The lame man answered the wrong question when Jesus asked him, “Do you want to be well?” Sometimes we do the same thing.
Answering the Wrong Question
1Some time later, Jesus went up to Jerusalem for a feast of the Jews. 2Now there is in Jerusalem near the Sheep Gate a pool, which in Aramaic is called Bethesda and which is surrounded by five covered colonnades. 3Here a great number of disabled people used to lie—the blind, the lame, the paralyzed.
5One who was there had been an invalid for thirty-eight years. 6When Jesus saw him lying there and learned that he had been in this condition for a long time, he asked him, “Do you want to get well?”
7″Sir,” the invalid replied, “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.”
8Then Jesus said to him, “Get up! Pick up your mat and walk.” 9At once the man was cured; he picked up his mat and walked.
The day on which this took place was a Sabbath….
The Setting of Today’s Story
Jesus had traveled to Jerusalem for a feast day, possibly the Passover, but we’re not sure. In any event, it was an occasion on which Jews gathered in Jerusalem, and so Jesus goes there, too.
John then shifts his focus, like a movie director giving us a preview of what is about to happen. John tells us that in Jerusalem, and actually very close to the Temple, is a place called the Sheep Gate. The Sheep Gate is probably where sheep for Temple sacrifice were brought in — kind of a one-way trip for most of them, I’m certain.
But by the Sheep Gate there was a pool. Now, when we read the Biblical account, we imagine a little pool of water that was not significant. But in 1956, archaeologists unearthed what most now believe to be the Pool of Bethesda. And it was spectacular.
The Pool of Bethesda was actually two pools, surrounded by 5 covered colonades — there were four sides and then one of the colonades divided the entire structure with one pool on each side of this middle colonade.
Bethesda means “house of mercy” or “house of grace.” And it had probably gotten its name from some miraculous healing that had occurred there. the Pool of Bethesda may have been like the Shrine at Lourdes. It may have started out as a rather humble pool of water, but after a particularly notable healing, the pools may have been enlarged, and the porticos added to surround them. We don’t know, but it’s a possibility.
In any event, the Pool at Bethesda was famous for its healing powers. But, the water itself didn’t heal. It wasn’t a mineral spring, or holy water. We’re told that when the waters were troubled the first one in the pool got healed.
Some manuscripts used to translate the King James Version of the Bible have the explanation that the water was troubled by an angel. Later and more reliable manuscripts leave out that detail, which was probably added later because everyone thought that an angel moved the waters.
It was also the Sabbath. And for some reason, I’ll explain what I think in just a moment, Jesus goes to the Pool of Bethesda. Why did he do that?
I’m sure that Jesus knew the story of the pool, and of its healing power. I’m sure that Jesus knew he would find those who were sick seeking cures for their infirmities, whatever they were, there at the Pool, even on the Sabbath because the schedule of the waters being moved or “troubled” was completely uncertain. We are not told how frequently it occurred, but it was at best sporadic and unpredictable.
From what I’ve read, there might have been dozens of sick people there, perhaps a few hundred. The porticos surrounding the pools provided shelter from the sun, and from our story we can assume that some of those who were ill came there often, if not everyday.
Medical care in first century Jerusalem was little, if non-existent. While the Romans had physicians, the Jews probably relied on a combination of folk-remedies and the supernatural, the Pool of Bethesda being one of those supernatural opportunities.
The Man in the Story
Which brings us to the man who had been an invalid for thirty-eight years. We don’t know how old he is, but life expectancy in the first century was not much more than 40 years for males. As a matter of fact, John Dominic Crossan puts the average life expectancy of male Jews at about 29 years. He gleaned that information from burial box engravings and ancient accounts, but many scholars believe that is a bit on the short side. However, life expectancy was perhaps no more than half of ours today, but just like today many lived much longer lives than the average.
So, for this man to have been an invalid for 38 years suggests that he is not near death, but perhaps lame to the point of being almost helpless.
He explains to Jesus that he has no one to help him get into the water when it is disturbed, and apparently by the time he is able to maneuver his way there, someone else beats him into the pool. He is, in other words, virutally helpless.
We have to ask ourselves, “How does he get to the pool, if no one is there to put him in.” Perhaps he has a family, or a friend and each day this person, or these people bring him to the Pool of Bethesda. They may bring him early in the morning because they must then spend the rest of their day working to provide for their family. Maybe they leave him there each day with a small lunch, a quick prayer, and the promise to return for him that evening. We can only guess, but while at the Pool, he is alone.
The Question Jesus Asks and The Question The Man Answers
John tells us that Jesus saw the man lying by the Pool, and then Jesus must have asked either him or those around him, “How long has he been sick?” John says Jesus learned the man had been an invalid for 38 years.
Then Jesus asks the man a simple question — “Do you want to get well?”
Our first thought is, of course he wants to get well. But maybe not. Haven’t you known people who enjoyed their illness? Oh, not serious illness, but some kind of mysterious, chronic condition that they seem to enjoy talking about and which gives them some power or family position that they otherwise would not have.
So, Jesus is asking, “Do you want to get well?” As opposed to staying the way you are.
Here’s the funniest example of that in the Bible that I can think of. Remember from the book of Exodus, when Moses was trying to persuade Pharaoh let God’s people go free? Pharaoh was a tough guy and did not want to free the Hebrews who did the manual labor in his kingdom.
So, to get Pharaoh’s attention, God sends a series of plagues. Ten to be exact, and one of the plagues was the plague of frogs. That’s right, frogs. Apparently, there were frogs everywhere in Egypt. Frogs in the garden, frogs in the living room, frogs in the kitchen, frogs in the soup, frogs in your bed. Everywhere you looked or stepped, every door you opened, every cupboard you went to, every jar you uncorked contained at least one frog.
So, Moses goes to Pharaoh, and says, “Pharaoh, I can make these frogs go away if you will let my people go.”
Pharaoh’s response is classic — “Okay, I’ll think about it. Give me one more night.” I preached a sermon one time called, “One More Night with the Frogs.” I think I might have borrowed the title from someone, but I thought it was a great story.
So, who knows what the lame man is going to say when Jesus asks him, “Do you want to get well?”
But rather than say, “You bet I do.” or “Absolutely, yes.” Or even “let me think about it one more night” the lame man begins this long elaborate explanation about why he can’t get well.
“Sir,” the invalid replied, “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 lame man thought his fate rested on having someone to help him into the pool. He could not imagine another scenario, another way to be well. He had spent the past 38-years coming to the Pool of Bethesda because that was the only answer he could see to his problem.
Whatever doctors he had been to had given up on him, so he knew doctors were not going to make him well. The variety of herbal concoctions that his family and friends and neighbors had made for him had not done any good, so he knew the folk remedies weren’t going to make him well.
The poultices and ointments that others had given him recipes for had all failed to strengthen the ineffective muscles in his legs and body. He knew ointments weren’t going to make him well.
In a sense, the man had done what all of us need to do, he had thrown himself on the mercy of God, and he had come to the place called, “The House of Mercy” — beth means “house” and “chesda” — which is a derivative of “hesed” — means “mercy” or “grace.” He was in God’s hands, waiting for God’s angel to do what only God could do.
But what he hadn’t counted on was God himself showing up.
Jesus, I am sure realized that the man was answering the wrong question. The lame man was answering the question, “Why can’t you get well?” But the question Jesus asked him was, “Do you want to get well?” There is a difference.
The Answer The Lame Man Needs
Country music singer and songwriter Garth Brooks wrote a song several years ago called Unanswered Prayers. The chorus goes like this, and no, I’m not going to sing it —
Sometimes I thank God for unanswered prayers
Remember when you’re talkin’ to the man upstairs
That just because he doesn’t answer doesn’t mean he don’t care
Some of God’s greatest gifts are unanswered prayers
Now, despite the slaughtering of the English language here — I grew up in Nashville and everybody there does not wear cowboy hats or talk like this — Garth makes a good point. Sometimes we should be thankful for unanswered prayers because God has a better plan.
So, while the lame man had been praying that God would let him get in the water, he had no idea that God would actually show up in person and make him well.
Which is exactly what happens. Jesus says to him, “Get up! Pick up your mat and walk.”
Immediately, John recalls, the lame man gets up and picks up his mat. And walks. And he walks right out of the Pool of Bethesda, into the waiting arms of the religious leaders who are looking for Sabbath-breakers.
“By the way, don’t you know it’s unlawful for you to be carrying a mat on the Sabbath,” they ask this newly-healed man.
“I just got healed,” he tells them. “Who healed you?” they ask, because healing is also forbidden on the Sabbath. Not that it happens a lot, but if it should it can’t happen on the Sabbath.
Well, this guy gets a pass from the Pharisees apparently, and then heads to the Temple to probably be declared cleansed by the priest. What should happen but he runs into Jesus, again. This time, Jesus says to him,
“See, you are well again. Stop sinning or something worse may happen to you.”
“Stop sinning, or something worse may happen to you.” That’s a very interesting statement, and Jesus might be implying that the man got himself in the fix he was in before Jesus healed him. “Stop sinning…” was Jesus second answer to the formerly lame man.
What Answer Do We Give Jesus?
Which brings us to the point of this story for us: What answer do we give Jesus?
When Jesus says to us “Would you like for your life to be all God intended when he made you?” is our answer —
“But you don’t understand. I’ve got all these pressures, and no way to get out of all the things that seem to sap the life out of me.”
Or maybe we say, “Sir, let me tell how it really is. There’s this stuff we talk about on Sunday, but really that’s just kind of inspirational and doesn’t really affect our lives, don’t you see?”
Or maybe we say, “But if you were in my shoes, you’d have a little more appreciation for what I’m going through.”
Whatever it is, we’re answering the wrong question.
Jesus is asking, “Do you want to get well?” And we’re answering with all the excuses why we can’t.
As a high school teacher of mine used to say, “Listen to the question.” Listen, hear what God is asking you. Listen to the gift he wants to give you. Realize that there just might be another solution, another way to be the person God has always intended for you to be. To have the peace, joy, and wholeness God has always wanted for you.
When Jesus asks you, “Do you want to be well?” Don’t answer the wrong question. Just say “yes.”