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It seems like such a ridiculous question: “Do you want to be made well?”
Who wouldn’t? we think.
Who wouldn’t want to be made well? Who wouldn’t want to be made whole? Who wouldn’t want to be made new?
Well, before we go any further, let’s be clear: Jesus’ question isn’t about medication or self-improvement. Jesus is not asking the man who’s been ill for a lifetime of years if he wants to be cured, or if he’d like to go to physical therapy so that maybe one day he can walk again. Jesus is not asking the man if he wants to lose 10 pounds or get more exercise or learn to meditate or get over his fear of heights or become his very best self.
It seems more likely that Jesus is asking the man if he wants to truly live—that is, if he is willing to change, to do whatever it takes to take hold of the life that really is life.
But, before we go any further, let’s consider another possibility: That Jesus’ question isn’t primarily about what the man wants. That maybe it’s really about what God wants—for the invalid lying by the healing pool, for you, and for me, for the poor and oppressed and undocumented, for all of creation, for this whole world that God so loves.
After all, when Jesus walks through Jerusalem’s Sheep Gate and heads toward the pool called Bethsaida, he knows exactly where he is going. He knows he is heading toward one of the saddest, most pathetic places in all of Zion: the place where society’s cast-offs—those individuals whose bodies have failed them, those victims blamed by society for their problems—come and wait, day after day, hoping for a handout if not a miracle.
Jesus knows he is walking into a place of long odds and desperate hope.
And there is no place he would rather be. This is, after all, where he was born to be. This is the world he was born into.
He is there—not only at this pool, but also in this very world—because God so loves us all, because the Holy One wants you and me and everyone and all creation to be well, because God wants this so much that God has taken on flesh and blood and poverty and mortality and moved into our sketchy neighborhood.
What a wonderful job Jesus has!—loving God’s children with extravagant love, teaching about God’s love and justice, showing the poor the way to life abundant, encouraging rich and poor to give up their fears as well as their sins, giving people hope, offering them healing, shaking things up.
But by the time Jesus arrives at the pool of Bethsaida, he has begun to understand how dangerous and difficult his mission is. By now he knows that while folks like us are eager for a quick cure, we are slow to change. As much as most children of God long to be freed from their oppression and poverty, their suffering and pain, they are afraid of what a new way of being might cost them.
They are like the man who has been ill for 38 years: desperate enough to sit by the pool every day for years, but resigned enough to the way things are to have given up on actually making it into the pool and being healed.
Which is to say: These beloved ones of God are a lot like us, and we are a lot like them.
Which is to say: Perhaps Jesus’ question isn’t so ridiculous after all.
Jesus, like God, wants nothing more for us than our wholeness and the fullness of life, but perhaps he has come to understand that we sometimes have a hard time accepting God’s grace. That we are often our own worst enemy. That many of us are paralyzed not by illness but by fear or failure, by disappointment and past hurts, by the injustice and judgment of unjust systems and cruel people, by our unwillingness to imagine a different way, by our stubborn refusal to accept help, by our refusal to open our hearts to all people and every possibility, by our doubts and our fears of failure and change.
Perhaps Jesus has learned that need is not the same thing as want or willingness.
And still Jesus makes his home with us.
Because that is what Love does. Because that is who God is.
Still, Jesus walks right into the saddest, most heart-breaking places of our lives and our world. Still, Jesus sees us through eyes of love, with deep compassion—not only for our woundedness, not only for the messes we’ve gotten ourselves into, but also for the difficulties we have in getting ourselves out of them. Jesus sees all the things that come between us and our wholeness—some of them our own issues, and many of them systemic injustices and seemingly immovable barriers. He knows what we are up against: the evil, the hatred, the greed, the judgment, the unjust policies, and destructive habits. He knows that we need help. And he knows that we are tired. He sees how all the barriers to justice and peace and healing can wear us down. He understands that sometimes our faith is tested and we are tempted to give up on hope, that we are tempted to turn our backs on those who need us.
And Jesus also recognizes our longing. Still he sees the God-given wellness within us. He knows what we are capable of, and, even more important, he knows what God can do.
And so Jesus asks, so tenderly, so patiently: “Do you want to be made well?”
Do you want to stop drinking? Do you want to take a break? Do you want to forgive? Do you wish you could start over? Do you want to reach out to someone you’ve hurt? Do you want to trust? Do you want to have more love in your life? Do you want to get more rest? Do you want to feel more connected to people? Do you want to be able to hope again? Do you want your life to be different? Do you want to stop doing that thing that always sabotages your best intentions? Do you want to be filled with joy and gratitude?
Of course, you do!
And, if you’re anything like me, anything like the sick man lying by the healing pool, you have a long list of excuses—I mean, reasons—why that just isn’t possible:
I can’t help it.
I don’t have the resources I need.
The system is too powerful.
This is just how things are, and there’s nothing I can do about it.
I’m too set in my ways.
I blew my chance, the window of opportunity is closed.
The world is against me.
This is just my lot in life.
The stars are not aligned.
I’m working on acceptance.
Actually, I kind of like complaining.
Actually, I am a hot mess.
Actually, I need help.
Jesus has heard it all before, and, thank God, Jesus knows just what to do.
“Stand up,” he says. “Take up your mat and walk.”
Open your heart. Receive the Spirit and live. Let go of your fears and excuses and perceived limits, and grab hold of the life that is life. Claim the power that I’ve given you. Know that I have already healed you.
Follow me in loving one another and loving this hot mess of a beautiful world. Follow me in living as God’s beloved.
Of course, we want to be well. God created us to be well. God created us to be at peace. God made the world to live in wholeness and harmony.
So let us stand up. Let us rise up. Let us be tender. Let us be fierce.
Let us be empowered and determined. Let us keep our eyes on the prize.
Let us be well, and let us—like Jesus—help empower one another to be well.