Summary: A lesson from the life of the paralytic at the pool of Bethesda.
The movie Fourth Of July tells the true story of Ron Kovic played by Tom Cruise. Kovic is a patriotic, All-American small town athlete who surprises his family by enlisting with the Marines to fight in the Vietnam War. However, once he is in Viet Nam the glory of war and heroism fades quickly. His enthusiasm turns to horror and confusion when he accidentally kills one of his own men in a firefight. Later, he is paralyzed from the chest down from a bullet wound. When he returns home, he is admitted into a veteran’s hospital which turns out to be a nightmarish experience. He becomes depressed and increasingly disillusioned, which leads him into a downward spiral and ultimately leaves him drunk and dissolute in Mexico. Eventually, he begins to turn himself around and he pulls his life together — which is complicated by the fact that he is still paralyzed.
I cannot imagine what it would be like to be paralyzed. Christian artist and author, Joni Earikson Tada, who is paralyzed from the neck down, tells of what it is like to have to have someone have to get you out of bed, brush your teeth, wipe you, bathe you, and feed you. She says that after 30 years of doing this, you would think she would be used to it by now, but she is not. Every morning she prays for God to help her through one more day. The feeling of being totally helpless and dependent on others would be enough to send most of us into deep depression.
But imagine what it would be like before wheelchairs, motorized chairs, rehab, braces, hospitals, special devices, etc. That was the case with the man in our story today — paralyzed with no benefits that we in the modern world have. He was lying beside a pool with other sick people. They were drawn to the pool by a superstitious tale that an angel would come and stir the waters of the pool, and the first one to get in would be healed. This myth promoted the false idea that God plays games with people, or that he treats them on a “first come, first served” basis. The notion was fostered by the fact that the pool was spring fed, and when the spring periodically flowed into the pool, the water in the pool was stirred.
But this man could not get into the pool, even if the myth was true. He can do nothing on his own. All he can do is lay there. He is totally at the mercy of other people. He does not eat unless someone brings him food. He does not drink unless someone brings him water. He does not move unless someone carries him. And he has been this way for thirty-eight years. He watches other people walk and go about with their normal lives, and he is tempted to despair and become bitter.
But his condition is about to change. Jesus sees the man lying there and inquires about him. He learns that this man has been like this for a long time. Jesus turns to him and asks the most important question of his life: “Do you want to be well?” At first, the question seems absurd. Why would he not want to be well? Why would he be lying next to this pool with its rumors of angels and healing if he did not want to get well? But what is interesting in the story is that the man never answers Jesus’ question. He only blames others for not helping him. He complains that no one will put him into the pool, and someone else always beats him to the punch. He is full of discouragement, and self-pity oozes fro m his pores.
Actually, there are a lot of reasons why he might not want to get well. He has learned over the years to be dependent on other people. Other people make his life work, so he does not have to. He has learned the art of begging, and if he were healed he would have to work. He would have to be responsible for his life. He could no longer blame other people. He could no longer get sympathy from other people. There are many people who live by being dependent on other people. They want to be irresponsible and still have someone else make their life work. There are many people who are genuinely in need and find themselves in a bind, but there are some who make it a lifestyle. The question of whether people really want to be well is still relevant today.
But then Jesus asks the man to do something, and his healing is dependent upon whether he will do what Jesus asks. He says to the man, “Get up! Pick up your mat and walk.” Even if the man were not paralyzed, laying on a mat for thirty-eight years would have atrophied his muscles and made it impossible to get up and walk. But the man feels life and strength surging through his formally paralyzed body. He obeys the word of Jesus and picks up his mat and walks. Whether he is thirty-eight years old and has never walked, or he is older and has been paralyzed from an accident for thirty-eight years, we do not know. What we do know is that he is immediately cured. Jesus does not correct his bad theology or his superstitious thinking about angels playing games with people, he simply says to him, “Get up and walk.”