The Healing at the Pool
1 Some time later, Jesus went up to Jerusalem for one of the Jewish festivals. 2 Now there is in Jerusalem near the Sheep Gate a pool, which in Aramaic is called Bethesda and which is surrounded by five covered colonnades. 3-4 Here a great number of disabled people used to lie—the blind, the lame, the paralyzed. 5 One who was there had been an invalid for thirty-eight years. 6 When Jesus saw him lying there and learned that he had been in this condition for a long time, he asked him, "Do you want to get well?"
7 "Sir," the invalid replied, "I have no one to help me into the pool when the water is stirred. While I am trying to get in, someone else goes down ahead of me."
8 Then Jesus said to him, "Get up! Pick up your mat and walk." 9 At once the man was cured; he picked up his mat and walked.
The Greek philosopher Plato told a story about a man in cave. The man was chained up in a cave and the only thing he had to look at was the shadows of cut-outs of trees and animals and various other objects. The objects were held up behind him and two other men who were also chained up and a the light from a fire reflected shadows of the objects on the wall in front of them. It was all of reality that they knew. After a time, one of the men escaped and made it out of the cave into the real world. He was amazed at the realities that he saw. They were overwhelming and breathtaking, far beyond anything he knew had existed. When all you know is shadow outlines, you cannot even imagine the depth and beauty of the real world. The man eventually decided to go back into the cave to tell the others about the real world that he had experienced, but they simply couldn't understand. They thought that he had gone mad and didn't want to hear any of what he had to say. Eventually the other men in the chains killed the man who came to free them because even the idea of the world he described was so frightening that they could do nothing other than to eliminate him.
John has given us, in many different ways, examples of people who were living with knowledge of mere shadows. They are living, to varying degrees, in the shadowy darkness of a world trapped in sin with no genuine knowledge of what God's created world is supposed to be like. John has described for how Jesus confronted each person he encountered with the reality of God's new creation and it is fascinating to watch the variety of responses. Some have grabbed on to the little bit they understood immediately, some have been a bit stand-offish at first, only then to embrace it finally. Some have not understood it at all, and seemed to reject the reality that Jesus is trying to showing them. In the end, some will reject it just like the two captives in Plato's cave, grabbing and killing the man that is trying to tell them that there is a whole new reality outside if they will just break free from their captivity and chains.
A pool that was near the Sheep Gate in Jerusalem doesn't sound like a likely place for a prison, but human beings can find themselves enslaved and imprisoned almost anywhere, even in the most unlikely of situations. As Jesus approaches Jerusalem for the second time during his ministry (at least that John has recorded), he is going during an unnamed festival, although the original text implies that it was the Feast of Tabernacles as it calls it the "festival of the Jews," which was a common nickname for Tabernacles. As he enters into the city, Jesus encounters a man who had been crippled for thirty-eight years. As promising as the pool near the Sheep Gate sounds, John lets us know that this place has become a prison for this man.
Great lore, legend, and superstition had developed about this pool in Jerusalem. Apparently it was believed that from time to time the waters of this pool would get stirred up. This may have been the result of springs in the pool or some other natural phenomenon, but regardless of what caused the occasional stirring, a belief grew that angels were the cause. It was also believed that the first, and only the first person into the pool would be healed. Because of this belief, the pool would be surrounded daily with people who were ill and crippled waiting for their chance, although we are never told how often the waters were believed to have been stirred. (All of this is explained in verse 4, which is missing in most modern translations because it seems to have been a later explanatory addition to the original manuscripts and so, has been taken out).
All of this angels stirring the waters and selective healing business sounds much more like the pagan cults that surrounded Israel rather than authentic Judaism. In fact, apparently, just the Jews didn't regard this pool as a healing place. It appears that pagans also regarded it as a place of healing, and at one point, it was even dedicated to the healing god Ascelpius. Certainly the priests and Jewish officials didn't approve of this sort of superstitious behavior, yet they seemed to have turned a blind eye to it for the most part, due no doubt, to the negative public opinion that would come with ending such a practice that seemed to not harm anyone. Although it doesn't seem that this place was very successful. It was more legend than reality. The man described here had made it his life to come to this place everyday and it had never done anything for him.
This had become his reality, even his prison. He blindly clutched to the sliver of hope that this place really did have healing powers and he would be able to benefit from them. This is the sort of place that always winds up being the hope of the pagan world. Here it was the rumor that there might be healing powers in angel-agitated waters. Today it's that we can find happiness in wealth, possessions, power, or personal fulfillment. Whatever the promise is, it never seems to turn out to be what it is cracked up to be. That's why Jesus asked this man if he wanted to get well. Jesus wasn't implying that he didn't really want to get well. Nor was he insinuating that the man wasn't make a good enough effort to get into the water, so Jesus was now going to help him if he really wanted to.
This is not about effort, it's about coming out of the world of shadows. This man had bought into the the shadows that the pagan world clings to. The healing at this pool was a remote, rare, and random event at its best, but a fanciful dream at its worst. He no longer had to cling to the empty hopes of a world stuck in darkness. Jesus was about to do for him what the world could only promise but never seem to deliver. He could do what the pool only promised and all it would take was a word from the Word. This was a moment of new creation, demonstrating what it looks like when people are brought into the life of God's age to come. That doesn't mean that everyone who enters in will become physically healed in the present age, the healing was simply a sign of what everyone will experience in full one day when all things are restored (Matt. 19:28). What Jesus did in bringing to reality the shadowy wishes of the pagan world, he can do for everyone now.
We should note that this is another example of people understanding Jesus at an earthly level when he is speaking of heavenly things. When he asked the man if wanted to get well, it was an invitation to leave behind the world of shadows and enter into the new creation. The invalid, however, can as yet only think of his reality in the cave of his own experience. He does want to get healed and could only do so if he could get in that water. Similarly people in our day could be happy if they could only get that one thing that desire. He, and the people of our time, never stop to consider that perhaps the problem is not in their ability to get the thing they desire but the problem is that that thing can never deliver on what they truly need. Jesus can.
One word from the master was all it took for him to enter into the light. He was carried to the pool and laid down in his usual darkness, but today he got up and walked as he encountered the light. A word from the Light is all it ever takes. What is rendered "get up" by the TNIV is actually one word, egeiro, which means "rise." In that one word, John perhaps expects us to catch a glimpse of what the new creation will look like. The word can simply mean "to raise up," but it was a word that the early church of John's day used regularly to refer to the resurrection of the new creation. Jesus' word to him, then was much more than a simple command to get up off the ground. It was an invitation into the new world that he had just been invited. It was an invitation to come out of the cave and into the real world.
John doesn't tell us that this is the third sign, but he has already given us the first two. From here on out, we are on our own. Have you guessed yet how many signs John will give us in his Gospel?
Take a look at the people around you that are not Christians. What is their pool at the Sheep Gate? What are they holding to on, looking for healing, that will turn out to be nothing more than an empty hope? It is our job, given to us by Jesus, to share in relevant ways the availability of the new creation. It is only in God's new world, available in the life of Christ that people can find true healing of their souls. What are you doing to spread that message with those that need it most?