“The Voice of the Healer”
Homily by The Rev. Joe Gunby
John 5: 2-9
March 11, 2018
Audio of this sermon is unavailable.
John 5:2: Now in Jerusalem by the Sheep Gate there is a pool, called in Hebrew Bethesda, which has five porticoes. 3 In these lay many invalids—blind, lame, and paralyzed. 5 One man was there who had been ill for thirty-eight years. 6 When Jesus saw him lying there and knew that he had been there a long time, he said to him, “Do you want to be made well?” 7 The sick man answered him, “Sir, 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.” 8 Jesus said to him, “Stand up, take your mat and walk.” 9 At once the man was made well, and he took up his mat and began to walk.
At the heart of the encounter, Jesus asks the man, “Do you want to be made well?” Jesus doesn’t ask, “what can I do for you?” He doesn’t begin with pleasantries. Jesus knows what the man needs—he needs to be made well, made whole. When Jesus saw him lying there he knew that he had been there a long time; Jesus knew his condition and its duration. Jesus the Remedy knew the man’s ailment. So he asks, “do you want to be made well?”
At first it seems a silly question. We can imagine the disciples standing there might have asked, “C’mon Jesus, you know how long he’s been here, you know how much he needs to be healed, so go ahead and heal him already.” But this is one of the places where our Lord shows a tremendous amount of restraint. Jesus could have healed him with a word, but it seems that he wants the man to co-operate with his healing. Jesus knows that there is something occurring inside the man that needs to be brought to the level of awareness, and the man’s answer shows this to be true. Rather than recognize the presence of the healer in his midst, the man gives an explanation, “hey look,” he says, “as you can tell, I’m having a hard time walking here, and as you can tell, the pool is over there, so put two and two together.”
I’ve often heard it said that the man is here giving excuses, and that in fact, the fact that he lollygags is just a sign that he is looking for a handout, but notice, the text is not interested in his motives, as is often the case with the Bible. While it seems obvious to say, if you want to know what the Bible means its usually best to start with what the words and sentences say. The story says that in answering Jesus’ question, the man actually answers a different question.
The question the man thought he heard might be something like, “hey, lame guy, why have you been here so long?” To which his response is, “well, because nobody will put me in the waters.” I should also add that some people at that time thought that the waters at the pool of Bethesda were healing waters, but only at certain times, when, as legend had it, an angel would come and “trouble the waters,” or stir them up. When that happened, people would rush forward to get in within a certain time, after which time, the water was just water again. In short, the man is saying, I can’t get there fast enough because the competition is just too intense.
On the other hand, the legend of the angel who troubles the waters isn’t necessary to understand the man’s predicament. His problem may simply be that the waters did not heal in the way they were thought to. It doesn’t really matter how the man answers the question he thought he heard, what matters is, there is another question we can answer—a question about being healed. This story focuses our attention not on all the things that do not heal, but raises to our awareness the presence of the One who can heal. Even though the Source of all Life was standing right in front him, this man played the same old tapes that had been playing in his head for who knows how long—and how could he have done otherwise? The pain of illness is often more accutely felt in the mind than in the body. But in spite of voices in our minds, we are still never out of earshot from the healing voice of Jesus.
Contemplative prayer is such useful aid in the life of the spirit because it is a practice that helps us turn off the noise of our own mind. At the first level, we’re able to silence the constant chatter that is constantly overdubbing our more substantial thoughts. Once that is turned off there are deeper patterns of thought that begin to surface—the stories we tell ourselves out of fear, or anxiety, or pain—the stories of why we can’t be healed or why we’re not good enough. When we learn to pay attention to our thoughts, we begin to notice how the operate on us, how they can take the wheel of our consciousness and drive us to all sorts of strange places. But in the habit of silence we learn to sit as someone in a quiet church, hearing the cars drive by on the street, but by no means hopping in to be taken to their strange destinations.
I’ve seen how silence can bring people back from the destinations they’ve found themselves wanting to leave. As your pastor, I have utter confidence in recommending the practices of contemplation and silence because I’ve seen up close lives that have been changed. My friend Sherri was a pastor working 80 hours a week at a large congregation when she found herself absolutely exhausted and run down. She discovered contemplative prayer on a weekend clergy retreat and at first, she took to it because it was the only time she could ever stop, but then, over the course of weeks and months, she began to hear the voice of anxiety that had been pushing her to exhaustion and beyond. There was voice saying, “if you don’t work as hard as the Senior Pastor, you’ll be a failure and everyone will know it.” “If you don’t work harder than everyone else, they’ll know you don’t belong here.” After a time, she was able to hear these voices without running from them, to let them in without letting them tell her who she really was as a child of God.
When we learn to be aware of these voices without letting them control us, what we discover underneath them is the presence of Jesus. I should add here that contemplative or centering prayer is nothing on its own. Like any spiritual discipline, it’s gift to us insofar as it puts us into contact with the healing of Jesus. The presence of God is always with us—we cannot do anything to diminish it. Christ is the ground of our being, the source of our life, and through the work of the Holy Spirit, Christ is always present to us. When we quiet our minds and silence the stories in our heads, we can hear the Voice of the Healer, asking us again, “do you want to be made well?”