Monday, May 6, 2013

The Man by the Pool

Let’s engage in a little time travel this morning by going back to 1975. It was the year that…

• Mitchell, Haldeman and Ehrlichman were found guilty of the Watergate cover-up and the Vietnam War ended with the fall of Saigon.

• Space Mountain opened at Disney World and Busch Gardens opened in Williamsburg.

• NBC debuted a game show called The Wheel of Fortune and a weekly entertainment program called Saturday Night Live.

• Jimmy Hoffa disappeared near Detroit and Patty Hearst was on the FBI’s most wanted list.

• Fashion trends included bell bottoms, hip huggers, and mood rings.

• Pet rocks and the Rubik’s Cube were big sellers.

• One Flew over the Coo Coo’s Nest beat out Jaws for best picture.

• Muhammad Ali defeated Joe Frazier at the ‘Thrilla at Manila’ while Carton Fisk hit a dramatic extra-inning home run in Game 6 of the World Series.

• Americans and Russians docked in space and the SS Edmund Fitzgerald sank to the bottom of Lake Superior.

• Olivia Newton-John sang Have You Never been Mellow, Bruce Springsteen released Born to Run, and C.W. McCall had a hit single called Convoy.

• Gas cost 44 cents a gallon and the average price of a new car was $4,250. A movie ticket cost a dollar and U.S. debt stood at $551 billion dollars.

• I was in the ninth grade.

1975. It seems like a long time ago… and for good reason. It was 38 years ago.

I mention all of this to give us some perspective on a person we meet in today’s gospel reading. He is a man who has been ill for 38 years. We don’t know the nature of what troubles him, only that it affects his ability to walk. At some point he pinned his hopes for a cure on a local superstition. He spent his days at the side of a Jerusalem pool said to have miraculous healing power. From time to time its water would stir – legend had it that an angel caused this to happen – and the first person to enter the water after the stirring would be healed. You can imagine that quite a few sick people believed that the only way to get better was to get in that water first.

I remember talking about this story as a teenager in Sunday school. One of my friends remarked that if he had lived in Jerusalem at the time he would have hidden behind a pillar, chucked a rock into the pool, and reveled in the mayhem he created as invalids fought it out to get in the water. Cruel as his practical joke would have been, it provides some insight as to the role these pool-side people played in the greater society. They were looked on as being helpless and hopeless, pitied and pathetic.

Donald Capps, in his book Jesus the Village Psychiatrist, contends that this man’s condition was attributable to psychological factors more than medical factors. He notes that when faced with great danger we can deflect the threat by attacking if we think we can prevail against it (the fight response). If we judge the threat to be beyond our resources, our options become escape (flight), self-inhibition (freeze), or collapse (faint). Capps believes that some traumatic episode happened in the man’s life 38 years earlier and initiated a collapse response that manifested itself through impaired mobility up to the day Jesus encountered him.

Think about all that has happened in your life since 1975; all that you have learned, accomplished, and experienced. If you can imagine what it would be like to have had your life put on hold from 1975 until today then you will have some insight into the life of the man by the pool. He deemed that whatever threatened him back in the day – a family problem, a work problem, a relational problem, a legal problem, whatever – to be so overwhelming that he simply collapsed into illness as a way to avoid it.

When Jesus meets him he poses what at first seems like an astounding question: “Do you want to be made well?” The obvious answer is “Of course I do. Who wants to be ill for 38 years?” I might have asked an even more obvious question: “What is the matter with you? Why are you hanging out by this pool and pinning all your hopes on superstitious nonsense?” or even worse, “Why are you faking this problem, you miserable, lazy slacker?” Jesus approaches the man not with condemnation or criticism, but with possibility: “Do you want to be made well?”

Notice how the man’s response reveals his deep, inner sense of helplessness and victimization: “I don’t have anyone to put me in the water and as I make my way to it someone else always gets their first.” In his mind he can’t be made well because he has no one to help him and because there is a limited supply of wellness that other people have better access to thus denying it to him. He believes himself powerless in the face of his situation. But Jesus does not believe this about him. In just seven words Jesus tells the man to do three things: “Stand up”, “Pick up your mat,” and “Walk!” As the man does these three things his 38 year-long collapse comes to an end.

John’s Gospel indicates that the man is made well, but no where does it suggest that this was some kind of a miracle – a suspending of natural laws in order to affect a cure. What it suggests is that faith in God and faith in oneself are a powerful and potent combination necessary to get one’s life going again after a setback. Jesus demonstrates God’s deep desire not the lay blame but to offer new life. His focus was not on what happened to the man nor did he comment on why it had been prolonged for nearly four decades. Rather, he pointed to the possibility of a new start, of literally and figuratively getting back on your feet again. And the man, for his part, exhibited faith in himself: I can stand up, I can carry my load, I can move forward from this point toward a better life.

One of the most significant changes I have witnessed in our society since 1975 is the manner in which patients take an active role in their medical treatment. We no long sit back passively and expect a trained professional to make us better. When faced with a health crisis we now research and educate ourselves about its many facets and dimensions as well as various treatment options and plans. Flight, freeze, and faint are no longer the order of the day. We fight; we attack that which threatens us. This faith in ourselves, combined with faith in God’s desire to bring us to a place of health, are (as I said earlier) a powerful and potent combination.

Time and again I have witnessed people have their life rocked to the core. Sometimes it comes about through the loss of a job, other times as a result of a broken relationship, and still other times through the death of a loved one. There are many different ways to lie beside the pool waiting for the water to stir and hoping that someone else will do for you what you do not believe you can do for yourself. That wait can be interminable. But I have seen countless people find faith in themselves and in God and as a result stand up, carry their load, and get moving forward in life once again.

For that man by the pool, whatever happened to him 38 years earlier he deemed to be more than he could handle. And then one day he realized that with God’s help he had the ability to take it on. For you and for me, there will be times in our life when we will feel overwhelmed; times when flight, freeze, or faint are our only options. But then in time we will come to sense that with God on our side no challenge is too big for us to overcome.

There is no shame by getting knocked down by one of life’s heavy blows. There will be times – many times perhaps – when life will hit us with more than we can handle. Each of us knows what it is like to take the equivilent of what in boxing they call the “8-count.” Being knocked down is one thing, staying down in another. The man by the pool serves to remind us that healing is in our hands and in our faith. Jesus reminds us that God is always with us to restore life, vitality, possibility, and hope. Thank God for the times God has come to each one of us and in some form or fashion said, “Stand up, pick up your mat, and walk.”