We are at the midway point in our worship series called “Change: The Only Constant in a Disciple’s Life,” where we’ve been taking a look at some of our biblical ancestors who experienced a change in their lives and what their story can teach us about how to respond to changes in our own lives. Thus far, each of the stories we’ve read and each of the changes our ancestors faced have all dealt with some external challenge. Even when it came to the Israelites and Peter and the internal threat of their fears and how they saw themselves, there was still some external element involved: Would the Israelites face their enemies and enter the land God promised them? Would Peter ever risk trying to walk on water again?
Today’s text takes a deeper look at those internal threats – when the threat isn’t the enemy outside, but the enemy inside. What do we do when we’re our own worst enemy – and Jesus calls us to be something more?
Read John 5:1-9.
Many of you know I’m a marathon runner – one of those crazy people who runs 26.2 miles for fun. There’s this joke among marathoners that goes like this: If you don’t end up in the medical tent after you cross the finish line, then you didn’t try hard enough. Well, if that’s true, I don’t know what it says about how hard I try when I tell you that I’ve run six marathons and only ended up in the medical tent…once. It was back in 2018 at the Publix Marathon in Atlanta. I was on the final two miles when my right quad and calf started cramping up. I knew I was on track to hit my personal best finish time and was determined I would reach that goal even if I had to crawl across the finish line.
I made it across the finish line standing upright, at least for a second – until those cramps in my right leg suddenly released, and my leg went limp. Fortunately, the EMTs at the finish line saw me and caught me in one of their wheelchairs. Unfortunately, the photographers at the finish line also saw me and caught my downfall on camera. Needless to say, I chose not to post those race photos on Instagram.
I was taken to the medical tent and released a few minutes later when I was steady enough to stand. The next day I made an appointment with my doctor, who diagnosed me with a compressed sciatic nerve and referred me to a physical therapist. After a couple of months of physical therapy, my doctor said he was now going to refer me to a running form specialist. I didn’t know what that was, let alone why I needed such a specialist. My doctor explained, “You need to learn how to run again.” I got a little indignant and said, “I know how to run. I’ve run six marathons. Just because I sometimes can’t even walk after a marathon, that doesn’t mean I don’t know what I’m doing.”
My doctor responded, “You have some weaknesses, and you’ve been compensating for them for so long that you don’t know how to address them.”
I think that wisdom applies to more than just leg cramps. How many of us have some weakness for which we’ve been compensating for so long that we don’t know how to address it?
I thought about that running experience as I reflected on our text this week. I was going to say that this is one of my favorite passages in Scripture. But I realize I call a lot of passages my favorite. So maybe it’s more accurate to say this is one of my favorite passages – and also sometimes one of my least favorite passages. Because when we take a deep look at this text, it’s not necessarily an easy text to read. But it’s an honest text to read – because it’s a text about you and me. It’s a text about our past and the excuses we make for our future, and it’s a text about one of the most important questions Jesus will ever ask us: “Do you want to be made well?”
Jesus encountered a man at a pool who’d been ill for 38 years. That’s a long time. Jesus asked him, “Do you want to be made well?” You’d think, after 38 years, his answer would be, “Well, yeah! Of course, I want to be made well I’ve been waiting 38 years for this moment!”
But that’s not how the man answered the question. In fact…the man never answered the question.
Whenever someone is not named in Scripture, I often think it’s intentional, that by not naming the person, God is inviting us to put ourselves in that person’s shoes, to give the person our name. So let’s put ourselves in this man’s shoes and imagine: Why not answer the question? Wouldn’t you want to be made well? And if not, why not?
Well, for starters, sometimes it’s easier just to live with the pain than to address the pain. This man had been living with this illness for 38 years. To be suddenly made well would not just mean he would be given a whole new way of life. It would also mean he’d be required to live a whole new way of life.
Sometimes living with our wounds is easier than doing the hard work of getting well. In the words of my doctor, we learn to compensate for our pain and weakness, rather than addressing them. We learn to accept and live with discomfort to the point that discomfort becomes our comfort zone.
I recall an experience many years ago when I was serving at a homeless shelter overnight. We had blankets and foam mats on which our guests could sleep. One man looked at the mat and then asked for a metal folding chair. Rather than the comfort of a soft mat and warm blanket, the man chose to sleep sitting upright on a hard surface – because those were the sleeping conditions to which he’d grown accustomed: sleeping sitting upright on a park bench.
How quickly that to which we’ve grown accustomed becomes that which is comfortable, even when it’s not comfortable. When discomfort becomes our comfort zone, it can be hard to respond to an invitation to real comfort: Do you want to get well?
When discomfort becomes our comfort zone and the chance for real comfort requires us to move out of our comfort zone, it can be more paralyzing than a 38-year-old illness.
The man didn’t answer the question. Instead, the man explained to Jesus why he wasn’t well. On the surface, his explanations sound like excuses. I have no one to help me. Someone else always gets there first.
Excuses can also be paralyzing. I‘m too old. I’m too young. I’m too busy. I don’t have time. Making excuses is easier than standing up, taking our mat, and walking. Making excuses is easier than taking action steps. And that which is easy can be a mighty fine comfort zone.
Nevertheless, it seems there’s something deeper still in this conversation. Jesus asked the man, “Do you want to be made well?” After being ill for 38 years, you’d think the man would jump at the chance to be healthy. Yet the man didn’t answer the question. Instead, the man told Jesus everything that had happened to him in the past when he’d tried to go into the pool. In short, the man told Jesus his story and why he was still ill.
Whether you are 38 or younger or older, whether you’ve been struggling with an illness for years, or have enjoyed good health all of your life, this story is about you and me.
No matter how healthy you are, there’s always that call to greater wholeness. There’s always that question: Do you want to get well?
Like this man, each of us has a story, a history, a past that affects who we are today. We’ve been looking at our spiritual ancestors. Let’s take a quick look at our very first ancestors, Adam and Eve, and how their story affects our story.
In Genesis Chapter 3, when Adam and Eve ate the fruit from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, what’s the first thing they did? Their eyes were opened, they saw that they were naked, and they made clothes for themselves. When God came looking for them, they hid. When God found them and asked why they hid, Adam said, “I was afraid, because I was naked” (Genesis 3:10).
That fear has been passed on from generation to generation. We don’t like to feel naked. We don’t like for God or anyone else for that matter to see us for who we really are. That goal of protecting ourselves from God and others manifests itself in different ways – hiding, withdrawing, fearing, ignoring, denying, fixing, pacifying. Loneliness, anxiety, frustration, resentment, and blame.
Oh, and that blame game has been around since the beginning, too, hasn’t it? In that same chapter from Genesis, when God asked Adam, “Who told you that you were naked? Have you eaten from the tree of which I commanded you not to eat?”, the man said, “The woman! The woman whom you put here with me – she gave me some fruit from the tree, and I ate it” (Genesis 3:12).
Let’s not get too into gender roles here – how the man blamed the woman – because, women, just as men sometimes blame us, we sometimes blame men, don’t we?
We blame one another. We even blame God. “The woman, whom you, God, put here with me – she gave me some fruit from the tree, and I ate it.”
We see that blame game in our text today. Notice in all of the excuses the man listed, they all have to do with someone else. “I have no one to put me into the pool when the water is stirred up, and when I am making my way, someone else steps down ahead of me.”
The man saw himself as the victim, when Jesus saw he could be the victor: Do you want to get well?
Each of us has a story. Our stories are made of up stories others have told us. Maybe we’ve been told, “You’re not good enough” or “you’ll never amount to anything.” We may say of someone else, “That’s just who he is. He’ll never change.” We may even say of ourselves, “That’s just who I am. I can’t change.”
Let me tell us something: I would never want someone to say of me, “That’s just who she is. She’ll never change.” I’d never want any of us to say that about someone else, and I’d never want any of us to say that of ourselves, “That’s just who I am. I’ll never change.”
Why would I never want anyone to say that’s our story? Because the gospel tells us a different story.
The gospel tells us there is grace. The gospel tells us that our God is the God of second and third and hundredth chances. The gospel tells us God loves us just as we are, and God loves us enough not to leave us where we are.
When I was working on my Doctor of Ministry degree, I read a lot of the writings of James. K.A. Smith. Smith talks about worship in terms of story. He says that each of us comes into worship with our individual stories from the past week – what the others have told us is our story, what we’ve believed is our story. We come to worship where we discover we are not a whole bunch of individual stories, but a common story. We come to worship and hear Scripture – God’s story – which is our collective story. In hearing God’s story, Smith says we are re-storied – that is, we are restored. We’re reminded that, no matter what story the world tells us or what story we’ve told ourselves, God’s story is our true story. As we are re-storied and restored, we hear God’s call to go and restore the world. To re-story the world. That is, to show the world that, no matter what story they have bought into, God’s story is their true story, and we’re all invited to join in that grand adventure of a story together.
To re-story the world, to be God’s change agents in the world, we have first to let God re-story us. In order to transform the world, we have first to let God transform us. That transformation begins with a question: Do you want to get well?
Our questions this week focus on our personal transformation: Where do you hear God calling you to do something and you find yourself making excuses why you can’t? What if you reframed that? What if instead of saying, “No, I can’t” you heard God say, “Yes, you can – with my help?”
What’s your comfort zone right now? What’s one thing you can do this week to take a step out of your comfort zone?
In what situations are you tempted to act like the victim – when God has already claimed for you the victory?
In what area of your life do you need to ask for and receive Jesus’ grace?
Years ago, Jesus encountered a man who, when faced with the opportunity for wholeness, saw only the obstacles. He saw only the excuses. He saw only the past, what went wrong, and who’s to blame for it. And all of those things kept him from answering Jesus’ question: Do you want to be made well?
We can take our past and let it be a stumbling block. Or we can let God turn it into a stepping stone to a better future.
So the question remains: Do we want to get well?
Here’s the good news: Even though the man never answered that question, Jesus still healed him. Even though he never answered the question, still when Jesus said, “Stand up, take up your mat, and walk,” the man did. Maybe the question isn’t: Do you want to get well? Maybe the question is: Will you stand up, take up your mat, and walk – and in the process discover you are being made well?”