Important Disclaimer

Since I currently have several employers/supervisors/churches/etc., please know that none of the words on my blog represent them or their beliefs. This blog is my own creation.

It also does not represent my children's perspective, nor my mother's; they think I am funny, but misguided.
(Quick update: only my mother thinks I'm funny now.)

Monday, May 6, 2013

Don't Bother Rescuing Me Yet

From Wikimedia
Every year without knowing it 
I have passed the day 
When the last fires will wave to me 
And the silence will set out 
Tireless traveller 
Like the beam of a lightless star 

~W.S. Merwin "For the Anniversary of My Death"

Sunday, May 5, 2013
Sermon by Katie Mulligan

Thanks for the invitation!

Scripture Readings: Psalm 67 and John 5:1-9

Is such a jerk, sometimes.
“Do you wish to be made well?”
What kind of question is that anyway?
Well, then, if you want to be well, take up your mat and walk.
No excuses.
No explanations.
No allowance for true need. No wait time for a second opinion.
No coddling. No sympathy.
Just get up and walk.
Is a jerk.

I am always astonished when I read this story. For thirty-eight years this man languished by the side of
a pool of water that was said to have healing properties. And for thirty-eight years everytime he tried to make his way into the water, someone else stepped in front of him. As the story goes, nobody stopped to help him. No family member, no friend, no good Samaritan. For thirty-eight years the man stayed by the pool, waiting for his chance, and it never came.

My mind wandered a bit when I read this scripture, and I began to wonder what the backstory was. Who were this man’s people? Did he lie out by the pool for thirty-eight years straight? Did he go home at night? Did someone bring him food? Was he partially mobile—and he must have been, because the man says he tried to get to the pool on his own. The story, as it was written made little sense to me—it is hard for me to imagine an entire community walking past a man in need of healing for thirty-eight years and leaving him to crawl to the pool on his own. And yet the scripture says that there were many invalids—blind, lame, and paralyzed—all lying about that pool of water, waiting for healing. It took me a while to notice that verse 4 is missing from our reading, removed from the text as it appears to be a later addition to the gospel of John.
In these porticoes lay many invalids—blind, lame, and paralyzed—waiting for the stirring of the water; for an angel of the Lord went down at certain seasons into the pool, and stirred up the water; whoever stepped in first after the stirring of the water was made well from whatever disease that person had.
As I read, a fuller picture emerged. See if you can imagine this with me. A community of people—most of whom are able-bodied and mobile, hustling about their days, getting on with their business. By a side gate to the town—the Sheep Gate, there is a pool of healing waters. Every now and then, the angel of the Lord stirs up the water, allowing for the healing of the first person who steps in the water. Medical care (then, as now) being at a premium, those members of the community in need of healing congregated around the pool, waiting for the moment when the waters stirred. At first sign of movement, the people would rush into the water, trying to be the first. The healed person would walk away whole; the rest, still bearing their infirmities, would settle back around the pool waiting for the next opportunity.

There were limited resources. There was no timetable as to when that unpredictable spirit might move the waters. There were many people waiting around the pool. For thirty-eight years a man had been trying to get to the waters first, and for thirty-eight years someone else had beat him to it. I bet he had been asked this question before, “Do you wish to be made well?” I bet it wasn’t a nice question the way it was asked. “Don’t you WANT to be healed?” “What’s wrong with you that you keep missing the boat?” “Why do you sit there day after day waiting for your moment to come. It’s been thirty-eight years—give it up already.” “If God hasn’t healed you yet, why do you keep waiting?” Can you imagine the questions?

I am reminded somewhat of trying to work our health insurance system. In so many ways, aren’t we too waiting around a pool of water, wondering when the angel of the Lord will stir things up? When will that referral come through? When can I get an appointment with a doctor? When will the off-formulary prescription be approved? When will a real live person answer my phone call? How many hours must I wait in this emergency room? Is there anybody who cares enough to check in on me and see if I have what I need to be made well?

And then Jesus comes along and notices the man who had lain by the pool for thirty-eight years. And perhaps this is the first and best miracle of the story—that Jesus notices the man after so many others had passed by. “Hello there! I see you have been waiting a while! Do you wish to be made well?” Perhaps exasperated by the question (and after all, the man was by the pool—wasn’t that evidence enough that he sought healing?), the man answered defensively, “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.” Sir, can you not see I am alone here with no family, no friends, no community? I am stuck here! And everytime I try to crawl my way to the waters, some other person with more resources, more health, more ability, beats me to the waters.

And what a system! That the sickest, poorest, and least friended people would inevitably be left out. Those who were most vulnerable and fragile would never make it to the pool on time. The cards were stacked against them—once again, those who had resources got a bigger share of the pie. I could imagine, if I was that man, that all of my bitterness at the injustice of this system would drip off my tongue. Do I wish to be made well?? What kind of question is THAT?

A man of few words, Jesus simply says, “Stand up, take your mat and walk.” And the man was made well, and he took up his mat and walked. I wondered how the man knew he was healed, and I imagined that perhaps in anger, when Jesus said to get up and walk, that the man sneered and lurched to his feet, intending to prove to Jesus that he could not walk. But when he stood up on his thirty-eight year broken body, he discovered that he could bear weight. He could move and flex and walk. He had been made well. He was so startled that scripture tells us he didn’t even find out who had healed him. The religious leaders came to him later that day and asked who had healed him, but the man could not say. Jesus had disappeared into the crowds.

I struggle with this story. I can’t for the life of me figure out why Jesus could heal one man but not the others lying around the pool. I can’t figure out why this man could be healed of his infirmities after 18 years, but I cannot get rid of the arthritis in my feet. I can’t fathom why Jesus healed that man but leaves my friend a quadriplegic. I don’t understand why this man could stand up and walk, but so many others languish in pain.

But I do know one thing: people get left out of community everyday. Everyday we walk by hundreds and thousands of people trying to get to the healing waters, and we let them sit there for one reason or another. I do know one thing: we get left out of community everyday. We seek healing for ourselves and can’t quite get to the water. We languish, we cry out, and other people with more resources get to the water first. This happens. All the time.

I know that sometimes healing is not possible. Broken bodies and spirits do not always bounce back to their former strength and health. Sometimes there is no coming back from our unhealth. In fact, for all of us, there will come a day when we aren’t healed, when our bodies can no longer sustain life, when we slip past the veil into whatever lies beyond our last breath. Healing, wholeness, and wellness are not always possible—and even when they are, we bear the scars of brokenness.

It’s hard to know, I think, where the line between can’t heal and won’t heal lies. How much did the man at the pool languish because he couldn’t get up and how much because he wouldn’t? How do we know for ourselves whether we can’t be healed or we won’t be healed? After we’ve been broken, what does healing look like? If I’ve lost a leg does healing look like a new leg? Or does it look like thriving without a leg? Maybe it depends on the day. Maybe it depends on my context. At some point, when we’ve hit the bottom of the well, we have to make a decision if we’re going to seek a way back out to wellness. And I think that sometimes we decide to stay in the bottom of the well, sitting comfortably, if painfully, with our brokenness.

There is a kind of satisfaction with brokenness—a habit of being—that is easy to slip into. I remember as a child that the sweetest moments came when I was home sick. Popsicles, ginger ale, tender loving care. There is something delightful about being cared for—most pastors I know fantasize about what it would be like to be sick for a while. Who would come to visit us? Who would care what happened to us? For once, what would it be like for people to check themselves when speaking to us? “Oh, pastor isn’t feeling well, maybe I’ll hold my tongue about that stewardship campaign or budget issue.”

A few years ago, when I left my PhD program and my first church where I served as pastor, I spent a few months wallowing at the bottom of the well. It was marvelous—I watched eight seasons of Grey’s Anatomy. I was sad and broken and exhausted, and I just couldn’t move very fast. And then the rent was due and the children had need, and I had to find a way back out of the bottom of the well. 

Maybe it just takes time to want to climb out, to want to be made well, to trust that there is healing beyond brokenness. There was once a church band called Everybodyduck; they sang a song called "Down at the Bottom of a Well" with these marvelous lyrics:

Well my life's a chain disaster, nothing ever turns out right
I'm so stressed with all my problems, can't get any sleep at night
Everyone I know's against me and my parents treat me bad
Now you know my whole life story, tell me, does it make you sad?
Hey look at me, everyone, down at the bottom of the well
Don't bother rescuing me yet, I've not had time to whine and yell
I could climb out if I want to, this hole's not really that deep
At the bottom of a well, cuz that's where I want to be.

Harsh words--and not always applicable! We ought to have compassion for ourselves for the pieces that are irreparably broken. But then what? And so what? Do we just curse God and die?

It’s hard to find a way out of brokenness and move toward healing and wholeness. It’s hard to get back up out of a well without help. When we are broken and hurting, a helping hand sure goes a long way. But when we’ve been the broken, hurting patient for a while, people get used to our invalid-ness. The system, the people around us, our families and friends, are not always so glad to see us changing the status quo. To get well requires change. If the man at the pool picks up his mat and walks, his community will now be forced to reckon with him. Gone are the days of ignoring him languishing by the pool.

Scripture tells us that Jesus did this healing on the sabbath, and that the religious leaders were angry when they discovered this. “Who told you to get up and walk on the sabbath? That’s not lawful—not permitted. Who told you you could be healed on this day, a sabbath?” Or in other words, “Who broke the status quo?” Who said you could be made well? Who said you could stop being outcast? Who said you could be a functioning member of the community that said you had no use—that you were too broken to contribute? Who said you could step out of line like that?

I am reminded of our church—broken in many ways aren’t we? The loss of a building. The loss of a pastor. Heck, the loss of several pastors for many of you. This is a church where people’s roots go deep. Where history matters. Where the history has been tough. The loss of members. The loss of fellowship. The loss of trust. The loss of companionship on this journey of life. A deep and terrible grief accompanies broken fellowship, and this body of Christ is broken indeed. We fear losing more members. We fear losing more leaders. We fear losing our youth. We fear that if we speak of these things we might lose our visitors. We fear that this church won’t make it.

But in brokenness is the promise that Jesus will meet us. Of all the people lying by that pool of water, Jesus sought out the man with no resources, no family, no friends. He sought out brokenness like a moth to a flame. I am convinced that God seeks out those who are hurting like a parent goes after a lost or injured child. If you have cared for a child, you know that the particular sound of their cry gets imprinted on your heart—from a mile away I used to be able to hear my child crying, and I felt it in my bones. My child, in particular, I KNEW the sound of his cry. And when I heard the sound of my child’s cry I ran to him faster than a cheetah. God knows our cries. God is present.

We don’t actually know what was wrong with the man in the story. We don’t know how he was healed. We don’t know if his body was made whole or if he was simply able to be well within the body he had. We don’t know how long or how well he lived after his healing. All we know is that after thirty-eight long years Jesus saw him. And then he made his complaint. And then Jesus told him to take up his mat and walk. And he did.

Jesus didn’t ask him how he became ill or injured. He didn’t say, “Tell me about your mother.” Or “Tell me about your father.” He didn’t ask for money. He didn’t ask for future service. He just said “Get up and walk” and then disappeared into the crowd.

What would it look like if we stood up, picked up our mat, and walked? Could we bear weight on our feet? Can this broken body and this broken fellowship become well again? Can we learn to trust? Will we restore ourselves to the greater church? Will we pour ourselves into living well again?

When you tell people you are a member of this church, do they make a face and whisper, “Wow. How’s it going over there? I hear it’s tough.”? What if we answered that question with claims of wellness? What if we responded by saying, “We are well! We are sending 5 students to Triennium! We have 4 Presbyterian Women circles. We are sending 973 blankets to people in need. We have 100 people in worship. We had a youth group event to learn how to compost food with worms—and 25 youth showed up for it. 25 youth showed up: to learn how to compost food with worms! Oh, we are having fun, now!”

What if in the midst of division and conflict and fear and anxiety, we came around the table of Christ and ate together anway? What if we brought our brokenness to the table and laid it on the altar, sharing together as we do in the brokenness of Christ’s body and the forgiveness of our sins already poured out in the cup of wine before us?

I’ll tell you one thing. If we do it—if we take up our mat and walk, if we claim our healing, if we decide to be well—we will surprise a lot of people. If we manage to make our way with strength and dignity a lot of people will have to stop focusing on us and deal with their own issues again. This church has been injured for so long, people are used to seeing us lying by the waters, waiting for healing. It will certainly be interesting to see what happens if we pick up our mat and take our place in community again. We can wait, we surely can. We can wait for someone to help us. We can wait for the waters to stir. We can wait for Jesus to come. We can say, “Oh but it’s the sabbath” or “oh but there’s a process.” Or we can take up our mat and walk. We can learn to trust again. We can learn to love again. We can be church to one another. And in doing so, we can become well.

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