After this there was a festival of the Jews, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem.
Now in Jerusalem by the Sheep Gate there is a pool, called in Hebrew Beth-zatha, which has five porticoes. In these lay many invalids—blind, lame, and paralysed. One man was there who had been ill for thirty-eight years. When 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?’ 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.’ 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.
Now that day was a sabbath. So the Jews said to the man who had been cured, ‘It is the sabbath; it is not lawful for you to carry your mat.’ But he answered them, ‘The man who made me well said to me, “Take up your mat and walk.”’ They asked him, ‘Who is the man who said to you, “Take it up and walk”?’ Now the man who had been healed did not know who it was, for Jesus had disappeared in the crowd that was there. Later Jesus found him in the temple and said to him, ‘See, you have been made well! Do not sin any more, so that nothing worse happens to you.’ The man went away and told the Jews that it was Jesus who had made him well. Therefore the Jews started persecuting Jesus, because he was doing such things on the sabbath. But Jesus answered them, ‘My Father is still working, and I also am working.’ For this reason the Jews were seeking all the more to kill him, because he was not only breaking the sabbath, but was also calling God his own Father, thereby making himself equal to God.
On the face of it, this is a nice straightforward healing story. A man who had been ill for 38 years is healed by Jesus when no-one else would bother to help. Sounds simple enough. However, we’re not told what the nature of his illness was – we don’t even know whether he had a physical condition, or was living with mental distress. Some readers even wonder if he was essentially malingering – lounging around by the pool rather than getting on with his life. On balance he seems glad to be healed – he goes around telling people Jesus had healed him – but there is that chance that Jesus has disrupted a comfortable way of life for him.
While being profoundly grateful for the care and expertise of NHS staff, it is easy to think of therapeutic and other interventions that have not necessarily improved the life of the recipient, and with the benefit of hindsight might seem to be more about controlling people, imposing uniformity and making patients easier to manage. Therapies like electric shock treatment or trepanning, high doses of certain medications, conversion therapies, even forcing left-handers to write with their right hand. Whose lives were improved by such activity?
I believe there are three important principles we should bear in mind when we think about improving lives:
We need to recognise our imperfections, and continue to examine our own lives as we seek to be the people God calls us to be;
We must heed God’s call to service, and not just leave it to our neighbours to sink or swim on their own; and
We must have humility to offer the service our neighbours want, rather than the service we think they need.
Lord, We give thanks for the many people who have improved our own lives. For those we have loved, and those we have never met, but whose service has helped us.
Stir up our hearts to be ambitious to improve all your children’s lives; give us the humility to listen and not just do, and to tackle our own failings before accusing others.
And may we all play our part in building your kingdom on earth. Amen.