news in the world. It is the Devil’s delight to see us separated by conflict and divided by ideology and politics. Jesus wants us to be one, as he and God are one. That was his most fervent prayer. And that we love one another as he loves us.
Hope is the delight God has in God’s creation which inspires us to find the good, to see possibility, to hear the call of Jesus over the troubled waters of our lives, saying to each one of us, “Stand up, take up your mat, and walk.”
That’s not the question. The question is the same as Jesus asked the paralytic man, "Do you want to be made well?"