Seventh Sunday in Easter – Memorial Day Sunday
Plymouth Congregational Church, UCC
The Rev. Jane Anne Ferguson
I chose our scripture text today, before the tragic events of this week. It is a healing story from the gospel of John. Healing of people, of communities, of institutions and governments require change….sometimes revolutionary change….and established institutions rarely receive the invitation to change with open arms. The Spirit of God invites us into healing change as we hear this story of Jesus healing a man long ill.
1… there was a Jewish festival, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem. 2In Jerusalem near the Sheep Gate in the north city wall is a pool with the Aramaic name Bethsaida [which has become the name “Bethesda” in our times.] It had five covered porches, 3and a crowd of people who were sick, blind, lame, and paralyzed sat there. [The tradition around the pool was that an angel of God would come and stir up the water from time to time. If a person could be the first into the pool while the water was stirred up then the person would be healed.]
5A certain man was there who had been sick for thirty-eight years. 6When Jesus saw him lying there, knowing that he had already been there a long time, he asked him, "Do you want to get well?” 7The sick man answered him, "Sir, I don't have anyone who can put me in the water when it is stirred up. When I'm trying to get to it, someone else has gotten in ahead of me." 8Jesus said to him, "Get up! Pick up your mat and walk."9Immediately the man was well, and he picked up his mat and walked. Now that day was the Sabbath.
Bible, Common English. CEB Common English Bible with Apocrypha - eBook [ePub] (Kindle Locations 41438-41446).
For the Word of God in scripture, for the Word of God among us, for the Word of God within us, Thanks be to God.
“Do you want to get well, to be healed?” What a question to ask someone who is has been lying by this healing pool, probably always a beggar, begging for his living, for thirty-eight years? It almost seems cruel, doesn’t it? Well, of course, he would want to be healed. But then the man’s answer is tentative….it almost seems to be an excuse for why he is not well, rather than a statement of longing to be well. Hmmmm….”Does he really want to be well? Why hasn’t he been able to rally the help to get into the healing pool?” There could be answers to that question. He’s too physically weak; he doesn’t have friends to help; he is used to how he is living and might not really believe in the healing of the pool after all this time; he doesn’t see a way out of his poverty other than begging. And of course, then we, in our 21st century cynicism ask….and if he did get into the pool, would it really heal him? Many questions arise about illness and wellness, about healing and help and wholeness from this at first seemingly simple ” Jesus does another miracle” story.
A few anthropological facts about the first century Mediterranean understanding of illness and wellness. Quoting from the Social-Science Commentary on the Gospel of John, “the main problem with sickness [in the time of Jesus] is the experience of the sick person being dislodged from his/her social moorings and social standing. Social interaction with family members, friends, neighbors, and village mates comes to a halt. To be healed is to be restored to one's social network. In the ancient Mediterranean world, one's state of being was more important than one's ability to act or function. Thus, the healers of that world focused on restoring a person to a valued state of being rather than to an ability to function.”
The healing miracle went beyond the physical ailment in this story. Jesus brought the man out of a state of isolation, living as an unhealed beggar at the edge of a healing pool, and gave him a chance to re-enter community. Jesus gives him the opportunity be healed from separateness, which is the New Testament definition of sin, the state of being separated or separating ourselves from the Holy within us and within the community of God? Jesus asks the man in this story, “Do you want to be get well, to be healed?” He answers much like we might out of a sense of guilt …”its not my fault, I’m not healed….this stopped me and then this.” Yet implicit in the evasive answers is hopefully a tentative yes…as well as the fear of what change healing might bring.
Do you want to be healed? Do I want to be healed? Do we want to be healed as a faith community, as a local community, as a nation? I know that sometimes we hear these gospel healing stories and they are seem like a fairy tale. It seems like Jesus says, ”Poof! You are well! Everything is sunshine and lollipops now!” But Jesus never says that because Jesus knows that healing involves the pain of change. Jesus says empowering things like, go your faith has made you well or take up your mat and walk or you are forgiven. When we have an “owee,” a cut on our hand, scrape on our shin, a sprained muscle, an arthritic joint, a cancer diagnosis, we probably all say, “yes, I want to be healed!” We want to function fully in the world again, but the journey is never without some pain.
Healing always hurts in some way. But not healing, staying ill or wounded, hurts worse! The man by the pool of Bethsaida was given new life in the healing words of Jesus. And as part of being healed, he had take responsibility for himself, pick up his own mat, and set off on the daunting journey of re-entering community. He had to stretch new muscles, emotionally, intellectually, as well as physically along the way. He had to face religious authorities and be proclaimed ritually clean, if he wanted to re-enter worship life in the temple. And in doing so he had to explain who healed him and face a scolding for carrying his mat on the Sabbath. Our establishment institutions never make healing easy. The man had to find his family, if they were still around, learn how to work and make a living, find somewhere to live. It’s a wonderful miracle that Jesus restored his physical wholeness giving him an entry back into community. Yet there was a journey with some discomfort ahead. And he was not a young man.
I ask again…Do you want to be healed? Do I? Do we? Does our world? Starting with ourselves, because it is really the only true change we can ever completely affect, are there parts of your life that need healing? Are you willing to take the healing journey even knowing there is discomfort, some growing pains, ahead? Take a moment just to take that in….
The Holy, Healing Spirit of God has brought us as a church community thus far through these last two very difficult years of pandemic. We have had setbacks, but we have been blessed in many ways. We have not, thus far, lost members to death from COVID. Thanks be to God! We have maintained worship and as much programming as possible. We may have had staff leave for a variety of reasons, but we have also had wonderful interim staff come to be with us and we have hired new staff to help us rebuild in new and creative ways. (Just an aside, staff camaraderie is better than it has ever been in my almost eight years here.) Yet I still want to say to us as a faith community…
Do we want to be healed? Do we want to do the vital healing work of rebuilding our programming, particularly in Christian Formation for all ages? Do we want to get back o serving again through mission and outreach in our wider community? Do we want to learn anew the joy of giving our financial resources to build the church that God is calling us to be? Sometimes I am not sure if we do….we are all really tired and worn down by the last two years of trauma. We have experienced a lot of pain and sorrow. Perhaps it feels easier to just sit by the pool doing what we know, not taking the risk to make a move toward the healing we want because we know deep down that God’s healing will bring change and that can cause us pain and grief.
My friends, Plymouth is never going to be like it was on March 8, 2020, the last Sunday that we met before lockdown. And that hurts, I know. We need to grieve and mourn that openly. However, if we answer the call of Jesus, “Do you want to get well?” with a yes…we will bring forward so much of our wonderful heritage in new forms and we will welcome new creativity in the process. New folks will join and are joining us. Yes, some of our church members have chosen to find other faith communities. Yes, we will not have a dedicated staff Director of Adult Christian Formation. Yes, we will soon have two full-time ministers instead to two fulltime and one part-time ministers. Yes, we will need to dig deep and discover how we can give of more financial resources to support our new strategic plan vision. Yes, these seem like hard realities. And they invite healing change! We can take this journey because we will be on it together with the Holy, Healing Spirit of God. We are not alone! We can be made whole in ways that we never thought possible. Will we take up our mats and walk?
The healing begins inside each of us….we each have to say yes to the healing of God…deliver our hurts and fears into God’s hands, surrender them and trust. We each need to do this on a personal level. We can’t point fingers at the system or the staff of any institution and say, “this needs to change so that I can be more comfortable.” It is up to each of us to take on the joyous and yet uncomfortable journey of healing so that as a whole faith community we can be healed.
As people called to the love and justice of Jesus, willing to make the healing journey, we can and will be leaders in the healing of our country’s culture of fear and violence. I would like to point fingers at those who oppose the gun safety laws that I believe, and many of you believe, desperately need to be enacted to stop the killing in our country. It makes me feel better to point fingers and say, “If only THEY would change…..” But pointing fingers doesn’t help us become a safer nation. We are called to some very hard healing work that must be done in very difficult conversations, with greater compassion and understanding than we think we can ever muster, for our gun safety laws to change. We are called to a depth of prayer we never knew existed. And we know that changing the laws is the tip of the iceberg in healing the soul of our nation that is so divided. So, I must ask myself, and ask you to ask yourselves, what am I willing to change with God’s healing help inside of me? What attitudes am I willing to ask God to heal? What risks am I willing to take that I never dreamed of, to be the change for justice and love that I want to see? To bring in the realm of God here in northern Colorado. We must each ask ourselves these hard questions for the sake of the growth of our own souls, the soul and mission of our church and the soul of our country. Do we want to get well? Do we want to be healed? How will we allow the Spirit of God to change, to heal, each of us and thus the whole of us? Amen and Amen.
©The Reverend Jane Anne Ferguson, 2022 and beyond. May be reprinted with permission only.