If you are lucky enough to travel to the old city of Jerusalem, you will find it a fascinating, colourful and often incredibly hectic city. When I was there a few years ago, I managed to find myself stuck in ‘rush hour’ on a Friday afternoon, when the little alleyways were crammed with people streaming out of the mosques after Friday prayer. It was quite an experience, being trapped in such a slow-moving press of bodies, inching our way through the ancient streets. It was an immense relief, therefore, to turn out of the busy thoroughfares into the quiet of St Anne’s Church. As you can see, this site, owned by the French Republic, is an idyllic garden oasis in the heart of Jerusalem, and it was a great delight to catch my breath in there after the crush of the crowded streets.
The site includes not only the attractively simple church of St Anne, but more importantly the ancient site of the pools of Beth-zatha, which will feature prominently in our reading from John’s gospel this morning. The site is an extremely confusing one to look at initially, as, like much of Jerusalem, it has been built on repeatedly over the centuries, with each wave of rulers leaving their mark. It was not until the 19th Century, that archaeologists began to excavate the site, when the site was given to the French as a gift by the grateful Ottoman Empire, and our understanding of it has continued to increase ever since. (Intriguingly, Queen Victoria was offered this site first or the entire island of Cyprus as a gift; she chose the latter!)
The site was initially a simple pool, with a dam to collect the waters of the Beth Zeta valley, built around the 8th Century BC. Over time, another pool was added and at some point the site seems to have become associated with healing, with nearby natural caves serving as baths. By the time of Jesus, the pools seem to have become an Asklepion, dedicated to the cult of Asclepius, the Greek doctor demi-god of healing, which had a wide following in the ancient world across a large number of sites. This may have come about following the Roman occupation of Palestine. At that time, the site was outside the city walls of Jerusalem, so would have been less objectionable to the Jewish authorities.
It is arguable that the account of Jesus’ visit to the site in John’s gospel is part of a wider polemic against the cult of Asclepius, with John’s Jewish and Christian readers rejecting the god’s powers to heal. This concern about the cult, may explain why some of you hearing the reading today, could think that there is a bit missing! In most modern versions of the Bible – our NRSV included – the text jumps straight from verse 3a to 5, missing out the words in italics:
“In these lay a great multitude of impotent folk, of blind, halt, withered, waiting for the moving of the water. For an angel went down at a certain season into the pool, and troubled the water: whosoever then first after the troubling of the water stepped in was made whole of whatsoever disease he had. And a certain man …”
These words seem to have been inserted into the gospel account later, and do not appear in the earliest manuscripts. Commentators now believe them to be a later addition to try to make the anticipated healing more Jewish and less pagan, by referring to an angel. You may also be more familiar with the story taking place at ‘Bethesda’, not ‘Beth-zatha’. The place is actually referred to by a bewildering variety of similar names in texts, seemingly owing to the challenges of transliterating a Hebrew word into Aramaic and Greek. Beth-zatha is simply the version favoured by most modern translations of the Bible.
Over the centuries, as the ruins demonstrate, the site was repeatedly destroyed and re-built by Byzantines, Persians, Crusaders and others, and its connection to Beth-zatha was lost. Instead, it was primarily known as the legendary site of Mary the mother Jesus’ birthplace, hence the church dedicated to her mother, St Anne. Scholars actually questioned John’s account of the miracle because there seemed to be no pool in the right place nor any sheep gate. As I have said, though, when archaeologists finally examined the site properly in the mid-19th Century, they discovered a site remarkably similar to that which John describes. You can see in this artists’ recreation, two pools with four colonnades around the outside and one in the middle. The ‘sheep gate’ referred to in the text, seems to be the gate that was later known as the Lion Gate but again archaeology has shown the ancient association with sheep (perhaps the sheep being brought for sacrifice at the Temple) to be accurate, with this early tombstone for a deacon linked to the sanctuary of the sheep pool.
I hope that introduction is helpful, setting the reading in context. I also hope, once again, that such additional information may give us greater confidence in our scriptures. Let us hear the reading now.
May the words of my mouth, and the meditations of all our hearts, be acceptable in
‘Do you want to be made well?’ (John 5:6) This alarmingly simple question from Jesus is unique in the gospels. Jesus is asked many questions by people and he poses a number of deeply challenging questions to others, but this specific formulation is unique. On three other occasions, Jesus asks people like Blind Bartimaeus, “What do you want of me?” (Matt. 20:21, Mark 10:51, Luke 18:41) and he meets sick and ill people on numerous occasions, but only here does he pose the specific question: “Do you want to be made well?”. I promise I shall do this only rarely but we should note the emphasis in the original text is on the desire. Literally, “Wish you to be well made?”.
Now, in Greek, Hebrew or English, the question sounds like an odd one. We have just been told that this unfortunate man has been trapped by some sort of seemingly debilitating paralysis and sat by this same pool for 38 years. Of course he wants to be made well! Like nearly all numbers in the Bible, though, there is a hidden significance to the number. According to Deuteronomy it was the length of the Jewish exile In Egypt (Deut. 2:14). More importantly perhaps it was the length of a human generation. Whilst he had been laying by this pool, the world had passed by him – kings and rulers had come and gone; the Temple had been practically re-built; babes in arms had grown up and become parents themselves. All that, while he had still been waiting by this pool, hoping for a stirring of the water and a cure. Why wouldn’t he wish to be made well?
Many commentators note, though, that the man never actually says ‘yes’. He never tells Jesus he wants to be made well. Instead, he give a slightly rambling answer about the pool, and the stirring of the water and why it can’t be done. He never says, “Yes, I want to be made well.”.
Now there has been much speculation about this man, and he is often painted in a rather poor light by Christian commentators as someone lacking in faith, who then goes off to sneak on Jesus to the Temple authorities. He is often contrasted poorly with the man born blind whom we meet in chapter 9, who is similarly cured and interrogated by the chief priests but bravely defends Jesus (John 9:1-34). That is not the case, and it’s not really the purpose of the story. Nor should we read the man’s illness in this chapter as a sign of sin or divine punishment, because Jesus explicitly denies that connection later in the gospel (John 9:3). Instead, I believe we should read Jesus’s warning about sinning no more in verse 14 of today’s reading as a piece of good, general advice, which I would commend to us all!
What we could say, I believe, is that the man almost certainly thought that healing was impossible now for him, and that he was almost afraid of being cured. 38 years is a long time to spend by a pool, waiting to be healed. Those five porticoes and the other sick and ill people sheltering beneath them were all the man seemingly knew. I don’t think we can blame him for being almost afraid to face an unknown future. Horrible as his condition was, there was some comfort and security beside that pool.
For me, as I read that passage I find many parallels that ring true with this story. As a minister, I meet many people who are desperate to be cured, and many who will never be truly healed of terrible conditions, both physical and mental. I do also encounter, though, those who seem trapped by their own illnesses and their state of dependence. Those who cannot see any light at the end of the tunnel whatsoever. Or those for whom something could be done to improve their lives. But any suggestions are always quickly brushed away – with comments like, “It’d never work,” or, “It’s not for me.”. For too many folks, however painful and difficult the current situation may be, the prospect of making changes to improve the situation seems far, far worse.
I have seen the situation most acutely perhaps amongst those suffering from forms of addiction. Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) and Narcotics Anonymous (NA) are both wonderful organisations that do a huge amount to really change peoples’ lives. They are both clear, though, that the first step for anyone wishing to join their ranks is the desire to be made well: “the moment of decision”. It doesn’t matter what other support or help you have in place; until there is a decision by the individual concerned to be made well there is nothing that can be done.
I am reminded of the incredibly powerful testimony I heard from a local preacher in my last circuit. He was a young man who came from a childhood of neglect, family breakdown, abuse, self-harm (he still has scars to show it), and a complete lack of confidence in his own appearance and who he was. He’d dropped out of school, had become clinically obese and just sat playing video games 24/7. It was his church-going grandfather who reached out to him and challenged him: “Do you want to be made well? Do you want to let the power of Christ change your life?”. Like the man in our story: he was trapped in prison but it was a prison he knew, and which required no effort on his part. He told me how difficult it had been to take the first step out of that living hell but he eventually made the decision to say “Yes”. Few of us can appreciate how hard it was for him to turn his back on those who had abused him and move away from a home where he could never be happy; to return to some form of education; to believe in himself once more; to start going to the gym, to become a youth worker himself. It was not, and is not, an easy road – but he is a wonderful witness to the possibility of healing and transformation, and the redemptive power that can be found in Christ, if we reach out in his name to help.
The question, “Do you want to be made well?” is one that we could legitimately ask of so many people, of so many churches and so many issues facing our nation and world at present. We could all think of examples. People who want to turn away addictive habits but cannot muster up the will to reach the ‘moment of decision’. Churches who want to include all ages but can’t quite make the sacrifices necessary to welcome everyone properly. Nations who want a cleaner, greener environment but aren’t willing to give up their addiction to polluting cars or pay the price for effective alternatives. The examples write themselves and all of us could think of appropriate ones.
For each of us here today, the question that Christ asked that sick man by the pool in Jerusalem two thousand years ago is as relevant today as it was then. “Do you want to be made well?” For each us the nature of our sickness will be different – and some may believe they have nothing wrong with them at all. Is it an addiction; is it our love of money or status; our fear of change or losing control; our unwillingness to believe that there is a force greater and wiser than ourselves in the universe; our pride; our anger; our unwillingness to see the world as it truly is, letting go of our comfortable prejudices and stereotypes?
For each, the answer will be different. But for each the challenge is the same. Will we let Jesus Christ into our life? Let him turn them and everything we thought we knew upside down. Will we trust in him and his Word alone to be our guide and comforter? Will we take Christ by the hand and leave the comforting world of the porticoed pool behind us, and embrace with faith the new visions he opens us before us? And will we speak up for Christ? Will we be the hand that reaches out in the darkness to pull someone else up and help them become well?
As we face the challenge of a new week, of new decisions to be made, let us seek the power of Christ to heal ourselves and to heal our world in his name. Let us face that critical question for ourselves: do we truly wish to be made well? If we do, then let us reach out our hand to the loving embrace of God, made flesh in Jesus Christ, and in the power of the Holy Spirit. For by his grace we can be free and be made whole once more. That is the hope Christ offered to the man at the pool of Beth-zatha so long ago, and it is the hope he offers each one us today. Amen.