In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. In the gospel this morning, Jesus encounters a man who had been disabled for thirty-eight years. That is a long, long time to be struggling with anything. He is beside a pool of water in Jerusalem that was thought to have healing powers, at least when the water was stirred up by its own forces. In the archeological excavations of Jerusalem, we have found these pools where the disabled would gather. Jesus asked the man, “Do you want to be made well?” Instead of answering Jesus’ question, the man assumed that what Jesus was really asking was why he was not healed after all these years of sitting by the pool. He explained that he had not ever been able get himself into the pool in time because he had no one to help him so someone else always stepped down ahead of him. Presumably, he would like Jesus to help him into the pool. Instead of helping him into the water, Jesus tells him simply to “Stand, take up his mat, and walk” away. And the man did exactly that.
I was once on a retreat where we were reading this story together to identify the many ways we can get stuck in the same place, in the same behaviors, even when we don’t want to be. People had so many stories of being stuck often for years. They were moved by Jesus’ question, “Do you want to be made well?” They had a great many ideas about how easy it is for any of us to get in our own way. They also showed the progress that can be made when one says, “Yes I want to be made well.” There is a lot to be said for the breakthrough of finally willing to be better and to do what it takes to change. There are often unhelpful things in our lives that we can be too passive in the face of. We can underestimate what we can change and take charge of in the world closest to us, that is, ourselves.
As helpful as some of those reflections were, and as much as they appeal to our wonderfully American sense of personal initiative, I’d like to suggest that the story in the gospel pulls in quite another direction and one also worth thinking about. Instead of celebrating the emergence of willpower and self-responsibility, I think what the disabled man gets right is that he responds to Jesus when he has the chance. As much as we are taken by the kind of people who come up with a plan for their life and will it to happen no matter what stands in their way, most of the time, what is more important is saying yes when opportunity presents itself. What if the gospel of John tells us about this disabled man, not because he failed for thirty-eight years before he finally got it right, but because he had prepared himself year after year not to lose hope or get discouraged, but to be ready for that moment when Jesus would find him? And he was! For this reason he is a hero of mine. None of us will our way to God.
All of us, at one time or another, instead are found by God and that’s our chance to say, “Yes.” It is all too easy to feel like life is just one big interruption of our plans, where we are daily thwarted by unexpected events. But it is the interruptions that turn out to be the lives we actually live. I would wager that when you look at your life, the most memorable, pivotal events, are not the ones where you carried through a perfect plan, but where something happened to you that changed you. Those of you who are married, I doubt you met your spouse because of the perfect plan. If you did, you have quite the valuable discovery, but it is more likely that you responded to an opportunity that was before you at a certain time and place. The book of Proverbs says, “People make their plans, but the Lord directs their steps” (16:9). There is something to be said for responsiveness rather than willpower. There is something to be said for responding to the moment when it is there to be had. I’m so impressed by the disabled man in the gospel who taught himself over the course of thirty-eight years to be ready for when Jesus found him. And he didn’t miss it, although he could have.
Thirty-eight years is a long time to struggle with anything. It is a long time not to lose faith, not to give up, it is a long time to hope. The United States is a great place to get things done, we have been such an innovative people. We prefer to get things done in days or months. We chart our progress in reports. There is a street in Chelmsford named, “Progress Avenue.” We are not wrong that there are things that don’t get better by waiting and require, instead, a determined impatience. This works great when it does, but not everything can be put on a schedule, especially if it is something important to us yet beyond our ability to control. That sort of thing is hard for us.
But that situation is one the Bible has a lot of positive things to say about when other voices turn instead to blame or even despair. There is a Biblical virtue of a certain kind of “holy waiting.” It is something that is nearly everywhere in the Bible once you start looking for it. The prophet Isaiah famously says, “Those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength even [when] youths will faint and be weary, and the young will fall exhausted; they [who wait] shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint” (Isaiah 40:30-31).
This unnamed man by the pool is far from being the only one who waits. To name just a few: Abraham, the great Patriarch of the faith, waited a lifetime for the fulfillment of the promise God made to him of land and descendants to live in that land. He lived to finally see the birth of his son Isaac, but never received the promised land. His grandson Jacob made a deal with his future father-in-law that he would work for him for seven years if only he could marry his daughter Rachel. After seven years, he was told that he could not possibly marry off the younger sister before the older sister, Leah.
So Jacob agreed to marry Leah also, but then was told that he would have to start over an work another seven years for Rachel (which he did, waiting fourteen years for his wife to be). Moses lived in exile some forty years fleeing from Pharaoh waiting for the time when his people could be free from slavery. Once God freed them, the Israelites wandered forty years in the desert waiting for the right time to enter the promised land. David was anointed King while Saul was still king. He was urged repeatedly to seize power, to kill Saul, and become king immediately and had several opportunities to do so. He refused each time saying, “I will not touch the Lord’s anointed.” David waited and only became king after Saul died in battle with the Philistines. Daniel, and the other captives in Babylon, waited seventy years before they were free to return to their land and rebuild. So much holy waiting!
Is there something you are hoping for, waiting for? Something not entirely within your control, but important to you anyway? If so, think of our good man waiting day after day by the pool for his healing. We are not told what strategies he employed to steady his heart and mind day after day. We might be able to think of some. For example, I’d suggest
- Believe God is good and can help you. When it seems like God is saying “No” to prayers, it may instead be “not-yet.” Not yet can feel like “no,” but it is not.
- Remind yourself that there is usually more than one right answer or outcome in life that can be good and true.
- Invest in your own resilience rather than in the ability to control events. Control is something you may not have, but you are likely more resilient than you know, even if all you can do is put one foot in front of the other, take one step at a time, cultivating anticipation and hope rather than feeding despair.
- And then keep looking for Jesus to find you beside the pool without knowing when that is going to happen.
Lastly, the disabled man in the gospel likely made his living by begging until he was healed. After he picked up his mat and walked away, I wonder what he did next when he could no longer beg for a living? We’re not told because we readers of scripture are to find out for ourselves by living it. Let’s find out and may the future be more than our past as we continue to say yes to Jesus and live in expectation of what is to come.
May the God for whom the impossible is possible, fill our hearts with expectation and anticipation, while giving us the quiet confidence to wait and persevere when we must, and also the courage and will to say yes to Jesus Christ whenever and wherever he may find us. Amen