“One Day by the Pool”Dr. R. Lee Carter John 5:1-9 Year C: Sixth Sunday of Easter
The gospels contain so many stories of Jesus’ healings that it is tempting to lump them together and focus solely on what they all share in common, whether in form or substance. However, if we take that approach to the healing stories, we might fail to appreciate how distinctive were the circumstances of each person that Jesus touched. Jesus did not heal en masse but individuals with their own special needs.
As we read the healing stories, we are reminded that each of us needs to be healed of something. Some have physical ailments but others may suffer from emotional pain from the loss of a loved one, or a broken relationship or the feeling that one has sorely disappointed others by not living by a higher standard. All of us stand in need of healing in the spiritual realm, but what is of great comfort to us all is to know that Jesus sees us and understands our needs as individuals.
John’s account (John 5:1-9) of the healing of the man who had been an invalid for many years and who spent his miserable days wasting away near the pool of Bethesda, is a particularly piteous and disturbing one. It was bad enough that he had to endure misery for thirty-eight years but that the only hope for healing that he was tenaciously holding on to was a superstition, or more pointedly, a lie.
Legend had it that the natural churning of the waters in the pool was of supernatural origin and that whoever got in at the right time had a chance to be healed. Some ancient sources of our gospel explain it this way: “From time to time an angel of the Lord would come down and stir up the waters. The first one into the pool after each such disturbance would be cured of whatever disease they had.”
Of course, even today the most vulnerable in our society, especially the poor and the aged, often place their hopes in lies, lotteries and get-rich-quick schemes. They find themselves victimized by unscrupulous con artists.
We can understand the desperation, hopelessness, and the grasping at straws by people living in poverty. We can understand the strong desire for companionship or attention by lonely people, especially among the elderly. What infuriates us is that some people want to take advantage of the most vulnerable. Clinging to false hope, created by superstition, makes things even worse for them. We can just imagine the crowds of the infirm at the pool of Bethesda suffering from daily disappointment created by the superstition of the moving waters.
We should expose superstition as the enemy of both faith and logic. Those who hold the mistaken view that faith is believing things for which there is no evidence may be easy prey for superstition. Faith is not ignorance or wishful thinking. Faith is the courage to trust someone we have learned and experienced to be worthy of trust.
Our experience with God teaches us that faith in Him is warranted. Indeed, we may not be able to see what lies over the next hill in life but that does not mean that we journey blindly. We have learned from our experiences to trust God.
Superstition, on the other hand, is hearsay and is usually based on misperception, questionable cause, or anecdotal evidence. Christians, of course, are never commanded to throw their brains out the window, neither when we enter the foyer of a church or when we make their way back into the world.
Of all peoples, Christians must exercise their best critical thinking skills if they seek to influence the current generation. Reason, after all, is not the enemy of religion; superstition and cowardice are.
It may infuriate us that the invalid man in our story is deceived by a superstition that offered false hope. I suppose he thought that false hope was better than no hope at all.
Although the invalid man’s infirmity was very real, might one suspect from his complaint to Jesus and his unwillingness to say an immediate “yes” to Jesus’ offer to heal him, that he suffered as well from a broken spirit and a self-defeating mindset?
Can we surmise this from the story? When Jesus encounters the man, who lay so pitifully and hopelessly by the pool, he asks him: “Do you want to get well?” There is no immediate affirmative response.
Jesus was not being insolent or insensitive when he asked: “Do you want to get well?” It was a genuine question. The fact is that some people think it to their advantage to play the piteous victim when there are opportunities to change their situation.
Self-pity becomes, for some, a strategy and a means of manipulating others. How? By making the people who are willing to help them feel guilty about asking them to make an effort to help themselves. People whose life strategy is to play the victim are quick to blame. They try to justify why they do not try to help themselves.
Jesus did not fall for it. Although we cannot be certain, perhaps the invalid man trapped himself in a mindset of learned helplessness so long that he would not only resist change but believed doggedly that any change was impossible. He believed his fate was sealed. Moreover, his circle of acquaintances, presumably the many lame and paralyzed who gathered daily at the pool of Bethesda reinforced his defeatist attitude. He might have found community among those who griped, complained and despaired of life. In spite of his infirmity and finding his identity among those who were as despondent as he was, could the man have grown comfortable with where he was and as he was?
When Jesus asks him: “Do you want to get well?” he does not answer with “yes.” Instead, he complains. “Sir, I have no one to help me into the pool when the water is stirred. While I am trying to get in, someone else goes down ahead of me.”
The paralyzed man may have thought that Jesus would feel obliged to set him into the water at the proscribed time but Jesus does nothing of the kind. Not only does Jesus not want him to buy into the superstition but also, more importantly, Jesus knew that setting him into those waters would make the man dependent on him from then on.
Helping people, of course, is about preserving their dignity while aiding them to become as independent as possible. Instead of coddling, or showering him with pity, Jesus sternly orders him to get up, pick up his mat, and walk. As harsh as that sounds, Jesus seriously meant to snap him out of a defeatist mindset. He left the invalid man no recourse but to get up, take up his mat, and walk away. By the power of Christ, that is exactly what he did.
Churches who seek to reach out to help others often encounter people with a “what’s the use?” mindset. Some children develop this early as well. The child who does not perform well on math tests may begin to think that nothing he/she could ever do would ever change that. This often results in self-fulfilling prophecies where the children refuse help and continue to fail tests just to prove to those who have come to help them that there is no use, they are just wasting their time.
Learned helplessness, indeed, often originates in childhood, when the child’s caregivers prove unreliable or unresponsive and thus reinforcethe little one’s feelings of helplessness. (Martin Seligman, Learned Optimism: How toChange Your Mind and Your Life; and Peterson, Steven Maier and Martin Seligman, Learned Helplessness: A Theory for the Age of Personal Control).
Some adults fall into the same trap of a negative, “what’s the use” mindset. They use their failures to prove to others that there is nothing they can do to change the things in their lives that need changing.
What can change the mindset of hopelessness? How can they develop a mindset of learned optimism and hope?
Here is where Christian communities, people who live out the gospel, can really help people. Love is the most powerful agent of change. Love changes a despondent mindset.
Everyone needs a circle of friends that they can be assured will not give up on them, people who show them that are not worthless, people who take delight in them. A community of positive people like that can help people take accountability for themselves and for their attitudes.
Our Lord’s example with the paralytic is helpful. We might imagine that the paralytic man became cantankerous and spewed his frustration on anyone who would listen. Constant grumbling and cursing his fate did not help. Jesus certainly did not let him get away with negative and self-defeating talk.
Perhaps as a church we are not so good at raising paralytics or healing the lame, the deaf, the blind, but what we can offer are our personal testimonials that God can draw people away from darkness and despair.
Our gospel is about hope.
Our hope is not simply something we believe about the future; but, as Easter people, our hope is lived out in the present.
Hope changes our attitude about life.
Our hope assures us that we can all change because God is at work in us.
As we surrender our defeatist attitudes, and as we surround ourselves with people who truly trust that God is able to bring out the best in every one of us, transformation begins to take place.
God orders those with learned helplessness to rise, take up their mats and walk. Why not? For with God, nothing is impossible.
About the writer:The Rev. R. Lee Carter, Ph.D., has served as pastor of the North Chapel Hill Baptist Church (Chapel Hill, NC) since 1994. He also is a professor of Religion at William Peace University (Raleigh, NC), and the William C. Bennett Chaplain.
He is a graduate of Furman University, Southeastern Seminary and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He has been married to Pamela Weatherly Carter since 1975 and they have two grown children, Jonathan and Christa, two grandsons, Charlie and Sammy and a granddaughter, Leila.
Scripture and Music:
Praise to the Lord, the Almighty
Shall We Gather at the River
We Shall Behold Him
Face to Face with Christ, My Savior
Greater Is He
Guide Me, O thou Great Jehovah
Where Charity and Love Prevail
Turn Your Eyes Upon Jesus
The Lord Bless You and Keep You (Rutter or Lutkin)
Here Is Water, Lord (Joseph Martin)
Let Not Your Heart Be Troubled (Robert Powell)
Peace Is My Parting Gift (John Horman and Brian Wren)
The Holy City (Gaul)
The Lord Is My Light (Allitsen)
Let Not Your Heart Be Troubled
We Shall Behold Him (Rambo)
Shall We Gather at the River (Copland)