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A Reflection on John 5:1-16

(This is the text of a reflection that I offered at Lenten Tuesday Evening Prayer at St. Edward the Confessor. I am reflecting on Tuesday’s Gospel, John 5:1-16.)

The Pool of Bethesda, Jerusalem, November 2004. Photo by Fran Rossi Szpylczyn

The words stung as I read them; he wrote: “It’s kinda like this… Many cripples were left waiting at the Pool of Bethesda. I doubt their pain would be mollified by your words. After listening to you talk about the free response that is love, a Deuteronomistic view of the world, and Job 39 – and after you and Jesus walk away with the cheering admirers – they’d still be crippled, in pain, and left behind at the Pool.”

* Ouch *

Those words came to me in the form of a recent blog comment. Ironically it came in response to a blog post that I had written about how lovely evening prayer, and our community at St. Edward’s was. This person had already left a few comments at the blog, appearing like a peaceful, unbelieving, and wistful interloper, but in retrospect, he seemed somewhat hurt and angry. My concern for him was countered with knowing that there were probably no words that I could offer to him. It was not lost on me that the last line of his comment referred to the very Gospel I would be here to talk about tonight.

This is where I sigh; deeply.

In some regard, he’s right. I mean what happens when we leave the pool, and others remain there, unhealed, unhappy and in pain? Who is going to tell them to rise, take up their mat and walk? Who will help them to the pool?

But then I wonder if that is a kind of “stinkin’ thinkin’” that gets us nowhere fast. And in getting nowhere, who is able to rise, take their mat and walk? Is this just a binary exercise – who gets to go, who gets left behind? Like a bad series of evangelical novels of the same name, does left behind mean that Jesus does not love us? Or worse yet, that we have done something wrong? Or that we are not as worthy as others?

Is this healing just for the one paralytic and no others? This man who is inexplicably all alone at the pool and for a long, long time. Is it simply a case of “too-bad-suckers” for everyone else? Is this the left out feeling that we all fear? It is like some cosmic game of musical chairs, the one where we are skunked and shut out. It feels awful when that happens, doesn’t it? Is that what this is? It could seem that way, but is that it?

I don’t think so. Do you?

It is important to remember this – healing in the Gospels is not just about getting up and walking. Jesus command to be healed has everything to do with forgiveness of sins, and the audacity of Jesus to be doing such a thing. On the Sabbath no less! In the prevailing view at that time, only God could forgive sins. And this Jesus character, no matter what he did, could not be God, right? For Jesus to do such things… well, these acts surpassed every boundary of propriety behavior and in fact, were punishable offenses.

And when Jesus “healed” it was generally among and around all the most unlikely candidates, wasn’t it? This was also a challenge to the people of his time. Just as it remains one for our world today.

Yet, Jesus was there to heal – Jesus was there to forgive sins. Just like Jesus is still here to heal and still here to forgive sins.

It remains a challenge for me to hold the tension this Gospel serves up. This paralytic is paralyzed with sin, not just some bum legs. Part of me would love to be purely literal, and think about body parts alone. There are legs that do not work, there are legs that do work. But no, that’s too facile – this is about so much more.

This call to take up the mat is some foreshadowing of taking up the cross, isn’t it? The waters are baptism, a baptism into death that will bring new life. If we accept Jesus’ invitation and immersion and Jesus’ healing, must we also accept what that brings with it? It would appear that we would. Is this trading one type of suffering – stuck on the mat, for another, the cross?

Jesus seems to know that the man had been ill for some time; we are told he had been by the pool for 38 years; that is a long, long time. The man is clear about saying that he has no one to take him to the pool when “the waters are stirred up.” That imagery is important, with water symbolizing life and the dynamism of the Spirit in the “stirred up” waters to go with it.

This moment reminds us about the relational nature of our Christian faith; we need someone to help us. We need God and we need one another. We are not made by God to be self-sufficient and alone. And we have our God, who does not need us, but who constantly seeks us out, who persistently comes forth, and waits for us to respond. And then, we do respond. Or, we do not…

We need to be put in the waters that are stirred up! Remember, water symbolizes what? Life! We need life – abundant, full and in motion, alive with the Spirit – to heal us. We need to die to our sin and find new life in that water. We need to be in it and not just watching it from the cranky comfort of our mat, a mat that is just far enough away. Baptism means going in, getting immersed and not just observing. So what’s the problem?

The real moment of this Gospel for me is when Jesus says to this man, “Do you want to be well?”

“Do you want to be well?”

I don’t know about you, but I can think of about 10,000 times in my life, maybe more, when I said that I wanted to be well, but was not really willing to be well at all!

And of course – even in this moment, I am not completely well. Who is? Jesus is still asking me – asking all of us – that question. That’s important – healing is not some one-stop-shopping moment that we never have to repeat again. Phew, glad that’s over, check it off the list!

Until we can answer the question “Do you want to be well?” honestly, we are stuck on the mat. Until then, we won’t be well. It feels less-than-great to consider that this man, who had been near that pool for 38 long years, finally hearing that from Jesus. If that were me, I would probably want to lean heavily on my sarcasm and say, “Well what the h-e-double-hockey-sticks do you think?! Of course I want to be well! D’oh!” or “Nice of you to finally show up!”

This man reminds me of me. To his credit, he avoids the sarcasm, but he does start complaining about having no one to take him to the water, and about others getting there first. If you know me, you know what a weak point this – I’m envious of others’ circumstances more often than I would care to admit. Do I want to let that go? Do I truly want to be well? Or is my mat with padded with layers of anger, envy and bitterness, more familiar, safe and comfortable? What do I have to risk and let go of in order to be well?

It is now that the man makes a choice – he listens. Jesus said to him, “Rise, take up your mat, and walk.” “ It is at this moment that he gets up, and he goes. Just like that. In this we find his obedience, front and center. He listened – that is the root of obedience, deep listening, not obedience as fearful following of rules, without any commitment in our hearts. He listens and he acts; he responds. God invites, he responds.

This is all well and good, but what about the person and his blog comment? He draws our attention to what is hard to ignore, the people left at the pool. I’m not sure that it is as simple as the commenter puts it, with Jesus and I walking away amidst the cheers. However, what does happen to the other people? Is this an answerable question?

It seems to me that in so many stories Jesus singles someone out and lots of others get left behind… but there goes that stinkin’ thinkin’ again. So, what happens now?

Everything I think I want to say about this comes up as a pat answer. Then it hits me, and in fact I have already said it – Jesus is speaking to all of us. We are all the man on the mat, we are all at various times, left behind – or at least it feels that way. We are all pretty used to our mat, even if we hate our mat.

As hard as it is to fathom, we are all sitting on those mats for a long periods of time in life, and we frequently return to them. Then Jesus, who invites us to vacate these mats, repeatedly visits us. There is a big risk in having the conversation with Jesus, there is a big risk in getting up, but there is also great reward.

I’m not at all sure why there are so many mats still at the side of the pool, but I am pretty sure that we are all called to go forth as Jesus did – not only to ask if people want to be well, but to help them to do so. Of course, if we are going to help others off of their mat, we have to be willing to vacate our own. And that is not so easy, is it?

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One Response

  1. Fran, lots of food for thought. Thanks.

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