Our sister Jill is moving.
Jill has been with us now for most of the past ten years. For many years before that Jill was a member of a sister congregation. Part of Jill’s story is that she lost Joe, the love of her life. One day he was here, the next day—suddenly—he was gone. She was devastated. Fortunately, Jill has a strong circle of love—family and friends who supported her then, and continue to support her.
Jill’s story is not unusual. All of us have faced major life transitions: loss of a loved one, moving to a different place, new job, new relationship, new school.
Today’s gospel reading is the story of a man disabled his whole life, or at least most of his life. Thirty-eight years is a long time! Jesus sees him, and knowing that he’s been there a long time, asks a surprising question: Do you want to be made well? We can be polite and call that a “surprising” question —or, we can be honest and call it a dumb question—or, at least, it seems dumb! Does he want to be made well? He’s been disabled his whole life. He’s there by the pool. Tradition teaches that these waters have healing powers. Be the first to jump in the pool after the waters are disturbed and you, too, will be healed! That’s the tradition; that’s the hope.
Well, this belief may sound strange to us, but the point is: obviously, the man wanted to be healed! Right? Well, turns out it’s not so dumb a question because the man doesn’t say “Yes—of course I want to be healed!” Instead, he almost seems to avoid the question: “Sir, I have no one to put me in the pool…[but when I try] someone always steps down ahead of me.”
Jill is moving to California. It’s for health reasons. Her family has invited her and she’s said yes. It would’ve been easier to say no. It’s hard to leave what’s familiar. But to Jesus’ question, “Do you want to be made well?”—Jill’s answer is yes. She wants it badly enough to give up being near friends and routines and places—even if going to California is no guarantee of physical healing. And yet, she’s decided to get up and go.
There are many types of healing: mind, body, spirit. Twice each year our bishop calls pastors and other church leaders to a two-day retreat. Earlier this past week we gathered for our spring retreat and what was his last convocation as bishop. A new bishop will be elected in two weeks.
Our bishop preached on this same story. At one point in his sermon he said to all the gathered church leaders, “If you are unhappy where you are, maybe God is calling you to a new opportunity. It may be that your unhappiness is a sign that God is calling you elsewhere.” It was his way of asking Jesus’ question, “Do you want to be made well?” Get up and walk.
As our bishop challenged each of us so I invite you to consider the question, as well. Do you want to be made well? It’s useless to deny that we need healing because to be human means to be in need of healing. So each of us can ask ourselves in what area or areas of our lives we’re stuck. Where in our lives are we lying on the mat, waiting for our friends—waiting for someone else–to fix our circumstances? Remember, that was the man’s reply. I can’t be healed unless others help me. I can’t be healed unless I get into the water first. I can’t be healed unless the waters are disturbed. He was convinced that he knew what was needed. He was depending on circumstances outside himself. He was depending on his traditions, his beliefs, his friends and his previous experience.
And then one day along comes Jesus, who says to him, “Stand up; take up; take your mat. And walk.”
I wouldn’t call this man a whiner. I wouldn’t call him a complainer. He seemed to have every good reason to follow what he believed. And yet, even to this man Jesus said, “Stand up; take up your mat. And walk.”
In the thirty-eight years of his illness no one had ever said that. No doubt his friends and family believed as he did. Only if circumstances were right did he have a chance at healing. No one had told him to stand up and walk.
But the miracle of this story for me is not the man’s physical healing as much his response to Jesus’ command. He could’ve answered, “I can’t.” But he obeyed. He stood up…and walked.
So—how is it with us? Where in our lives are we lying on our mat, waiting for circumstances to change, waiting for other people to fix our lives for us? Where are we stuck, whether in mind, body or spirit? Do we recognize our need for healing? That’s the first and most important question. And then, Jesus’ question: Do you want to be made well?
Most of us will put up with a whole lot of unhappiness, a whole lot of misery before we change direction. But each of us is responsible for our own happiness, our own healing—and here I’m talking about spiritual healing. If your life lacks joy it’s not someone else’s fault. Jesus invites the man on the mat to take responsibility, to try something he hadn’t tried before. Sometimes, we find that the simplest things are the very things we haven’t tried: Stand up. Take your mat. And walk.
Not everyone is called to pull up stakes and move, as Jill is doing. But Jill wants healing so bad that she’s willing to do whatever it takes. All of us are invited to consider where we believe we don’t have what we need, when we really have all we need. As today’s story shows us, confidence in our most cherished beliefs, traditions and relationships can be the very things that block our healing. Sometimes it’s the things we prize most that keep us from trying something new or blind us to the simplest solution. Wherever we are stuck, one thing is certain: the Holy Spirit is calling for an attitude adjustment, or, a change in perspective.
The stories of this Easter season remind us that out of death God is able to bring about new life—and only out of death. That puts the question a little more sharply: Do we want to be made well so much that we are willing to die? The miracle of resurrection only happens where there is death. The healing of our souls happens when we hear the voice of Christ and respond to his voice rather than our own.
Today’s story is really great news. Maybe the best news of all is the simplest lesson of all: by God’s grace, it’s never too late. Remember, the man had been lying on the mat for thirty-eight years—maybe a lifetime, but certainly the greater part of a lifetime. So no matter where you are in your life journey, where is Jesus saying to you and me: Stand up, take your mat…and walk!