Jesus and the Health Lottery
Sermon for Easter 6 – Sunday 26 May 2019 – St Mary, Walton
Text: John 5v1-9
…there was a festival of the Jews, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem. 2Now in Jerusalem by the Sheep Gate there is a pool, called in Hebrew Bethzatha, which has five porticoes. 3In these lay many invalids – blind, lame, and paralysed. 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.
Now that day was a Sabbath.
God give you peace my sisters and brothers.
Do you play the Lottery? Apparently some lotteries have better odds than others. The Health Lottery, so they say, offers a better chance of winning than the National Lottery, EuroMillions or even Thunderball. I suspect I may need to give it a try sometime. You see the only time I’ve won more than a ‘free go’ on the other Lotteries – a modest £250 – a friend needed £275 for an airplane ticket to the USA. Which meant my ‘big win’ in fact cost me £25! I really should give up trying but I’m never going to win if I don’t buy a ticket. As the saying goes ‘you have to be in it to win it’
The Pool of Bethzatha (or Bethesda if you learnt your scriptures in old money) was Jerusalem’s version of the Health Lottery – you literally had to be ‘in it to win it’. Once in a while, we don’t know how often but often enough to draw a crowd of the blind, the lame, and the paralyzed, an angel would descend for a quick splash in the spa and the next person in was healed. Seems easy enough really. God’s version of the NHS only requires you to be good at falling, or being pushed, into the pool and all would be well.
Now my lottery odds are really shocking, but looking at the sick man at the centre of today’s story, I have no idea why he even bothered. After 38 years of lying beside the pool every day you would have thought his luck would have turned. His experience must be akin to that of a clergy friend of mine in Cape Town. He renamed the only loo in the vicarage ‘The Pool of Bethesda’ because every time he wanted to use it someone else in the family had got in there before him!
Jesus joins us in wondering about our sick man’s long run of bad luck. He was so mystified that he hadn’t been healed that he even asked him ‘Do you want to be made well?’
We can only presume, because every day for 38 years he had arranged, to get a poolside seat, that he did indeed want to be made well, but he consistently made a poor fist of his task.
Perhaps he was too used to being sick and worried as to how he would cope if her were whole again?
Perhaps he thought others deserved healing before him?
Perhaps he thought the odds were stacked against him so he gave up hope?
Perhaps the other people had sharper elbows than he had?
But after 38 years of daily waiting at the poolside surely he should have gotten some chance of healing?
But apparently, for one reason of another (he proffers one reason to Jesus) his luck was perpetually out to lunch.
So Jesus, having determined that he did indeed ‘want to be made well’ heals him and sends him on his way rejoicing. … and they all lived happily ever after. Amen
Not quite so fast!
We know that John, in his telling of the gospel of Jesus, is very miserly when it comes to healings and miracles (only seven in all) and so this story must be about more than a splash in the pool. It cannot be only about the man and his illness. The fact that the reading ends with the enticing ‘Now that day was a Sabbath’, should make us prick up our ears and make us eager to read ahead.
John, in distinction to the other evangelists call the miracles ‘signs’ (the others use a word which means ‘works of power’) and if this miracle is a sign to what is it pointing?
Biblical scholars are at odds as to the exact meaning of all the signs in John’s gospel but this one is closely combined with the questioning by the Pharisees of Jesus’ authority to not only heal people but also his flouting of Sabbath day regulations. In this setting Jesus’ words to the sick man ‘Do you want to be made well?’ take on a different more nuanced meeting.
He is not only questioning the sick man but also his co-religionists who were longing, just as the sick of Bethesda waited for the angel, for his arrival but when he comes Jesus does not fit into their way of thinking.
‘Do you want to be made well?’
For the Pharisees and the other opponents of Jesus the answer is probably ‘no’. Or even more likely an offended ‘how dare you suggest we are sick’. Just as before John the Baptist they lent on history and proclaimed that ‘we have Abraham as our ancestor’ (Matthew 3v9)’ so now they challenge the miracles his cousin does and would rather the lame do not walk and sight is not restored to the blind, than anything impinge on their sense of election and entitlement.
There are indeed none so blind as those that will not see.
Sadly this is a highly contagious illness and one that seems to be shot through many religions. This is especially so in the extreme expressions of Judaism, Islam and Christianity. Yes, it is helpful for the building up of our faith to have a sense of certainty about God’s care for us but this must be tempered with humility and a generosity toward others.
‘Do you want to be made well?’ is a question Jesus asks each and every one of us here. And, if on hearing those words, our hackles rise we prove him correct. It is all too easy, having been a faithful Christian for even more than the 38 year wait of the sick man at Bethesda, to presume that we are past being healed and people will just have to put up with how we are. Or, of much more concern, we too easily decide that everything that is wrong with the church is someone else’s fault and responsibility. We can easily slip into being ecclesiastical jobsworths and, expecting nothing to change, take no action and so commission a self-fulfilling prophecy.
This side of eternity none of us will ever be completely ‘well’ for it will only be when we enter into the bosom of God that all our ills and woes are healed. Until that time we need to cling to our Saviour – the root meaning of the word Jesus reminds us that God is our healer – and become people who offer healing to others.
Rules are helpful but when, like the Pharisees and their cronies, we make them a reason for people to live lives of illness, then we have failed and the words ‘Physician, heal thyself’ challenge us.
What are we to do to help us get over ourselves? To help us be people who always help others in preference to being sticklers for the rules?
John Wesley seemed to have an answer for our problem. He tried very hard to stick to the rules but would not allow them to get in the way of bringing the healing word of the Gospel of God’s love to those in need.
These words were the heartbeat of many of his sermons.
Do all the good you can,
by all the means you can,
in all the ways you can,
in all the places you can,
at all the times you can,
to all the people you can,
as long as ever you can.
May we learn to live these words today and everyday
[This blog ‘Jesus and the Health Lottery’ is copyright © Andrew Dotchin 2019]