Amongst the many questions that Jesus asked in his public ministry, today’s enquiry – “Do you want to be well?” would seem to reach into our very being. For surely everyone would value the gift of wellbeing both at the exterior level of our physical bodies and at the interior level of our thoughts, memories and deeper reflections.
Thus it is surprising to read that the sick man answered Jesus, “Sir, I have no one to put me into the pool when the water is stirred up; while I am on my way, someone else gets down there before me.”
If we were to use our religious imagination one might read this answer as evidence of the man’s unwillingness to be honest with himself. In fact it seems that the answer betrays his real disposition. He is lying alongside a pool that offers a chance at ritual and real cleansing, but he does not seem all that inclined to alter his state of being. In one sense one might imagine that he is secretly happy or at least content, to be ill.
Staying ill doesn’t challenge him all that much. Yes, he is giving lip service to the fact that he should be striving for wellbeing, but he is in no hurry to be the first to the pool when it is stirred. In addition, when asked by Jesus directly if he wishes to be well he avoids the question altogether. What’s more he gives a moaning answer about being ‘beaten’ regularly on the way to the pool as if to justify his present status.
Perhaps interiorly he is simply a defeated man and his spirit is crushed. After some 38 years it might be that this man feels more comfortable staying ill rather than daring to think he might be able to be well again.
So in curing the man we see Jesus address two levels. The man’s inner disposition is matched by his external stance – both manifest a sense of powerlessness. Thus Jesus’ challenge begins at the external level – ‘get up’ and ‘pick up’ (his mat) and ‘walk away’. But we see that this challenge has an effect internally too – the man is empowered to walk away not just from the pool, but also from lethargy, from self-imposed helplessness and from a comfort-zone that while restrictive is also familiar and non-threatening.
Jesus challenges him to re-enter life itself. Thus he carries away the symbol of his limitation – his mat!
Jesus reinforces this message at their subsequent meeting, saying to the man “Look, you are well; do not sin any more…” perhaps this is a second challenge to not slip back into old, familiar and comfortable habits!
In our spiritual lives we often have moments where the word of God shifts us and moves us beyond thoughts, attitudes and practices that hold us back from living fully. In Lent we pray especially that we might experiences such conversion of heart, mind and will.
But we all have ‘default settings’ too! That is, much like computers we can go back to pre-set positions – views, attitudes and acts that are so familiar that they sneak up upon us and re-engage us, even after we have been set free by God’s grace. That’s where we need to listen to the second message of Jesus ‘you are well’ – and we need to trust this message again and again.
So as Lent progresses let us hear the words of Jesus encouraging us and beckoning us forward once more. Let us trust the One who only desires to set us free and who works to ensure that such freedom endures.
Fr. Denis Travers, C.P., is a member of Holy Spirit Province, Australia.