Bethesda – Staying Where We Are
July 19, 2015
Back in 1938, the United States Congress voted to build a National Naval Medical Center. Eventually, President Franklin Roosevelt got involved in choosing a location where the center would be built. According to the story, one day Roosevelt was driving around what at the time was Maryland farm country when he and his driver came upon the small community of Bethesda. When he heard the name, Roosevelt remembered the story from the New Testament of Jesus healing a man at the pool of Bethesda as told in John’s gospel. Remembering that story and learning that Bethesda, Maryland had been named for that same biblical place, led Roosevelt to supposedly suggested that this was the perfect place to build the facility. For after all, the National Navy Medical Center was to become an oasis of healing as well for those who had been injured in the service of our country. (“Change is Hard: Army, Navy Hospitals Merge”, Joseph Shapiro, 9.2.2011, npr.org)
Bethesda was indeed a scriptural location where remarkable healing was said to take place. As a result, it was also an extremely popular place for those with all types of infirmities in the days of Jesus’ time on earth to congregate. This was true for a couple of reasons. First, it was true because there was apparently a legend connected to the pool at Bethesda that suggested that the water there had unusual power. The pool of Bethesda was fed by an underground spring that flowed intermittently. Thus, when water begin to enter the pool from below, the otherwise calm water would begin to bubble. The legend said that the bubbles were caused by an angel who from time to time stirred the waters of Bethesda. Further, the same legend suggested that the first person who entered the waters once the pool began to bubble stood a good chance of being healed from whatever type of ailment that they suffered.
Beyond the legend, Bethesda was a popular place for those struggling physically and financially to congregate for a second reason. You see, the Bethesda pool was also situated quite close to the temple. Therefore people passing the pool there were often either on their way to or from worship. The thought was that this put them in a more generous frame of mind and thus Bethesda was a grand location for those who were dependent on the gifts of others for their well being to locate themselves and ask for assistance from those who passed by.
Both of these elements become interesting pieces of background information for us as we read Jesus’ conversation with the man in John 5. The text says that this particular man was ill and if we dive further we can quickly see that at least part of his ailment was his inability to walk. According to the text, the man had been this way for thirty eight years and apparently he had spent a good bit of time at Bethesda. As they conversed with each other, Jesus asks him a question that on first glance may seem a bit odd, “Do you want to be made well?” Jesus says.
Again, an odd question at first, that is until we read the man’s response. Rather than simply saying “yes”, he immediately responds by giving excuses as to why he has not been made well already. He points out that he has no one to help him into the water and thus someone always beats him into the pool which is apparently an allusion to the legend attached to Bethesda and the idea that the first into the water when it stirred was the one who received the miracle.
It truly is an interesting exchange. Here is a man who when asked if he wanted to be made well, quickly responds with the reasons why he hasn’t been healed. And further more, as the chapter continues, and as Jesus eventually does heal him, the man plays a similar card a second time.
When healing does come from Jesus and the man begins to walk and to carry rather than sit on his mat, we learn that it was the Sabbath. Of course, as we know, anything that looked like work was condemned by the religious leaders on the sabbath and looked at as one’s disregard for the law. Thus when the religious leaders confront the man about that “outrageous act of carrying his mat on the sabbath” the man responds to their question by blaming Jesus for healing him. He literally responds by saying, “look if this man had not healed me, I wouldn’t be up carrying this mat,” in other words its not my fault, don’t blame me.
All of this puts this story and Jesus’ rather unusual initial question into a different light. It leaves us wondering two things – first, did the man really want to be made well? Or was he happy and comfortable just as things were even if his life did include challenges and struggles. And, second, while his life was challenging without a doubt, was he willing to take any personal responsibility for his own life and behavior, or, was he always content to simply blame others for his life struggles?
While these are two important questions to ask of this text and of the man by the pool in Bethesda, they are equally important questions to ask of ourselves.
First, when it comes to our being all that the we can be in life and all that God wants us to be, do we really want to improve and to be more than we are? Or, do we just say that while secretly being happy and comfortable as things stand? Said another way, are we truly interested in and willing to move beyond our comfort zones?
When I think about this, I recall an episode from an old tv show. In the episode, a man is struck from behind by another car. Over a couple of days, he becomes convinced that he has whiplash and being a single man with no family, he is invited into the home of some dear friends who are more than eager to help nurse him back to health. Suddenly, he has someone to cook all of his meals and to care for his every need. All he has to do is to sit in bed, read and watch television all day. Ultimately, his real desire to get better goes away. He says he wants to get well, he goes on and on about his issues, but secretly he and and the viewer realize that he has things pretty good as they are – he really doesn’t desire healing.
All of us talk a good game. We all talk as if we want to be more than we are. We all carry on as if we really want to change or grow beyond our bad habits, our difficult place or to improve our lives. We all act like we want God to be in charge and say that we want the Holy Spirit to have his way in our lives. But, the truth is that most of us are like the man in Bethesda. Things are not so bad and our words are more hot air than truth. I think in turn Jesus says to us, “do you really want to be healed or do you simply say that you do?”
The second question for this man is an equally good one for us. Are we willing to take responsibility for our lives or are we happy to spend our days blaming someone else for our misfortunes? Don’t hear me wrong, some people without question have a harder row to hoe in life than others. But, that doesn’t change the fact that most of the time, we possess within ourselves the ultimate ability to makes changes in our own lives. And, in the end, we have no one else to blame for our struggles than ourselves.
This is a powerful passage of scripture from this regard. In both instances, the question of Jesus about the man’s desire to be made well and the question of his fellow Jews about his breaking of sabbath rules, the man responds by blaming someone else. He never takes personal responsibility.
What about us? When we talk about why we are where we are in life and why we have not risen or matured or reached a better place in life, do we do so by blaming others and always making it someone else’s responsibility or fault? Or, are we willing to own up to our role in things beings as they are?
I mentioned FDR earlier in my sermon. Roosevelt’s distant cousin Teddy was of course also president of the United States. Interestingly, Teddy Roosevelt’s life was not always a walk in the park. He had severe asthma as a child and came from very humble beginnings. He attempted and succeeded in getting a degree from Harvard after having had no formal education except that which came from his parents beforehand. He struggled through the death of his first wife. He lost one of his early races in politics when he ran for mayor of New York City. And, he ultimately became President only when his predecessor William McKinley died while in office. When he did become President, Teddy Roosevelt was the youngest person at the time to have ever served in the highest office in our country. Needless to say, Roosevelt had lots of situations and people to blame when it came to his life and his struggles. But, one of the quotes he is remembered for is this one, “if you could kick the person in the pants responsible for most of your trouble, you wouldn’t sit for a month”. (everydaypowerblog.com, Jan 30, 2015)
We always have other people and situations that we could blame for our problems. But, in the end, is our finger pointing really as valid as we think or only a way to move the blame away from the place where it really belongs?
Let me end by pointing out something else very meaningful in this passage. Ultimately, Jesus seems to have called this man’s bluff. It wasn’t that he didn’t have compassion and it wasn’t that he didn’t care – after all he ultimately healed him. But, he did want this man to realize that he had to take responsibility for himself if he really wanted to change.
Sometimes, we need to be that type of friend or family members to others. It is easy for us to shoulder the blame that belongs to others. It is also easy to enable others by continuing to bail them out and do things for them that really only allows them to stay right where they are and never have to change. It is much harder to be honest and to ask them to assume responsibility for themselves. Again, Jesus showed compassion, care and he offered help – but he also refused to allow this man to act as though he had no responsibility for his own life. Will we have the courage to show a similar version of love? Amen.