John 5:1-10 (Easter 6C)

St. John, Galveston 5/22/22

Rev. Alan Taylor

+ In Nomine Jesu +

Grace and peace to you, from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.

In 1st Century Roman and Jewish society the Pool of Bethesda was somewhat legendary. It’s legend, however, was anything but what it’s name suggested. Bethesda, you see, means “house of mercy, or house of grace.” Many people who were lame and afflicted with all sorts of bodily ailments, would gather at the pool on an annual basis. It was believed that once a year angels would come down out of the heavens to stir the waters of the pool, so that the first person to enter the pool after it was stirred would be healed of whatever it was that afflicted them. As I read about the legend, I couldn’t help but think of the old children’s game, musical chairs. Round and round they’d go until the music stops and everyone scrambles for chair. Although, in the case of the Pool of Bethesda, the many were excluded for the sake of the one.

This encounter between Jesus and a man at the pool, got me to thinking about grace and mercy and about how we struggle to appreciate them for what they really are, that is, freely given, without any merit or worthiness in us, as Luther so appropriately reminds us. Perhaps I’m influenced a bit by the name of the pool, the house of mercy, the house of grace, but were going to pursue that theme for a bit this morning. 

When Jesus arrived at the pool, we are told that there were a multitude of people lying around by the edge of the water. They were, as John says, lame and blind and paralyzed. It must have been quite a sight to see. There was one man though who was lying there who had been paralyzed for 38 years. When Jesus saw him, He asked him, “do you want to be healed?” Actually, more literally, He asked him, “do you want to become whole?” On the surface, it seems like a bit of strange question to ask, don’t you think? I mean, the man was there, by the Pool of the Bethesda, waiting for the water to be stirred. Still, Jesus asked him, “do you want to become whole?” “The sick man answered him, “Sir, I have no one to put me into the pool when the water is stirred up, and while I am going another steps down before me.””

We really do have a difficult time understanding grace and mercy, don’t we? I’m thinking of this man who had been paralyzed for 38 years. Certainly, over some of those years he sat beside the Pool of Bethesda, the Pool of grace and mercy, and no one, it seems, ever thought that it was his turn to be healed. No one ever said, I’ll put his needs before my own. No one picked up his frail body and carried him down the steps into the water. No one showed him any grace or mercy. He was on his own, and he had no way whatsoever to help himself. 

In John’s account, it’s not really clear whether or not this man knew anything about Jesus. I mean, elsewhere in the Scriptures there were some who were afflicted who, in their desperation, cried out to Jesus, saying, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me.” Clearly, those individuals knew about Jesus and they knew He could help them. But there was none of that with this man. He was just there.   

In fact, when Jesus asked him if he wanted to be healed, it appears that he was quite content to put his hope in the legend of the pool, rather than in Jesus. “I have no one to  put me into the pool when the water is stirred up (he said), and while I am going another steps down before me.”” He was hoping, as it were, for a little measure of grace, of mercy, to come to him through a centuries old legend, when the true source of grace and mercy, that is, God Himself, was standing before him in human flesh in the person of Jesus. Grace and mercy were a bit of a mystery to him. Finally, Jesus said, “Get up (RISE), take up your bed, and walk. And at once the man was healed, and he took up his bed and walked.”

There is something interesting, and I would suggest significant and important about this miracle at the Pool of Bethesda. Christians in the early church saw it as more than Jesus healing a man who was lame. In fact, they saw it as a foreshadowing of the Rite of Holy Baptism. In other words, they believed that what took place that day at the house of mercy, the house of grace, that is, the Pool of Bethesda, foreshadowed the true source of mercy and grace, the water of renewal and regeneration of the Holy Spirit that would, in time, be poured out in holy baptism.

There is a beautiful description of the event left to us by a man named Chromatius of Aquileia, who died around 407 AD. He wrote, “that pool in every way was an image of the future Baptism. But as distant as the image is from the truth, so great is the distance between the grace of that pool and the grace of saving Baptism. That water was moved only once in a year; the water of the church’s Baptism is always ready to be moved. That water was moved only in one place; this water is moved throughout the world. There it was an angel which came down; here it is the Holy Spirit. There it was the grace of an angel; here it is the mystery of the Trinity. There the water cured only one person each year; this water saves many people each day. That water healed the body only; this water saves both the soul and the body. That water cured only from a condition of the body; this water however [cures] from sin. That water freed only the body from its condition of weakness; this water frees the body and the soul from sin.”

Your relationship with God is built upon these two, grace and mercy. He brought you into His kingdom through that water that flowed over you, a water that, when combined with His word, became a living water, a life giving water. His work in Holy Baptism remains one of the great mysteries of the Christian faith. How does God do it!? How does He draw us to Himself and make us heirs of His everlasting kingdom through water and His word!? How does He, through those things, “transfer us from the kingdom of darkness into the kingdom of His beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, even the forgiveness of our sins?” And, most importantly, what is our part, what is your part in His saving work? In answering that question, grace and mercy shine for what they truly are, that is, freely given, without any merit or worthiness in us.

The man couldn’t get to the pool himself. He couldn’t!! He was just there, hoping that one year someone would come along have mercy on him, that someone would pick him up and set him down in the water so that he could rise, so that he could be made whole. Jesus came into the world, He came to the pool that day, to speak words of resurrection, of life. To the man who was lame, who was helpless, who was unable to do anything to improve, or to change his plight, He said, “RISE, take up you bed, and walk.” 

In Holy Baptism, God said to you, RISE, BE WHOLE! Grace and mercy are never about what we, what you, can do for yourselves. Grace and mercy are, in fact, the very antithesis of self help and of human effort and striving. God brought you into His kingdom, not because it appeared that you would be a fine addition, but because, solely by His grace and mercy, He saw you as a pearl of tremendous value. That’s what grace and mercy do, they value the least. And even as you make your way through this life, having been raised from the dead in the water of Holy Baptism, God keeps you in the palm of His hand, not because you have made such great strides toward purity and holiness, but because He continues to deal with you according to the grace and mercy that He so lavishly bestows on you through His Son, Jesus Christ. 

“RISE (He says to you), take up your bed and walk!”

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

The peace of God that passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus unto life everlasting. Amen.

+ Soli Deo Gloria +