Thirty-eight years is a long time. Think about where you were and what you were doing in May of 1978. I was getting ready for my senior prom and preparing to graduate from high school. And take a moment to ponder everything that has happened in your life sense then. Think of all you have done and accomplished. Think of the adversities you have faced and the challenges you have overcome. Think about how life has changed. In 1978, our house had only rotary dial telephones. Today I carry my phone with me wherever I go and – as its name suggests – it is smarter than I am.
Can you imagine what your life would be like if nothing about it had changed since 1978? In this morning’s gospel reading we meet a person who can. For thirty-eight years he has sat on a mat next to a pool of water. He is unable to walk and so with other invalids he waits by the pool for an opportunity to be healed. This kind of pool, known as an Asclepieion, could be found throughout the Roman Empire. Followers of Ascelpius held that this Greek god had the power to heal and they referred to him as their “savior.” From time to time Asclepius would touch a pool of water and the first person to bath in it would be healed or so the story went and thus Asclepieions attracted the desperate and hopeless.
The text tells us the pool’s name is Beth-zatha, which in Hebrew can had a double meaning: either it could mean “House of Mercy” or “House of Grace” or it could mean “House of Shame” or “House of Disgrace”. No doubt one’s interpretation depended on how much credence you gave to the healing power verses how much contempt you held for the superstitious and infirmed. Its constituents probably evoked the same kind of response we have for people holding cardboard signs at a street light – either “you poor thing” or “go get a job.”
Albert Einstein is credited with saying the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over, but expecting different results. If that is the definition, then this guy by the pool is the poster child. For thirty-eight years he continues to suffer and to waste away. No drive. No initiative. Doing nothing. Producing nothing. His really is a sad, pathetic story. No wonder Jesus asked him if he wanted to be made well. For thirty-eight years this fellow has done not one thing to help himself. He is has not changed one thing about himself even though what he was doing clearly was not working.
This healing story is different from all the others in the gospels. The lame man does not call out to Jesus and no one brings him to Jesus’ attention. Jesus approaches him. For his part, the lame man does not exhibit a shred of faith in Jesus – or in himself, for that matter. When asked if he wants to be made well, the lame man’s lame response is “I have no one to put me in the water. Someone else always gets there first.”
The text does not tell us what motivates Jesus. Is he moved by compassion or just exasperated with this man? Here is my translation: “This is pitiful. Quite wasting your time! Stand up right now! Pick up your mat and get on with your life.” One commentator, noting this is a location for pagan worship, says it would be as if “a Muslim walked into a Pentecostal healing service, strode up to the oldest wheelchair-bound person he saw, and, right in front of the preacher, healed the person in the wheelchair.” Perhaps Jesus wants to confront superstition itself; whether it be in the form of pagan worship or religious restrictions on doing good on the Sabbath day. God knows there has always been a direct correlation between bad theology and real human suffering. Jesus will have none of it.
Whereas the gospel reading leaves us with questions, today’s first reading gives us insight. We know what motivates Paul to take the Gospel into present-day Europe for the first time. He is responding to a vision of a man pleading with him to come and help. So Paul goes. This may not seem all that remarkable, but what a contrast it is to the lame man by the pool. Evolutionary theory holds the advantage goes not to the strongest or to the most numerous, but to the organism best able to adapt to a changing environment. While the lame man was stuck on his mat, Paul is (to use a current buzzword) nimble as nimble can be.
His agility is on full display as he strikes up a conversation with a group of women who, in something of a parallel, are also gathered by a body of water. But unlike the lame man, these ladies are working. Text tells us about Lydia. She is a worshipper of God and she deals in purple cloth, which was the color of nobility in the Roman Empire and very rare. Lydia’s was a lucrative trade. The dye used to make the cloth came from the secretions of a particular sea snail, which Lydia and the other woman no doubt were harvesting as they talked with Paul. She decides to be baptized, along with everyone else in her household, and becomes a leading figure in the early church.
Throughout the Book of Acts, the various disciples whose activities are chronicled are constantly on the move. The Spirit is driving them to new places and guiding them through new experiences. The early Church, infused with the dynamic life of Jesus, was not content to sit on a mat for thirty-eight years or to wait to see if something might change. It was open and responsive to God’s initiative. It learned to adapt to changing cultures, political climates, and norms in order to tell the story of Jesus.
Today’s two stories challenge today’s church. The seven-word mission of too many congregations is “We’ve never done it that way before!” Something to this effect would have been an appropriate epitaph on the lame man’s tombstone until Jesus showed up in his life. Congregations that sit back passively and expect things to change are dying. They are running out of life far quicker than they are running out of members or money.
But those congregations with a sense of a God-given mission and purpose beyond themselves are discovering new sources of vitality, even if membership and money are stagnant. From my perspective, St. Paul’s Food Pantry has given us a way to focus on people in our immediate community and the hospitality and compassion we show to them has transformed the way we welcome new people into our parish – an increasingly important skill given the transient nature of our community. We continue to find God’s goodness, God’s joy, and God’s compassion as we come together and we extend it to every person who comes through our doors.
These two readings also say something important to us as individuals. They challenge us to take a hard look at our lives, to recognize where, how, and why we have been stuck; perhaps for years and years. They challenge us to examine deeply held beliefs and assumptions in order to identify those notions that have kept us passive and paralyzed when it comes to moving forward and moving on. Jesus comes to the man by the pool with a startling new idea – stand up and walk. It is hardly a revolutionary idea, and yet it breaks through every inner idea holding down this man. No more waiting for a ripple in the water. No more complaining he has no one to help him.
It reminds of a story about a pilgrim on a journey who, while walking through a field, comes to a large wall blocking his way. It is too high to scale and from his vantage point it seems to stretch for miles and miles in either direction. What is he too do? He can’t climb over it and can’t walk around it? Will his journey stop at the wall? Then an idea comes to the pilgrim. He wonders how thick the wall might be. He touches it and what do you know, the wall turns out to be thin as paper. He walks right through it and continues on his way.
Many of the problems that paralyze us in life – especially when powered and fueled by our emotional response to them and fear of them – are just like that wall. We can’t figure out how to get over them or around them and so we just stop and let it get the better of us. The thing is, with Jesus, many of our problems are so thin that if we just walk through them they go away. Notice how the text says Lydia’s heart was open as she listened eagerly to Paul. Listen to God with an open heart. You just might hear the words, “Stand up and walk.” Don’t wait thirty-eight years. In fact, don’t wait another day.