October 21, 2018 Rev. Rhonda Blevins
Do You Want to Get Well?
After this there was a festival of the Jews, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem. Now in Jerusalem by the Sheep Gate there is a pool, called in Hebrew Beth-zatha, which has five porticoes. In these lay many invalids—blind, lame, and paralyzed. One man was there who had been ill for thirty-eight years. When Jesus saw him lying there and knew that he had been there a long time, he said to him, “Do you want to be made well?” The sick man answered him, “Sir, I have no one to put me into the pool when the water is stirred up; and while I am making my way, someone else steps down ahead of me.” Jesus said to him, “Stand up, take your mat and walk.” At once the man was made well, and he took up his mat and began to walk.
It’s Halloween night. Charlie Brown and Snoopy and the whole gang are dressed up in their favorite costumes. Snoopy is dressed up as a World War II flying ace; Charlie Brown is a ghost, but his sheet has too many holes because of “trouble with the scissors.” Lucy chooses a witch costume; she says it’s the opposite of her real personality. The only kid from the gang who isn’t going trick-or-treating is Linus, who chooses to sit in the local pumpkin patch to await the arrival of the Great Pumpkin, who (he purports) will arise from the most sincere pumpkin patch, fly into the air, and deliver presents to boys and girls around the world. The other kids walk by multiple times and taunt Linus, making fun of his ardent belief in the Great Pumpkin. Sadly, for Linus, the Great Pumpkin never arrives. At four o’clock in the morning his big sister, Lucy, realizes Linus is not in his bed. Lucy finds Linus in the pumpkin patch under his blanket, shivering and nearly asleep. Lucy brings him home, removes his shoes, and places him in bed. The next morning, unconvinced of the futility of his belief in the Great Pumpkin, Linus declares that the Great Pumpkin will come to the pumpkin patch next year.
Linus reminds me a little bit of the disabled man in John 5:1-9 who sits poolside at Beth-zatha . . . for as many as 38 years. Waiting. He believes that the waters in this pool have magical powers to heal. So he sits there. Waiting. The earliest manuscripts of the Gospel of John (like the manuscripts used for later translations of the Bible including the NRSV quoted above) don’t tell us why the man thinks the waters have magical healing powers. But in later manuscripts, a scribe added an explanation which you can read in the King James Version in John 5:4: “For an angel went down at a certain season into the pool, and troubled the water: whosoever then first after the troubling of the water stepped in was made whole of whatsoever disease he had.” A swimming angel bestows magical healing powers to the water, but only the first one in gets healed. Yeah, right. And being physically disabled, our friend can never be the first one in. People suffering from hang nails jump in in front of this man. No wonder he is grumpy. Did you notice how grumpy he is? Jesus asks, “Do you want to get well,” the man doesn’t answer, but instead airs his grievances about how unfair the angel/water/healing system is.
Maybe it isn’t the system that’s messed up. Maybe it’s his false hope that’s messed up.
But are we so different than this man? We may or may not suffer the physical ailments of this man, but many (most?) of us have misplaced hope. We place our hope in all kinds of things:
· We hope our 401k will give us the security we need (until the stock market crashes)
· We hope our real estate will maintain value and provide security (until a hurricane rips it up or the housing market crashes)
· We hope our education will give us opportunities for work (until we realize the weight of crushing school loans, or we become overqualified and employers won’t look at us)
· We hope our health and abilities will last forever (until they don’t)
· We hope a politician will save America (until he or she doesn’t)
· We hope that social security will be there when we retire (who are you kidding, millennials?)
Me? I hope that my Tennessee Volunteers will beat Alabama before I die. Yeah, right.
In one way or another, most of us are walking along on some yellow brick road just like Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz. Our hope is in some sort of Wizard. Until we realize that (spoiler alert) the Wizard is a ruse. Nothing more than a con man pulling levers. In one of the most powerful metaphors in film history, Dorothy and her companions realize what they’re searching for has been with them all along. With their false hope revealed, now their eyes can be opened to a more powerful reality.
There is some debate among those who think deeply about such things, about whether false hope is better than no hope at all. J.R.R. Tolkien wrote, “False hopes are more dangerous than fears.” Aristotle, on the other hand, wrote, “Hope is the dream of a waking man.” Martin Luther wrote, “Everything that is done in the world is done by hope.” What do you think? Is false hope better than no hope at all?
Though intelligent people can disagree, I’m going to venture that yes, false hope is better than no hope at all. It was false hope that got the disabled man out of bed, out of the house, and positioned in a place where the real deal (Jesus) would take notice and deliver the ultimate result desired.
One of the books that has had tremendous impact on me is Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning. I’m not the only one who has felt the impact of this work—the Library of Congress lists Man’s Search among the “ten most influential books in the United States.” Frankl was an Austrian neurologist and psychiatrist. A Jew, he was rounded up by the Third Reich and placed in a concentration camp. After being liberated by American soldiers, Frankl returned to Vienna where he wrote Man’s Search for Meaning (the American title). What I just discovered is the German title is translated Saying Yes to Life in Spite of Everything: A Psychologist Experiences the Concentration Camp. In the book, Frankl posits that something differentiated those who survived the camp and those who did not, and that something was hope. Frankl believed that the way an inmate envisioned his future affected his longevity. A positive outlook was a matter of life and death. Hope was the prescription to survival. He developed a therapeutic method called “logotherapy,”—basically, hope therapy.
So, yes, I’d argue that false hope is better than no hope at all. But . . . real hope trumps false hope. Every. Single. Time.
Back to the man at the pool. I’m glad he had false hope. It got him out of bed, out of the house, and placed him in Jesus’ pathway. His false hope set him (literally) on the pathway to true hope. “Do you want to get well?” Jesus asked the man, making no assumptions. It’s easy to think the question was rhetorical. “Duh. Of course he wants to get well.” But not so fast. There are those who don’t really want to get well.
At my last church there was a woman. I’ll call her Michelle. Every time you’d talk with Michelle, she told you about another ailment. Sometimes mild. Sometimes more severe. Sometimes her ailments were so severe that she’d go to the doctor and the doc would run a bunch of tests and they would all come back negative. One day her husband was in the hospital. He was quite ill, and I went to visit. Michelle took that opportunity to tell her pastor all about her own ailments of the day. Her husband died. Michelle muddled along with all of her ailments. Until one day, she was diagnosed with cancer. Someone quipped that it was the best day of her life! It wasn’t life threatening, and Michelle is still kicking—undoubtedly dealing with some other ailment today. “Do you want to get well, Michelle?” Not necessarily.
So, my friend, I’ll ask you the question Jesus posed to the man at the pool, “Do you want to get well?” This question presents an opportunity to plumb the depths of your heart and discover the real answer. We all suffer in some way. The question is, “Do you want to keep suffering?” If the answer is yes, then keep placing your hope in the swimming angel or the Great Pumpkin (or the 401k or some really bad football team). False hope might very well be better than no hope at all. If, however, the answer is no—if you truly want to get well—try shifting your hope from the pool to the power of God working in, around, and through you to bring you healing. That’s invitation number one.
Invitation number two is to take stock of healing you’ve already received. Maybe you haven’t experienced physical healing, but you’ve experienced emotional healing. Or maybe you haven’t’ received financial healing, but you have received relational healing.
The man Jesus healed that day, if you read a little further, is not the guy that went “walking and leaping and praising God.” No, he took up his mat and walked. He didn’t show appreciation or even excitement. He didn’t care enough to get the name of the man who had healed him. And when he figured out that Jesus was his healer’s name, he reported him to the authorities for breaking the law by healing on the Sabbath.
Don’t be that guy. If you’ve found healing in some way . . . the invitation is to notice that healing. And give thanks.
“Do you want to be made well?” Yes? Here’s your prescription: Hope (the true kind) and gratitude. And you might try a little singing:
My hope is built on nothing less
Than Jesus’ blood and righteousness
I dare not trust the sweetest frame
But wholly lean on Jesus’ name
On Christ the solid Rock I stand;
All other ground is sinking sand,
All other ground is sinking sand.