When We Rise

walking[1]

This sermon was preached at St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church in Dearborn Heights, Michigan and was focused upon the story that is told in John 5:1-9.  The audio recording is above and a written manuscript is below.

John 5:1-9

This story has a happy ending.  A man stands up, takes his mat, and walks. He is well, and this is the first time that has been true in at least 38 years. The story has a happy ending, as they say.  In the end, it is miraculous and freeing.

But we know behind that number – 38 – there are more stories to be told. Years of them.  Decades of them.  None of these stories are spelled out in detail for us here. They are only hinted or implied. We’re left to wonder, but 38 years is a tremendously long stretch of time to be in one place.  That’s how long this man has laid at the Sheep’s Gate in Jerusalem.  There is a pool there, and this man has been in the presence of many others who are lying there too. They have disabilities or chronic illnesses. Together, they wait there. Together, they try to hope for more, but together, maybe each one feels horrifically alone.

The story says that within these five porticos by the pool there lay “many invalids.” Invalids.  That’s another way of saying In-valid.[2] That’s how others thought of these people lying by the pool. They were in-valid. That kind of designation must have loomed large over 38 years of lying at the same pool. Behind the story with a happy ending remains many other stories, and perhaps over time, those stories weaved together to form one overarching narrative. That narrative told a daily story of being left behind, stigmatized, and considered to have less worth.

I wonder how this man internalized such a narrative.  . . Is that what he began to believe about himself? That he was no longer a beloved child of God with infinite worth, but instead, simply one who is in-valid? One who has no hope? One who is just waiting because he no longer believes he can affect the reality he is living?

I’m intrigued by the way Jesus approaches this man. Perhaps Jesus knew that this narrative was at play. Maybe he knew that it had been internalized, and the man now fully believed it. Because Jesus begins with a question. The question might sound a bit pointed because it was dealing with a serious matter, but I think it was spoken with compassion. Jesus gets straight to the point: “Do you want to be made well?”

Do you? It’s a good question, isn’t it? It’s certainly honest one. Sometimes, when we’ve carried a narrative like the one this man was carrying, that narrative begins to infect our entire reality. A child psychologist and author named Bruce Perry says it this way: “We tend to prefer the certainty of misery to the misery of uncertainty.” [3]

We tend to prefer the certainty of misery to the misery of uncertainty.

After we’ve lived with it for a good while, misery can start to feel rather normal. After a while, we might lose any belief that our lives can change for the better, and that reality is sometimes preferable to the misery of uncertainty.  After all, if we allow hope to creep in just a little, it feels uncertain. We don’t know if we can trust it. And that feels precarious.

After misery has become so normalized, Jesus asks a good question: “Do you want to be made well?”

And that’s when the story pours out, not with many words but with emotion for Jesus to see.  The man doesn’t give a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ answer. Instead, he says, “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.” This man has been waiting. He feels forgotten. He thinks he’ll never make it. He thinks new life is impossible.

There was a belief about this pool by the Sheep Gate. In fact, it may be reason why so many people were lying there. There was a belief that once per day, angels would stir the waters of the pool, and the first person to make it into the pool would be healed. This man was never the first one to make it in, and as he said, there was no one to help him make it in. So day by day, he sat in the same place, wondering if there could ever be another outcome.

On this day, there was. And it looked different than anything the man had anticipated before.  When Jesus encountered this man, he didn’t heal him instantly and just walk on. He asked a question: “Do you want to be made well?”

In asking that question, Jesus dared to see the misery for what it was. Jesus chose to be with this person in his suffering, and there was healing in that very act.

I also notice that Jesus didn’t just pick this man up and put him in the pool. He didn’t feed into the narrative that this man had been living for so long. Instead, with great love — having seen the misery for what it was, and even more, having seen this man for the beloved child of God he is – Jesus said freeing words.

“Stand up, take your mat, and walk.”

This was not some, “Pull yourself up by your own bootstraps,” kind of message. Jesus was not saying that this man had to do it all on his own. No, it was the complete opposite. Instead, Jesus was so profoundly with this man. Jesus stood in the presence of the misery and suffering he was living, and that connection transformed some of the deep pain he was carrying. Jesus nudged the man to leave the old story behind. “Stand up, take your mat, and walk.”

And he did.

Perhaps the man wobbled a bit. We don’t know.
Perhaps his heart felt unsteady as he dared to trust.
But he took the first step toward a new story.
In the presence of Jesus, this man was raised to new life.

We are hearing this story on the sixth Sunday of Easter. Easter isn’t just one day of the year. It is a season in the Christian calendar. And of course, each Sunday is a celebration of the resurrection of Jesus.

In the season of Easter, we hear stories of Jesus making appearances to his disciples after the tomb was found to be empty. We hear stories of disciples encountering Jesus in unexpected ways. We hear stories of disciples waiting for the coming of the Holy Spirit.

But suddenly, in the sixth week of Easter, we get this story.

We get this story all the way back in the 5th chapter of John with so many more chapters to go before we ever experience the death and resurrection of Jesus. So why is this story an Easter text?

I think it has to do with our resurrection.

Because —
in the presence of the Living Christ,
in the presence of God with Us,
in the presence of Resurrection itself,
we too are called to new life.

This has to do with our resurrection.

Our form of healing might not end as dramatically as it does in this story, and we may continue to carry challenges, illnesses, and painful memories. These are a part of life. But living as followers of Jesus means that we too are raised to new life. It means that we are living a different story. We can live a different narrative than the ones that shaped us in the past, sometimes marking our lives for misery.

We can walk away from those miserable stories.
We have been carrying them for years, but we can let them go in the presence of the Risen Christ.

Maybe we’ve carried a story which tells us we are in-valid.
Maybe we’ve carried a story which tells us we aren’t worth very much.
Maybe we’ve carried a story which tells us that don’t have what it takes to change.
Maybe we’ve carried a story which tells us we can never be forgiven.

Whatever the story is,
today we are called to leave it behind,
to stand up, take our mat, and walk differently,
to embrace uncertainty because it this kind of trust leads to new life.

In Jesus, we see one who looks us in the eyes, choosing to see suffering and pain for what it truly is. This one stands before us, knowing our own suffering and pain as well as the suffering and pain of the entire world. In Jesus, we see one who has suffered and died with and for us.

And in the very same Jesus, we see one raised to new life. In the presence of God, we are also called to resurrection.

So what do you need to leave behind, and how will you walk forward today?

Renee Roederer

[1] Photo Credit: This image is a public domain photo at Pixabay

[2] Years ago, I heard the Rev. Ben Johnston-Krase, Co-planter of Farm Church, call attention to the double meaning of the word ‘invalid’ in a sermon he preached on this passage.

[3] Bruce Perry shared this quote in The Boy Who Was Raised as a Dog: And Other Stories from a Child Psychiatrist’s Notebook — What Traumatized Children Can Teach Us About Loss, Love, and Healing.

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