Every person I know seems to like an underdog. We look for those people who exemplify the person who persists above all odds. This is the stuff of made for television movies, especially those found on the Lifetime Channel. When we look at stories like that of righteous Job in the Old Testament, we see courage to face our tails in the midst of things we do not understand.
This week, the church will read the Gospel of John, 5:1-9. I am particularly struck by a question, “Do you want to be made well?” Jesus asks this to one person, not the many that are gathered there. Likewise, Jesus confronts us with what it means to understand what it means to be truly human, created in the image and likeness of God.
First, the setting. Bethesda is known for its five porticoes and its stirring, curative waters. It is not unlike Lourdes or Walsingham, places that are sites of pilgrimage and where the water is associated with healings of various kinds. Even the name, Bethesda means “House of Flowing”. So the belief was, if someone were the first to enter the pool when the waters became stirred up (presumably by an angel), that person would receive the curative effect.
The scene must have been ghastly. Unwashed, handicapped bodies all hoping for a miracle. The area would have the scent of an out-of-control Port-O-Let latrine. I cannot imagine Bethesda being high on the AAA’s must visit list for tourists. But this is the imago humanitae – the image of the state of humans in the full effect of fallenness.
Then Jesus enters the story. Jesus sees an individual with a story. He sees a person, with infinite human dignity. A person for whose sinfulness, he would offer his life. Jesus was also confronted with the powers of death and Hell, powers that seek to reduce us to categories and generalizations, instead of looking at the person, the face, and the name. Interestingly, he does not address with a massive program. No 501c3 is launched here. He addresses the issue by loving a person.
To appreciate this one person’s journey, we journey back thirty-eight years. This is the time when the affliction first hit this man. The pharisaic tendencies of all of us are like those that ask others whom Jesus healed, “Who sinned, this man or his parents?” We want to point the finger – to call out the blame instead of resting in the situation and saying, “It is what it is, now, what can I do?” If we could put ourselves in these shoes it would be like looking back at 1977, 38 years prior. Jimmy Carter was President. Debby Boone was topping the Pop charts. Anita Bryant had just received a cream pie in the face for her opposition to gay rights. That is a long time ago. For thirty-eight years this man bore the effects of fallenness: the world, the flesh and the Devil.
Jesus chooses to look into the humanity and see the goodness of the person. I like to think that I choose to think in this way. Often I fail. Often, I am the one who needs the healing because I see with eyes that see situations, not the human face of God staring back at me. I wonder how many of us do that. When does it happen? All the time.
There are those who choose to see addiction as moral failure. They use phrases like, “Once a user, always a user.” They fail to see the disease as the effect of the fall and not the sum total of the person. The addict is one for whom the power of the Prince of Darkness is actively influencing and oppressing. To see addiction as moral failure (and not disease) is to dismiss the fact that the spiritual warfare is all around us.
Consider poverty. We have all heard things like, “Pull yourself up by the bootstraps – you wouldn’t be in this mess if you made better choices!” Having worked among those who have lost so much of their freedom to poverty, I know that there are so many other issues to figure into this equation. No one wishes to be poor, no more than one wishes to be an addict. For some, important life lessons need to be learned (and taught). For others, there are issues of family of origin, or culture that contribute to the poverty paradigm. In these cases too, can we see the human face – the one so beloved of God?
In all of the “others” we might consider seeing the shadowy reflection of ourselves. These are they who are in the midst of the Great Tribulation – real life – the world the flesh and the Devil all around us. But do we want to be made well? Do we want the eyes of the Kingdom, or the eyes of fallen humankind?
There are still others that will see a hopeless victim. A pawn in the game of life, one to be pitted, but no more. These are these who see a problem, acknowledge its reality, but still choose to do nothing. This is a victim mentality. In all of this, the Apostle Paul tells us that we are more than conquerers! We are not looking at a victim at the pool, we are looking at a human being created in the image of God.
When we see the disabled man at the sheep gate, who do we see? Do we see “a sinner”? Well, so are we! Do we see “a victim”? So are we! Instead, I choose to see myself, my own failing attitudes, the things that need to be drowned out of me that I may show Christ, and not self. Furthermore, I see that same man who struggled for those 38 years reflected in this 38 year old priest. “Yes”, I reply. “I want to be made well!”
What Jesus offers us is healing. Do we wish to be made well, place blame, or play victim? When we come to the waters today, who are we and what do we seek. For many of us, we will choose to die in our prejudices. This is both a physical and spiritual death. These attitudes are too engrained for many. Some folks even see prejudice as the construct that affirms that they are somehow better. That is sad, it is a tragedy. Still others will make a choice to see that when they make distinctions between themselves, they are actually choosing to identify with the oppressor, instead of the liberator, the King of Kings that sets men and women free from their bondage.
Healing also means walking – getting on with life. We WERE brought to the waters with curative power. It is Baptism. There the fallen bits of humanity were buried with Christ in his death. But there we also mdd a promise to respect the dignity of every human being. That means the “other – the shadowy reflection of ourselves.
Do you want to be made well? It starts with a change of perspective. When you see the “other”, I hope you hear the voice of the Spirit asking you, “Do you want to be made well?” God is in the resurrection business. For some, it is old ailments healed. For others, it is mental bondage broken. For all of us, it is putting to death any idea that we are better or worse than others. In all these things, we can be, if we choose, more that conquerers through him who loved us to the uttermost.