Mother Katherine’s sermon preached on May 22, 2022

Posted by on Sun, May 22, 2022 in Easter, Sermons

The Sixth Sunday of Easter

May 22, 2022

It is quite likely that if you look up chapter 5 of John’s gospel in your bible at home it will be missing verse four. Mine goes from 1, 2, 3, to 5, and because “the Greek text of these verses became confused in the ancient manuscripts” and so some later manuscripts explain the reference to the stirring of the water, saying those at the pool were “waiting for the stirring of the water; for an angel of the Lord went down at certain seasons into the pool, and stirred up the water; whoever stepped in first after the stirring of the water was made well from whatever disease that person had.” (Commentary and quotes for John 5:3b-4 are by Gail R. O’Day, Candler School of Theology, Emory Univ. Atlanta, GA. in The New Interpreters’ Study Bible, 2003, Abingdon Press.) So this is what waiting for the water in the pool to be ‘stirred up’ is all about.

Reading today’s passage from John in this century and in our part of the world, we can hear many possibilities of meaning or motive in the words between Jesus and the one who suffered from a debilitating illness, (which is a much closer translation than that he was “ill.”) My first thought is that Jesus is a bit cheeky to ask the man if he wants to be healed, given he already knows he’s suffered 38 years and has been there by the pool for a long time already. Modern ears might hear a little victim-shaming or blaming, or an insinuation that he’d really rather be suffering with his debilitation than get himself into the water. And there it is; he explains that he cannot get himself into the pool and he has no one to help him into the water when it is ‘stirred.’ There and then, to be unaided is to be alone, all the people around him did was to step over him in their rush to get ahead and get themselves into the pool first.

I know without asking that some of you have known exactly how he feels. Alone, disregarded even amidst a bunch of people, so disabled by your condition that you cannot do anything to help yourself, and even wondering if getting into the water (or the next surgery, medication, supplement, therapy, experimental drug, or boatload of prayer) would help if you could get it. We don’t know if the waters would have ‘cured’ him, we do know that Jesus did. Part of me still feels critical here, and yes, I want to know why it took thirty-eight years to do it. Again, that’s my 21st century mindset and expectation of —if not instant, then at least expedient —help. It is also part of our present-day mindset to look at this from a medical model of curing a disabling condition. The definition of ‘disability’ is not that a person cannot walk or see or hear, etc., it is when they experience the obstacles to living that a person’s condition becomes ‘disabling.’ For example, in a zoom meeting no one is hindered by stairs or annoyed at using a wheelchair or being unable to drive. I heard Judy this morning telling about the first gathering at Timber Ridge since covid began, where people with walkers, canes and crutches were out on the floor dancing! You can be sure they felt joyful wholeness, not disabled.

What if we did as Jesus did and stopped to converse, to listen and hear that this person was so alone, that he needed help beyond his solo abilities? Jesus knew his suffering and those around the pool with him likely knew it too, he’d been there so long. Yet Jesus does not reach to lay hands on him, to take his hand to raise him up, or tell him to go wash in the Jordan River. Instead Jesus takes time to ask if he wants to be made whole. “Sir, I have no one…” That is part of the deep definition of not being whole, his obstacle. Jesus knows he lacks this too, and when he says, “Rise up, take your mat, and walk” he is not suggesting the man was ‘fine’ all along and just needed someone to give him a push to try harder. The healing action is not just to relieve a disabling physical condition, it is to give him the wholeness of being part of the community. He walks into the crowd, he goes to the temple, for as we heard it was the sabbath. 

Our sabbath has been radically impacted too; joining together for worship on Sunday morning didn’t cure us but it opened a new way of being the Body of Christ together, Coming in person those first weeks didn’t mean we were free from covid, yet everyone I spoke with felt the power of simply being in this sacred space and in community, notwithstanding masks, hand sanitizer, distancing, and Communion without receiving from the common cup. Something within us is made whole by knowing you’re online with us and with our Lord, seeing each other even though it felt risky to do so. The risk of going without this has a cost too.

Earlier I said I was aware some of you have known how this person felt, and I have heard some describe to experience of these same frustrations in feeling utterly alone or with no one who understands what is needed and felt and how exhausting it is to keep trying to explain it. One doesn’t have to be at it for 38 years to empathize! Some spend months and even years waiting for a clear diagnosis and longer for any healing results. One said it meant changing their frame of reference and their expectations so that they didn’t feel despair at lack of progress so long as they didn’t feel like they were giving up altogether. When you cannot do things that seem effortless and even unconscious to others, it’s lonely, it’s hard to ask for help because it means explaining it all over again, or defending yourself at the parade of unhelpful advice and suggestions, however well-meant they are. Yes, this sounds like a slide into depression and agony—and then Christ comes alongside and you are no longer without, no longer having to explain “I have no one …”

Christ comes to the one alone through each of us embodying his love—if we are willing to come alongside and bear his love. Is there a way to help restore someone to community—by being a part of that community? By advocating, going out of our way to converse kindly, ask what is needed and listen to the answer. The one who has suffered so long might not be in very good shape, they might be unpleasant, off-putting. (As we heard in the verses that follow, healing doesn’t mean one is made kind or selfless!) Perhaps no one helped this fellow into the water because he was so difficult to deal with, or if he was that way because he was so thoroughly ignored. It isn’t always easy to help and in our world it is incredibly hard to ask for help and let people give it. What would you have said to Jesus if you were lying there on a mat watching for the angels to ‘trouble the waters’? No, no, I’m fine Jesus! No need – you’ll get your robes all dirty. It’s okay, I’ll wait for the next angel… We’ve all said such things and in doing so we close ourselves off from the very community we need. We are the Body of Christ in large part for this very reason. It is our work to attend to the broken parts, to offer support and respect and our presence. Can we partner with those who seek wholeness and ask what help or support is needed for them to have that? Even to ask what support or help they might give us? Because every one of us is lovingly created and imbued with unique ways to serve the Body of Christ if we try. This isn’t ‘they’ being poor unfortunates and ‘us’ being helpful benefactors, this is helping each other. To be asked instead of assumed or judged matters, to answer and heard in itself can change us. At a wedding we know the couple commits themselves to each other, yet to offer those vows in the midst of their community changes them. We see this in Baptisms and Confirmations too.

Did you notice there’s no mention of the man’s faith or station in the community or where he’s from? He doesn’t even know Jesus and can’t tell if he’s coming to help or to judge, to heal or condemn, and even in all that unknowing the fact that he needs help  and has no one, won’t change. When the two encounter each other is when things begin to shift; in that moment with Jesus he is not alone, he is not just his disability but is a person respected and heard and acknowledged. Even Jesus’ question treats him as a person with his own agency and reveals Jesus’ willingness to enter into the mess wrought by 38 years of debilitation. He cares without expecting him to convert or profess his faith or even to show gratitude. 

In William Hogarth’s painting (which you will have to imagine with me) called Christ at the Pool of Bethesda (1735) which he did for St Bartholomew’s Hospital in London, we see at first a typical romanticizing of Christ standing at the center of the canvas, slightly larger than those nearby and wearing more colorful garments. Oddly the man with no one to help him into the water reclines at Jesus’s feet, looking more the robust athlete than one with 38 years of a debilitating condition. Behind them the artist manages to depict troubling aspects of the Pool at Bethesda, namely the fact that not all patients have access to the healing waters: as in the background, a mother with a sick baby is being pushed away by the servants of a wealthy woman. The irony is that nearly 300 years later, Bart’s Hospital as it is called, is run by the UK’s universal healthcare system, and all who are sick can receive treatment here, just as Jesus’s ministry was inclusive of individuals from all walks of life.  Christ was not in the water of Bethesda pool, he is in the personal and holy moment they share. He is in that spirited electricity between this man and healing. And, like electricity can jump a gap even without touching, so does his healing love.

Christ is illuminated now in you and me, in the sacred grace of love between one in need and one who cares. Amen.

© 2022 The Rev. Katherine Sedwick. All rights reserved. Posted with permission.