Thirty-Eight Years

Pool with lilies and a dragon

Sixth Sunday of Easter | John 5:1-18

Thirty-Eight Years

“There was one man who had been ill for thirty-eight years,” John tells us. We do not hear how many of those years the man may have lain near this pool, hoping for a cure. Thirty-eight years. It is such an odd detail, but not the only one. This story, a gospel story no less, speaks of a pool stirred by an angel, and of people being healed when entering the water, a miraculous baptism.

The fourth verse, the one that tells of angels stirring the water, is almost certainly a later addition to the text, not written by the same hand that gave us the rest of the story. Still, the pool was real enough, matching a pool excavated on the site, with four surrounding colonnades and a dividing partition — the five porticoes of the Gospel description. Perhaps there were indeed stories of an angel who stirred the water, not unlike Muslim stories of a pool stirred by a jinn.¹ Whatever the reason, this crippled man waited beside the pool.

He isn’t the cleverest person there, our crippled man, that much is certain. He has figured no way to get into the water quickly, and he even seems to be whining about his chosen spot at some distance from the water and his lack of a helper. Later he does not have the good sense to avoid the questions of the religious leaders, who themselves ironically ignore his miraculous cure in their indignation that such a thing would be done on the Sabbath. Never mind the miracle: this man was carrying his mat on the Sabbath.Water dripping into a container

Imagine, God breaking the Sabbath rules these men had made, or encouraging someone else to break them.

Religion has never lacked for small minds.

Consider the person Jesus chose. The healed man demonstrates no faith in anything but in the properties of the pool, and he has never managed to act on that. He does not know who Jesus is. He offers no reason to be favored by God or by anyone else. He is dim witted, undeserving, a rat who goes out of his way to inform on the man who gave him everything he wanted.

Jesus picks him, out of however many others were lying there, and we see no good reason for his choice. It appears whimsical, but must be for a purpose — Jesus finds the man a second time and speaks to him again. Whatever the reason for his choice, this healing is an act of pure grace.

We might think on that act of grace, and on the man who received it. Looking at him, we can lay aside our notions of earning favor, or even of having sufficient faith, which comes to the same thing — we try to buy God’s favor with the fervent currency of belief, but this crippled man had nothing going for him.

He is stupid, ungrateful, a rat, and Jesus helps him anyway. Maybe by looking at him we can make a more honest assessment of ourselves, our supposed worthiness (for anything), and the depth of our belief.

After all, faith is not currency, that we should offer it in exchange for what we want from God and the universe. Neither is faith magic, that we should use it to influence God and the universe to do what we want.

Faith isn’t a price we pay, and it is not a crutch for a crippled mind. It is a response. Faith is the acceptance, and the acknowledgment, of grace, no matter how many years we spend waiting for the water to stir.


¹ Raymond E. Brown, The Gospel According to John (I-XII), AB 29 (New York:
Doubleday, 1966), 207.

Pool with Dragon


Here is an excerpt from my novel I,John — reimagining this story in the Gospel of John from the points of view of the disciple John and of an angel named Adriel. I hope you enjoy it.

 

John

The pool was crowded, but the light reflecting from the water brightened the pillars and the mosaics. So many sick people, waiting for this miraculous cure—jump in the pool when the water moves. It was ridiculous. They must have been idiots as well as invalids, because that water was never going to move on its own. Not that a bath wouldn’t do some of them good, but they’d likely drown as soon as they rolled themselves in the pool.

I’m sure that the Romans thought they were idiots. They thought we all were, anyone who wasn’t Roman. The sooner we passed through, the better.

Jesus stopped, though, and so did we. He was looking around at the invalids, and some of them were looking back at us. No doubt they were hoping for charity. I felt awkward just standing looking at them. Peter, his hair at all angles, stared at the people lying on their mats as though they were something odd washed up on the shore. I was trying to think of something to say quietly to Jesus to get us moving again. No good could come of a bunch of us standing here looking at these people.

Jesus stepped past a blind fellow, his head bobbing around like a bird as he slept sitting against a pillar, and stood at the feet of a paralyzed man. He was perfectly still, watching Jesus and only glancing at the rest of us. I could see daylight streaming through a portico. I was thinking that if we quietly walked through that opening, perhaps Jesus would follow us.

“Do you want to be made well?” Jesus asked the man. A stupid question, I thought. I was embarrassed.

The man explained that he did not have anyone to help him get to the water when it was stirred by angels. Angels, I thought. Really. I just wanted to walk quietly into the light of the portico, melt into the people going along into the city, but we couldn’t leave Jesus standing there.

“Stand up,” Jesus said to the invalid. “Take your mat and walk.”

The man’s legs were shriveled, a waste, and Jesus was telling him to stand up. Peter was over at the other side, jutting his great head forward and staring, first at Jesus then at the man’s legs. I felt like everything stopped, just for a moment, the particles of dust in the sunlight stopped without movement, and it seemed that I heard water gurgling, a fountain or splashing.

The man was looking into Jesus’ eyes, then the man put his arms out and started pushing himself upright. That’s when he moved his knee, drawing his leg up toward him, and he stopped again for a moment, alarmed. Around me, the other sick men were moving as well, dragging themselves toward the pool where the water was swirling.

“The angels stirred it,” I said, then I put my hand over my mouth, not believing I had said it. We began helping the men into the pool, all of them except the one in front of Jesus. That man stood up on his own, Peter reaching toward him to steady him in case he fell. Peter was staring at the man’s legs. They were as straight and as muscular as my own.

I felt someone take my arm, a blind man sitting near me, and I began helping him toward the pool. All of them, all the sick, we put into the pool, and I couldn’t tell if the water was moving because of them or on its own. As soon as the blind fellow I was helping stepped into the water he stopped and turned to me. He was looking at me, looking at my face as though I was the most beautiful thing in the world, and I realized he could see.

I looked back at Jesus, but he just walked through the portico into the sunlight, the dust in the air making him vanish as he went.

Adriel

Jesus is talking to the crippled man near the wall, but I cannot focus on his words. The blind man near me is thinking too loudly, and he is difficult to understand. He is blind from birth, and all of his thoughts blend the abstract and the concrete, a place name with a sound, feelings of fear and the touch of leather, memories of home with the smell of bread, and I realize too late that he is dreaming the dreams of the blind. Dreams are dangerous at best, but with his odd sensory associations I am captivated, falling, not seeing the ground but knowing it is there.

I fall into a pool, and the water envelops me. It should not matter. I am not a physical being, but the blind man’s dreams make me reach out to touch this world, and suddenly the water knows I am there.

Miraculous. They lay here expecting the water to move, and it does.

I rise from the water to gauge whether anyone has seen, and the man Jesus is looking at me. He says nothing, just turns unsurprised and continues talking with the invalid.

There are more splashes, and some of the people are hurling themselves into the pool, water surging out onto the tile floor. The healthy men and women who had been following Jesus start helping the sick into the pool. It is madness, a bizarre game of Adriel Says, though I have said nothing, just fallen into the water.

I feel the power, though, power that is in the water with me, not from me. The sick ones are changing, leaving the pool with stronger bodies. The dust stirred by the crowd sparkles in the sunlight, and the water splashing from the pool and dripping from their bodies mirrors the light. Jesus is already walking away, and the blind man is staring at one of the followers, both of them wet and dripping.

A Quality of Love

Fifth Sunday of Easter | John 13:31-35

When we love, we give — though usually of our excess, and usually with some thought of what we might receive in return. That is not the love described in John’s Gospel.

We give of what we have. God gives of what God is. Love looks for nothing, needs no reward: love is its own end.

That love, divine love, perfect love, God’s love, never springs from excess — God always gives all. Perfect love is never from thought of gain — God always has all. God is complete — there is nothing extra to give away, nothing missing to fulfill. The gift of the divine, the love of God, is God giving of God’s self, always complete, with nothing lacking, and with nothing to spare.

Father and Daughter 2Bernard of Clairvaux wrote that the best reason, the truest reason, to love God is God. Love God for God’s own sake. Jesus commands that we love one another the same way, for the same reason, for love’s own sake, for God’s own sake.

It is impossible, of course. Perfect love, like anything other perfection though more so, is impossible for anyone but God.

So what are we mere mortals to do? Cease trying?

Everything we do is lacking and incomplete. Everything from home remodeling to recipes, gardening to spaceships, poetry to medicine — all of it is imperfect, lacking, missing something, not ideal.

Father and Daughter 3The ideal is unattainable. Our problem is that John’s Gospel does not present God’s love as an ideal. It is presented as a reality, a path, a command.

Love one another, as I have loved you.

We might say that Jesus was setting his followers an impossible task. Or we might say he was setting them on the path, the Way, of this gospel message.

Evangelical Christianity places so much emphasis on the cross, on earnestly explaining what God accomplished there, on offering opaque arguments about sin and redemption and God’s requirement for atoning sacrifice. Never mind that by the time of Jesus the prophets had already moved beyond sacrifice.

Does the LORD take delight in thousands of rams, In ten thousand rivers of oil? Shall I present my firstborn for my rebellious acts, The fruit of my body for the sin of my soul? He has told you, O man, what is good; And what does the LORD require of you But to do justice, to love kindness, And to walk humbly with your God? (Micah 6:7-8)

As much as anything else, the crucifixion was an act of love — on the part of Jesus — God giving God’s own self to the world, an act of love undiminished by human judgment and violence. Killing Jesus on that cross was an act of human aggression, fear, resentment, transference. In accepting that death, Jesus responded with the same love he had shown his disciples.

We need not agree on the theological explanations of the cross. Jesus himself spent little time explaining. He did not command his followers to explain. He commanded them to love one another. Explanations, and the ensuing arguments over them, do not feed the hungry, clothe the poor, or shelter the homeless.

We are not commanded to explain the gospel. We are commanded to live it.

We are not even commanded to be right. We are simply commanded to love.

Father and daughter

Would You Want to See?

Child Raising Pirate Patch for Better Look

Fourth Sunday of Easter | John 10:22-42

Would You Want to See?

Religious folk are seldom happy and almost never satisfied. You might argue the point, but in the gospels the religious folk are the only ones who cannot see what Jesus is doing.

The blind see. The lame get up and walk away. Even dead people get up and walk away. Everyone sees it happening, everyone that is except the religious folk. You’d think they would be on the lookout for such signs and wonders, but no. Even when they notice a miracle, they complain that it was done on the wrong day, the Sabbath, or that Jesus had no clear license to perform such miracles—who gave him permission?

Eye of the Wolf by Lauren Bell
Eye of the Wolf by Lauren Bell

Seeing is not believing, not for the religious folk, not for the religious leaders, not in any of the gospels, not in the Gospel of John. In the gospel accounts, religious people look at the world through the lenses of their belief system, and the shades they wear block out more than sunlight. They’re not just wearing spiritual Ray-Bans. These people are peering at the world through welding helmets.

The faithful, well, they are a different story. Plenty of them see the signs, read them just fine, and come to the conclusion that Jesus comes from God. It is plain to them. This odd bunch of fisherman and tax collectors and prostitutes, teachers and workmen and shepherds, they get it. Maybe they have the advantage of not being blinded by belief, and so they are better able to see with eyes of faith.

We’re not that different from the people in John’s Gospel. Instead of believing what we see, we see what we believe.

If God had a face, what would it look like?We look at cars and clothes, and we believe certain brands are better. Sometimes we are right. Often, we go on buying the more expensive brand just because we believe it is better, not because we see any difference. It may even be that we trick ourselves into seeing a difference because we believe there is one.

We look at people, and most of us see what we think they are. It happens all the time. It is true of the rich and famous and powerful, but it is more true of the weak, the failed, the different. The more radically different people might be, the more likely we are to see only what we already think about them. That’s how minorities—by color or creed or any other measure—are treated as lesser people. That’s how the homeless become a ‘problem’ instead of people.

Maybe that is why so many marginal people were drawn to Jesus. He saw them—them, not some idea about them, and they knew the difference. Maybe that is why so many people who are different become marginalized. We look at them and see what we think they are—not them, but some idea about them, and they know the difference.

Belief is an intellectual thing, a choice, a trick of the mind. Faith? “Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.”¹ Faith requires thought, of course, but it is made of something else, something more. Belief speaks of what we think, but faith speaks of who we are.

There are things our bones and our hearts know long before our minds assent.

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¹ Hebrews 1:1, a famous verse, and much better to focus upon than the “an eye for an eye” that some people favor.

Child Raising Pirate Patch for Better Look

Communion with the Divine

Loaf of Bread with Flowers

Third Sunday of Easter | John 21:1-19

Communion with the Divine

“The morning that we found Jesus on the beach stays in my mind. I have never understood why. It was not the most impressive day in my memory, but it has become one of the most persistent. Finding him on that beach was miraculous, or so we thought at the time. Now it haunts me…”

Habits are powerful things, and habits of thought are among the most powerful.

Take the simple notion that it is good to get up each day and get going, to do the work at hand—it is one of the simplest ideas we can have in our lives, but in the end this thought may get us through our most difficult days.

Sometimes our habits of thought get in the way. We misremember events, tilting them in one direction or another, embellishing our worth or exaggerating an injury done to us. We seldom revise our opinions of other people, even when they deserve a downgrade or have earned better.

A loaf of breadOur habits of thought are wickedly pernicious in matters of faith. We believe what we believe, and that is that. Of course, such devotion to a set of ideas is not faith at all: it is idolatry. Little by little, we trade faith for certainty until we leave off worshipping God and begin worshipping our own ideas about God. Once we get there, our ideas seldom change.

Closed mindedness is the death knell of spirituality. God may not change, but our understanding must–or did we think we understood everything, right from the beginning? Perceiving the divine depends upon our willingness to be surprised.

In John’s Gospel, a few tired, disillusioned disciples nearly give up. Thinking their journey with the miraculous over, they return to fishing, a way of life some of them knew before Jesus’ arrest and the fiasco of his death. Nevertheless, even at that point, they were still willing to be surprised, willing to experience the divine in a meal of fish and bread, served by a person they thought never to see again.

When they expected never to hear the living voice of Jesus, he called to them across the water. Having watched him die, they opened their minds to the divine reality of seeing him alive.

God may be in the explosions of stars, the expanse of space. John’s Gospel says that we may find God in the smallness of a loaf of bread, if our minds are open to the possibility.

Imagine, communion with the divine.

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Here is another version of the story from John’s Gospel, as I retold it for the opening chapter of I,John. Sometimes just hearing a story told differently can change the way we think about it. I hope you enjoy it.

John

The morning that we found Jesus on the beach stays in my mind. I have never understood why. It was not the most impressive day in my memory, but it has become one of the most persistent. Finding him on that beach was miraculous, or so we thought at the time. Now it haunts me.

I see angels, and I see other things that are not angels. At least I see and hear beings who are not like us but who think and act and move, without bodies like ours. A few of them are brilliant and astonishing. Some are dark and fearful. I think that they are different beings, but they might be differing versions of the same kind of thing. And there is Adriel, whom I have heard and seen every day since we found that empty tomb.

Seeing creatures and hearing voices doesn’t mean they are real. A great many people have seen things that did not exist outside their minds. Of course, even if I couldn’t see these beings, couldn’t hear their voices, it wouldn’t mean that they weren’t there.

In the beginning was the word. That is how it began, just words and a man who walked down the shore and found us in our father’s boat. That’s the truth of it. He walked around talking to anyone who would listen, and he found us. Why we got up and followed him, I wonder.

Look where it got us. Look where it got him.

My father’s boat—we spent so much of our childhood in it. I can barely remember what he looked like, my father, but I do remember his beard, his hands. And I remember his eyes, looking at me when Jesus called us to follow him—my father was staring at me like he was gauging the strength of a net. He nodded, I thought, at least it seemed to me later that he had nodded, had offered us that small blessing with the quick understanding of a father. He could read water, read the sky, read the fish swimming, and he read my brother and I, though he was looking at me. My brother James was always like a fish jumping for a light, holding back just for me and for our father to decide. James was the oldest, but while he often walked ahead of me, he somehow always seemed to be following me.

So our father, Zebedee, looked at me and nodded, and James and I put down the nets and walked away with Jesus. It was never the same afterward. Maybe that is why I remembered that moment. Something in me knew that it was important, that it marked a change. There are moments in our lives that matter, not that there are moments without value. It is just that some moments are like a point when we are touched by God. We are brought into contact with something greater than ourselves, outside ourselves, that resonates with the spirit within us. We never returned, not really, not to stay. Our father’s boats were finally given to the servants, and sometimes I felt regret and doubt for leaving that life. We had not understood when we walked away with Jesus that day that we would never return. I don’t know whether my father knew it, but we did not.

Maybe that is why I agreed to look after Mary in the end. I was an irresponsible son who walked away from my father and our family business, and looking after her offered me a sense of redemption. Not that I had any choice. He had found the strength to speak while hanging on that cross. “Behold your mother!” What was I going to say? No, thank you, I have other obligations? Maybe that was the reason he said it, made that effort as he hung there to place Mary in my care and me in hers. It was a gift, something that would heal the sense of guilt inside me that he knew I carried, though I never spoke of it. Perhaps he had known how much I missed my father just from my voice, or from the way I sometimes spoke to James, or perhaps Jesus simply knew.

I loved her, of course. Who could not love Mary? If James and I were marred by what we saw that day, watching him suffer, watching him die, then she was more so.

And he was certainly dead.

I am left remembering all of it, at least I am left remembering those days. They are in my mind with the vividness of dreams, the ones that somehow seem more real than memory. Not that all of it is the same. Some moments stand out more than others, as with any memories, and not always the moments that I would have thought. You would think that the crucifixion might be my most vivid memory, but it is not. Oh, I remember that day, certainly, but it is not what haunts my dreams or creeps into my waking thoughts. I remember blind men, and Mary. I remember Peter’s great bobbing head as he made his way through the crowds. I remember the bread that Jesus gave us.

Most of all, I dream of that morning at the shore.

Smoke was rising from a small fire on the beach, and I saw him standing next to it. He was looking over the water toward us as we made our way to shore. I thought I knew him, even from that distance, but I couldn’t place him.

No one was talking. Peter’s boat was creaking, leaking slightly from having seen little use for the last three years. Maybe it was good that we had caught nothing. We probably would have torn the nets and sunk the boat with us in it. A fine bunch of fishermen we were. Perhaps we had forgotten how to fish, forgotten how to live like regular people, make a living.

Peter was mending a hole in the net. He dropped the netting shuttle, and I could hear him muttering and cursing as he felt around in the coils of rope for it. He had a curse for everything, all manner of language rearranged to suit the target. When his muttering died down, the only other sound was made by waves gurgling on the side of the hull.

“Friends, have you got any fish?”

I heard his voice over the water. Friends, he said. Something about the voice was like it was speaking inside me instead of from the beach, a crazy idea.

No, we told him. Nothing. No breakfast here. Go away.

“Throw the net on the right side of the boat, and you will catch some.”

All of us stared over the water at him, at the small fire, the smoke. That voice, I thought. We each turned and looked over the side of the boat. Nothing, no ripples, no flash from fish swimming in the morning light. We looked at our nets, piled in the bottom of the boat, wet and empty. Nobody spoke; we just started moving, pulling a net up, throwing it over the side.

The ropes pulled tight right away. We must have snagged something, I thought, and I leaned over the side to see into the water. Fish, schooling, a flashing churning shoal of fish, were filling the net, drawing it down. The others started pulling on the net ropes, straining against the weight. I was holding a mast tie, leaning out the other side of the boat for a counterweight, and I looked back to see him on the beach. He stood perfectly still, watching us, and I thought he smiled. That was when I knew him.

“It is the Lord,” I said, leaning out over the water. The boat lurched as Peter grabbed his tunic and jumped into the water, swimming for the shore. The rest of us struggled to get the net into the boat, fish piled gasping at our feet. As we made for shore I again held a mast tie and leaned out over the water, this time at the bow to listen and watch. It seemed to me that their voices murmured across the water, Peter and Jesus, but I could never tell what they said over the sounds of the oars and of the others talking in the boat before letting their words die as they also looked to the shore and to the one sitting with Peter on the beach.

There was a bump and the sound of sand dragging against the hull, and we were ashore. We left the boat and the fish, not bothering to cover them with our net or to wet them as was our wont. We stepped onto the sandy beach still unbelieving but wanting to believe, waiting for our vision to clear or the moment to resolve itself into something other than what we perceived.

Jesus was sitting by a fire, his arms around his knees as though simply sitting there was natural, was what he always did. He is dead, I thought to myself. I watched him die, slowly, crucified. Most of the others had run, not that I blamed them. I stayed, the women were there and somehow I could not leave them, could not leave him.

“Mother, behold your son,” he had said. I thought he meant himself. “Son, behold your mother,” he had added, and I knew he meant me, though at first I thought he meant to call me his son rather than Mary’s. Later I was not so sure he did not.

In years to come it was the sea that I thought of, blue green at the surface that day, black in the depths and shoaling with silver fish unseen from above.

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I,John - a novel - is available from booksellers everywhere.