Breaking the Rules Since 33 A.D.
We are jumping a bit back today to the Gospel of John and to a seemingly simple story of one of Jesus’ earlier healings in his ministry. I’d like to do a bit of a text study this morning because there are some really interesting things happening in today’s scripture reading. I find this text fascinating, not so much in what Jesus does, but as to the language that John uses to describe a fairly straight forward healing. We find ourselves in Jerusalem, towards the West side of the city near what is called a Sheep Gate. This gate was used in the ritual that would lead the animals to the Temple for sacrifice.
Near there was a pool of water called Beth-zatha. That Hebrew word can be understood in a few different ways: Beth means house—for example Bethlehem: house of bread. Zatha or alternatively hesda could be understood to mean mercy or grace but it could also mean shame or disgrace. This double meaning is clever—not only is this a place where those who were considered less-than gathered, but it was also the place we witness an act of great mercy and grace.
It can be difficult sometimes to transport ourselves to ancient Jerusalem, to the sights and sounds and the people who inhabited this multicultural and multi-ethnic region of the Middle East. One of the most challenging aspects of this culture is to imagine the rich and complicated belief systems of people who were just trying to explain their world. In addition to the relatively monotheistic belief system of the Jewish people (the idea that there is one true God), there were multitudes of people who practiced the religion of the state, of the Roman gods, and even those of what we call ‘pagan’ beliefs—belief in spirits and lesser gods. The reason there were so many individuals at this pool was that it was believed its waters had healing properties. People would take turns praying at a sanctuary nearby and then enter this pool in the hope that they would be made well.
So the name that John attributes to this area seems to be appropriate, it was a place that great miracles were expected, but was also seen as a place where the shameful and disgraced of society ended up. I struggled this week with the NRSV’s translation of these people—the word “invalid” certainly doesn’t strike them in a good light but perhaps it better reflects their position in society and their position in Jerusalem, how people who have different abilities and needs are often labeled as burdensome or inconvenient even today.
Unfortunately, in ancient Israel, to be blind or lame or paralyzed was to be 'invalid'. You were outcast from the rights and privileges awarded to most people. To have any sort physical difference or need was often seen as a curse or punishment from God(s) and these people were more often than not labeled as untouchables, not meant to be associated with. They would spend the rest of their lives begging on the streets, just hoping to get enough to eat.
This makes me think about our own ministry and our efforts towards providing a worship space that is open and welcoming, but perhaps even just as important, accessible to all. It makes me think to the stigma we place of differently-abled people or people who do not look or act what society deems as “normal”. Even today, this type of discrimination often exists and so we must be ever mindful to stand up for what is right.
We meet a man in our story whose illness is not described but who had been suffering for 38 years. Given that the average lifespan for someone at this time didn’t breach 60, this had been most of this man’s life. It's difficult to even imagine. But it dawned on me that this is not unheard of—even today, maybe even here, pain is something that so many of us endure. Pain is often a part of life.
The man from our scriptures had been trying, maybe for years, to enter the pool, to feel the healing waters in hopes of something spectacular, but he could never quite get there, there was always someone or something ahead of him. In his mind, he knew that if he could just enter the pool, if he could just feel those soothing waters, he might once be well again. Hearers of this story might expect what is to come next, Jesus picks up the man and places him in the water and the man is healed. "But Pastor, you got the story wrong! That’s not what happens!" Instead, with a simple question and a simple command, the man stands up, takes up his mat, and he leaves. Christ heals, not using the methods that were expected, but through faith.
Faith is a tricky thing. As post-enlightenment thinkers we value science and medicine and tests and studies, but faith stands apart from any of those things. Faith often causes us to look for the unexpected, to find comfort in the unconventional. Faith is sometimes frightening but also extremely powerful.
We are left with a peculiar little line at the very end of passage—“Now that day was a sabbath”. You’ve definitely heard the word before and some of you may have even used it in a non-religious sense. The sabbath or ‘shabbat’ was a day of rest for the Jewish people but even more than that, it was a day in which any work was prohibited. This little detail is important because, of course, not only is Jesus’ associating himself and being in the presence of those labeled as ‘other’ by society, but he is also healing on a sabbath day! Jesus was breaking all the rules! In characteristic fashion, Jesus is defying expectations, radically changing the “norm” towards a vision where all people are seen just as that—as people. If we were to read a bit farther in the story, we see Jesus getting into trouble with the religious elite of the day. Christ was radical and therefore labeled as dangerous.
I think about Jesus’ actions at the pool of Beth-zatha, at the house of shame transformed into the house of mercy, the house of grace. I think about the radical actions that he took to make sizable change within his day. With his actions, Christ quite literally transformed societies perception of those labeled as different…and he offered healing to those who needed it most. He breaks the rules in order to create a world that is more just and more understanding. We like rules in our tradition. We have something called the 'Book of Order' for goodness sake. We create committees and subcommittees; we have hierarchies and certain ways to do things decently and in order. I like our structure, but I also wonder at the good we could do if we just loosened up a little bit, if we were a bit more radical like Jesus. After all, if I’m accused of anything, let it be that I was a radical for love, and justice, and mercy. (King: Letter from Birmingham Jail) Let people talk about us as we are radically seeking to be like Christ. Let us always be a community that stands up, no matter which entity is trying to demean and dehumanize groups of people in this country.
On this weekend especially, we recognize the privilege but also the responsibility that comes with being an American but also a Christian. Like Christ, we have a call to always seek to lift people up. In Dr. Martin Luther King’s words, we have a duty to become radicals for love. What in your life, stands for Beth-zatha? How can you begin to create a place of mercy and grace? What can we do better in making sure this is a space that lifts up people from all walks of life? Let us have faith, faith in knowing that Christ radically transforms us into the image of the kingdom. Let us have faith that amidst our pain, both God and this community are with us. Let us have faith as we continue to build this house of grace, and mercy, and love.