The aridities of the night – A Sermon on John 5: 1-9
Preacher: The Rev’d Dr Lynn Arnold AO, Assistant Priest
May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be worthy in your sight, O Lord, our Rock and our Redeemer.
We have just returned from a visit to the Top End that included seeing the Ord River scheme and its feeder reservoir, Lake Argyle – the largest human-made lake in Australia and the eighth largest in the world. At the moment it is only holding fifteen times the volume of water of Sydney Harbour, but at a flood peak it can hold 70 such harbour-fulls. Even at today’s more usual volume the lake holds enough water to provide every person on the planet with 1500 litres each.
The power of water – life-giving water. Hypothetical biochemistry speculates on the possibility of entire ecosystems that might exist elsewhere in the universe where ammonia, methane or ethane serve the purpose that water does here on Earth. But for us, it has to be water.
So it is hardly surprising that water features quite frequently in the Bible. Putting aside references to baptism and water as a footpath, the New Testament has such references as these:
He sends rain on the just and on the unjust [Matt 5:45]
Whoever gives one of these little ones even a cup of cold water … [Matt. 10:42]
Whoever gives you a cup of water to drink [Mark 9:41]
“Fill the jars with water”; so they filled them to the brim. [John 2:7]
Out of his heart will flow rivers of living water. [John 7:39]
To the thirsty I will give from the spring of the water of life [Rev 21:6]
The angel showed me the river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God [Rev 22:1]
Let the one who is thirsty come; let the one who desires the water of life [Rev 22:17]
Water refreshes, it gives life. It is against this general view of water and life that we consider our gospel reading this morning. It details an encounter that took place at the Pool by nthe Sheep’s Gate at Bethesda, which is on the Via Dolorosa (the way, continuing the water motif, of tears) in Jerusalem. In the time of Jesus, this pool served not only a refreshment purpose for of those bringing sheep to town, but also, by reputation, a healing function. It would seem that it was the Lourdes of its day, as the ill and infirm would rush to the waters at critical times when, it was believed, an angel stirred the waters. The first to immerse themselves in the waters at those times would be healed. There were always many waiting to be the first when such angelic disturbances occurred. The gospel reading uses these moments and most of those who waited as a backdrop to the main purpose of the story – the case of one man; a man who had been waiting for thirty eight years by the pool in order to be healed, but who was always beaten to it by others. Thirty eight years of waiting had proved this man to be the least amongst those at the poolside. And so it was to this man that Jesus came and spoke.
He asked him what might seem an odd question: – “Do you want to be made well?” To which the man did not answer with a simple ‘yes’ or ‘no’ but gave an explanation of his dilemma. Jesus then, seeming to ignore the difficulty related, said: “Stand up, take your mat and walk”, which the man did.
What are we to make of the incident? Why did Jesus feel the need to ask such a question in the first place. A question to which, for us, the obvious answer would have to have been “yes”? But was the answer so obvious? Kenneth Bailey, in his book “Jesus through Middle Eastern eyes”, in an effort to interpret Jesus’ intent, puts alternative words into the mouth of Jesus, having him say:
You have survived as a beggar for years. If healed, you will have your livelihood stripped from you because no one will give to a healthy man. Are you ready for the new responsibilities that will come with healing? [p220]
Bailey certainly makes a valid point – we can all so easily redefine our personal comfort zones to accommodate the seemingly intractable discomforts and difficulties of our lives. In other words we are quite capable of setting up our own barriers to exiting from those discomforts and difficulties; and thus we give them legitimacy. We may even take these burdens into our self-identity – we might, for example, say I am asthmatic rather than I have asthma; and in this Gospel story, it may not just have been others who referred to the man as a cripple rather than a crippled man, he may have done so himself. There then becomes the risk that, if we were to be free of the burden, we may not fully know who we really are any more.
Two thousand years after this encounter at the Pool by the Sheep’s Gate, the Life of Brian would provide a comic analogy to Bailey’s words when the hapless Brian of the movie meets a man who has been cured of leprosy by Jesus:
Brian: Who cured you?
Ex-leper: Jesus did, sir. I was hopping along, minding my own business. All of a sudden, up he comes. Cures me. One minute I’m a leper with a trade, next minute my livelihood’s gone. Not so much as a by your leave. ‘You’re cured mate.’…. Bloody do-gooder.
Brian: Well, why don’t you go and tell him you want to be a leper again?
Ex-leper (or rather the person who used to have leprosy): Ah, yeah. I could do that, sir. Yeah. Yeah, I could do that, I suppose. What I was thinking was, I was going to ask him if he could make me a bit lame in one leg during the middle of the week. You know, something beggable, but not leprosy …
So perhaps Jesus was issuing a Caveat Emptor (Buyer Beware) condition of contract to the disabled man before healing him. Certainly the man’s life was about to change profoundly; and so the question would have been valid as to whether he was ready for such a change.
But I think there is more to the encounter than just that. In looking for this something more, let’s consider the encounter of the Samaritan woman at Jacob’s well related in the previous chapter of John’s Gospel. The key statement in that reading is where Jesus says to the woman:
Everyone who drinks this water will be thirsty again, but whoever drinks the water I give them will never thirst. Indeed, the water I give them will become in them a spring of water welling up to eternal life.
The Pool by the Sheep’s Gate at Bethesda was, in that sense, no different to Jacob’s Well. The refreshment of ordinary water would be transitory – thirst would inevitably return. Even such healing as may have occurred for those lucky enough to win the race into the angelically-disturbed waters could only ever have been temporal, the healing vanishing with them when they finished life’s race.
The water of Jacob’s Well and that of the Pool by the Sheep’s Gate was of this world; Jesus spoke to the Samaritan woman of, and by his deeds, became for the disabled man a water of a profoundly different nature – living water in an eternal sense.
There, at Bethesda, the crippled man, the man who was so near and yet so far from the water he believed would save him, received the real water of life from Jesus. He had been in a spiritually arid place for all those years, believing that some talismanic power of the angelically-disturbed water of the Pool by the Sheep’s Gate would bring him relief. It would not – so for thirty eight years he remained in his own private desert, his own arid place.
The Psalmist spoke of just such a place in Psalm 63:
In a desert land, without water and without a way, I appeared before you to be able to see Your power and Your glory. [63: 2-3]
This long waiting man, thirty eight years unable to get to the Pool, was certainly in a desert place, without water and without a way. And it was into that space that the Son of God came to appear before him. He was in what St John of the Cross would refer to as “this dry and dark night” . The Spanish divine would elaborate on the theme and write of the especial encounter that may be had with God in just such arid places. In such a place a person finds oneself:
… to be nothing and finds no satisfaction in self because (one) is aware that of (one)self (one) neither does nor can do anything.” [p190, “The Dark Night”]
My late father, Maurice, who had been an irrigation engineer early in his career, once used the metaphors of water and wells to illustrate his understanding of the living water of Jesus and the circumstances in which it can bring us spiritual nourishment; but that the place of spiritual nourishment might be where it is least expected.
He spoke about where it is that we place wells; saying that wells are not planted on the top of mountains but at the base of valleys for the simple reason that water will not be found so easily in the subsoil of a mountain top as it will in the ground underneath the valley floor. He used the hydrological common sense of this practice to relate it metaphorically to spiritual matters.
On the top of mountains, one can easily see the far horizon where the dawn breaks after the night, or where the journey one might be on will reach its conclusion. The goal is visually apparent. But at the bottom of valleys, we can so often be in dark places, a place where the night ends last; out of sight of the far horizon to which we are journeying. It is just in such darkness that we may need encouragement to take the next steps – climbing up the mountain before us, in order to see the horizon towards which we are venturing – to behold the dawn.
Jesus met the man at Bethesda who was in the darkness of his own personal arid place; and asked him the question of whether he wanted to be healed. The man’s answer, previously a seeming explanation, now became a fulsome admission that he could not cope by himself.
In our own discouragement, Jesus may meet us too. He can be a well of living water, located in the depths of the valley where we may find ourselves. We can send our bucket of hopes and needs down into that well and draw up the living water that will spiritually refresh us, enabling us to continue on our journey.
The disabled man of this encounter was but one of those present at the scene. The others must have seen what transpired, but there is no mention of any of them having been drawn away from the waters of the pool by the miracle that had taken place in their midst.
In 1826 Bernard Barton wrote a poem about the encounter at Bethesda and, in one verse, wrote of those others who were there that day:
But habit and tradition swayed
Their minds to trust to sense alone;
They only the Angel’s aid;
While in their presence stood, unknown
A greater, mightier far than he,
With power from every pain to free.
Does the Son of God stand unknown to us as we find ourselves in dark and arid places? Are we so much beckoned by habit and tradition that we look towards false waters for relief rather than the living water of Jesus?
Let me finish with some verses from another poem – this time by John Newton in his poem the “Pool of Bethesda”:
Beside the gospel pool
Appointed for the poor;
From year to year, my helpless soul
Has waited for a cure.
How often have I seen
The healing waters move;
And others, round me, stepping in
Their efficacy prove.
But my complaints remain,
I feel the very same;
As full of guilt, and fear, and pain.
As when at first I came.
O would the Lord appear
My malady to heal;
He knows how long I’ve languished here;
And what distress I feel.
And appear he does, if we do but see him – turning our gaze towards him and away from false hope.