Stories often have elements that give them extra meaning. If the story is old enough, we might miss the meaning of those elements. If today’s Gospel said that there was a pool in Jerusalem called Philadelphia, and it was next to the Patriot’s Gate, that it had 13 porticoes and that four score and seven invalids lay around it, we might think that it was a story about America. Well, John, in his own style, includes references that put the story in the context of both Hebrew history and devotion.
First of all, the Pool of Bethsaida has five porticoes, which a good First Century Jew would associate with the Five Books of Moses, the first five books of the Hebrew Bible. Then we have a man who has been lying by the pool for 38 years. This was the number of years that the Hebrews wandered in the wilderness after the warriors were disobedient to God (Deut. 2.14). You would begin to think that this story might have something to do with the Exodus and Mosaic Law, and it does.
But there is also another set of references. The pool is called Bethesda, which means House of Mercy. It lies beside the Sheep Gate. The invalids lie beside still waters. Can you begin to see references to Psalm 23?
These references are not as clear as they might be, because the selection we have is only a small part of the story. Our selection ends with the sentence, “Now that day was a Sabbath.” If you were to read on you would find that after Jesus heals the man and takes up his bed and walks (and wouldn’t you do it if the man who healed you of a 38-year illness told you to do so?), he runs into a group of the pious who charge him with violating the Sabbath. When he explains, they want to know who put him up to this, but he can’t tell them. In the excitement of the moment he neglected to find out his benefactor’s name. Eventually he and Jesus meet in the Temple and Jesus tells him his name and says, “Go and sin no more.”(He leads me in paths of righteousness for his namesake.)
So what does it all mean? As I was thinking about it this week, I reflected on the nature of the wilderness wandering. In Exodus, God is a lot like a junior high school gym teacher telling the kids to “take another lap.” The Hebrew people seem to always be doing the wrong thing.
This reminds me of my favorite idea from Harold Kushner’s “When Bad Things Happen to Good People.” He says that it’s not a matter of “God helps those who help themselves,” but “God helps those who stop hurting themselves.” The Hebrew people hurt themselves throughout the wilderness wandering. The invalid by the Pool of Bethesda spent 38 years passively letting others position themselves for healing.
We often behave in a similar fashion, especially in a crisis. When we are under stress, or feel that we are under attack, our imaginations and our coping skills are at low ebb. We tend to act in accord with the words of H.L. Mencken: “For every complex human problem there’s a single simple solution, and it’s wrong.” We don’t understand that our attempts to help ourselves only complicate the situation.
If we could take a moment to step back and be quiet, to just breathe for a bit, we might be able to abandon our own attempts and reach out to someone else. We could listen for the healing voice to command, and we could take up our bed and walk.