A Healing and an Inconvenient Mat

Pentecost 5
John 5:1-15  

In this morning’s text we have the third of John’s seven miracle stories. Remember, John calls these events signs, because of what they point to. As you will recall, both the turning of water into wine and the healing of the court official’s son were signs that pointed to the divinity of Jesus, but in different ways. This third sign does the same thing, in yet another way. It does so by showing that Jesus is Lord of the Sabbath. And as John points out, what Jesus did and said caused great anger among the Jewish religious leaders because they understood that Jesus was ‘making himself equal to God.’ This point about who Jesus was is one John has been making since the opening of his Gospel. And he does it again in this miracle story.

But instead of focusing once more on what should be becoming obvious to us, I would like to look at this story from a different perspective – from that of the lame man and religious leaders of the time, both of whom were so preoccupied with their own concerns that they failed to see God at work before their very eyes.

So, in today’s text we have a miracle account in John that looks a bit like the miracle stories included in the other Gospels. But there are some differences that make it stand out. What strikes us immediately is that this man, unlike the desperate father in last week’s reading, does not seek out Jesus, nor does he ask for healing when Jesus finds him. In fact, when Jesus prods him to ask for healing – which he clearly wanted after 38 years waiting beside what the locals believed to be a miracle pool – he simply complains about never being able to get into the pool first when the water was stirred, likely by a intermittent spring under the pool. After 38 years waiting to be healed you would think he would know why he was there. You would think that he would have answered, ‘Yes, of course I wish to be made well,’ when Jesus asked him. But over the years he had been conditioned to expect nothing to happen. But even though he does not ask to be healed, even when prompted by Jesus, Jesus heals him anyway.

It is a reminder that God can freely work in our lives whether we ask for his help or not. Healing (like the even greater gift of forgiveness that Jesus alludes to when he encounters the man again later that day in the temple) is not a reward for asking in the right way, or for strong enough faith. The lame man in this story does not ask for healing, not even when invited to. And beyond that, he had no idea who healed him until later that day. So the man is not healed because of any amount of faith on his part. This was a pure act of grace.

In some ways he was not dissimilar to the Pharisees and Priests in the temple. They had been conditioned to see their faith as simply about rules and their enforcement. It was all they could see. So when the man showed up at the temple for the first time in 38 years – walking – what did they see? Not a lame man who had been healed after a lifetime of being unable to walk. All they saw was a man carrying a mat on the Sabbath, which was one of the items that they listed as a ‘burden’ that should not be carried on a Sabbath, as this would constitute work.

So how did the Pharisees miss this point and become hung up on a trivial rule? And how did the lame man seem to forget why he had been going to this pool every day for the past 38 years?

It is because we tend only to see what is important to us. We tend to see what we have been conditioned to see. And sometimes, that means we miss the bigger picture of what is happening.

When I was eight years old I wanted a bicycle in the worst way. Many of the kids in school had bikes. And the ‘townies’ used to ride their bikes to school when the weather was good. Their bikes all were of the same style, with banana seats and butterfly handlebars. They were completely useless as bikes, but easy for kids to ride. And I wanted one of those. After many weeks of asking, my father brought home an old bicycle someone had given him for free. What he brought home was not a kid’s butterfly handlebar bike with banana seat, but an old single speed Schwinn with balloon tyres and pedal brakes. And it was an adult size so I could not reach the pedals.  My Father said if I could ride this bike 100 yards (100 metres) he would get me one of those bikes like the other kids at school had.

So to ride this I would lean the bike against a tree at the top of small hill, climb up, then push myself off.  It took several days of trying before I was able to roll forward at all before the bike fell over. My little sister was a frequent and interested spectator in my efforts. We measured out the distances I rode by pacing them out after each ride. After a couple of weeks I was able to make it about 10 metres before falling over. Well short of the goal. I finally worked out that without being able to pedal I was not able to get of enough speed to maintain balance. What I needed was a bigger hill! So with my sister in tow, we went to a long dirt track at the back of our farm which had a hill of just over the required 100 yard distance. It was a long steep incline with quite a few tree roots across parts of the track. But it was the best chance of getting enough speed to stay up on the bike. All I had to do was make it to the bottom, where the track turned sharply to the left and headed back toward our house. We found an oak tree near the top of the hill and I climbed up, as I had with the smaller hill, and balanced myself. My sister prepared to push me off when I was ready, as we had been doing on the smaller hill. A small voice at the back of my head was saying that this was a bad idea. But I was eight, so I ignored the voice and shoved off, my sister pushing to help me get up speed. It worked. The faster speed from the hill allowed me, though wobbly, to keep upright. I soon passed my previous record and was still going. I hit the first patch of tree roots and managed to stay on the bike. I was actually riding! And gaining speed. But because I could not reach the pedals I could also not brake.

About 100 metres down the hill the dirt track took a sharp turn to the left. I didn’t’ have the bike handling skills to make the bike turn with the track and went straight instead, and right into a pile of firewood that tapered down at a 45 angle to the ground. Somehow I managed to hit the wood pile straight on and my speed sent me up the woodpile like it was a ramp. I flew into the air above the wood pile, then came down on top of the woodpile on my back, with the bike landing on top of me, then skidded off the side onto the ground, the bike now tangled around my twisted and bleeding legs. I was winded and not able to breathe or speak. The pain was intense and instant. I remember hearing my sister running up behind me to see what had happened. She said “I’ll tell Mum,” and rand off toward the house. I lay in agony waiting for my mother to come and tend to my wounds. And I kept waiting. But no one came. Finally, I managed to pull myself free and limp home. I came through the kitchen dripping blood onto the floor. My Mum exclaimed: ’What happened to You! Are you okay?”

“No,” I said. ‘Didn’t April tell you I crashed into the wood pile at the bottom of the hill?”

“No,” my Mum said. ‘She only said, ‘Mark rode his bike farther than he ever has before.”

For my sister, the main thing she took out of what happened was the fact that I had succeeded in breaking my previous record for bike riding distance. And that I had clearly made it to the bottom of the hill, meeting my father’s challenge. The dramatic crash at the end that left me broken and bleeding and tangled within my bike on a pile of firewood did not seem to have registered with her as important. I was quite upset with her. How could she not notice my pain? How could she not bring help?

All she could say was that she thought I would want our Mother to know that I made it to the bottom of the hill.

Today’s story of the healing of the lame man by the pool by the Sheep Gate is like that difference in perspective between my sister and I of what happened with the bicycle. In almost comic fashion the Jewish religious authorities, upon seeing a man who has been lame for 38 years suddenly walking and carrying the mat he had been laying on, seem to completely overlook the enormity of the miracle and the joy of the man’s healing. And this was surely the main thing they should have noticed. After all, didn’t they want to celebrate a miracle. Didn’t they believe that making the lame walk was one of the sign that the Messiah had come?

But the only thing that seems to have caught their attention was that the man was carrying his mat. And as no burden was allowed to be carried on the Sabbath, and the authorities of the day had included bed mats on the list of things that were a burden to carry, the man was clearly in violation of the rules.

Sometimes we become so focused on some minor point or get hung up on some rule that we lose sight of what is most important.

In many ways we are all like both the man who was lame, who seems to have forgotten why he was going to the miraculous pool every day in the first place when someone came along and asked if he wanted to be healed. He only complained about the unfairness of not being able to get to the pool first after the water was stirred. And the religious leader in the temple couldn’t see that a miracle had occurred. That a man’s life had been transformed. That this could be a sign the Messiah had at last come. All they could see was the offending mat.

So what things in our lives have we become hung up on? What things have we become so conditioned to see as important that we fail to see what God is doing in our lives and in the lives of those around us?

Perhaps we are overly concerned with some political issue and this is all we see. Perhaps we have become so convinced that Christian faith is about behaving in a certain way or following certain rules, that like the religious leaders in the temple, we completely miss the big things God is doing before our very eyes. Or perhaps, like the lame man, we have become so accustomed to things not going our way, and so upset about the unfairness of it all, that when Jesus offers us his love we take no notice and keep on feeling sorry for ourselves.

Today’s Gospel story points once again to who Jesus is: God in human flesh who has come to live among us. But it also reminds us to open our eyes to see what God is doing in us and around us, and not be so caught is so many other petty concerns that we can no longer see the bigger picture of God’s love active in our lives and in our world.


Pastor Mark Worthing.
Port Macquarie.