When we read through the Gospel of John, this particular story probably doesn’t stick out in our memory when we’re finished. It’s pretty easy to breeze past it on our way to more exciting accounts like the feeding of the 5,000 with its wonderful “bread of life” imagery, or more detailed narratives of personal transformation like the intriguing portraits of Nicodemus or the Samaritan woman at the well. On the surface this seems like a fairly standard healing story, if there can be anything standard about a body being restored to wholeness and a life being renewed.
Furthermore, this is a strange text to read during Lent. Of course during Lent we remember the life and ministry of Jesus, and in that sense any gospel narrative is appropriate. But this story seems to be a depiction of resurrection, of a paralyzed man made whole, of a life given new meaning and purpose. The daily lectionary places it here in the middle of the second week of Lent, but the Revised Common Lectionary assigns it to the sixth Sunday of the Easter season.
Yet, this is not such a strange or unimportant text for today if we stop and look closely at the short conversation between Jesus and this man. “Do you want to be made well?” Jesus asks. “Sir, I have no one to put me in the water,” he answers. Does that strike you as odd? From other sources, and from the explanatory comment inserted into the biblical narrative by early Christians (this is the mysterious verse four that occurs in some translations, like the King James, but not in most modern ones), we know the paralyzed man is speaking of a tradition related to the pool of Bethzatha. An angel of the Lord was thought to come and stir the water, and the first person to get to the pool after this stirring would be healed. The paralyzed man is telling Jesus the problem is not with his desire to be well, but with his ability to get to the healing waters. He quite literally needs a few friends to lend him a hand, and has for 38 years.
Perhaps, early on, some were willing to be that help, but maybe waiting for the water to be stirred got kind of old. Maybe they stepped away to grab a bite to eat, and that was the exact moment the angel did its thing. Or maybe they could only stay for a few hours after work, before having to go pick up the kids from daycare or take them to soccer practice. All those good things of life get in the way, and, after all, who can know when the water’s going to be stirred? You can end up sitting around waiting forever for something like that. You can end up waiting 38 years.
We may associate waiting with Advent more than with Lent, but there’s something about this paralyzed man’s waiting that is reminiscent of Jesus’ long journey toward the cross. As we prepare ourselves this Lenten season, through prayer and penitence, for our commemoration of Jesus’ death and resurrection, it’s worth asking where we find ourselves in this story. Are we the ones missing from this scene, those who have let the busyness and stuff of life get in the way of being the agents of healing God has called us to be? Or are we paralyzed, in need of healing and restoration ourselves? Or, as is most likely the case, is it some of both?
The good news is that wherever we find ourselves, Jesus offers that transformation. For the paralyzed man it came in a moment. After 38 years of waiting, it arrived after the briefest of conversations, with no conditions attached and without it even being requested. Our God is gracious and faithful. Let us live reassured by that promise, and empowered to be agents of God’s healing in the world.
Matt and Marianne Ackerman
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