Why had that man been there for such a long time?
told by Deborah
It was near the time of a Jewish holiday, and Jesus went to Jerusalem for the celebration.
Next to the Sheep Gate to Jerusalem there is a pool the Hebrews call Bethesda, with five alcoves. Those who gathered there — the blind, the broken, the diseased, the disabled — had given up any hope for healing apart from a miracle. And so they lay in the shade and waited, because at certain times an angel of the Lord stirred up the water, and whoever first stepped into the pool at that time was made well.
A man was there who had been ill for thirty-eight years. When Jesus saw him lying there, and knew that he had been in that condition for a long time, He said to him, “Do you want to be healed?”
The sick man answered Him, “Sir, I have no one to put me into the pool when the water is stirred up, and before I can reach it, someone else gets there first.”
Jesus said to him, “Get up, pick up your bed roll and walk.”
Immediately the man became well, and picked up his bed roll and started walking.
This took place on the Sabbath.
Advisory: The soldier's story is graphic, albeit accurate. Some readers may find it upsetting.
The sunlight struck the edge of his sword and he charged ahead blindly, his shield before him; shouting, cursing, slashing, fueled by the wild energy of battle. Eyes forward, march on! He felt the weapon shudder and stop; a scream — a shrilling as of a peacock, and then silence; blood spattered on his gloved hand. Eyes forward, march on! Plunging ahead, his armor wet with sweat — the heat of battle is no mere metaphor, panting, slashing; howling, ceaseless, unhesitating. Eyes forward, march on! Cresting the hill: a clash, a flash of steel, he staggered; an enemy sword had struck and missed, deflected by his shield, unbalancing him. He fell, slipping back, down, prone, helpless, ignored as the following ranks marched forward over him. Sliding, sliding, sliding; unable to stop.
Coughing, gagging, spitting, struggling to get his breath. The ground seemed to swallow him: wet, clinging, muddy, a dark maroon landscape of broken swords, shattered lances, flakes of armor, fallen daggers, and severed body parts. He gasped, struggling, sinking, sinking, sinking ever deeper. He could not stand: he was drowning in a sea of blood.
Flailing, struggling, wrestling with the memory, the old soldier came to himself with a shout. His eyes wild; dizzy, disoriented: where was he? The ground was solid, smooth, pale, cold; a few steps away, shimmering like steel, a pool of water.
He did not remember how he got there, or how long he had been there. A week, an age, a lifetime…. He knew that these were healing waters — or so it was said, but each time he drew near to the edge, he could not go in. When he looked down, he saw it filled with shards of metal, flecks of blood, and broken bones; there was no healing to be found within, only a reflection of the horrors he had seen.
And so he remained hidden in the recess of the alcove, paralyzed with fear; a creature of the shadows, laid out on the cool, pale, marble as in a sepulcher, alongside others who, like him, were dead while yet alive.
Perhaps this was the story of the man who lay by the pool of Bethesda: an old soldier; struggling, suffering, abandoned, forgotten, hopeless, helpless; dead while yet alive. Sheltering in the shadows, unseen, ignored, avoided; he is a troublesome reminder of the fact of war and the cost of war.
His story takes place on a holiday — like our Memorial Day weekend. Many of those who came to Jerusalem for the celebration would have entered through the Sheep Gate and walked past the pool where the invalids lay without so much as a sideways glance. It was, after all, a view better avoided: the mad, the misshapen, the hopeless, heaped together like broken pottery — not at all conducive to a party atmosphere.
It is the same with most of us: we see Memorial Day as a time for festivities — picnics, barbecues, camping trips, pool parties, and Sales Events — overlooking those the holiday is meant to honor: our war dead. After all, who wants to think about that sort of depressing stuff when the weather is so beautiful. Summer has finally begun: let’s celebrate!
But, for some, there can be no celebration.
As acutely painful and tragic as are the losses suffered by families and friends of those who have died, there are others still among the living who struggle to survive after having served in conflict zones. Some are still engaged in the battle: hyper-vigilant, on guard and ready to engage in an instant. While we cry “peace” for them there is no peace, for they have seen — and continue to see — what we cannot: a potential sniper’s nest; a likely ambush, an enemy combatant, an explosive device in the street. Children’s shouts sound like battle cries, sirens can send them diving for cover, an unexpected touch can set off a towering rage, their own capacity for violence can fill them with grief and horror.
Many of these try to self-medicate, to take shelter in the shadowland of alcohol or drugs, dulling their senses — but there is no peace, only stupor: a paralysis of mind and body. They lie on our sidewalks, stumble through our cities, mumble and shout and threaten and weep helplessly. These are the other casualties of war: those who are “as good as dead,” and yet unburied.
So, what might the Lord Jesus have done for our old soldier who was paralyzed by his memories, incapacitated by his past; unable to live, despite having physically survived the battle? The Gospel, always anxious to show that “at His word all were healed,” may have provided us with only an abbreviated version of events; perhaps there is more to the story.
“Pick up your bed roll and walk!”
To an old soldier, Jesus’ words might have sounded like a command: “Attention! Forward: march!” — one that the fellow appears to have followed, unquestioningly, but the Lord wasn’t a general; he was a teacher, a healer. There must have been further conversation — a personal connection, an encounter beyond a quick question, a hesitant reply, and an ensuing demand.
The only “marching orders” Jesus issued were toward love, faith, and service. That fact can help us to imagine what might begin to free someone locked in a prison of pain and hopelessness. Surely it began with Jesus’ recognition of this desperate, destitute soul. After thirty-eight years the man had become so much wallpaper: an ever-present object, as much a part of the healing pool as the pillars surrounding it, and as little-noticed. A permanent resident with no hope of healing, just another bum.
But to Jesus the man was somebody: a person with a life, a history; a reason for being there, and a reason for being. And the Lord spoke to him, directly, firmly; asking what he, himself, wanted. But instead of an answer, the man gave an excuse for remaining in the shadows. These days we would call his attitude “learned helplessness;” he had lived in the category of invalid for so long that he couldn’t imagine doing anything on his own. He had forgotten that his will or desire could have an effect on his life.
And here, I believe, is the holy lacuna: the silent sacred space in the Gospel which draws a curtain over the highly personal conversation between the old soldier and the Lord. What was said is not our business, the outcome is what matters:
The man picked up his bed roll and walked.
After his encounter with Jesus the man walked openly through the city that had been closed off to him, like a prisoner freed from his chains — or a man raised from the dead.
What passed between them was particular and personal, and yet, knowing the Lord’s Message as we do, we can discern the essentials: Nothing can separate you from the love of God, no matter who you are, where you’ve come from, or what you’ve done. Your life has value and worth, and, despite whatever has gone before, there is forgiveness and redemption. Take up your history, your experiences, and go forth — walking in the Way of grace and mercy.
It would be lovely to say that, after meeting with Jesus, the man’s life was ease and joy from that moment on — but it wasn’t. The world doesn’t operate that way: we may gain strength for the journey and confidence in God’s love, but pains and problems, stresses and sorrows will still arise. And so it was for the old soldier.
Almost at once he is challenged by the religious authorities; scolded for carrying his bed roll on the Sabbath. Apparently his self-confidence is still a work in progress, as he shifts the blame to his unknown benefactor: “I’m just following orders.” Some time later Jesus finds the man in the Temple — offering thanksgiving to the Beloved, one hopes — and warns him:
“Now that you’re well, keep to the right path, so that nothing worse happens to you.”
It’s a warning of the danger of cheap grace: a temptation to take divine grace for granted — to treat God’s love and blessings as of no value, as an entitlement rather than a gift. To understand oneself as a blessed and cherished child of God should inspire us to respond in kind: with love and charity, generosity and compassion.
The man’s story ends ambiguously: having discovered who Jesus was, he went to the religious authorities and told them; they, in turn, began to persecute the Lord for breaking the Sabbath. Was the man an informer who sought to harm the Lord — a sort of proto-Judas who betrayed Him? Or a witness to Christ’s healing power? Or just a weak and frightened soul who didn’t want any trouble? We do not know.
As blessed and cherished children of God, and faithful followers of our Lord Christ, we are called to show forth love and charity, generosity and compassion. There can be no better time than the present; and we have a wealth of opportunities.
Those who have died in combat — and, importantly, their survivors — deserve our respect and support. Notably, the state of Ohio offers scholarships for war orphans, such programs should be in place in every state. Equally, the families of those who “gave the last full measure of devotion” in service to their country should be cared for in body, mind, and spirit.
As for the walking wounded, those who returned from battle in body but not in mind — those I have named “the dead while yet alive,” they, too, deserve our care and compassion. Many of the homeless on our streets are veterans, others “live wild;” seeking sanctuary in the hills and shadowed forests. That there is insufficient, delayed and denied treatment through the Department of Veterans Affairs/VA hospitals is unconscionable.
Among certain groups at certain times it has been considered sophisticated and fashionable to discount, disrespect, and have outright contempt for those who serve in our military. Such attitudes have no place in the Christian heart, which is to be guided by compassion, mercy, and generosity toward all. That we may hold pacifist views, or disagree with our country’s international policies are separate issues from our call to love and care for one another — especially the sick and the sorrowing, the weary and the wounded, the widows and the orphans.
May Christ’s grace and healing love abound,
The question Jesus asks of the man by the pool might easily be asked of us: “Do you want to be healed?” Do we want our foolish (or hardened) hearts to be opened: do we aspire to be wise and loving followers of Christ? Then we must listen to others’ stories.
Read histories of battles, listen to the voices of those who have fought and struggled in combat — troubling and terrifying as they can be, for how else can we hope to understand? How else will we know how to help? How else will we be truly committed to peace?
As a Jew, our imagined soldier would have been released from the obligation for military service under Caesar. It is possible that he would have been involved in one of the many “skirmishes” that occurred in the farther provinces of the Roman empire throughout the late first century B.C.E. and early C.E. Having shed blood would require that he undergo cleansing/purification before he could enter the Temple precincts.