This week, we turn to John 5:5-8 for the story about a pool, a paralytic, and Jesus.
“Do you want to be made well?” This is the classic question usually asked by discussion leaders on this passage. They mean, by this, that we can be made well by Jesus if only we ask. This view is shallow. It’s shallow because it ignores the deep-seated psychological truth that almost no one, in practice, actually wants the help that God offers. No one can ask honestly, no one can ask sincerely with anything other than “I believe; help my unbelief” in mind.
Anyway, Jesus goes back to Jerusalem and sees a heart-wrenching scene at the pool. Many of the diseased or handicapped people are waiting superstitiously for the water to stir so that they can be first into the pool – dozens and dozens spend all day doing this. Clearly the guy wants to be well because he’s sitting around doing this for a “long time”, presumably for years. Jesus asking him the question comes across as almost sarcastic or offensive – of course he wants to be well! If it were as easy as wanting it, he wouldn’t have been at the pool this long.
And yet the guy has an interior blockage, just as we all do. His blockage is that he is so attached to his own way of healing himself that he is incapable of being open to any other way. For him, it’s simple: when the waters ripple or become turbulent, if he has a quick enough reaction time to win the race to the pool he’s cured of his paralysis, and if not, then he’s not. God’s healing, in this man’s view, was dependent on beating out the competition through cleverness, speed, reaction time, and reflexes. We humans want badly to save ourselves.
A central literary element of the story is the absurdity of a paralytic trying to win a race to a pool. It’s almost modern in its extreme irony. But this is also a timeless picture of the human being: the very thing we want to save ourselves from is also the thing preventing us from being healed, the roadblock. And this roadblock is, by the classic definition, our need to save ourselves – libido dominandi, et cetera (the tautology would almost be funny if it weren’t kinda depressing too).
Say for a second that the pool doesn’t really heal people, but is a superstition. Maybe I’m wrong, but this first-to-the-finish-line mentality just seems way too human to really have a divine healing spirit. What if the man had been there for several years without witnessing a divine miracle? Wouldn’t he have left by then? Maybe not – human nature has a remarkable ability to continue trying to make our lives better with things that prove, time and again, incapable of helping us. The self-help industry in America is a prime example. Economically, the industry’s very survival depends on the fact that it doesn’t work. The only reason people could possibly keep buying those books is because the ones they read before didn’t solve their problems. And yet people continue buying them anyway, in blind faith that if How to Win Friends and Influence People didn’t solve their problems, then The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People will. We are hard-wired to believe in our ability to improve our lives and solve our problems, and the same tendency probably underlay the man’s obsession with the pool at Beth-zatha (or however the proper way to spell it is).
There is a crucial difference between wanting to be well – which we all do – and wanting to be made well, which almost none of us do. Being made well suggests passivity on our parts; it suggests an improvement in our situation which is received as a gift rather than earned with cunning and strength of will. So when Jesus asks him if he wants to be made well, he responds instead to the question: “why haven’t you made yourself well?” He answers by defending his inability to save himself rather than acknowledging it (again, the paralytic spiritually represents you, me, and everyone else). This points to the truth that our attraction to self-salvation is actually what kills us, because it places the responsibility for self-healing directly upon our shoulders. Parents want the full responsibility for raising perfect children, drinking alcoholics are convinced they have the power to manage their own lives, and most religious people want to claim full agency in living in a moral way. And yet the tragedy is that we are hard-wired to fail at some point – perhaps not in all of these arenas, but certainly in some. People want the responsibility because of pride, but they are crushed by guilt when they fail and even consumed by anxiety when they succeed. I talked to one of the most eloquent and popular (lay) pastors I’ve ever heard who confessed to a weekly fear that his sermon will fall flat and he’ll never be able to preach well again. Succeed or fail, when the burden is on us, it is consuming.
This brings us to the man’s complete exasperation in this scene. He doesn’t have any friends to place him in the water, and he loses the competition every single time. He’s been there for years, and he hasn’t made it once. When Jesus asked him if the man wanted to be made well, he was hinting at a healing completely different than the man’s obsession with the pool, but the man was so narrow-mindedly fixated on doing it himself that he missed the “made well” in Jesus’ question and instead answered like it was all about him. Even though he’s still obsessed with earning his healing, Jesus breaks through the normal, human way of doing things with a purely gratuitous invitation to “take your mat and walk.” Here again, we see how stuck we humans are on our superstitious belief in making ourselves well, so much that the man doesn’t even understand Jesus’ question about being “made” well. And yet, even amongst all of the man’s self-improvement talk, Jesus just steps in and heals him. On the broader scale of a whole human race stuck on doing it ourselves, this story foreshadows Jesus’ gratuitous, uninvited healing of the whole world upon the cross.
And, of course, it’s what has already happened and is “finished.” Do I want to be made well? No, I want to make myself well, and will likely spend the rest of my life trying to do so, no matter how many times I hear a message of grace. But we’re made well anyway, freely – and that’s good news.
Finally, the title was misleading: the man’s clearly not saved from his performance-ism; he goes and defends himself to the Pharisees a bit later. But the hope is that there’s one definitive moment where his powerlessness was met by sheer grace, and that this experience was forever seared into his memory. But, well, that’s a lot to ask for – point is, all’s well anyway, and the gift of healing is irrevocable regardless of how much it changes him morally – and the eternally irretrievable gift of justification is well on its way…
Also, be sure to check out Thornton Wilder’s three-minute play, “The Angel That Troubled the Waters” – it’s gold.