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① Verse 1 tells us there was a Jewish festival happening at that time. We don’t know which festival it was. But that’s not important in this particular story.
Anyway, it was a festival day. For the Jews, no matter which festival it was, these were days to be thankful to God. There was also something else important about festivals. These were times to meet and feast with loved ones. Special days for joyful celebration.
Even for less fortunate people, festivals were special days. This was a chance to meet with family, relatives, and friends, and enjoy eating together. I imagine that the city was filled with people’s happy voices on this day.
Now, what was Jesus doing on this day when people were gathering and enjoying themselves? Well, Jesus did something quite different. He went to a pool called Bethesda, which was surrounded by five cloisters (covered walkways). Sick, blind, lame, and paralyzed people were lying around this pool.
② I once heard a story from a nurse—let’s call her A-san.
A-san worked as a nurse in maternity and gynaecology. There was a patient staying in a private room. Unfortunately, she didn’t have a successful pregnancy. Her baby was stillborn, and now she was resting in that private room.
A-san entered her room. “Sorry to disturb you. How is your body feeling?” she asked, but there was no reply.
The woman simply looked up at the ceiling in a daze.
Just at that moment, there were sounds of excitement from outside the room. They heard voices saying, “Congratulations! … I’m so glad for you … What a beautiful baby … Really, I’m so happy for you!”
Here is joy and celebration. But in the shadows, there is someone staring blankly at the ceiling. Often, those who are celebrating don’t notice those in the shadows.
That day, Jesus Christ did not go to be with people who celebrated but with the people in pain. Jesus always
looks towards those are grieving. That is what today’s passage is about.
③ Now, why were people gathered around this pool called Bethesda?
The pool may have been a kind of hot spring called a geyser. From time to time, water and steam erupted from the pool. When this happened, the first people to enter the pool were miraculously healed. That was the rumor about Bethesda.
But if you think about it, that rumor probably wasn’t true. It was probably just a legend. Although, it is true that hot spring water is good for sick people. Relaxing slowly in onsen water is good for the body.
But it’s hard to believe what was said about Bethesda: that the first people to leap into the pool when hot water was erupting would be healed. I’m not sure the sick and lame could jump into the pool like that. They were weak and many couldn’t even move.
Perhaps people who went into the pool were already getting well. Or thought they were sick but actually were not. Most likely their illness was mild. Those who entered the pool were probably people who had a good chance of getting well, even without the pool’s help. That’s what I think. This rumor was probably just a superstitious legend. There was no evidence for it, but people believed it anyway.
So, would you say that the people gathered around this pool were superstitious or foolish? In ancient Jewish society there were many people who claimed to be healers, but it’s hard to say if they were real doctors or conmen. We would think many of their medicines suspicious today. But when very poor people became seriously ill, they could not afford any medical treatment, suspicious or not. And if they continued to be sick and disabled, others around thought God had abandoned them. So, for the poor, even if they didn’t believe the superstition, they were desperate and willing to try anything.
If I had been born in that time and place, and if I had a serious disease, I would probably have gone to the pool as well. Perhaps I would be one of those people lying down there.
We may think we are strong; we may think we are wise. But in reality, each of us is weaker than we think. As believers, if we don’t have a strong foundation of walking closely with God, it is easy to be swayed by all kinds of superstitions.
④ Now, at Bethesda there was a man who had been an invalid for 38 years. Every day, he would lie near the pool and simply watch. The Lord Jesus came to this man. As verse 6 says, Jesus spoke to him: “Do you want to get well?”
I’m sure many people find this a strange question. Why would you ask a sick, suffering person “Do you want to get well”? Isn’t that insensitive? You may think so too.
But remember that he had been at the pool for many years. And 38 years is a long time to be sick. It’s really not easy to hold onto hope for 38 years, to still say “I want to be well” and keep believing that you can be cured. Personally, I think it is almost impossible to keep hoping for 38 years. The man may have given up all hope entirely.
The Lord Jesus asked the man, who may have had little desire to live, “Do you want to get well?” In other words, Jesus wasn’t simply asking if he wanted to get well. Jesus was asking, “Do you want to live? Do you have any desire left in your heart to live?”
Furthermore, I believe Jesus’ words were not simply a question, but also a catalyst. Jesus wanted to revive the man’s desire to live.
And what did the man reply? Did he say, “Yes, I want to get well. I want to have a real life!” Sadly, the man did not have that strength of desire. Did he say, “Not really. It doesn’t matter. I’m going to die soon anyway…” No, the man wasn’t so defeated.
According to verse 7, the man said, “Sir, I have no one to help me into the pool when the water is stirred. While I am trying to get in, someone else goes down ahead of me.”
Brothers and sisters, what do you think of his answer? Some of you may think, “What kind of excuse is that? If you really want to be well, you have to try harder!”
Personally, I think that he couldn’t do anything except feel helpless. I feel sorry for him. Judging by his words, I think he wanted to die. But neither did he have a strong will to live. I think he was just one step away from giving up on life.
It’s the same for us when we are very ill, or when we don’t have hope for the future, or when we are getting old and become less capable than we used to be, when we really sense how weak we’ve become. I think, we too, may feel the same as this man.
But remember: the Lord Jesus Christ comes near to those who are weak and in pain.
➄ How did the Lord Jesus treat this man?
At that time, the man was lying on a mat and looking up at the face of Jesus. What did the Lord say to him, lying in this condition?
Did Jesus say, “Don’t talk like that. Stop making excuses. You need to change that attitude, right now!” No, the Lord did not sound like that type of school counselor.
He said, “Get up! Pick up your mat and walk.” Simple words. So simple that it’s easy to miss the meaning. If you take time to reflect on Jesus’ words, there is an important message here, both for the man and for us.
Jesus didn’t say, “Ask someone to help you stand and fold your mat. Ask someone to help you walk.” Jesus didn’t say, “I will pull you up. I will fold your mat. You can just relax.”
Instead Jesus commanded him: “Get up! Pick up your mat and walk.” In other words: “Stand up by yourself. Pick up that mat by yourself. And walk on your own two feet.”
What do you think of that? The man has been an invalid for 38 years, unable to get up, pick up his mat and walk on his own.” Here, I believe Jesus was calling him to have true faith.
Faith is a gift from God. It is truly an undeserved grace. That is what the Bible says. Faith is a gift, made possible by Jesus Christ’s work of redemption, not by our efforts. All we need to do is receive that grace. This is a basic tenet of our faith.
But is this basic knowledge enough to live on? Is a life of faith only about receiving one-sided blessings? Is that a complete and living faith? Does living by faith mean depending on God to do every single thing for us? Does it mean delegating all the work to God, leaving all decisions to Him? That’s a misunderstanding.
⑥ When Jesus says “Get up, pick up your mat and walk,” I believe he is demonstrating what true believers do. That is: to take the first step in bold response to God. Let’s take this heart.
In response to this word of life, the man stood, took his mat, and walked. I am truly moved by this scene.
The question “Do you want to get well?” was not just for this man who was sick for 38 years. Jesus did not only ask this man, who lived 2000 years ago. He asks each of us today the same question. God draws near to each of us today. He asks our hearts, “Do you want to get well?”
“Get up, pick up your mat and walk…”
May each of us respond to Him, even today.