“Sir,” the invalid replied, “I have no one to help me into the pool when the water is stirred. While I am trying to get in, someone else goes down ahead of me.”
Stranded on the Edge
When feeling led toward a post that speaks to everyone yet pointedly resonates with GLBT and other alienated Christians, I’m often led to scriptural stories like today’s. These stories are problematic for me because they’re about outcasts—lepers, pagans, eunuchs, sinners, and other “types” stranded on the edge of society. I don’t doubt why the Bible is riddled with them. Its heart pounds with assurance that God welcomes the rejected, despised, and afflicted, all of whom Jesus voluntarily became to ensure acceptance for all through the cross. Yet I’m always wary lest frequently returning to outcast stories be misconstrued as an opinion that ostracized gay believers and their straight counterparts are damaged or dysfunctional. Then I take comfort in realizing we’re all--gay or straight, accepted or ignored--damaged and dysfunctional in some way. We’re all the same, outsiders all, stranded on the edge just like the invalid in John 5.
He’s been paralyzed for 38 years and a longtime fixture at the Bethesda pool, where many disabled people gather in hopes of being healed. It’s said an angel appears once each season to stir the water and the first person diving into the pool is cured. The Bethesda phenomenon is no urban legend. The invalid’s seen it a number of times. He tells Jesus this when the Lord talks with him during a Sabbath poolside visit. Learning the man’s been disabled nearly four decades, Jesus asks, “Do you want to get well?”
Anyone aware of Jesus, His compassion for the diseased and oppressed, and His miraculous power would instantly reply, “Yes! I want to get well!” Spending all of his time watching the water, waiting for the tiniest quaver, renders the invalid clueless about Who stands before him, however. Ignorantly, if respectfully, he launches a woe-is-me alibi without answering the question. “Sir, I’m stuck without help,” he explains. “When the water moves, I’m trying to get in when somebody else beats me to it.” But ignorance never offends Jesus, nor does He ever confuse it with indolence—lazy resignation to one’s condition. He commands the invalid: “Get up! Pick up your mat and walk.” It’s the happiest day of the man’s life. Yet, given the day, his healing makes a lot of people very unhappy.
Floating, Flouting, and Flaunting
It’s the Sabbath. And here’s the invalid, up and about for the first time in 38 years, floating on a joy-cloud, totally oblivious to the mat rolled up on his back. People don’t know his story. All they see is someone flouting tradition. “It’s against the Law to carry your mat on the Lord’s Day!” they tell him. Again, he has an excuse: “The man who cured me said I could do it.” And who is he? The invalid has no idea. Now it looks like he’s flaunting his healing, refusing to comply on another’s authority. On one level, he’s justified; Jesus habitually broke Sabbath law by attending to urgent matters. Yet he’s also wrong. Why even carry a mat he no longer needs? Hanging onto it only causes problems for him. And why rush off before getting his Healer’s name? Didn’t it occur to him he owes Christ praise for his healing? Later, Jesus meets the man in the temple and sternly scolds him: “Now that you’re well, stop sinning or something worse may happen.” He takes heed and changes his story to glorify Christ.
The invalid gives all of us—gay believers, particularly—an excellent example of what not to do. If we sit too long at poolside, staring at still waters of sanctioned intolerance, hoping they’ll spring to life, we’ll never know Jesus, His love for us, or His life-altering power. Yes, sometimes the pool stirs in obedience to God’s Spirit, welcoming those stranded on the edge. But why wait for help getting in when Christ Himself offers to remedy our situation? He makes us rise and walk. Then, it’s ever important not to float away in exuberance without considering believers who sincerely conform to rigorous ideas and traditions. Romans 14.13 cautions: “Stop passing judgment on one another. Instead, make up your mind not to put any stumbling block or obstacle in your brother’s way.” Freedom from the Law doesn’t free us of responsibility for those who keep the Law. We take care our liberty isn’t perceived as flouting long-held beliefs or flaunting our restoration in Christ. There’s no reason for hanging onto mats—mindsets and motives—that cushioned our poolside vigil; they cause needless trouble, potentially leading to setbacks we can ill afford. Finally, we never fail to give our Healer total praise. It’s the least we can do after all He’s done.
The pool at Bethesda.
(Tomorrow: Letters in the Dirt)