There was a study conducted by John Darley and Paget Gross involving college students and a young girl named Hannah. The students watched a video of Hannah playing in her neighborhood and were given to read a brief fact sheet describing Hannah’s background.
Some of the students watched “Low-Income Hannah” who had parents with High School Diplomas who worked blue collar jobs.
Other students saw “Middle-Class Hannah” with college educated parents working white collar jobs.
When the students saw Hannah interviewed she was asked the same battery of questions and gave the same answers to those questions. Some of the more difficult questions she did not answer correctly and some of the simpler questions were also answered incorrectly.
Even though Hannah answered questions exactly the same, “Middle-Class Hannah” was rated academically as close to fifth grade level, while “Low-Income Hannah” was rated academically as below fourth grade.
A different study by Robert Rosenthal and Lenure Jacobson told Elementary School teachers, after giving their classes an assessment test designed to identify “academic bloomers”, that some of the students had scored in the top 20% of the test, even though they performed no better than unselected peers. A year after the “test” the researchers returned to the school and administered the same test. The “bloomers” now outperformed their peers by 10-15 IQ points because the teachers fostered the intellectual development of the “bloomers” over their ordinary peers. (“Why It’s Dangerous to Label People,” by Adam Alter, from Psychology Today.)
Can words create boxes that confine people? Certainly words are used to help identify and describe—people are tall or short, people have a variety of melanin that makes up skin tone–and so we can use words to identify physical traits of other individuals. But what about words that make value judgments—“these students have been identified as academic bloomers”—Hannah is in a low income neighborhood with parents who have never been to college so her intellectual development is less than the exact same Hannah who lives in a middle income home and has parents who have graduated from college. Do those words trap Hannah? Maybe. Maybe not.
Jesus is in the Temple for a Festival—presumably he is there for one of the major pilgrimage festivals and since Passover was the last Festival mentioned in John’s gospel, some think he is there for the Festival of Shavuot which commemorates the giving of Torah to Israel, which is no small matter. “The giving of Torah was a far-reaching spiritual event—one that touched the essence of the Jewish soul for all time…sages have compared it to a wedding between G-d and the Jewish people.” (Chabad.org)
If Jesus is in the Temple for Shavuot, he’s there for a Festival draws attention to the unique identity of the Jewish people.
It’s also the Sabbath. Even though the Sabbath is not mentioned till the end of the passage, it’s important to note here, because equal in importance to the Torah for the Jewish identity is Sabbath. It is meant to be a day of rest and celebration—and if not recreation, certainly re-creation of the G-d given identity.
Jesus is in the Jerusalem Temple on the Sabbath during a major pilgrimage festival and he happens across the Pool of Bethzatha—a place where the blind, the lame, and the paralyzed were left, or where they would congregate in hopes of being the first one in the pool once the waters were stirred.
John says that “a certain man” was there who had been ill for thirty-eight years. There’s no name for this guy, the Greek words used only call him tis Anthropos a saying used of persons which the writer cannot or will not speak of in more particularity.
Jesus meets tis Anthropos and knows he’s been there a long time.
I wonder: How did Jesus know that the man had been there a long time? Did the man have a look of defeat on his face because he had given up on trying to get to the stirred up waters? Did Jesus see resignation on his face?
We will most likely never know how Jesus knew tis Anthropos had been there for a long time, but we know what Jesus did for the man. Jesus asks the man, “Do you want to be made well?”
I remember very early in my ministry I received a phone call about a parishioner who had gone to the hospital with an unexpected and pretty serious illness. I got to the hospital as quickly as I could, concerned for the individual and their family; I walked into the room after being told by the nurse which room they were in, and as I looked at the person, hooked up to multiple IV bags and tubes and machines, I asked, “How are you doing?”
Words you wish you could take back, you know? “How are you doing?” I know you’re lying there, not quite on life support, not sure where your illness is headed so let me ask you, “How are you doing?”
Jesus wasn’t careless in his question, though; not like my miss-step with my question.
“Do you want to be made well” doesn’t quite get at what Jesus asks the man. Thelo is word we turn in to “want” – which can more readily be translated “to will, to have in mind, to intend” and maybe the KJV is closer with its rendering of “wilt thou.” Ginomai is where we get “be made” – which can mean “to become, to come into existence, to begin to be, to come to pass, or to be made or finished.” Hoo-Gee-Ays is the word we get “well” from which is to be sound in body or to be made whole.
All that to say that maybe a better way of rendering Jesus’ question is “do you have the will to be made whole/complete/finished?”
Do you have the will to be complete? Do you desire to be made whole?
And this man—this tis Anthropos—who is in the porticos of the Temple, surrounded by tangible reminders of the presence of the G-d of steadfast love and mercy, looks at Jesus and says, “There’s no one to put me in the waters, and when they do get stirred, as I am making my way to the waters, someone else gets there first.”
Sir, I am a victim.
Sir, I am an invalid.
Sir, I am my disease.
Sir, I am my paralysis.
His excuses are derived from his identity of being of victim of his helplessness. He is feeble; he is weak; he is powerless. The labels which once upon a time merely described him, have grown to define him. And rather than see the presence of G-d, he sees only his invalidity.
His answer is almost a protest of obviousness, “Of course I want to be made well; I have been waiting here for 38 years so that I can be made well, but I am helpless! Look at me!”
I had a professor who said that in almost every gospel encounter there is a moment where we cannot help to say, “But Jesus.” The man kind of says, “But Jesus, I can’t be made well.” But that isn’t the kind of “But Jesus” that my professor meant.
“But Jesus” is the moment in gospel encounters when Jesus tells people, either with his words or with his actions, that G-d is not contained by our powerlessness or our excuses.
“Of course I want to be made well!” the man says. But Jesus says to the man, “Stand up, take your mat and walk.”
I hope you’ll excuse me for doing this one more time, but the Greek word here is E-ga-ro and in addition to meaning to cause to rise from a seat or bed, it also means “to arouse or cause to rise, to arouse from sleep, to awake, to arouse from the sleep of death, or to recall the dead to life.” And the word that gets translated as walk is peripateo — which can mean to make one’s way, as in to move, or to live, to regulate one’s life, to conduct one’s self, to pass one’s life.”
Hey you, tis Anthropos, rise; get up from your helplessness, get up from your invalidity, and live—be alive!
The text tells us “at once the man was made well, and he took up his mat and began to walk.” At once, he rose up, took control of what controlled him, and began to be alive.
Now that day was a Sabbath.
John takes that sentence and begins to tell of conflict between those who would be keepers of the rules and the One who is the Giver of Life. But my purpose in bringing us back to that sentence is not to use historical conflict between Jesus and the Religious Leaders of the day as a way of driving a wedge between Christians and the Law; I bring us back to that sentence because Sabbath is a day for re-creation of G-d given identity.
Sabbath is a day of remembering that our identity is not derived from how productive or strong we are. Sabbath is not a day of doing, but a day of being. Our Sabbath identity rests in the identity that we are given by G-d. Likewise our Sunday identity—our Lord’s Day identity—is derived in the One we worship, the One who sets the table, the One who calls us Beloved and Forgiven. And every time we have the opportunity to bask in the identity we are given in Baptism and in the Eucharist, we turn away from the labels that would confine us, limit us, or box us in.
We remember as we move forward to Christ in the Eucharist that we are reconciled in his death and resurrection; that we are made whole and alive in the eyes of G-d not through our efforts of doing, but in our state of being in Christ.