ATake your mat
John 5: 2-18
A sermon by Linda Bausserman
Our scripture today is like a one act play with two scenes. The first scene takes place near the edge of the city by a pool of water. The second takes place in the temple and the two are tied together by a man who is healed by Jesus. Apparently this pool on the outskirts of the city was fed by a spring. When the spring released water, the surface of the pool would ripple. People believed that the first person into the pool when the waters were disturbed, would be healed. So, as you can imagine, the pool was surrounded by the sick, the maimed, the desperate. Among those people, was a man who had been there for 38 years, waiting for his turn to be healed. We don’t know what his infirmity was; but it hindered quick movement to the pool. And apparently he had no friends or family to help him. It must have been an every-man-for-himself kind of place. Into this mass of suffering humanity waded Jesus. He went straight to this man – surely the most pitiable of all those gathered there. Jesus asked him, “Do you want to be healed?” Well duh! What an astounding question! “I can’t get to the pool fast enough,” the man replies. Jesus says, “Pick up your mat and walk.” and he does.
Now I have a little different take on this from what I have heard in sermons and read in commentaries. I have seen implications that the man was accustomed to his life of ease on his pallet and thus there was some doubt that he really wanted to be healed. Not an unreasonable question and one can certainly make a powerful sermon based whether we really desire healing which would also involve a change in lifestyle. The man in our story would have to go out and find a job to support himself. It had been 38 years – what skills might he still have? He would have to start completely from scratch. Certainly a daunting prospect as anyone knows who had been out of work for a while. But look at the light this interpretation puts on Jesus. I don’t think Jesus was taunting this guy for his laziness nor accusing him of not trying hard enough or of being a welfare cheat. I can’t imagine what this man’s frame of mind might have been after all these years of frustration, disappointment and pain. I think Jesus posed the question to give the man a minute to recover from his surprise and start the transition from despair to hope. I also don’t think the man’s answer was evasive. We expect him, of course, to say yes, enthusiastically and joyfully. But as we read later in the story, he didn’t even know who Jesus was so wasn’t aware of the possibilities. The idea that someone might heal him on the spot was probably incomprehensible, just as it would be today. I think that he was simply telling Jesus what he needed – someone to help him get down into the water in the pool. Can you imagine how surprised and flustered he must have been that someone paid attention to him and might be willing to help him after all this time? Then Jesus simply tells him to get up and carry his mat. And, he does. Don’t you wonder why Jesus tells him to take his mat? It isn’t the first time Jesus has done that. He also told a paralytic that he healed to carry his mat. I don’t know how long this man had been lying on that particular mat; but, I can’t imagine that he would want to take it with him. And, why should Jesus care about what he did with it? It sounds a bit like Jesus’ admonition: “take up your cross and follow me.” (“Pick up your mat and walk”) The man is not only healed, he is charged with something to do. Perhaps the mat will serve as a reminder of where he came from and what Jesus has done for him. Though he is healed, his illness is a burden that he must bear – certainly 38 years of suffering will leave a mark on a person. We all have our mats to carry as we face what life brings us.
This story also raises a difficult question – why was this particular man healed? Most of the stories of healing involve people who come to Jesus or are brought to him to be healed. I believe that this is the only time that Jesus approached someone and asked if they wanted to be healed. It appears that Jesus didn’t heal unless someone wanted it. However, it also seems that any time someone in the Bible asked for healing Jesus provided it. So we are left wondering why we aren’t always healed when we ask for it. It wouldn’t surprise me if everyone here has had the experience that their prayers for healing of a friend or family member weren’t answered the way they wanted. It is clear in this story that Jesus didn’t heal everyone. He might have waved his arm in a mighty gesture and healed everyone by the pool. But he didn’t. Don’t we wish God would wave a mighty arm over West Africa and heal all those afflicted with Ebola. But it doesn’t seem to work that way. Jesus chose this one man. It’s tempting to speculate that he chose this man because his was the worst case. He had after all suffered there for long time. But perhaps the time spent there spoke to his capacity for hope. Perhaps during his time there, he had come to deep spiritual truths as people often do in times of great suffering. We can assume that he was religious because the first place he went after being healed was the temple. Still, he had done nothing obvious to make him Jesus’ choice. He didn’t ask to be healed or profess any belief in Jesus himself. He hadn’t done any great deed that might make him worthy of reward. There was nothing special about him to make him stand out as deserving to be healed. Perhaps Jesus chose him simply because he was the person most needing healing. Why some people are healed and others not, only God knows; but I find comfort knowing that Jesus comes to us in our worst moments, unbidden, to offer hope if not healing. And isn’t that what we really need, hope to carry on, comfort that we are not alone, knowledge that God is with us in our suffering?
There are, of course, examples in the Bible where God didn’t answer the petitioners the way they wanted. One is Paul who prayed to have what he called ‘a thorn in his side’ removed. We don’t know what that thorn was – it has been speculated that it was malaria because Paul came from Tarsus, a mosquito breeding-ground. God’s answer to Paul was not healing but “My grace is sufficient for you” which I take to mean that though God wouldn’t remove the thorn, he would provide Paul the support to get through it or bear it. And apparently he did because Paul learned to live with his thorn. He remained faithful to God and lived into his sixties and died not from this thorn but by martyrdom. I don’t know why Paul wasn’t healed. It seems he had already had plenty of suffering in his life of beatings and imprisonments. But since he wasn’t healed, I’m grateful that he wrote about it. If a person like Paul wasn’t always given what he asked for, why should I be disappointed when my petitions aren’t answered the way I wish. It doesn’t mean that I should give up praying, prayer keeps up the connection with God and gives us hope. Hope that God will be with us, as he was with Paul, no matter what. So our challenge is to remain faithful, like Paul – no matter what.
Another example was Jesus himself in the garden of Gethsemane. He asked that the cup of suffering be taken from him. God didn’t remove the cup but Jesus also remained faithful. Despite feeling forsaken by God on the cross, he said “Into Thy hands I commend my spirit.” And the outcome was resurrection and joy. When our prayers for healing aren’t answered the way we want, it’s small comfort in the midst of the suffering to know that we are in good company. But at least we should not assume that we aren’t good enough, or aren’t praying enough or don’t have enough faith if we don’t get the answers we want. What we can be sure of is that God is there with us in our most difficult moments, supporting us, loving us and giving us hope.
Now the healing is not the end of this story. There is a second scene in this play. The man went to the temple, carrying his mat and immediately got into trouble. It was against the law to carry a mat on the Sabbath. No one was interested in the astounding fact that he had been sick for 38 years and was now well. They were more concerned that he had broken a law. For them, you shall not carry anything on the Sabbath had become a more important law than love your neighbor! They also confronted Jesus, who had broken the law by healing on the Sabbath. There were at least three other healings that took place in the temple on the Sabbath and each time Jesus tried to get the Pharisees to understand that people are more important than the law. The law was meant to help people in their relationship to God, not do them harm. Unfortunately, they never did get it.
Our Thursday evening group has been reading a book by Thomas Cahill, the same author that Tom has mentioned in a couple of his sermons. Cahill suggests that Jesus is preaching to two groups of people, the powerless and the powerful. Take, for example, the beatitudes. Some are directed toward people who have no control over their situation and others toward those who are in their position by choice. Cahill places the mourners, the meek, the pure and the persecuted among the powerless who have had their situation thrust upon them. Saying that the powerless are blessed reminded them that God loves them and will see to their ultimate triumph. In contrast, the poor in spirit, the champions of justice for the downtrodden, the merciful and the peacemakers have chosen to be the way they are. And the powerful are goaded by these examples of people who are blessed because they have abandoned their comfort for the sake of others. To use a quote you have probably heard before, the purpose of Jesus message is to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable. Our story today seems to fit into that pattern. In scene 1 Jesus blessed a powerless man. He chose to heal a suffering man on the Sabbath even though it was against the law. He surely knew that he would get into trouble for it. But it provided him yet another opportunity, in scene 2, to show the people in power what their priorities should be.
Jesus always puts people first. Yet he never forces anyone to accept him. He never interferes with our free will. Similarly, we are offered opportunities to serve; but, again, how we respond is our choice. In our lives there will be times of suffering. But there will also be times when we can be of service to our neighbor. When we are suffering, we are called to trust. When life is good, we are challenged to help others. Whatever our situation, however, we are assured that God support and guide us. God will always be there with us, loving us.