Do you want to be well?
I have always been puzzled by the exchange found in John chapter 5: Now there is in Jerusalem by the Sheep Gate a pool, which is called in Hebrew, Bethesda, having five porches. In these lay a great multitude of sick people, blind, lame, paralyzed, waiting for the moving of the water. For an angel went down at a certain time into the pool and stirred up the water; then whoever stepped in first, after the stirring of the water, was made well of whatever disease he had. Now a certain man was there who had an infirmity thirty-eight years. When Jesus saw him lying there, and knew that he already had been in that condition a long time, He said to him, “Do you want to be made well?”
The sick man answered Him, “Sir, I have no man to put me into the pool when the water is stirred up; but while I am coming, another steps down before me.”
Jesus said to him, “Rise, take up your bed and walk.” And immediately the man was made well, took up his bed, and walked.
Jesus, who knew the thoughts and hearts of men, asked a crippled guy if he wanted to be well. It seems to me like such a rhetorical question, the kind we ask when the answer is so obvious that we need to point out how obvious it is. Of course he wanted to be well right? I mean who wouldn’t. 38 years of being unable to walk, of course he would want it to be different. Yet Jesus asked him. I also find it interesting that the guy didn’t exactly answer the question. He didn’t say yes or no, only why he couldn’t be healed. The picture we are given seems to indicate that he was lame and couldn’t walk to the pool on his own. We are not told how long he had been laying by the pool but it appears to have been a while. Time after time he would watch the angel arrive and stir the water and time after time someone would get there before him and be healed. We can’t say for certain but it seems that he felt that because he was lame, he needed someone else to get him to the water. Of course, everyone else was trying to get to the water first themselves, so there was no one to help the lame man.
This thinking seems to make sense to me. Everyone is there for themselves and their healing, so of course no other sick person would assist a lame man. Except, I feel like there must be more to this story. The fact that Jesus asks the guy if he wants to be well implies that maybe he doesn’t. Maybe there is a “but” in the guy’s reasoning. Like yeah I want to be well but… In this case the “excuse” of being unable to walk and having no one to help seems pretty legitimate. But still, I think about other options he may have had. It seems like the sick stayed by the pool because they never knew when the angel was going to come. Presumably someone could have helped the lame man get close to the pool when the angel wasn’t there. Imagine yourself in that situation. You haven’t walked for 38 years and a means of healing was available. If I really wanted my legs to be healed, I would be someone to drag me over to the pool so I would be ready. If no one would, I would scoot myself to the edge of that pool and stay there until the angel came. When that water stirred I would fall over the edge into it! I would even keep my arm dangled over the edge so I could touch it as soon as that angel showed up. A desperate man would try all of these things and more if he really wanted to be healed. Yet this man’s answer to Jesus wasn’t “yes! I want desperately to be well! I will do anything!” Maybe he was comfortable being unhealthy.
It seems to be a given though: if you are sick, you want to be well. No thought needed, it’s an automatic yes. But what we want and what we are willing to do are often two different things. This feels so important that I want to say it again. We may genuinely want something but not be willing to do what it takes to get it. For a variety of reasons.
2018 wasn’t the best health year for me. The year started with several sinus and ear infections. Eventually, I was told that everything looked clear. Yet the pain and discomfort remained. I was referred to an ENT but put off going. I didn’t know who to go to, didn’t want the cost, and could still function so I keep thinking I would look into it tomorrow. I struggled though it for several more months before caving in and going. Of course, he said things looked fine and I needed a catscan to look inside the sinuses. Again, I put it off. Finally had it done and it came back clear. Saw another doctor who said it was most likely allergies and I should see an allergist. Sigh. Do you think I did? Nope. Put this off as well. Again, there was the cost and the testing needed, etc.
Around that time I was talking with someone about a couple of mutual friends who were struggling in their relationship. It wasn’t the most healthy relationship and something significant had happened to damage the fragile balance. I said “well, she needs to decide how unhealthy she is willing to be”. It felt like those words literally bounced off of the person and came back to hit me in the face. Just how unhealthy do YOU want to be? I had struggled for months, frustrated and drained. But I tolerated it because it wasn’t completely debilitating. I could still function. I tolerated unhealthy because I wasn’t willing to do what it took to get well. I called an allergist the next day.
While the encounter with Jesus and the lame man was about physical healing, it applies to so much more. How much unhealthy stuff do we tolerate in our lives because we don’t want to do what needed to get healthy. We tolerate unhealthy relationships because we are afraid we may lose people if we do anything different. We damage our bodies and eat horribly because it’s too hard to eat healthy- we just tolerate being overweight. We have unhealthy patterns of relating to people and are frustrated in our relationships because counseling is way too expensive and really hard work. So we stay in our dysfunction. We stay at a fruitless and soul sucking job because we need the money and are afraid to make a change. So we dread every day.
Because I’m a word geek and love the dictionary, I looked up the word “tolerate”. It means to allow the existence or occurrence of something without interference. I tolerate bad behavior when I allow it to happen and don’t say anything. Antonyms for tolerance are: disagree, disallow, forbid, refuse, reject, expel, stop, and veto. How different might our lives look if we refuse to be disrespected and treated badly by someone? If we expel the junk food from our kitchens and diets? If we stop settling for the job that kinda pays the bills and worked towards another occupation?
For reasons we don’t exactly know, Jesus healed the lame man. He is merciful like that. I can’t help but wonder though, what the man would have done with the time that he would have gained had he been desperate for healing before he met Jesus. If he had dragged himself to the pool and fell in as soon as he saw the angel and his came up out of the water with whole legs. What would he have done since he no longer had to lay around. What would we do if we were no longer unhealthy? I imagine Jesus asking us: Do you want to be well? I hope we can answer with a yes, yes I do.