Meg Peery McLaughlin
The Questions Jesus Asked:
Do you want to be made Well?
March 7, 2021
John 5: 1-9
After this there was a festival of the Jews, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem. 2 Now in Jerusalem by the Sheep Gate there is a pool, called in Hebrew Beth-zatha, which has five porticoes. 3In these lay many invalids—blind, lame, and paralyzed. 5One man was there who had been ill for thirty-eight years. 6When Jesus saw him lying there and knew that he had been there a long time, he said to him, ‘Do you want to be made well?’ 7The 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.’ 8Jesus said to him, ‘Stand up, take your mat and walk.’ 9At once the man was made well, and he took up his mat and began to walk.
I have snuck into the sanctuary to film. This room is booked a lot this week for our youth, who are recording for next week’s worship. Youth Sunday marks our one year anniversary of the COVID 19 shutdown.
It was the youth who took our worship of God to the screen;
God bless them, they ushered us into this new way of being church.
This week, I went back and listened to that service.
On that March 15th day, one of them prayed:
there are things we cannot do alone, God, so we ask for your help
during this season of coronavirus, bring your healing hand—
Today, the One with healing hands and words, Jesus the Christ,
asks the question: Do you want to be made well?
It’s been a year. So, um,
Yes, we do.
Thanks for asking.
I know it’s our Lenten focus, these questions that Jesus asks,
but to preach a healing story amid a global pandemic is a tender thing.
To ask a question about wellness
when over ½ million Americans have sadly succumbed to suffocation seems . . . insensitive.
Of course we want to be well.
Take a look at these faces.
These are our church friends, who have been vaccinated.
They are mostly healthcare workers
and teachers, seniors, front line folk.
This is our answer. Yes, we do want to be well.
We mask up and take it in the arm when we can.
We cheer on others when we see vaccine selfies, encouraging others that it’s safe,
that their time is coming, that this is what public health looks like,
what loving your neighbor looks like.
Do you want to be made well?
Jesus it’s been a year!
We find it odd that you’d even ask.
Which, by the way,
makes us wonder how the man who had been ill
for thirty-eight years felt in the face of such an inquiry.
But Jesus isn’t the kind of guy to ask insincere questions.
His questions are honest. They are to open conversation – not make us roll our eyes.
But this man,
if you noticed,
he didn’t exactly answer the question.
Even after thirty-eight years of social distancing on that mat,
perhaps he found Jesus’ question one that was in fact terrifying to answer.
Dr. Kenneth Bailey in his book Seeing Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes helps us see Scripture through the eyes of Middle Eastern culture.
Due to this man’s inability to walk and his decades of wasting away at this pool, we can assume he is unable to provide for himself.
In the New Testament world, beggars were a recognized part of the community, essentially their own social class. In fact, they were understood to be offering “services” to the community.
Every person of faith is expected to give to the poor. But if there are no readily available poor people to receive this charity, how might one fulfill this duty? The traditional beggar does not say, “Excuse me, Mister, do you have a few coins for a crust of bread?” Instead, he sits in a public space and challenges the passerby with the words “Give to God!”
The job of a beggar was to make yourself available to the charity of others.
Bailey goes on to claim that the difficulty with this profession is that some visible handicap is necessary. It guarantees more success. You were much more likely to receive gifts if people could clearly see that you were not well.[i].
So given the real possibility that the sick man’s survival might have been dependent upon his inability to be healed, you can see why he might evade Jesus’ seemingly obvious question.
Not as simple as getting a shot in the arm.
When Jesus asks
“Do you want to be made well?”
Perhaps he is really asking:
Do you want this life that you have grown accustomed to, or do you want something altogether different?
“Are you prepared to have your entire existence turned upside down?
In short – Do you want a new life?”
If Jesus heals him, it wouldn’t just be freedom from his quarantine on that mat,
but a cataclysmic change, a wellness he very well might not want.
Perhaps that is why the man doesn’t really answer the question—
and instead stalls with his excuses about others getting into pool in front of him
because he is not quite sure what he fears most—his illness or his cure[ii].
A year into this pandemic,
we are ready to get our vaccines,
we are committed to wearing masks,
we have sacrificed hugs and in person school,
but I wonder if Jesus’ question still remains for us.
For even beyond the ½ million dead—
this pandemic has showed us –infected or not– how unwell we all are?
It has shown us students who are altogether missing from online school,
this absence disproportionately affecting vulnerable students and students of color,
widening the opportunity gap ever and ever more.
It has highlighted how our nation functions from drastically different sources of truth,
leaving some states with no mask mandate and completely relaxed restrictions
and other states wrestling with whether to open struggling businesses.
COVID 19 has unveiled illness that we’ve grown attached to for years.
And Jesus asks: Do we want to be made well?
It’s a hard question to answer.
And what about this? This week I’ve had not one but multiple conversations
where people have been anxious about the pandemic ending.
Employees who are grateful for the pause in the breakneck pace.
Parents who are finding new connection with their children.
Youth who in not being overscheduled find room for self-reflection.
People who never noticed the birds before.
What does it say about our health that we needed a lockdown to wake us up?
Wellness, wholeness, walking forward into a new future? Do we want it, really?
Jesus offers it, but such healing requires a different life, a Christ-shaped life.
And that is. . . scary.
William Sloane Coffin, thought the same: “If it is hell to be paralyzed,”
Coffin preached, “it’s certainly scarier to be responsible—response-able—able to respond to God’s visionary and creative love. No longer paralyzed, our arms would be free to embrace the outcast and the enemy. No longer paralyzed, our feet would be free to walk out of any job that is harmful to others and meaningless to us…[iii]”
“Do you want to be made well?” Jesus is asking.
Do we want to get up off our mat and walk?
Are we really ready to be response-able?
Are we ready for what this will ask of us?
I wonder if we’d smile under our masks taking a selfie of that?
[i] Bailey, Kenneth. Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes. Pages 173-174.
[ii] Shannon Johnson Kershner, from her sermon at Austin’s Mid Winter Lectures.
[iii] Coffin, William Sloane. The Riverside Years, Volume 1. “The Courage to Be Well” p 457 (on a different sick man in Mark 2)