Sunday 5th May 2013 – John 5:1-18
Where There’s a Will
I am sure that, like me, you will know a number of people whose lives are blighted by illness. Tomorrow I am going to visit a friend who is recovering from having a tumour removed from his colon. Another friend has just been diagnosed with MS late in life. Perhaps saddest of all is the young man of 23 I know who became a paraplegic last year after a domestic accident. It would never occur to me to ask any of these people if they wanted to be made well and yet that is exactly what Jesus asks of a sick man in today’s gospel reading.
The man in the story has been ill for 38 years and he cuts a pathetic figure, lying by a pool he believes has healing properties, together with those who are blind, lame and – like him – paralysed. But Jesus’ question “do you want to be made well?” does not get the response from him you would expect. He doesn’t answer the question at all. Instead, he asks Jesus’ help in getting into the pool, his problem being that others are barging ahead of him.
What happens next is that Jesus goes straight ahead and heals him. This is unusual, for in the New Testament healing stories Jesus generally requires some indication of faith in his power to heal from the person requiring healing. In this case he seems to take the request for help in getting into the pool as sufficient. The man’s situation was truly wretched. His single, slender hope was to get into the healing pool, something it seems that he has tried to do before to no avail. This man had effectively lost all hope and as such any control over his life. He needed a dramatic intervention and got it.
But what does Jesus get for his pains? Again, not what you would expect. There is no indication of any gratitude shown. When asked who had healed him the man doesn’t even know Jesus’ name. And when, after seeing Jesus again he finds out, he goes straight ahead and shops him to his enemies, the religious crowd who were so outraged at the healing having been carried out on a Sunday in contravention of the Jewish law. This directly led to Jesus’ persecution by those who wanted to kill him.
This is not a pretty story. For all his physical restoration there is something fundamentally unreformed in the man’s life. He rather puts me in the mind of some lottery winners whose stories we read about in the press or see on television. Despite their lives being transformed by being freed from any possible material want, they still end up deeply unhappy precisely because there is a moral and spiritual dimension to them that has gone unreformed. It is surely highly significant that when Jesus sees the man again he addresses precisely this point by telling him not to sin any more.
That command helps us to understand the real significance of his question “do you want to be made well?” In the King James Version this question is translated as “wilt thou be made whole”. That. I think, gets nearer the mark. For marvellous as the man’s physical healing is, he is so much more than flesh and blood precisely because life means so much more to us than our having fully functioning bodies, a delight though they are.
So, what to make of this rather bleak story, for there is something in the man’s blindness to his inner life and his ingratitude that is all too true and human? How are we to square this story with the promise of transformation that is at the heart of Easter? That raising of all of us to new, abundant life that Jesus promises us not just in the future but in this present life? It’s an idea, a vision that is so beautifully captured in today’s story from Ezekiel of God breathing new, vigorous life into the dead, dry bones of the Israelites. Bluntly, how is this to be achieved when we are so useless?
The answer all comes down to Jesus’ strange question: do we want to be made well, or whole? For where we have a will – be it ever so faint – God can find a way. But we do have to want to change, to be transformed, for him to act. God, as revealed to us in the person of Jesus, never imposes on us. That is not and cannot be the way that love works.
But – and this is the difficult bit – if God can only work in us to the extent that we want to be changed it is inevitable that our transformation – transformation in the depths of our being and not just on the surface – will take a long time, most likely a very long time.
As Christians we believe that, above all else, we desire union with God. As St. Augustine put it “You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our heart is restless until it rests in you”. But the awkward reality of our lives is that there is much that thwarts this desire.
Some people’s lives are so wretched, so distorted by poverty, disease and distress, that making it from one day to the next is struggle enough. The man in the gospel story was like this and you could hardly blame him for not being more aware of the shortcomings of his inner life. This, surely, is why Jesus had such pity on him and it is precisely why it is our duty to reach out to those for whom the simple business of living is such a struggle.
There are others who have a strong desire to change but for whom there are equally strong forces at work within them that get in their way. In my work as an Executive Coach I come across many people who are deeply unhappy, who so want to flourish and to make the changes in their lives that would allow that to happen, but who fail to do so because they somehow lack the courage or confidence to take the necessary steps.
And then there are those whose lives are dominated by false desires – those things they think they want more than anything else and to which they devote the best part of their energies and efforts but that are in fact injurious to their health and well-being. I may have told you before of my experience of being made redundant over a decade ago now and of having to fend for myself as a self-employed consultant having enjoyed the comforts and privileges of employment in large organisations. It was only then, in fending for myself with no fancy job title to boast about, that I realised how much of my professional life had been devoted to achieving status, power and influence- things that I in fact cared for not a jot. I similarly realised that material wealth mattered far less to me than I had assumed. What a waste of my time and effort the pursuit of these things had been! It is indeed very hard to resist the distorting priorities and values of the world and yet for the sake of our wholeness and happiness we must.
Looked at this way faith is a belief in, and openness to, the possibility of change. It requires a humble acceptance that we often don’t know our own hearts and minds and that to do so requires us to rely on God’s guidance rather than our own. Even then, when we are clear about our deepest wants and needs, we often need help to overcome the obstacles that lie in our path. It’s for all these reasons that the transformation we are promised – the abundant life that Jesus offers us – is not achieved overnight but slowly, even painfully. And the extent to which we achieve it in the end rests on how we answer Jesus’ profound question: “Do you want to be made well? Do you want to be made whole?”
Well now, do you?