Sixth Sunday of Easter | John 5:1-18
“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.
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.
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.
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.
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.