In any case, laying there with the others was a man who had spent thirty-eight years of his life. Thirty-eight years! For almost four complete decades, this man's days began and ended in this public place. To many people in Jerusalem, the man had likely become part of the place - almost blending into the paved stones. This should not surprise us. It still happens in our own day - homeless men or women who begin to blend into the environment.
But, for some reason, Jesus noticed the man. More than that, Jesus intentionally went up to this man, and asked him: "Do you want to be made well?"
What a question! It says so much, and yet it seems so obvious - even insensitive. But, the more we consider Jesus' question (and the man's response), the more we see just how precise and needed this question was. Indeed, this one question was spoken by Jesus like a skillful surgeon who uses a scalpel to do the necessary work of healing.
In reflecting on this passage, two men come to strikingly similar conclusions.
Reuben P. Job writes:
"Of course I want to be well," Reuben reflects, "But then on closer reflection I am forced to ask, 'Do I really want to get well?' At times I am so attached to my illness (today we could also say addiction) that I prefer illness to health. Possibly my illness (addiction) keeps me from facing the real problem or my real self. My illness could be the crutch I have used to hide or circumvent deeper spiritual problems."
And Norman Shawchuck continues Reuben Job's thought by acknowledging how entrenched in his illness this man would have been:
"Thirty-eight years is a long time to be unwell. After so long, you might get used to being sick, and develop some strong habits to keep yourself infirm. After all, when you are stuck in a closet of ill health - and everyone around you is also used to being unwell - then being sick seems like the thing to do. If you decide to get well, all the other infirm people will complain about it."
Norman Shawchuck's observations are especially helpful because they make us realize how difficult it can be to work our way out of a sickness. In fact, sometimes - especially in the case of addictions - it is impossible. Similarly, it makes us realize how whole "patterns" and "systems" of brokenness can develop and surround us - working to keep us ill.
This story also makes us realize that there is a difference between the desire to be well and an ability to be well. We all have the desire to be well. Who of us does not desire to have a healthy, whole, peaceful life? Obviously, this man desired something like that; he desired it enough to find a way to be at this "healing" place.
But, the way that the man responds to Jesus’ question shows that he does not think it is able to be made well. Consider the exchange between Jesus and this man:
"When Jesus saw him lying there and knew that he had been there for a long time, he said to him, 'Do you want to be made well?' The sick man answered him, 'Sir, I have no one to put me into the pool when the water is stirred up; and while I am making my way, someone else steps down ahead of me ..." (Jn. 5:6,7).
How does he respond? The man - instead of answering Jesus' question directly - responds with a list of reasons and circumstances why he cannot get well.
Do you see how important this is? The man has become so used to his condition - his infirmity - that he has no way to see beyond it.
However, before we become too critical of this man and begin to chastise him for making excuses, let us remember something. We all have our own sickness – if not sicknesses! We may not seem as poor-off or sick as this man – indeed much of our life might look like it is well – but we know in our own hearts the truth. We have some illnesses and addictions - patterns of behavior that are not life-giving. And even if we don’t necessarily see these illnesses, that is only because we have developed blind spots. We are unable to see ourselves or the world as it really is – seeing it with Beth-zatha eyes.
In other words: We are the man lying on that ground - even if we choose or prefer to believe that we’re okay. So the question Jesus asks to the man, he also asks to you and I.
Do you really want to be made well?
What do you mean? Me? I’m not doing too bad? And what do you mean by ‘well’?
Personally, my answer is the same as the lame man lying by that pool. Lord, I want to be well ... but, I have no idea how to work wellness or peace or harmony into my life. I've tried a lot of things. I'm still trying. But, I find within me two desires: a desire to become a more honest, disciplined, caring, loving person ... and a desire to just stay who I am without having to do any work to become well. In other words, I'm just like Paul who wrote so openly about his own struggle: his deep desire to do what is right on one hand and his other desire to do those very things he knew were wrong and unhealthy.
Sin and sickness dwell deep within us … deeper than we can ever understand. Well, I say deeper than we can understand. That is true. We can never see just how wide and deep are the effects of sin. But, on the other hand, after a while we can become aware that sin isn’t just a one-time problem. We realize that sin – even if we don’t understand it – is a problem that isn’t going to go away (usually we realize this after we’ve tried for years and years to conquer a certain addiction or change some behavior). And when we come to this point – when we realize that sin is so large and so deep that it is beyond our control – we come to the point where we know we need help.
So, is it any surprise that Paul – a man who had tried for all of his life to do the right thing – found himself saying at the end of his life, “Wretched man that I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death?” (Rm. 7:24). No, it is not a surprise. It is just another response to Jesus’ question.
“Do you want to be made well?”
“Yes, of course! But, how in the world could I be made well? I am sick! I am living inside a body of death!”
It is the point of complete exasperation, of complete despair. Have you ever been there? It is the worst place to be because it seems so hopeless, like your life is stuck, that your addiction will win, and that you’re destined for death?
But what happens to the man lying on the ground?
Jesus said to him, ‘Stand up, take your mat and walk.’ At once the man was made well, and he took up his mat and began to walk. (Jn. 5:8,9)
Oh, what sweet and delicious words those are to read. Let them cover your mind and heart like honey.
Even as the man was making up excuses (“I need someone to lift me … and when I get there, someone else has already beat me to it …”), Jesus heals the man! Jesus is able to heal and he does. He tells the man to get up and walk, and the man does. There is life and power in the name of Jesus – the very life and power we crave even if we have no idea how to express that.
And, what about poor Paul – stuck with an agonizing war going on in his own soul? What hope is left for him after he has stared at his soiled soul and realized that his life is marked with death? He is left with the very same hope and life that healed the lame man: “Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!” (Rm. 7:25). That’s it. That’s all he says, but it says everything. Paul realizes that God is willing and able to help him out of his misery. He knows it in his bones: there is healing in the Lord, and it is the Lord’s plan and aim to heal the sick and dying.
Ain’t that good news?
Yes, it is splendid.
Still … there’s one last thing to say.
When Jesus healed the man, he did not just say, “Okay, I heal you.” He said, “Stand up, take your mat and walk.”
This is big. Hear this carefully. We do not heal ourselves with our own efforts. We cannot. God alone can heal us. But, God’s healing is not forced upon us in such a way that we remain completely passive – like sloths. When God heals, God provides the gift (healing) as well as the resources (a remedy ... a savior, a counselor to walk with us, and a community to keep us accountable and to encourage us) to make sure that we can get back on our feet.
This leads to that last reminder: we are invited to partner and work with God in the process of our healing. As Reuben P. Job puts it, “Even in the miraculous healing I am asked to be a full participant.”
As you reflect upon the story of the lame man that Jesus healed, you might ask yourself: is there a sickness in my own life that I am aware of? Has that sickness become part of my identity?
In what ways are you “stuck” in your sickness or addiction? Do you sense that there is any possibility of healing for you? How? Where will you get help?
And … in what ways might you participate in your own healing? What “steps” can you take to become a whole person again? Will it mean that you’ll have to leave certain environments (what would happen to the lame man if we went back to Beth-zatha)? Are you willing to face the resistance others will give you as you seek to become whole (notice that the lame man faced some pretty intense questioning from other people – likely because his growth challenged their own sickness)?
Do you really want to be made well?
the quotes from Reuben P. Job and Norman Shawchuck came from the resource "A Guide to Prayer for All Who Seek God"