38 Years: Longer than Jesus Had Been Alive

One ribbon of commonality that weaves through all three of today’s readings is the image of water—water as a source of life and healing from God. The images we are given are grand, even larger than life. Just imagine all that water flowing out from the majestic Temple of God, as Ezekiel describes it. It’s an image of paradise—a place of peace and plenty. If not as grand an image, the Pool of Bethesda, mentioned in the Gospel, seems just as magical. The image of an angel stirring up the water to give it healing power makes me think of the video game Zelda, which incorporates into its story line the idea of rejuvenating waters hosted by kindly fairies. Of course, it also makes me think of the miraculous healing water of Lourdes in France.

Given this “magical” tradition around the Pool of Bethesda, it’s all the more powerful that Jesus, the unconditional source of healing, enters into the story and arrives at this very intriguing spot in Jerusalem. While there, he encounters a man who has been sick for thirty-eight years. The fact that this man had been sick for thirty-eight years means he has been bothered by some problem, unidentified in the story, for longer than Jesus had been alive. It’s a long time to be sick. And what is worse, even when there is a source of healing right before him—namely, the Pool of Bethesda—he is unable to take advantage of it. This means the man was not only sick, he was often disappointed. John creates high pathos for us with these details, no doubt with the express purpose of highlighting Jesus’ compassion.

It is this compassion of Jesus that stands in stark contrast to some of the other people in the story, who are so fixated on legalistic observance of the Torah that they cannot appreciate the miracle that has just happened. This is not their only fault; it is implied that they are totally unconcerned with the plight of the sick people at the pool. What these religious people lack is a sense of generosity. Their goodness should be flowing out, just as water from the Temple described by Ezekiel; and like Jesus, their hearts should have been moved with compassion for the blind, lame, and crippled—but they were not. Perhaps they felt helpless to do anything for these people, or maybe they thought teaching the rules of religion was good work enough.

Jesus, on the other hand, is not only observant of the religious customs of his day—traveling to Jerusalem for the festival—but he lives out the Spirit of the Torah, as well—the full Torah, which demands that the faithful Jew have compassion on the needy. In this way, his loving encounter with the man at the pool challenges all of us to ask how well we are fulfilling the Torah and Gospel in our care for those who are sick, depressed, lonely, or hurting in any way. If we are already caring for these people, we might ask if it is enough for us to visit one or two people, or ought we to dream of a society where generosity of compassion means that everyone who needs medical care can receive it. Jesus and prophets are calling for generosity on a larger than life scale. Let their vision be ours.