The gates of Jerusalem are busy places. There are so many people coming and going – whether for religious festivals, or for trade and commerce, or for administrative purposes. The flow of people is almost nonstop at these gates – through these portals into the city.
There is a pool near one particular gate of the city – and that pool near the sheep gate – is also a busy place. But this pool is busy not so much on account of the religious festivals, or on account of those traveling for trade and commerce, or on account or the administrative needs of the city or of that Roman colony more widely.
The area around that pool is busy because there is a tradition of healing associated with it. There is a tradition that when the waters are stirred – when there is some movement in the waters, as if stirred by an angel – the waters have healing or medicinal properties.
And so the area around that pool – the five porticos or porches that encircle the pool – they are filled with those looking for healing. This space is a kind of ancient hospice or hospital. By definition this is a group of those who are broken in some way; their bodies in need of healing in some respect. According to John’s gospel, those gathered around the pool are the blind and the lame and the paralyzed. And of course we know that in that culture, on top of their particular physical challenges, each of these individuals would also have faced a high degree of social isolation. So they seek healing in this pool – they seek healing in the stirred waters – they seek healing of their bodies and souls – a healing in their physical being and in their social identity.
This is a busy place – a place filled with people on the move for purposes of commerce and administration and culture. And a place plentiful with those who suffer in some sense.
In a way this sketch of the city gate and the pool is a sketch of the place where we all live our lives. We all live our lives at this point where private and public meet – we all live our lives at this point where everyday life intersects with the reality of sickness and suffering – we all live our lives at this point where our mobility meets immobility, and where those are forgotten meet those who often forget them.
But let’s step back for a moment now from this city gate. When we read the gospel narratives, we get this kind of birds-eye view of Jesus’ life and identity, don’t we. So in John’s gospel we see Jesus go down to the Jordan river for baptism; and we see Jesus at a wedding celebration in Cana; and then we see Jesus today at this crowded gate of the city. Then we read a little further on in John’s gospel and we see Jesus feed the five thousand, we see him raise Lazarus; we see him speak with a Samaritan woman at a well.
When we read the gospel narratives we get this birds-eye view of Jesus – we see his whole story almost in one moment. We can almost hold the narrative in our hands as we hold a book in our hands – it is something manageable and complete and coherent for us. And at one level that is fine – it makes perfect sense.
But here’s a thought. Sometimes our ability to see the whole narrative of Jesus, our ability to hold it all in our hands, is a kind of cheat. It’s a kind of cheat because it often means that we are looking at the story of Jesus in all its broad beauty – rather than actually meeting Jesus in our lives.
Seeing the whole story of Jesus gives us the impression that we know him – like we might know the characters in any other story. But the invitation of the spiritual life – the invitation to go deeper in relation to God – is so much more than an invitation to read the story – so much more than an invitation to know a character in a story – so much more than an invitation to grasp the broad sweep and beauty of that story. The invitation of the spiritual life is to encounter the risen Jesus, today – to see him and hear him and to seek a living Lord in our day to day.
Here’s another way to think about it. Reading the gospel stories also gives a sense of regularity to our encounters with Jesus. We open the book, and there he is. We come to church and Jesus is reliably present in the stories of the scriptures.
We know where he is.
We know where to find him.
We can pick up the book and choose which of his stories we will read.
Again, at one level that is all fair enough. But this immediate access to Jesus – this sense that we can know where he will be – this sense that we know what he will say – it also is a kind of cheat. Because that’s not how relationships work.
Jesus is not that predictable.
Jesus is not that accessible.
Jesus is not so immediately recognizable.
Where and when and how Jesus will appear to us, in a living relationship, is not something that can be so carefully controlled and defined. As we might say here in Quebec, when it comes to where and when and how Jesus will appear to us: “C’est pas evident.”
Back to that man, sitting on one of the porches near the sheep gate. In front of him there are more people passing by than he can count. As he has sat there much of his life, so he sits by the pool now, a river of humanity moving past him into the city. And the particular man he met on this particular day, was just one face among many.
He didn’t know this man.
He had never met this man.
He didn’t know his name.
He didn’t know where he was from.
In fact, later on that day, when the religious leaders ask him who had healed him, his only response will be: “I have no idea. The man is gone.”
Is it possible that Jesus will come to us in a similar way?
in the middle of our everyday;
barely recognizable to us;
one who simply appears and asks and speaks.
“Do you want to be made well?” he asks.
Maybe he will speak to you unexpectedly through the voice of a colleague. Maybe he will speak to you through a chance encounter with an old friend on the metro. Maybe he will speak to you through a still small voice in mind and heart, a voice that comes from you know not where. In the middle of life’s busyness, at that point of intersection between everyday life and our brokenness and need – when we least expect it – hardly recognizing that Jesus could be there – will come an invitation to be healed.
“Do you want to be made well?”
Through the voice of a colleague you may hear a word that affirms your gifts and abilities, when you had begun to wonder if we had anything to contribute. Is the living Jesus encouraging you in your gifts through this colleague?
Through a chance meeting with a friend on the metro maybe you’ll have an opportunity to unload something that’s been on your mind, that’s been keeping you up at night. Is the living Jesus present in that chance encounter, bringing peace and comfort to you?
In the middle of your day that still small voice will come from somewhere and nowhere suggesting now is the time to call that family member, to seek a way forward with them. Is the living Jesus present in that still small voice, from somewhere and nowhere, that voice leading you in his way of reconciliation.
“Do you want to be made well?”
It is so easy for us to dissociate Jesus from all of these experiences in life – to keep him comfortably in the scriptural narrative, where we can read when we want and what we want. It is so easy to turn these experiences into merely human experiences; to forget that Jesus can and will show up unexpected yet truly, bringing his healing and renewal very personally into our lives and world.
Of course a deeper spirituality is one that refuses the everyday atheism that cannot imagine Jesus is there to be seen; can’t imagine that Jesus is there to be listened to; can’t imagine that Jesus is present to leads us into abundant life. Jesus shows up. That’s just what he does. That’s just who he is.
That man, one of many, sitting on that porch near the sheep gate, meets this Jesus.
This person he doesn’t know.
This person he’s never met before.
This person who will soon disappear back into the crowd from which he emerged.
“Do you want to be made well?” “Sir,” he answered, “I have no one to put me into the pool when the water is stirred up; and while I am making my way, someone else steps down ahead of me.” Jesus said to him, “Stand up, take your mat and walk.” At once the man was made well, and he took up his mat and began to walk.
His life is changed. There is healing and grace… The power and healing of Jesus in that man’s life is as real and powerful as his power and healing may be in ours. Yet suddenly, the one who provided healing is gone – the nameless one who made him well isn’t to be found. He has disappeared back into the busy crowd.
But not for long. Jesus shows up again. That’s just what Jesus does. One moment he is there, he offers a word of healing, and he is gone – and then just a short time later he reappears. We read in the story: “Later Jesus found him in the temple and said to him, ‘See, you have been made well. Do not sin any more, so that nothing worse happens to you’.”
This first word spoken out of the crowd: “Do you want to be healed?”
This second word spoken there in the temple: “Do not sin any more.”
We are those who need healing – and out of nowhere, when it is not part of our agenda, when there is some word we need to hear – Jesus comes and speaks a word of healing and renewal into our lives.
But for Jesus, we are not only those who need a word of healing. We are also those who need to hear a word that is very much out of favour in our culture.
This second word is a word
that holds us responsible.
It’s a word that says we sometimes do worse than just make mistakes.
It’s a word that all our wrongdoing can’t be blamed on others.
This word: “Do not sin any more.”
As much as we don’t like that word, and as much as we may refuse to speak such a word, and as much as we often refuse to hear such a word, there is every possibility that Jesus will appear to speak such a word: “Go and sin no more.”
Perhaps the living Jesus will speak to us through a friend: “You know, you are seriously unfair to her almost every time she comes up in conversation.”
Perhaps Jesus will suddenly speak clearly through something we read online: “You’re right – no one knows about your dishonesty, but I do, and it’s a betrayal of who you are.”
Perhaps Jesus will speak to us through that still small voice – that sometimes insistent voice in heart and mind: “You could do something about your anger, but you just keep giving in to it.”
It is such a gift to have the stories of Jesus there at hand for us. But sometimes having access to the broad and beautiful story of Jesus is a kind of cheat – because reading that story saves us from a real encounter with him in the everyday. Sometimes being able to pick up the book to read this story or that story is a kind of cheat – because Jesus is not so manageable and predictable as that.
Jesus wants to meet us. Jesus wants to speak with us. Jesus wants to encounter us, on his terms, in his way, with his particular message for us.
He wants to speak a word of hope – do you want to be made well?
He wants to speak a sometimes strong and difficult word – do you want to put sin behind you, and live in my grace?
In the days and weeks ahead of us, let’s not cheat ourselves out of the deep encounter that is the heart of our spiritual lives. Let’s keep our eyes open for Jesus in our everyday – he will speak, and we may listen.
Thanks be to God. Amen.