the above image was used for our service on Sunday... it is an acknowledgement of the situation in the Ukraine at the moment and a chance to stand with our orthodox brothers and sisters willing to stand in the gap and pray for peace... they are going about the work of the father and of Christ.
Leading into Easter we are looking at peoples encounters with Jesus in John’s gospel and now. “Under the fig tree” with Nathaniel, ‘At night’ with Nicodemus, “At the well” with the Samaritan Woman, “in the hour of need” with the royal official and last week and out of order, but it did fit in with Communion In the Wilderness without dinner, “ the feeding of the five thousand.” We are doing it to not only to learn more about Jesus, but with the hope that in these gospel encounters that we may meet with Jesus in a new way in our lives today. Part of our Vision for this church is that we may “grow as followers of Jesus, and inspire others to join us on that journey” so I’m hoping that by looking at these gospel encounters we might do that growing but also gain something of how people can encounter Jesus in and through us.
The passage we had read out to us today is the narrative of Jesus healing a man who had been lame for 38 years beside the pool at the sheep gate in Jerusalem.
This passage marks a change in john’s gospel, because now we see that Jesus 'signs' are starting to attract opposition and there is conflict. John had written these things so that we may believe and have life, but now we see that the response of the religious authorities and the order of Jesus day is that they want to get rid of him. The passage finishes with the religious authorities actually understanding that Jesus was claiming to be equal with God which they saw as blasphemy. We shouldn’t have been surprised by this conflict in the prologue to John’s gospel in John 1:11 we were told that he had come to his own and those who were his own did not receive him.
Let’s look at the narrative.
Jesus comes to Jerusalem for a festival. We instinctively think of Passover when we think of festivals in Jerusalem, but there were three big religious festivals in the Jewish Calendar, as an agrarian culture they were also tied to the seasons of harvest, and people would come from all over like a holiday after the hard work.
The pool by the sheep’s gate was a place associated with healing. People believed that an angel would come and stir the waters from time to time and the first person into the water would be healed. Perhaps it expresses the desperation people then and now feel when they want to be healed. But it says something about Jesus that here he was amongst the poor and the disabled in Jerusalem. Maybe people passed this place by on their way into the festival proper, but not Jesus, we find him at this place of need.
While in John’s gospel so far we have Jesus knowing, because of his divine nature, what was on people’s hearts and what was going on in their lives, here we see that Jesus finds out that the man had been lame for thirty eight years. I wonder if part of Jesus ministry here, his compassion with these people, on the edge of their society in dire need wasn’t that he spent time talking and connecting with them…Hearing their hopes and hardships. Maybe he learned about the man who had been there so long because people would have said 'well at least I haven’t been here as long as that guy over there'. But We get a sense of Jesus compassion even though it’s not mentioned.
Jesus question to the man seems on the surface to be quite insensitive and even in the Hey, Monique thinks you're dumb’ kind of category. Doesn’t it…? “Do you want to get well?”… The man is so caught up in his problems that instead of answering 'yes' to what is an obvious and straightforward question… he starts to tell the story of why he is still there. Not only is he lame but he has been abandoned by his friends and family, there is no one to help him into the water. There is no hope, and his story seems like a mantra of woe.
It’s interesting but in this story there does not seem to be any spark of faith in this man, any hope or expectation or understanding of who it is who is speaking to him. Bible commentators have often paralleled this passage with the story of the cripple lowered through the roof by his friends in the other gospels, because Jesus uses the same words in both accounts and there is the challenge to the man to go and sin no more. In that story even if the man did not have faith his friends definitely did, but here there is none of that. Jesus takes the initiative and says “ Get up! Pick up your mat and walk!’ and the man is instantly healed. Again beyond our comprehension, again a sign that points us to who Jesus is… and Leon Morris comments about that lack of faith “Jesus is not limited by us, as he works the work of God”. I read the story of a north Korean women, who grew up in that strict communist country who talked of having no knowledge of God or the gospel, in a difficult situation having a dream where a shadowy figure came and bought peace and hope, it was only eight years later after suicide attempts and fleeing from North Korea to China and eventually to South Korea where she meet Christians and became a believer that she recognised the figure as Christ… Jesus is not limited by us, as he works the work of God.
The man is healed and does what Jesus had asked and automatically this brings him into conflict with the religious authorities. Carrying ones bed was in direct violation of the Sabbath laws. The sabbath had been set aside as a day of rest and to focus on remembering the things that God had done. It was a revolutionary concept of setting aside one day a week where there was a break from work. Down through Jewish history it had been a struggle to keep that day separate and different, in Nehemiah 13: 15 there is a mention of people trading on that day like it was any other, so the Jews had built up a series of dos and don’t to try an protect the day and determine what you could and couldn’t do and the man was deemed to be working and breaking the Sabbath because he was carrying a load through the streets. Even his wonderful story and great news does not seem to pacify the authorities. It’s easy to go "tisk, tisk" at them but this challenges me that we can allow our religious shaped boxes to stop us seeing the depth and breadth of Jesus compassion and power. Again Leon Morris comments “ Jesus act of compassion has not been limited because of the scribal regulations forbidding doing works of healing on the Sabbath’, in the other gospels Jesus will say that he is the Lord of the Sabbath. While we need to be reminded of Sabbath today in the ace of the encroachment of secularization and business as usual, we also need to be reminded that to Sabbath does not mean to simply do nothing, some of you probably remember the prohibitions against games and outdoor play on Sundays, I remember one of the rules at Hunua Falls Camp was no games on Sunday, but that the Sabbath is not a rest from our compassion or the work of God.
It is again interesting that the man did not even know who Jesus was, and later in the temple, Jesus finds the man and we have this jarring word from Jesus, “now that you are well, stop sinning or perhaps something worse will happen to you.” Now you may feel like saying what could be worse than thirty eight years of lameness and despair. So what does it mean?
Firstly, this passage is not making a connection between tragedy and suffering and sin… ‘the bastard had it coming’ is not a biblical understanding of life. In fact in John 9:1 Jesus disciples point to a man born blind and asked Jesus, in the understood wisdom of their day, "who sinned this man or his parents" and Jesus dismisses that understanding of the world…
Secondly, after this narrative Jesus begins to speak to the Jewish authorities that the greatest sign he will perform is to bring people from death to life, from judgement to life with his Father and this is the context that we should understand Jesus' words in. Do you want to be well was not just about physical wellness, but being whole, being bought into a right relationship with God and through that with the world around us, in Christ. The man’s lack of faith and acceptance of Jesus, means that while he is standing now, he may find himself standing in God’s judgement, a worse place to be. Jesus had come that he may be made completely well, Jesus has come that we may have life, abundant life now, lived in relationship with God and eternal life, a relationship that will carry on after death. A relationship that calls us to change and be transformed, to live differently… This is the greater gift that Jesus has for us, it is the work of God that Jesus is about... and as we move toward Easter in John’s gospel we see his last words from the cross being “it is Finished’ it is completed.
Ok two quick things for us today…
The first is that Jesus still initiates healing and wholeness in our lives, Jesus is still doing the work of His Father. I can’t help but hear that same question from the poolside today “do you want to be well?” We sang John Newton’s amazing lament ‘beside the gospel pool' earlier in the service and maybe you could identify with the feelings of inadequacy and unworthiness in it. But from this narrative we see the depth of the grace of God… do you want to be well? Maybe it’s a physical thing that has dogged you for years, maybe deeper than that it is the knowledge that you need to open your life up to the work of God… “Even the stop sinning” if I may be so bold… because Jesus is in the business of making people whole… It may not be instantaneous… you’ll notice that in the narrative while the man is restored physically that move to wellness and wholeness, the Hebrew idea of shalom is a process, we don’t even know if the man actually progressed along it. He goes and tells the authorities hostile to Jesus about him… maybe desirous of pleasing them and finding the social acceptance he had been denied so long rather than seeking to follow Jesus. But also there is that glimmer of hope of change as instead of focusing on being told to break the Sabbath regulations he does refer to Jesus as the one who made him well. Are we willing to open our lives to the question do you want to be well and allow Jesus to do the work of the father.
Lastly, and I don’t want it to sound like a clique, but as a church we have made a commitment to being missional, that is to go and find what God is doing in the world and to go join in... to go and be where Jesus is and to do the things that Jesus is doing…. And that is a call to be At the pool… where ever that might be for you. Being willing to stir the water for people a bit by asking the question…’do you want to be well… . Yes that will put us into conflict with people and can I say Christians are sometimes the worst folk at showing Jesus compassion to people, evangelist remind people of shonky used car salesmen. But I know people will encounter Jesus as we ask “do you want to be well’ ‘do you want to be whole?’… do you want that peace that shalom? and ask God to work in and through us.