Sermon Preached by Gregory Knox Jones
"No Thanks"
May 9, 2010
John 5:1-9a


What is it about our minds that when we visualize a place we have never seen we often limit its scope?  Then, once we actually arrive at the place, we realize the image in our minds is all wrong.  More often than not, the Alps are grander than we imagined, the ocean more immense, the desert more foreboding.  You can add the Pool of Bethesda to my list.

I had always pictured this place of healing about the size of a modest backyard swimming pool.  On the occasion described in this morning's passage, when Jesus encountered a man with an unnamed infirmity, I imagined 10 to 12 people - who were blind, lame and paralyzed - lying around the edges of the pool.  I was stunned last November when our pilgrims from WPC visited this site in the northern part of Jerusalem's Old City and saw how enormous it is.  It is actually two connecting stone pools measuring 150 feet wide and 300 feet long - in width and length, the size of a football field.  So, rather than 10 to 12 people around a small pool, it's not inconceivable that in good weather, there might have been a couple of hundred people hovering around its edges.

These huge pools were fed by an underground spring that would occasionally create bubbling in the water.  Legend claimed that this bubbling was actually an angel stirring the water and the first one in the pool after the stirring was miraculously healed.

Imagine the scene each time those waters rippled.  A mass of humanity diving in all at once, water flying everywhere!

Our text says that Jesus was in Jerusalem for a Jewish festival, perhaps Pentecost, the late spring festival held 50 days after Passover.  Jesus went to the pool and zeroed in on one particular man lying at its edge.  This man must have been well known by all who gathered there, because he had been ill for 38 years.  Jesus knew the man had been there a long time and so Jesus says to him, "Do you want to be made well?"

For years, I have thought this was one of the most nonsensical questions Jesus ever uttered.  A man has been ill for 38 years and Jesus asks, "Do you want to be made well?"  Of course he does!  I have wondered why the author of John included this passage.  It's a little embarrassing to hear Jesus asking such a question.  Would we expect the man to reply, "No, thanks. I enjoy being ill!"

Of course not.  The man says, "Sir, I have no one to put me into the pool when the water is stirred up; and while I am making my way, someone else steps down ahead of me."  The man's words immediately hook my pastoral nature that yearns to exude compassion.  I want to lend a sympathetic ear to the poor fellow's predicament.  I want to patiently listen to him as he pours out his plight, thoughtfully nodding, letting him know I feel his pain.  I want to reach out and touch his arm and say, "Oh, you poor man; how awful.  I can't imagine your agony."

That is the loving thing to do isn't it?  To let the man tell his story and to encourage him to put into words the pain he feels.  To communicate to him that someone else is willing to shoulder part of his burden.  Letting him know that someone truly cares would bring the man some psychological relief.  It would not make him well, but it would temporarily alleviate his anguish.

However, as we continue reading the passage, we discover that this is not how Jesus responds.  After the man explains to Jesus that others always beat him into the water, Jesus replies with the curt response: "Stand up, take your mat and walk."

Sounds pretty harsh, doesn't it?  Was Jesus forgetting to practice what he preached?

I don't think so. It was when I focused on this blunt command that I finally understood that Jesus' question, "Do you want to be made well?" was not ludicrous.  There was a serious question whether this man honestly wanted to break a 38 year pattern of seeing himself and being seen by the world as a tragic figure.  For 38 years he had received the sympathy of others.  Was he truly ready to give that up?

Counselors spend much of their time listening to people in difficult situations or destructive behaviors who are stuck in their problem and unable to move beyond it.  There is the man who has hated his job for ten years and has complained about it for the last eight.  He cannot stand his boss or his co-workers or the work he is required to do.  He says it's eating him up inside and ruining his health, but he cannot find another job.  When the counselor pushes him, the man always has sound excuse.  He has applied for other positions but is never interviewed.  He cannot move somewhere else because he doesn't want to pull his children out of their school.  He cannot further his education because he does not have the time or energy to learn something new.  The economy is in the tank and the job market is tight.

You may know the woman who is stuck in a bad relationship.  Her boyfriend has an explosive temper and has abused her more than once.  She says she knows she needs to leave him, but she loves him.  And most of the time he treats her well.  Besides, she can't afford to find her own place and support herself.

Have you met the alcoholic who cannot stop drinking?  He explains that both his father and his father's father had drinking problems, so he has inherited it.  Besides, he's in a high pressure job and at the end of the day having a drink relaxes him.  Having a drink makes him feel better; it's one of the few pleasures he experiences.

Your friend is the obese person who wants to lose weight, but cannot do it.  Growing up she never felt loved by her parents.  She eats to fill the void inside.  Exercise hurts her knees.  Chocolate gives her comfort.

Sometimes people have great difficulty turning the page and moving to the next chapter of their lives.  Like the man at the Pool of Bethesda, they have sound reasons for being in their current predicament.

Many times lending a sympathetic ear to someone is precisely what she needs.  She is currently experiencing difficulty and needs to move through the stages of grief, and a compassionate listener can aid the process.  But sometimes people become stuck.  They have good reasons to explain their predicament and defend their actions, but they are stuck.  They do not need a compassionate ear.  They need a push.

I had a football coach in high school who would yell, "Where were you Jones?  Why didn't you make the tackle?"

"Coach, I was trying but the tight end was coming across..."

"That's why I'm here, Jones, to listen to your excuses!"

Counselors ask their clients, "Do you want to be made well?"  Their clients respond, "Of course I do; that's why I'm here."  However, the client's ability to list perfectly good reasons why healing is impossible betray their words.  On the surface, they say, "Of course I want to be well," but underneath, they are saying, "No thanks."

A commentator on today's passage says the man's "crotchety grumbling about the 'whippersnappers' who always outrace him to the water betrays a chronic inability to seize opportunity."1 If he had not been able to be the first one in the water for six months, it might be understandable.  But to believe that there's never been a single opportunity in 38 years to be the first one in stretches credulity to the limits.

It is very difficult to see this in ourselves, but I think each of us at one time or another has encountered opportunities to move in a better direction and we have responded, "No thanks.  I have become accustomed to my pattern. I'm leery about doing something I've never tried before.  I might fail.  No thanks!"

I wonder how many times God has given you a nudge to break your customary way of living in order to live a more Christ-like existence, but you declined?  How many times have you closed the door on opportunities to risk a new adventure that would bring you closer to God and a richer existence?  Each of us has done it and whether we recognize it or not, we have missed something good and meaningful and satisfying.

Theologian Anthony DeMello says "Most people tell you they want to get out of kindergarten, but don't believe them.  All they want you to do is to mend their broken toys.  'Give me back my wife.  Give me back my job.  Give me back my money.  Give me back my reputation.'  This is what they want; they want their toys replaced.  That's all.  Psychologists will tell you that people don't really want to be cured.  What they want is relief; a cure is painful."

When Jesus encountered the man at the Pool of Bethesda, he asked him if he truly wanted to get well, and when the man began making excuses, Jesus cut him off.  He wasn't looking for excuses, he was calling for action.  "Stand up, take your mat and walk."

We say, "But Jesus, I wouldn't be comfortable working with homeless people.  But Jesus, I don't have time to pray and study the Scriptures.  But Jesus, what good will it do to feed people who are hungry?  That doesn't solve their problem.  But Jesus, I can't give more money to the church, I need a new cell phone and to upgrade my computer.  But Jesus, I don't want to get involved in issues like affordable housing or better schools or clean energy or financial regulations or mining safety or peace in the Middle East.  Those are too political."

Jesus says, "Do you want to be whole or not?  Get up off your seat and get moving."


1. Raymond E. Brown, The Anchor Bible: The Gospel According to John, (New York: Doubleday and Co., 1966), p. 209.