This sermon was delivered on May 5, 2013, at Wallace United Methodist Church.
5After this there was a festival of the Jews, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem. 2Now in Jerusalem by the Sheep Gate there is a pool, called in Hebrew Beth-zatha, which has five porticoes. 3In these lay many invalids—blind, lame, and paralyzed. 5One man was there who had been ill for thirty-eight years. 6When Jesus saw him lying there and knew that he had been there a long time, he said to him, “Do you want to be made well?” 7The sick man answered him, “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.” 8Jesus said to him, “Stand up, take your mat and walk.” 9At once the man was made well, and he took up his mat and began to walk. Now that day was a Sabbath.
Brett O’Donnell has made a career out of being able to teach politicians a very useful skill. He’s a debate coach, who specializes in teaching Republican candidates how to debate skillfully. He’s helped the last three Republican presidential candidates with mastering a certain debate technique called the “pivot.” Not familiar with it? You should be, because both major parties use it. I’m not going to pick on any particular party, because both use it; both are guilty of pivoting upwards of 60-70% of the time, according to O’Donnell in an interview from NPR news. In essence, pivoting is dodging a question.
In a debate, it’s a skill that can mean whether or not you win it, because what it does is that it allows you to answer a question on one topic by subtly shifting it to a topic that a person is more comfortable answering, or has more standing on which to argue. It’s why a debater can be asked a question on the economy and subtly turn it into an answer on education. It’s how a debater can turn a question on foreign policy into an answer on the national budget. It’s a remarkably flexible kind of technique, and I only use the example of politicians because they’re the ones on TV the most, and they’re the ones who wind up talking most about issues that most people are familiar with. The funny thing to me is how common it is, and how relatively undetected it can go. Unless a debater shifts the conversation in a wildly different subject, like going from question on terrorism to an answer on which basketball team is in their March Madness bracket, it usually goes undetected, and we wind up liking and trusting the debater just as much as if they had actually answered the question.
We always complain about how much our leaders can do this, but honestly, this is not an uncommon skill. In fact it’s probably something we all develop an ability to do sooner or later. Oh, sure, when a child dodges a question, it’s pretty obvious, and hilarious in some cases. “Jimmy, did you break the cookie jar?” “Well Kelly was running up and down the hall and I was telling her not to do that but she wouldn’t listen so I ran after her and she ran in the kitchen and was jumping up and down and I was trying to calm her down and she started to climb up on the counter so I tried to too and I swear I didn’t see the cookie jar there and so she was making fun of me and I was getting mad and….and…so it’s her fault!” It’s all about trying to either shift blame onto someone or something else, or change the subject to something we are more comfortable talking about. While we might be rather unskilled at it when we are young, we learn as we grow older how to do it better. How? We watch adults do it all the time. So we practice, we get better, and soon enough we’re just as good at dodging the question as anyone.
So why do we have this ability? Why are we so good at dodging the question, and what purpose does it serve? Well, that’s a matter that might go back all the way to the very beginning. It’s been with us since Genesis, in a way, back in the garden of Eden. When God found the first couple hiding in the bushes, what did they do? They dodged the question, or blamed someone else in order to make it so that we don’t get blamed or punished. In essence, when we dodge the question, we try to escape responsibility. And why wouldn’t we want to avoid responsibility? Responsibility is hard work. It means facing hard truths, and being accountable for your actions, and really, for your life.
Wouldn’t things be much easier, simpler, and better, if we weren’t held accountable for anything? I mean, as long as someone else gets blamed, things go right for us, right? Well, the problem with that is that if nobody is held accountable, the world basically falls to pieces because people get away with things that in all honesty they shouldn’t. Responsibility, however, doesn’t always have negative consequences. When we avoid responsibility, we avoid the truth, justice, and yes, peace that comes with it. Responsibility helps give us character, insight, and the ability to live a better life.
John Wesley, the founder of the Methodist movement, was never one to shy away from preaching on a person’s responsibility. Indeed, so important was his emphasis on it that historian Randy Maddox wrote his book on Wesleyan theology called “Responsible Grace.” Really, what it all comes down to is in the root of the word—Response. When we say that we are responsible, we mean that we are able to respond to something. In the case of Wesley and his emphasis on grace, we are able to respond to that grace, and therefore, we are responsible to live that grace out in our lives, constantly responding to the grace of God.
Wesley did not come to this conclusion in a vacuum. If one were to take away a critical idea away from the Gospel of John, it would be that it is on us to believe in the good news of Jesus Christ. John was written so that we might believe, and so we are called to be responsible to the good news given there. Nowhere is this more explicit than in this story of Jesus by the pool of Beth-zatha. The story focuses on Jesus coming upon a man by the side of a pool, a pool built as part of a tribute to one of the Greek gods, purported to have healing qualities. On the bank of the pool is a man who has been ill for 38 years. That’s longer than I’ve been alive. Can you imagine being so ill, you can’t move, can’t work, can’t do all the things that we take for granted for 38 years?
Let me digress. I have for the past several months now been struggling with several chronic health issues, of which I won’t disclose here. More than likely, I will be struggling with them for the rest of my life. Many of you, I know, also suffer from chronic illness. It’s a part of the human experience that many people go through, and as we age, more and more we are likely to be affected by a chronic illness. Sometimes, these chronic issues come as a result of lifestyle—eating the wrong food, working for a physically demanding job, or being exposed to certain hazardous chemicals can all lead to health problems. Sometimes, though, chronic health problems come as a result of genetics, outside of our ability to control them. In either case, though, we are responsible for adjusting our lives to better take care of our health. I thankfully have gotten medication for my health issues, as have many of you, but changing a lifestyle involves more than just taking medicine. It’s eating right, sleeping enough, being active and resting the right amounts. Having a chronic health issue takes more than just a quick, one time fix. It takes being able and mature enough to be responsible to the issue you are facing. I’ll come back to this in a minute.
Jesus arrives at the pool, and immediately gravitates towards this man who has been suffering an illness for 38 years. It’s almost as if he singled him out as the one person who needed it the most. Honestly, I imagine he wasn’t that hard to find. When you are exhausted, when you are tired, it’s often easy to see. It shows up, even if you have a smile on your face. 38 years of exhaustion, of illness…I imagine it took its toll on this person. Jesus saw him, saw his need, and walked up to him, and asked him a very important question—Do you want to be healed? Do you want to be made well? However, he probably didn’t expect the answer he got—or rather, the non-answer he got.
When asked if he wanted to be made well, the man, in essence, dodges the question. Instead of outright answering him, he tells Jesus the problem instead. He tells him that he has nobody to help him into the pool, and that when he wants to go down there, people shove in front of him and block his way into it. Instead of answering him with a simple answer, yes or no, he dodges the question. Why? Why couldn’t he just say yes, or no? Why not jump at the question? I mean, this is Jesus! If he asked you, wouldn’t you jump at the chance?
However, take a step back for a second. What are the odds that the man at the pool knew about this Jesus, or for that matter, that this person is someone who could heal him? Lord knows he probably has meant countless faith healers in his time, each one claiming power over life and death, health and sickness. How many faith healers are out there today? Multiply that, and there would be doubtless more back then. So, first off, he was probably ignorant as to who Jesus was. That may have been his reasoning for dodging the question.
Maybe it was something different though. Maybe he knew exactly who Jesus was. Jesus was fairly well known by now, he’s a prominent figure in the religious landscape. If he did know that it was Jesus, why would he not answer the question, yes or no? Think about it. This man had been sick for 38 years, all of his life. All that he has ever known had been in that way. As a sick man who can’t work, he lived his life as a beggar, living off of the generosity of others. It’s not much of a life, but it’s all he knew. Imagine, then if you were him, and then you were made well? You would have to start from scratch, without any marketable skills, without knowing who to turn to or where to work, and possibly risk being just as bad off as when he was sick, just without the excuse of being sick. Being made well does not automatically make life easier. It simply gives your life a new set of responsibilities. The man at the pool, in dodging the question, was perhaps coming to terms with his plight, but also with the potential responsibilities of being made well.
In the end, though, despite the hemming and hawing of the man at the pool, Jesus indeed made him well, and told the man to get up, take his mat and walk. In a way, Jesus made the decision for him, as he often will do for us. However, the man’s response to the healing is significant. Later on, the Pharisees will have problems with this healing because it was done on the Sabbath, and the man by the pool will be there to testify to the good news of Jesus. The man was healed, he was given grace, and he actually responded to it as he should. He was made responsible by Jesus, and responded in kind.
Even though you may not have an illness like the man, or any chronic medical illness, we all have a chronic illness nonetheless. That illness, my friends, is sin, and its effects are spiritual, emotional, mental, and physical. All of us are afflicted by this illness, and so, in effect, Jesus asks us the question in kind: Do you want to be healed? Jesus can—and does—heal us, and it’s not because of anything we did or said. Heck, in this story, Jesus just goes ahead and heals the guy. However, it’s implicit that the man wanted to be healed, even though he didn’t say it. Indeed, I do think that most people who are ill want to be made well, but there’s always something inside of us that might keep us from saying so, or acting on it. It’s our impulse to avoid responsibility which makes us want to dodge the question.
So it’s on you. Jesus asks if you want to be made well, and you can do two things—answer, or dodge the question. It really is yours to respond. However, in either case, you are responsible, able to respond to the grace that is offered to you. The illness is there whether or not you want it to be there. Jesus is the medicine—he can heal you, of course! But at the same time, being healed means changing your lifestyle. It means living in a healthier way. It means living with prayer, living in community, and living in the light of the gospel that is given to you. It means proclaiming the good news, offering help to those in need, and acting in a just and peaceable manner.
Our impulse may be to dodge the question and thus responsibility, but that doesn’t mean that it has to control us, or our actions. Jesus makes us able to change, to be well, and live a life of holiness and spiritual health. It’s only up to you to decide if you will respond. Amen.