I was part of a church once that labored long and hard
over a new mission statement.
When the draft was completed
and it was unveiled to the congregation
from whom the vestry and committee sought consensus,
a great uproar ensued.
The primary objection
was that the statement made reference
to “our common brokenness.”
“I’m not broken,” some people decried.
Others warned that no one in their right mind
would want to join a church for broken people.
Long story short, “common brokenness” remained
and that congregation became a community of people
who not only recognized their brokenness
but came to cherished it as the source
of wisdom and healing.
The idea of a church without broken people
causes me to chuckle from the irony.
Not recognizing our common brokenness
is humorous in a sad kind of way
because there are no human beings without
considerable woundedness and incapacity of some kind.
And so the inability to recognize our own brokenness
is like a naked mole rat that thinks it’s a mink.
But the difficulty we have recognizing our brokenness
is compounded by our difficulty recognizing
that the source of healing we most often seek
is not the one that offers true wellness.
That’s what the odd little story
in the Gospel of John is all about.
At first glance we think it’s a story about Jesus
and how he possessed powerful mojo,
but honestly, I don’t think that is what the story is about.
Personally, I don’t really care whether or not
Jesus could do magic.
Instead, when I listen to such stories,
I hear the voice of wisdom
whispering to us all these years later.
See if you hear it too.
As the story goes,
and just to fill in a few of the details,
there was a pool in the city of Jerusalem
that is in the modern day Muslim sector of the Holy City.
You can Google it and find a photograph if you want.
This particular pool that actually exists
was right near the gate into the main market area –
called “The Sheep-gate.”
A colonnade surrounded the pool
with a row of five pillars.
It was one of a series of pools
built eight centuries before Jesus was born.
That right there is interesting
and should cause us pause when we think about it –
Jesus can seem mighty remote to us now
but then we have to back up another 800 years
to when those pools were built.
That’s a wide-angle lens when it comes to history.
Anyway, as the story goes,
this particular pool mentioned in John’s narrative
was named Beth-zatha or Bethseda.
It derives from Aramaic and means,
“House of Mercy.”
Isn’t that a lovely name?
We all should live in a house of mercy.
So, as the story goes,
the water was reported to have healing properties
and had become somewhat of a shrine
for the ill and the maimed.
To get a fix on it in our imagination,
conjure up something about the size
of the average hotel swimming pool
surrounded by rows and rows
stinky, lame homeless people.
Got the picture?
Imagine too, a constant tussling
and pecking in the crowd around the pool
like chickens restricted to a small space.
The jostling and pecking
was because they couldn’t just stick a toe in water
and get healed.
As the story goes,
every once in awhile
the water was mysteriously troubled or stirred.
There was a belching of bubbles and churning
on the surface of the water
and it was rumored to be caused by an angel.
In fact, we know today,
the churning came from a sudden influx of water
from the underground canal feeding
the whole system of pools.
As the story goes,
it was believed the first person into the water
right after the bubbling won the lottery
and would be healed instantly.
It was a competition.
It was a dog-eat-dog extravaganza.
It was a sad spiritual Natural Selection process
where the strongest-of-the-weakest survived.
Another detail in this story,
one we see only if we know how
to read between the lines,
is that Jesus should not have been there.
Hanging out with sick, injured, ill, and maimed people
was a no-no and enough to get you shunned.
We know he wasn’t supposed to heal,
or anything else, on the Sabbath –
that’s John’s mega point –
but e shouldn’t have been hanging out with broken people.
You see sick people were untouchable.
Conjure up a very strict caste-system
in which no mingling between groups was allowed.
Anyone with any illness
of any kind
was considered morally and spiritually unclean
in addition to being physically broken.
It was believed that illness, disability, or sickness
was the manifestation of sin.
Any physical blemish of any kind
was the outward and visible sign
of an earlier sin;
or possibly even punishment for a wrongdoing
by parents or grandparents
visited upon the next generation.
Touch the sickly
or be touched by them,
and YOU were made untouchable.
YOU were made unclean.
To put this in perspective,
we have to realize this wasn’t just a social faux pas
like an Episcopalian eating with the wrong fork.
To be unclean had a hard economic edge to it
that could even be deadly to vulnerable peasants.
In that society,
if you came in contact with an untouchable
then you were likewise defiled
and then you had to go straight away to the temple,
seek out a priest
and fulfill whatever prescription you were given
in order to make moral and spiritual restitution.
Usually getting clean again,
which also meant being able to interact with others,
involved an animal sacrifice
as well as other personal piety,
such as fasting.
It was not an overnight fix
so if your livelihood depended upon social interactions
and participation in the community
then you were in trouble.
You were shunned and told to stay away
until you were ritually cleansed.
Now, not all followers of the religion
believed in this kind of dogged requirement
demanding ritual purification,
and clearly Jesus was just such a subversive.
His resistance to that kind of institutional
authority and maintenance
was just one more thing to put him at odds
with the temple hierarchy.
As the story goes,
he was where he wasn’t supposed to be
and doing what he wasn’t supposed to be doing.
That is an important element of this story
we may not see or hear without a little scratching
of the dirt and dust around it.
Okay, that is the pertinent background material.
But let’s be honest and acknowledged
this has a Monty Python quality to it.
It would be so easy to make a farce out of it,
and truly, like a lot of John’s stories,
it has some farcical elements without even trying.
The guy Jesus helps is obviously immobile,
and unable to make it to the pool on his own,
let alone get there fast enough
to be the first one in the water.
Trying this unsuccessfully for thirty-eight years
is an awful lot like Einstein’s dictum
that insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.
“Hey dude, do you want to be made well,” Jesus asks.
“But sir, I have no one to make me well,” the poor slob responds.
“Well then, get out of here” Jesus retorts.
It is a non sequitur;
the response doesn’t really follow the statement.
That is a cue that we have entered
a theater of the absurd.
“Do you want to be well?”
“I don’t have anyone to make me well.”
“Then get out of here.”
It seems to me that Jesus is telling the guy
that he has placed himself by the wrong pool.
He is looking for wellness
but there is no wellness to be had
at the pool he has chosen.
There is no wellness to be had at the pool he has chosen.
Now that sounds like the right kind of punch line for a Jesus story.
The question WE face, you and me,
is which pool have we placed ourselves next to
in hopes of finding wellness?
If you are like me, more often than not
you wake up and discover
that you are at the edge of a pool promising wellness
that cannot deliver it.
In fact, none of the pools in the popular culture
that promise wellness can actually deliver it.
Don’t take my word for it;
don’t even take Jesus’ word for it.
All we have to do is look around and listen to the world,
and read a little history,
and allow ourselves to get still
long enough to hear our own voice
as it slips into the whisper of prayer
with the voice of God.
And really, that is what I want us to think about today –
Our challenge is to allow ourselves
to get still long enough
to hear the voice beneath all the other voices.
In the stillness
we will come to know that the pool of promise
around which we have organized our lives
is actually squalid, maybe even toxic.
That is when we will recognize the voice that says,
“Stand up, take your mat and walk. Get out of here or you will die
waiting for this pool to make you well.”
Winning the lottery won’t make us well.
- Looking like Victoria’s Secret or GQ won’t make us well.
- Having enough money in retirement so we don’t ever have to worry won’t make us well.
- Children that look good, act good, and make good grades won’t make us well.
- A house that the big bad wolf can’t blow down won’t make us well.
- Recognition, notoriety and celebrity won’t make us well.
- Reaching the top of the heap, making the big bucks, having all the good stuff and living into old age won’t make us well.
In fact, there is nothing at that pool of glitter
we live our lives around
that will make us well. Nothing.
I won’t lie: there are goo gobs of pleasure at that pool.
There are plenty of cool things we like in that water
but wellness is not one of them.
Wellness is found in the pool of stillness
and it is located here (heart)…right here.
It is not competitive.
It is not dog-eat-dog.
It is not magic.
It is not mysterious.
It is not secret.
It is stillness.
When we allow ourselves enough time in the day
to be still…
and when we make room within our own life-style
to get still…
and when we practice it enough to get comfortable
with sitting alone by the pool of stillness within us…
THEN we will get to a place where all that other stuff –
all the things we thought would make us well –
begins to gently fall away like petalls on a three-day rose.
When distractions fall away we get close to what’s left.
What is left when we get really still
is the source of our wellness.
But here is the difficult, counter-intuitive wisdom
waiting for us to hear in stories
like the one we heard today from John.
We need not be comfortable to be well.
We do not need to be in health to be well.
We do not need to be happy to be well.
We do not need a lot of stuff to be well.
We can be in grief and be well.
We can know deprivation and be well.
We can live in the shadow of death and be well.
It is just the opposite of what the hucksters tell us,
and it is contrary to what the economy promises us.
There is no magic in the pool where wellness is found.
Nor will the wellness take away our brokenness.
If we want to find what is being offered by Jesus
we need to know and acknowledge
that when we walk away from the pool
that holds the source of our wellness,
we will still be maimed and wounded –
we will still be maimed and wounded
because there is no option to be unbroken.
Even so, if we have learned to rest in stillness
at the particular pool that Jesus invites us to,
we will experience a peace
that is beyond any rational thought.
Wellness is found in the pool of stillness,
and everything else we thought had the power
to make us happy falls away.
When that happens,
when all the stuff that promised us wellness
and healing and happiness
dissolves like bubbles into the ether,
we encounter a more penetrating peace
than we ever thought possible:
The peace of God that passes all understanding.
As it turns out
it is the peace of God
that makes us well.
In that kind of stillness,
even with the hurricanes of life
swirling around us;
and the oil spill of bad choices,
and the currents of failures
right in the water with us…
the peace of God can make us well.
And it is infectious too;
because soon OUR stillness, yours and mine,
when it is linked with others who have found it,
creates a community-of-wellness
among people who bath in the same pool.
Well, that’s what I get from that weird little story
out of the Gospel of John.
If we take our focus off the magic
and supernatural stuff,
and we listen to the voices underneath it,
we begin to hear even stranger and weirder stuff.
Before we know it,
what we hear will enter into our dreams
and begin talking to us deep inside
like someone we know.
In the stillness,
that stillness that rests inside of us,
is a pool where we can swim with God.