We need a little background for this morning’s gospel story. Bethseda, a pool in Jerusalem, was a well-known pool, famous as a place of healing. Some texts added an explanation to the story. “In these lay many invalids – blind, lame, and paralyzed, 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 that disease that person had.”
We used this story yesterday at the regional presbytery meeting. The passage was printed out and given to each person. The pastor who printed out the version added these extra verses. One person said that they helped. They give us the context. The man’s response to Jesus’ question, “I have no one to put me in the pool when the water is disturbed; while I am getting there, someone else steps into the pool before me,” then makes sense.
As we talked about the story, one element stood out to many – the element of the angel stirring up the waters – disturbing the waters. Healing would take place only after the water had been stirred up. It was a reminder to us that the way of God is not one of being satisfied with the status quo. We’re always called to something new – to a wholeness that eludes us if things stay the way they are.
As I looked at this story, I thought less about what had happened when the angel stirred up the water and more about the assumptions of those who waited for the water to be disturbed by God’s messenger. The man, and all those with him, saw one path to healing – getting into the pool first when the water had been stirred up. Healing was something that was in short supply. (One woman pointed out that only one person received healing.) So, you had to be on top of things to get into that pool first – to get God’s grace. How hard it must have been! The blind would have needed someone to tell them that the water had been stirred up. Others, obviously, needed someone to help them step into those waters.
Yesterday, I was charged with speaking about church vitality. There is an attitude that is prevalent in churches today that we have become “ill.” The church is blind – blind to a changing culture. The church is lame. We limp through our traditional practices and hope that we will get where we’re supposed to be going. And, sometimes, the church is paralyzed – unable to act, to function – to do anything more than merely exist. So, oftentimes we’re passive, expecting someone to take care of us or we sit and wait for some angel to stir up things – and then hope we can be first in the water to find that elusive wholeness. We look for that elusive something that will make us whole again. And, sometimes, it seems that we are fighting for God’s scarce grace.
“Do you want to be made well?” Jesus asked the man who had been sick for so long. “Do you want to be made well?”
Now, wouldn’t we expect his answer to be a resounding, “Yes!”? Of course he would want to be made well. Yet, that isn’t his answer. Instead, he points to the obstacle in his way, the thing that prevents him from being healed. The only path he recognizes, that of descending into the pool when the water is stirred up is out of reach for him. Therefore, he assumes he cannot be “made well.” The path to wellness is constantly blocked. He sort of whines.
I think of the church today that often seems to be in the whining stage. “We would be strong – if more people would come – if they didn’t play golf on Sunday mornings – if kids weren’t doing sports on Sundays – if people would be less self-centered – if people would remember that church matters – if people were moral!” We’re not well. We’re not whole. And it’s easy to blame someone else.
Maybe, if Jesus had said to the man, “Hey, I’m here to take you down into the water when it is stirred up,” he would have answered “yes I want to be made well!” But Jesus didn’t offer to lead him to the waters, the stirred up waters. Because Jesus did not see those waters as the only path to wholeness.
A week ago, I went to a meeting with two experts from the denomination. One, Ann Philbrick, is an expert on church revitalization or church transformation. The other, Vera White, is one of the leaders in the denomination’s endeavor 1001 New Worshiping Communities. Both of them spoke about the need for churches to begin to think outside the box – to embrace the idea that God is working and calling us to work beyond the box that is the church and the box that is our traditions. Like the man at Bethseda, we need to remember that God surprises us by working in ways we might not expect.
We have for a long time operated on the “build it and they will come” mentality. Churches build fancy sanctuaries or hire staff to present slick programs. Some churches have built elaborate campuses that offer gyms, theaters, bowling alleys, fancy youth facilities, and assorted programs to entice people. As I’ve talked to church leaders, I still hear that sentiment that if only they find the right program, the church will grow and find new health.
It’s time to recognize that our wholeness comes not from being locked into particular notions of what the church is to look like and to do. We are to respond to Jesus’ invitation to stand up, pick up the mats, and walk. It was an unexpected invitation. The man was healed as he responded to that invitation. That healing meant that he could move and proclaim what God, through Jesus, had done for him.
The church isn’t in the same world as it was 10, 15, 25, or 50 years ago. It’s not even the same world as a year or two ago. Just think of the major changes in our own society! Now, we could bemoan the changes. Or we could, instead, look for God’s call and God’s presence in a world that is different. If the world doesn’t come the church we’ve always known, how does the church go to where the people are?
I’ve begun reading a book by Diana Butler-Bass that says the church, too often, seems to be sleeping through the revolution around us instead of engaging the world – as Jesus did – and finding ways of proclaiming and bringing God’s presence in new ways that invite a greater and deeper wholeness. Just because people are absent from church does not mean that they aren’t interested in being whole, in finding meaning, in mending the societies in which we live. The failure to engage is as much ours as theirs. In fact, it may be more our failure than theirs because we have not looked beyond what we’ve always know (we have been blind), because we are limping along (we are lame) and because we are paralyzed by our assumptions that God works only in particular ways, through particular structures and people. Jesus says to us, “Stand up, take your mat and walk.”