To Be Well
The Gospel of John, Chapter 5, verses 1-9 is the text for this sermon
preached on May 5, 2013
at Chapel in the Pines Presbyterian Church in Chapel Hill, NC.
“Do you want to be made well?”
Jesus’ question to the man on the mat waiting at the healing pool sounds almost rhetorical at first.
“Do you want to be made well?” Jesus says.
Thirty-eight years the man hovered near those healing waters, waiting for someone to help him, waiting for a way to make those last steps.
For thirty-eight years he contemplated how to find healing. And he had tried–feebly, unsuccessfully. Either no one was there to stir the waters for him or someone no doubt more nimble, more able, or with a better support system, had beat him to it.
One could say, of course, my goodness Jesus, of course this man wants to be made well.
So Jesus’ question seems almost cruel. Like a harsh coach yelling at a player exhausted from a hard workout—come on, do you really want it?
But Jesus was up to something else. He wasn’t a take-no-prisoners motivational speaker. He is a healer like no other; he is a transformer of lives, of the world.
His question to that man who had become accustomed to living with his affliction, whatever it was, but had not given up trying to find a way to get some relief—Jesus’ question to him is much more profound than that.
Do you want to be well? Sit with that for a minute. Do you want to be well? Do you?
What does it mean to be well, any way? How can we know if we really want it, if we’re not even sure what exactly it is?
Does it mean being healthy? Does it mean being strong?
Is being well the same as being “well-off” as in financially comfortable?
Does it mean being young? Being successful? Being famous?
Is being well about having no problems? No worries? No burdens to bear?
I am not so sure we’re clear on what this well thing is? And I am not so sure Jesus’ kind of being well is what we’re interested in if we’re honest with ourselves. As Americans, we prefer the quick and easy, take a pill and it’s all better kind of well. We like the “I don’t have to really look at my life or make any changes” kind of well. We like the, someone else will make this hurt go away for me kind of well.
There are a few clues in this miracle story about the kind of well Jesus is talking about.
Do you want to be well?
Because the kind of well Jesus is talking about takes risks to trust help that comes from an unlikely place. Jesus’ kind of being well asks us to be vulnerable.
The kind of being well Jesus invites us toward is risky. Trust me, Jesus says. Trust me. Jesus doesn’t pick up the man and take him to the water. Jesus doesn’t stir the water for him.
Jesus, says, stand up, pick up your mat, and walk. Jesus asks us to do what is sometimes the hardest thing in the world for us to do—to trust the strength we have in us, to see ourselves as someone who has the capacity to heal, to see ourselves as beloved, as someone with a spark of Divinity in us.
This man has no idea who Jesus is. And yet, he takes a risk to trust Him. Stand up, Jesus says. Would you have the courage to try it, to stand up to whatever it is you need to stand up to?
Jesus’ healing does not take us along our predictable paths—and we are asked to exert ourselves, to take a chance, to stand up. You think you need to go this way, Jesus says, but really you need to stand up straight in your own body, in your own capacity. You need to believe that I can see you and know what you need. And you need to go down this path, this unexpected, maybe even uncharted path.
And Jesus’s healing is not just risky, it is rebellious. After all this healing is done on the Sabbath. And later, it is used against him as one of his unforgiveable acts. Now there was an accepted maxim in Jewish law that human need could usurp Sabbath abstention from work when discretion determined such an exception was warranted. So, one could argue that Jesus had legal and moral room to do what he did. But John’s Gospel wants to be clear here—Jesus’ healing on the Sabbath was a problem for Jewish authorities, and it got him into trouble.
The kind of healing Jesus invites us toward is not a toe the line kind of healing, it is not about institutional conformity, or pleasing the powers that be. Jesus’ healing is rebellious. For Jesus it is fair play to call us into a conflicted space, to ask us to defy social convention, cultural boundaries, traditional ways.
And Jesus’ healing is mysterious—startling, different than what we thought we needed, different than where we thought we were headed.
We don’t know what this man’s illness was. We know that he had been afflicted for a long, long time. And we know he had been at this healing pool waiting for something to change for a long, long time.
Jesus tells him to leave that way of life, that familiar space and identity behind. You are no longer a person waiting to be made whole. You are a person who is moving into a new way of life, a new way of being. You are a person who is ready to be well. We can hear echoes of Nicodemus’ question to this mysterious Jesus in John’s Gospel—how can this be? Jesus’s healing ways are risky, rebellious, mysterious.
A few weeks ago I spoke at Wake Forest Divinity School on embodiment theology. We explored how our bodies fit into Christian theology and practice. We spent a good deal of time both in the lecture and in the worship service I helped lead exploring what healing could mean in the Christian faith.
At the question and answer period following the lecture and worship, as student asked me “but what does all this mean for people who are not healed.” When I asked her to tell me more about her question, she explained how all this sounds well and fine, but what about when people don’t get healed, when their cancer is not cured, when their mental illness does not go away, when their chronic pain persists.
This is a good question, isn’t it? And I think it gets at the heart of the matter of why we mainline Protestant Presbyterian types shy away from this talk of healing. We picture a television evangelist sweating and praying over someone who then miraculously is cured of an illness.
Brothers and sisters in Christ, in my experience the kind of Jesus healing does is much more startling than the ways we understand healing should look like. As a rape survivor I use to think being healed meant going back to who I was before I was assaulted and stalked. Every time I would realize that I was never going back to that person, the person I was before I was raped, I felt like such a failure. I felt like healing would never be something I experienced. I was ashamed of that added failure, demoralized that I couldn’t ever seem to just get over it, to just get passed it.
I learned a long the way that healing is not about going back to who I was, it was about learning how to be a home with who I am now, rape survivor and all.
I learned that being well is not being whole. Being well is trusting that God’s love seeps into all the fragments, all the dissonance with a kind of transforming power that allows me to say that my life is enriched by this healing journey. I am wounded and God has taught me how to flourish.
Sometimes we don’t even realize what it is that we really need, until we feel ourselves called into a new space, a new way of being.
Being well means standing up and saying “today my life changes.” Today I will stop understanding myself as helpless. Today I will stop waiting for other people to change. Today I will stand up to my demons. Today I will listen to the voice of God and not the voices that tell me that I will never be well.
Do you want to be well? The kind of well that is risky, rebellious, mysterious. You bring your wounds, your mat, your past, your limitations with you. And Jesus invites you into a new kind of presence in this world of pain and of promise. Being well means finding yourself at home with yourself and in this world.
There is NO evidence in the Christian witness, NONE, that being a Jesus believer, being a Jesus follower means you will not suffer—in fact, we could say the opposite. Jesus followers are called to be present and truthful not only to our own pain, but to the pain of the world. And our pain is not isolated, discrete, but shared—a part of our condition, of part of human life.
The promise Jesus gives us is that we can find our way in that world with a healing purpose, on a healing path in a way that is life-giving, in a way in which we can find the golden threads of vitality, of connection, of redemption.
You see your healing and mine are tangled up with each other—with the air and the trees, and the children who are hungry, and with those who are victims of violence, and with those who try to numb their pain with addictions. With those who are crying out for justice, and with our own yearning to relief.
What does it mean to be well in a world with Guantanamo Bay Prison. Most of the prisoners are refusing to eat. Some are being force fed through feeding tubes down the nose.
What does it mean to be well in a country with rampant gun violence? With an increasing wealth gap? With suicide rates up among middle-aged people—up by 30%?
What does it mean to be well in a world where species are disappearing and somewhere close by and far, far away children are starving—not because there is not enough food in the world, but because of how unequally and ineffectively food is distributed?
Poet Adrienne Rich describes is well in her poem from From Your Native Land, Your Life:
The problem, unstated till now, is how
to live in a damaged body
in a world where pain is meant to be gagged
uncured ungrieved over The problem is
to connect, without hysteria, the pain
of any one’s body with the pain of the body’s world
For it is the body’s world
they are trying to destroy forever
The best world is the body’s world
filled with creatures filled with dread
misshapen so yet the best we have
our raft among the abstract worlds
and how I longed to live on this earth
walking her boundaries never counting the cost
Being well is not just about you or about me, it’s about us—a world, God’s world—tangled up with each other in ways we can’t escape and in ways that can feel like a burden, but things tangled up is the way God made us, and this way we’re made has has healing power—and you have it in you, it may find its stride mostly not in spite of your particular challenges, but through them.
Boston Marathon survivor, Celeste Corcoran, who was at the marathon to watch her sister finish—so delighted in her accomplishment. She lost both legs—and remembers for a fleeting moment thinking she hoped she would die because the pain was so much. But, then she remembered her daughter, her husband, her life and she said, I do NOT want to die. But after several surgeries and it all began to sink in, she started to feel like she may be living, but that her quality of life was never going to be good again.
And that’s when she got a visit from double amputee Marine, Gabe Martinez. He told her he had been exactly where she was—devastated, feeling helpless, hopeless.
He told Celeste all the things he does today, all the ways his life has vitality. And Celeste noticed how steady he was on his prosthetic legs.
After that visit, Celeste said, “I realized, the sky is the limit… I can even be better than I was before.”
Do you want to be well? Why is it so hard to stand up, pick up your mat, and walk. To stand up, bring your stuff/your past/the things you carry and walk?
Survival is a skill. Survival is different than thriving. It’s different than being well. And our capacity to survive through times that knock us down is an inspiring part of how God made us. But what happens when survival becomes a way of life, a habit? What happens when we give up on believing we can be well.
Do you want to be well? Look around you, take a deep breath, see the space you take up in this gathered community. Whatever your burden, whatever your affliction, your pain, your limitation, your stuckness, Jesus’s invitation to you is not to just bide your time, but to see yourself anew. In Christ your capacity for being well can change your life and it can change the world. Do you want to be well? This risky, rebellious, mysterious kind of well?
I mentioned earlier about trusting help that comes from unlikely places. Well I found help working on this sermon from a poem about a snail.
The Spring Offensive of the Snail
Living someplace else is wrong
in Jerusalem the golden
floating over New England smog,
above paper company forests,
deserted brick textile mills
square brooders on the rotten rivers,
Living out of time is wrong.
The future drained us thin as paper.
We were tools scraping.
After the revolution
we would be good, love one another
and bake fruitcakes.
In the meantime eat your ulcer.
Living upside down is wrong,
roots in the air
mouths filled with sand.
Only what might be sang.
I cannot live crackling
with electric rage always.
The journey is too long
to run, cursing those
who can’t keep up.
Give me your hand.
Talk quietly to everyone you meet.
It is going on.
We are moving again
with our houses on our backs.
This time we have to remember
to sing and make soup.
Pack the Kapital and the vitamin E,
the basil plant for the sill,
Apache tears you
picked up in the desert.
But remember to bury
all old quarrels
behind the garage for compost.
Forgive who insulted you.
Forgive yourself for being wrong.
You will do it again
for nothing living
resembles a straight line,
certainly not this journey
to and fro, zigzagging
you there and me here
making our own road onward
as the snail does.
Yes, for some time we might contemplate
not the tiger, not the eagle or grizzly
but the snail who always remembers
that wherever you find yourself eating
is home, the center
where you must make your love,
and wherever you wake up
is here, the right place to be
where we start again.
Brothers and sisters, today may we embody our kinship to the snails. Slowing down for nourishment, being who we are and where we are—being at home there, here, now—you and me, us together, home.
This Communion Table is where we eat today. And wherever you find yourself eating is home, the center. This is where we make our love and where we wake up in the right place and start again.
Do you want to be well?
Stand up, and bring who you are with you to this table of provision, to this table of promise.
The promise is not that you will be fixed, or that we will be whole, or that perfection is ours.
To be well. That is the promise. To be well.
Thanks be to God.