There are some pretty ridiculous laws on the books here in the United States. In Idaho, it is illegal to give your sweetheart a box of chocolates weighing more than fifty pounds. Whale fishing is illegal in… Nebraska! And Minnesota law requires that men’s and women’s underwear not be hung on the same clothesline at the same time. That of course that would be improper!
What laws do you think are silly? How about the law in the time of Jesus that said it was illegal to heal people on the Sabbath? Of course, that was just an interpretation of the more general expectation that no work would be done that day in honor of the seventh day of creation when God rested. Jesus was busted after telling the man who was ill in our Gospel reading to stand and pick up his mat and walk. And the man himself got in trouble for doing the work of picking up his mat. The legal problems are mentioned in the verses following the story itself, and the kerfuffel emphasizes the priority of rules over mercy that many people get hung up on even today.
Let’s look at the story for a moment. An unknown number of persons were lying poolside on what we might assume was a sunny day in sunny Jerusalem. They were not working on their tans, however. They were waiting with desperation for the water to move. An old legend said that from time to time an angel would stir up the pool and the first person to jump in would be healed of their infirmity. The problem was that it’s hard to jump when your legs don’t work and it’s difficult to see the water move when you’re blind. One of the men by the pool had been ill for thirty-eight long years. It’s possible that he came to the pool day after day with the belief that the water could make him well, but understanding that the odds were stacked against his every getting near it.
Jesus asked the man an interesting question: “Do you want to get well?” It’s interested because the answer was so obvious. Of course he did. Who would want to spend the rest of their life unable to lift themselves from a mat. He didn’t even answer Jesus’ question. He just expressed the impossibility of getting into the pool on time. Clearly he had been brought there by helpful friends, but they did not have the time or patience to wait for the water to stir. What a heartache it must have been for the man to watch other, more mobile people reaping the benefits of the magical water.
There are many people who live lives hindered by similar injustices and ridiculous rules. The poor in our own nation often experience life as a fruitless effort to step forward only to find that the odds are stacked against them. The economic disparity that reduces opportunity for the have nots means that those who already have more will always get to the water first. Even systems intended to give relief require abilities that some do not have. Considering the fact that this story is about health and healing, it’s worth reflecting on those who do not have access to adequate health care today.
I’m very fortunate to have good health insurance through our church. Last week I received a statement telling me that my insurance company would only cover half of the cost of my new hearing aids, despite prior assurance that they would be fully covered. I called the customer service line and it was acknowledged that they had probably made a mistake and would look into it. On Friday I received an updated statement saying that they would cover nothing and that I was fully responsible for the cost. Another phone call, and I was told that they would reprocess the claim and I would probably get a check for the full amount. What if I could not open or read or understand my insurance statements? What if I did not have the ability to speak up for myself? Those who are most in need of health care are those most unable to pick themselves up and get to the place where they can be healed. Current efforts to repeal the Affordable Care Act rely on high risk insurance pools for persons with pre-existing conditions. They sound like the kind of pool in our Gospel story – unreachable and inadequate for those who most need assistance.
The month of May is designated as Mental Health Awareness Month. Unlike those whose physical disabilities drew them to the pool of Beth-haza, those with mental illness are not as easily identified. It’s likely that stories in the Gospels about demon-possessed men and women describe a first-century understanding of mental illness. Jesus did not shy away from those persons. He healed them just as he healed the physically impaired. Because mental illness is not usually outwardly obvious, those who suffer from it are more or less invisible and are much of the time misunderstood. They and their families do not receive the kind of support that is given to others. The remaining stigma about mental illness results in shame and embarrassment that causes sufferers to withdraw and try desperately to hide their symptoms from others. That kind of shame only increases the risk of suicide. No wonder those who experience mental illness have such a hard time getting up and getting to the pool where there is healing.
I’m thankful for mental health advocates like Susan Marine in our congregation who work tirelessly through our legal system for justice and increased health care access. And I’m thankful for all of the therapists in our church who come alongside those who are suffering and assist them toward healing. On Tuesday I will see my brother who has suffered with schizophrenia for most of his life. He is in a group home, and his experience and my other brother’s experience with bi-polar disorder have opened my eyes to the need for adequate health care for all with mental illnesses. Providing a safe, caring environment for people to be honest and open about their mental health struggles must always be a priority for our congregation.
What else keeps some people away from the pool?
When we made our plans for the annual May Pole celebration, we were excited that Sunday actually fell on May Day this year. We were so excited that we forgot to pray for a warm, sunny day. Sorry about that! May Day is mostly a day celebrated by northern European countries to welcome the return of spring. In the late nineteenth century, though, it was also designated as “International Workers Day.” It’s essentially Labor Day for many countries around the world and it focuses on the efforts of unions to assure fair conditions for workers. On Friday, I was asked to give an opening prayer for the annual convention of the Colorado Letter Carrier’s Association, which is the union for the women and men who bring mail to your door. Joe Runyan is a member of the union and invited me. It was a reminder for me of the importance of justice for all workers and the need to work against systems that keep some people back – in other words, away from the pool – while others with more advantages move forward. The United Church of Christ advocates for organized labor and says this on its website: “Each worker - judge or janitor, sales clerk or scientist, mother or millionaire CEO - is equal in the sight of God. Each person's work, done with integrity, is a contribution to society and has value and dignity.”
Last Sunday we talked about the Book of Revelation and expressed how John’s vision of heaven is a symbolic picture of God’s reign here on earth, right now. In the final chapter of Revelation which was read this morning, a river is flowing from the very throne of God. It’s flowing down the middle of the street, kind of like Bear Creek rushing down through Table Mesa Road in the spring. Trees grow on either side of the river, producing fruit, and the leaves growing on the trees are have an amazing purpose: they are for the healing of the nations.
Maybe we are those trees; soaking up the clear, clean water and producing good fruit and reaching others with our branches and leaves so that they can be healed. If the river was polluted or if it dried up, we couldn’t’ offer anything to others. In God’s realm, though, the water is fresh and is like a glacier-fed stream that never stops flowing.
The pool and the river are pictures of God’s desire for us to be healed and to help others.
How close are you to the pool? Can you stroll over and get in on your own? If so, what about the others who cannot? Jesus didn’t hesitate to walk among those whose limitations prevented their access to what others take for granted. He asked questions and he used his own power to empower those who could not step forward without an advocate.
How close are you to the river? Are you drinking deeply and being adequately nourished, not just for your own health and well-being, but so others can be healed and know the love of God through the touch of another human being?
May we draw close to the water, and may our refreshment bring life to the world. Amen.