This morning’s reading from the Gospel of John needs some background information so that we can understand the story, as is so often the case when we read and hear portions of the Bible. Jesus was passing by the pool of Beth-zatha or Bethesda. The sick and maimed gathered around this pool because periodically an angel “troubled” or stirred up the water. The first person to reach the pool after the angel had troubled the water would be cured. For those of you who are familiar with Negro spirituals, this is the biblical basis for the song “Wade in the Water.”
The man with whom Jesus speaks has been sitting by the pool, waiting to be first in the water, for 38 years. Clearly he cannot walk and that is why he is there, hoping to be cured. Jesus realized that the man had been there a long time and asked what may strike us as a surprising question: “Do you want to be made well?” We can imagine that the man might have thought, “Well, of course! I’ve been sitting by this healing water for 38 years, waiting for someone to help me in. Isn’t it obvious that I want to be cured?” Remembering that the gospels tell us that Jesus knew what was in people’s hearts, which means that he understood the truth about people’s motivations, he asks the searching question, “Do you want to be made well?”
That is a very interesting question for each and every one of us, on many levels. You would probably agree that it is a rare person whose overt goal is to be sick and unwell. People who actually prefer to be ill suffer from a psychological disturbance. Most of us profess that we want to be well. But how do we behave? Don’t many of us know that if we ate a healthier diet, gave up unhealthy habits, exercised more, slept enough, etc., we would be healthier, more energetic, and less prone to disease? But what do we do? Do we keep eating what we shouldn’t eat, drink more alcohol than we should, exercise too little and shortchange our sleep, all the while saying that we want to be well? As Jesus said to the disciples the night before he died, “If you know these things, blessed are you if you do them.”
Perhaps the man by the pool might have done things differently. Did he ever ask someone to help him at the right time or did he passively wait for a helping hand? Could he have looked for another way to cope with his challenges long before, when it was clear that the Bethesda pool approach wasn’t working? Might he even have accepted his disability and made the most of the life he had, rather than spending every day sitting by the pool? We don’t know, of course, but we do know what he did. And we know that when Jesus asked him if he wanted to be made well, the man made excuses for himself, excuses that put the blame on others: “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.”
Jesus was a healer who never refused to heal anyone who asked for healing. And he healed many people who hadn’t asked. Very often when Jesus healed someone who came to him seeking healing, he sent the person off with the words, “Go in peace. Your faith has made you well.” Not so with this man. He simply said, “Stand up, take your mat and walk.” No blessing on the way and no acknowledgment of the person’s trust in God. Just healing from him whose power was healing power.
I’m sure most of us can relate to the way the man made excuses for why he wasn’t yet cured. Let’s say you want to eat a healthier diet, your doctor wants you to eat a healthier diet, and you know just what to do. But it’s time for your six month check-up and you haven’t eaten a healthier diet in the last six months. Do the excuses run through your mind? But it’s so much easier to eat fast food or frozen dinners! I don’t have time to cook good meals! My friends invite me for dinner and serve meals I know I shouldn’t eat, but what can I do? And on and on. Reasons for your behavior, but not excuses – at least nothing the scale or your cholesterol count is impressed with, or your doctor, for that matter. Excuses are easy to make, but they don’t make you well or keep you well.
On this Sunday, my last before a six week time away from the parish, I’d like to apply this thinking to parish life and ask you to think seriously about what we might do together in the future to make us well, whole, and vital. At last Sunday’s vestry meeting we discussed some of the challenges our parish is facing – mainline churches, including the Episcopal Church, are declining in numbers in many areas of our country, we live in the oldest county in the oldest state in the country, the population of Jefferson is declining, there are many stresses on young families that mitigate against church attendance including lack of peer support for church attendance, work responsibilities, and children’s sports and other activities that take place on Sundays. We cannot change any of these things. These are the crippled legs we are powerless to make well on our own. Being like the man wasting 38 years sitting by the pool in Bethesda isn’t a good choice, because it is unlikely that Jesus will walk by and heal all these problems in a moment. So what will we do?
As we approached the time to make pledges for our financial commitment to the parish for 2019 a few parishioners called on others to ask for their input on parish life. Many of you voiced your love for St. Giles and praised our many strengths. When it came to saying what could be improved, some of you seemed to suggest that we go back in time and do what the parish was able to do in the past when there were more people; the Country Fair, for example. Or people simply stated our needs, such as “we need younger people,” without suggesting how we might accomplish that goal. Others want us to do even more than we are doing with the resources we have, instead of realizing that our limited resources prevent us from doing what might be attractive events. Some people had suggestions that involved what the priest or other parishioners should do to make parish life better. Is this like the crippled man saying “once upon a time I could walk,” “I need to be able to walk,” “If I could walk, I could run a marathon,” and “If only someone else helped me into the pool, I would be able to walk”?
I think we need to face the reality as it is now, leaving aside both nostalgic reminiscences and unrealistic fantasies for the future. We need to face reality, but not with discouragement or a sense of futility. We need to have hope for the future, hope that is tied to faith that God will help us if we do all we can to serve God in this place. There is a possible trajectory for a small parish like ours, a trajectory that predicts that we will close our doors as other small churches in Maine have done. But we aren’t there yet, not even close. We have the opportunity to work together toward a future in which we remain open and healthy and attractive to others who come through our doors, seeking God and a closer knowledge of God. I hope and pray that while I am away from St. Giles God will restore my energy and clarify my vision for how I can serve God and you here in the future. I also hope and pray that while I am away you will be refreshed by hearing other voices and experiencing worship done a bit differently. Most of all I hope that you will pray, with open hearts and minds, asking God what you can do to keep the parish open and healthy and vital.
At this point in time perhaps Jesus is asking us the searching question, “Do you want to be made well?” May our answer be, “Yes, Lord. Will you lead us and guide us? Will you raise us up and walk with us as we follow you? Will you grant us your Holy Spirit to strengthen us?” And may the Lord then say to us, “Go in peace. Your faith has made you well.” In Jesus’ name. Amen.