Glynn Cardy 22nd May 2022
Sickness is something of a universal experience. By adulthood some bug, some accident, or something worse has paid us a visit. For some it’s regular visits. Most of us survive. With help. And we learn some things.
In days past, sickness was more prevalent. We didn’t know then what we know now. And the learning keeps going.
When we think, for example, of how rapidly the medical research, health science, and pharmaceutical worlds responded to the Coronavirus, compared with say some similar scenario a 100 years ago, it is quite astounding.
That is not to say there is not much more to be done. Poverty and deprivation have a direct correlation to sickness. As do the effects of colonization, conflicts, and generational dysfunction. As do unhealthy jobs, homes, diets, and other environmental factors. As does access to health care. The poverty package is a very resistant bug to eradicate.
That said, the experience of sickness is one most of us have had, and most of us can relate to. When we’re sick the energy, ability, and desire to do what we’ve previously been able to do evaporates. We struggle with this new version of ourselves, hoping it will be temporary. We become dependent on help from others, for which we’re grateful. But we’d also like our independence back.
And we pray. Sometimes with words, sometimes with sighs, sometimes with grumbles. We pray for relief, for our life back, for some pity, some help, and a whole bucket of resilience. And drugs.
Who we pray to is a moot question. Most of us don’t believe there is a supreme being God who intervenes to fix us. Though it would be nice. Nice that is to be fixed when we’re suffering.
The trouble with believing in such a fix-it God is the inconsistency. Some wonderful people suffer terribly. I know, I’ve sat at some of their bedsides. If there is a supreme God, he/she/it would intervene.
On the other hand, some not-so-wonderful people (read: dirtbags) get miraculously better. If there is a supreme God, he/she/it just made a mistake. Not that we want the nasty to suffer, its just that it feels so unjust. And it is.
A loving, just, supreme being God with the power to intervene to relieve the suffering of good people, but then doesn’t intervene, is simply terrible. Who wants a God with the goods who doesn’t deliver when it counts?
But we still pray when we’re sick, and people we love are sick. Our words, and words that are too deep to be formed and uttered, mingle with the love and goodwill that family and others offer. These blend with the lived working ‘prayers’ of medical and nursing support. That mix of caring spirited energy swirls around us, and can in time burrow into us, unearthing a mostly unlikely emotion: gratitude.
We’re not grateful we’re sick. Or the one close to us is sick. But in the swirl of interventions, emotions, supportive comments and actions, something can move in the depths of our soul. And surprisingly, very surprisingly, it can feel like gratitude.
There are a number of healing stories in the New Testament. They usually have a person who is sick making contact with Jesus, asking for healing, Jesus saying some words or touching them, and the healing happening. Like with this pool story today.
And some readers think that’s what these stories are about: God-in-Jesus doing miracles, defying science, and making the impossible happen. All to prove the wonders of the supreme being God, eliciting our belief, and then our commitment.
But I’m not sure whether such a reading of these stories right.
For a starter Jesus doesn’t see his healing ministry (if we can call it that) as a big deal. Jesus is seemingly more interested in healing people’s minds and hearts, than bodies. Fixing attitude, both of the sick one and also the village/community in which that person dwells.
Jesus is more interested in telling people about the empire of god, than healing every sickness in the land. Indeed, the two are kind of the same. Healing is becoming capable of loving yourself, taking care of yourself, and loving and caring others in order to build an alternate community (empire of god) to the ones on offer.
Crossan in his Jesus: A Revolutionary Biography talks about the difference between an illness and a disease, the former being a feature of culture, context, and discrimination, the latter being about a bug and your body. So, a leper (and in the Bible ‘leprosy’ is any skin ailment) has both a disease (the bug) and an illness (the social stigma of uncleanness, isolation, and rejection). Crossan says that Jesus the healer, was a healer of illness not disease.
Context is a big deal when we read the Bible. And the overarching context of Jesus’ healing ministry is the pervasive violence and oppression of the Roman occupation, and the displacement and denigration of people. Those who weren’t Roman citizens were considered half-human, worth less, worth only what their bodies could work. And of course, the sick didn’t have bodies that could work. So, they were work less trash.
Consider too that these healing stories all seem to be deliberately confrontational. Like, many of them are on the Sabbath. Why didn’t Jesus just have a Sabbath day off and heal them the next day? Why deliberately poke the religious rules types who thought obeying God meant not healing on the Sabbath? It seems like these healings were a teaching tool about the anarchistic priorities of the empire of god.
Also, many of the stories seem to be healing people who ordinary regular xenophobic locals thought should go to the back of the queue. Like a Roman centurion! Or a woman from Syro-Phoenicia! Or a woman who keeps bleeding and bleeding, which is embarrassing for us males. Again, the healings seem like teaching tools about the radical inclusivity of the empire of god.
Also, there were rules even in those days about how you heal others. One rule was that you didn’t go wandering around the countryside where you were hard to find. No, you set up shop in a locality, and people came to you via your disciples who clipped the ticket on the way. Another rule was that you didn’t violate the Jerusalem-based religious sacrifice system, which also clipped the ticket in the healing business.
Jesus practice though offered unmediated access to healing. Like nobody owns healing. Like the religious don’t own healing. Like its free. (No wonder Judas the accountant got offside). Again, it was part of Jesus’ understanding of the empire of god. You don’t need priests or ministers or money in this empire. No one has God in their back pocket, and those who say they do are the ones you should avoid.
Let’s look now at this pool story. The pool, with five porticos, was where people were said to be healed when the waters stirred. So not surprisingly, given the amount of illness and dysfunction amongst the colonized in Palestine, it was a popular place.
The dialogue is between Jesus and a man who had been ill for 38 years. In other words, for most, or all, of his life. This was the reality he knew: being sick, being unable to access the magic (the magic being a stirring of the waters), and being surrounded by other sick people. He couldn’t access the magic because he couldn’t walk very well or very fast. And, he was on his own. There wasn’t anyone there to help him in.
Jesus tells him to stand up, pick up his mat, and walk. The inference is that the man due to his sickness couldn’t do this before, or do it very well. And in doing what Jesus said he was healed of his infirmity.
What is circumvented is the pool and its magic. The pool doesn’t heal him. Having the confidence to stand and walk does. Note, faith is not belief but confidence. Note too, Jesus doesn’t touch him or pray for him. Note too, God isn’t mentioned at all. And no angel comes swooping down. Angels probably obeyed Sabbath rules anyway.
And thus ends the story. We aren’t told what happens next. Where he walks to. Whether his confidence deserts him the next day. Whether he misses the community of the last 38 years of those who hang around and wait for magic. Or whether he gets on with constructing a new community of presence and meaning. We hope it’s the latter.
Oh, and we’re told that all this happened on that wrong day of the week, the Sabbath.
And the takeaways from the story? Don’t sit around for 38 years. If someone is always beating you in the race, leave and find a community that isn’t in a race. Listen to those who encourage you to step out where you don’t think you can go, on a day where you’re not allowed to go. Have confidence in yourself, and listen to those who have confidence in yourself. You’re not trash, so don’t trash yourself. And don’t put your trust in other people’s magic, there’s usually a catch.
Some of which might be relevant to your now, some of which might not.
Sickness at the end of day is kind of personal. No one knows how you’re feeling. No one knows your fears, particularly through the wee hours. How confidence helps, or not, is also personal. How others help, or not, is likewise personal.
When I visit someone who is sick, I don’t say much. I just sit, listen, and offer some solidarity of presence. And I pray. Which is to say I add my hopes to theirs, to others that care and help, and imagine an energy of threads of light holding that person, as we are held, as life is held. And for those threads of love touching us I am thankful.