Several years ago a remarkable high school football game took place in Grapevine, Texas – a town between Dallas and Fort Worth. On the surface it looked like any other football game that is played on a fall Friday night. Grapevine Faith, a private Christian school, defeated Gainesville State School 33-14. That’s not the remarkable part.
Gainesville State School is not an ordinary high school. It is not a high school at all. Gainesville State School is a maximum-security correctional facility for youth ages 13-19. Every game they play is an away game. They have no fans and no cheerleaders. They ride a prison bus to their opponents field, play the game, get back on the bus, and drive back to prison. Oh, and they aren’t very good. They had not won a game all season, 0-8, coming into that night. They left 0-9, but they felt like they had won the championship.
The reason was that the coach of Grapevine Faith, Kris Hogan, realized how difficult it must be for these players to play every game on the road with no support. He sent an email out to his players, their families, and the whole school. He asked everyone to sit on the visitor’s sideline at the game, and to cheer, not for their own children, but for the other team. He also asked the cheerleaders to cheer not for the Christian Faith Lions, but for the Gainesville State Tornadoes. The parents even formed a “spirit line” for the Gainesville boys. Before the game began the young men from Gainesville State Correctional Facility ran in disbelief through a 40-yard spirit line and for the first time broke through a banner that read, “Go Tornadoes.”
Rick Reilly, writing for Sports Illustrated, reported:
After the game, both teams gathered in the middle of the field to pray and that’s when Isaiah [quarterback for the Gainesville team] surprised everybody by asking to lead. “We had no idea what the kid was going to say,” remembers Coach Hogan. But Isaiah said this: “Lord, I don’t know how this happened, so I don’t know how to say thank You, but I never would’ve known there was so many people in the world that cared about us.”
BluefishTV produced a video about this story as part of a youth group curriculum on missions that we used in our Sunday night meeting just a couple of weeks ago. The narrator in the video talked about what most games were like for the youth of Gainesville State School football team: “each experience holds a constant reminder of who they are and what they’ve done.”
Not that night though. That night they heard the possibility of a new story of who they were. Kids worthy of being cheered for.
Rick Reilly uses a different word. He closes his column this way:
Anyway, with the economy six feet under … it’s nice to know that one of the best presents you can give is still absolutely free.
This morning is the fifth Sunday of Lent, I want you to hear a new story for your life as well. A story not defined by what you have done, or not done. But a story defined by hope. That you too are worthy to be cheered for, that there is someone on your side, that you are more than your past. There is a new story available for you to embrace.
Do you want to get well?
Throughout this season of Lent we have been working through a worship series called We Would See Jesus where each Sunday our worship has revolved around a story in the Gospel of John where someone meets Jesus. Today we read of a man who finds himself helpless and hopeless sitting beside a pool.
Jesus goes to this pool in Beth-zatha, sometimes appearing as Bethesda in other translations, which was believed to have healing powers. John tells us that the blind, the lame, and people with all kinds of afflictions gathered at the pool. Their belief was that when the waters were stirred, probably by a geyser-like phenomenon, the first person, or maybe several people, who got into the pool would be healed.
When I read that story again this week, the image of the stirred water got me thinking about Pastor Bob’s sermon from last Sunday about the Samaritan woman at the well. In the story, from John 4, Jesus says to the woman that if she knew who was asking her for a drink she would ask him for “living water.” Pastor Bob shared with us that her mind immediately went to running water, moving water – the cleanest, purest water – because the phrase “living water” was a common way of describing a spring or stream. Maybe these two stories are somehow related.
Think back another week and you may remember Pastor Bob’s sermon on the religious leader Nicodemus coming to Jesus at night to talk about new birth from John 3. Jesus says to him, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit” (John 3:5). Water. Maybe this story is related too.
Think back another Sunday, and you may remember that I preached a sermon on Jesus’ first sign told in John 2. Jesus is at a wedding in Cana where they run out of wine, and Jesus somewhat reluctantly produces wine from water. More water. Maybe this one is related too.
If you have been with us throughout the series, you have heard Bob and I say repeatedly that John often works on at least two levels. So clues like this are probably asking us to see something. Also, John tells us later in his Gospel that he is choosing stories – “Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name” (John 20:30-31).
Something is going on here with all these water references. John has put these water stories close together for a reason. He wants us to see these stories together, and let me share with you what I see as the common theme.
In each story Jesus replaces the water. At the wedding the water Jesus uses comes from those 20-30 gallon containers that John tells us were the “stone water jars for the Jewish rites of purification” (2:6). Sure they were convenient, but something else is going on here. Jesus replaces that purification water with wine, a symbol of God’s presence, God’s Kingdom.
Then in the story of Nicodemus, Jesus tells Nicodemus that it is not sufficient to be born genetically into the family of Abraham, but that one needs to be born of “water and spirit” to enter the kingdom of God. The water of birth is not enough. There is more.
Then maybe most overtly in the story last week, Jesus says that he can provide living water. He says, “Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, but those who drink of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty. The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life” (4:13-14). There’s water, that sustains life. Then there is the water he offers that sustains life in the kingdom.
In today’s story, again there is water, a pool. The people believe that when the water becomes alive, when it is stirred, it gets healing powers. Jesus doesn’t need the water to do the healing. He just heals.
In this story though, there is an additional plot happening. Not only does Jesus heal without need for the water, he does it on the Sabbath, which is what starts this controversy with who John simply calls “the Jews,” who are not the run of the people on the street, but a group of religious elitists. For those of you who have been reading along in the Gospel of John with us during Lent, I want to share with you a little aside about how this story is functioning this gospel. This story is a turning point in the narrative that revolves around this idea of Sabbath.
Whenever I read about Jesus getting in so much trouble for working on the Sabbath, I’m taken back. We don’t take Sabbath very seriously today. We live in a 24/7 society. Blue laws, when all businesses were closed on Sunday, are a thing of the past. Don’t get me wrong, this is much to our detriment, but it is hard to believe that someone would be so offended by another’s activity on a Sunday, for us Christians, or on a Saturday, for the Jewish people.
But realize the severity of the punishment that one was subject to by breaking Sabbath law. Its right there in our own Bibles. Exodus 31:15 reads: “Six days shall work be done, but the seventh day is a Sabbath of solemn rest, holy to the Lord; whoever does any work on the Sabbath day shall be put to death.” Some in Jesus’ day, took that mandate very seriously. So when we hear the charges against Jesus of breaking the Sabbath law, realize just how serious this was. This was not a minor offense, but a capital one. Jesus was making a serious challenge to the authorities of his day.
With his command to the paralyzed man to take up his mat and walk, Jesus is now making no secret of the fact that he has come to replace, or one might say “complete,” the Jewish Law. This is a major step. So now it is on.
In the very next verse John writes, “Therefore the Jews started persecuting Jesus, because he was doing such things on the Sabbath” (5:16). And suddenly Jesus who was having these small-time encounters with ordinary folk (family at a wedding, a teacher, a Samaritan woman…) is now at the center of a controversy. You will notice, as you continue to read the Gospel of John, a serious shift following this story. Now people are coming to trap Jesus, and the informal investigation process of a trial is going on throughout the rest of the book. We are now moving toward the cross.
If I were teaching a class on the Gospel of John, I would like to explore that further, but that is not the purpose of our sermon series. In this series we are looking at these interactions people have with Jesus in each of these stories. To that end let us return to the dialog between Jesus and this paralyzed man.
A dumb question?
Jesus asks what may be one of the dumbest questions I have ever heard. He walks up to a paralyzed man near a pool that is believed to have miraculous healing powers and Jesus asks, “Do you want to be made well?”
Have you ever had one of those moments when you have asked or been asked one of those ridiculous questions? Comedian Bill Engvall turned those questions into his famous “Here’s Your Sign” routine, where he gives the answers you’d like to give.
For example, Engvall says, “One day I locked my keys in my car and as I was standing there with a coat hanger halfway thru the top of my window, a guy walks up and says,” Lock yer keys in the car?” Without missing a beat I said, “Nope, Just washed it and was hanging it up to dry.”
I similar situation happen to me last fall. I was at the checkout of King Soopers buying one of those $5 bundles of firewood, and the guy asked me… “You building a fire?” The answer that went through my mind at that moment (that I did not say) was, “Nope. I’m building a cabin, very, very slowly.”
Jesus walks up to a paralyzed guy sitting by a pool that is believed to have healing powers and asks, “Do you want to be made well?” The Engvall answer is, “No, I’m just working on my tan.”
When I read this story that question leaps off the page for me. I do not believe Jesus is asking a stupid question. He is doing something here.
First, Jesus notices this guy. I love that about Jesus. He does not see just another paralytic lying beside the pool. He sees HIM. He sees a man who happens to be in need. Others had gotten used to him being there. He was one of the regulars, blending in to the scene like a piece of furniture. For thirty-eight years, John tells us, this man was there beside the pool. For 38 years he waited for the water to be stirred. For 38 years he tried to be the first one in the water. For 38 years, he had failed.
Jesus doesn’t care about any of that. Jesus just cares about him. So he asks, “Do you want to be made well?” (5:6).
Second, the man’s response may tell us something about why Jesus asked the question in the first place. How simple would it have been to have said “yes”? Instead, he launches into this series of explanations. He talks about how no one will help him get to the pool in time. He complains about the unfairness of the system. In essence, he replies by saying that while he might like to get well, he really has no idea how to do it. “Sir,” he says, “I have no one to put me into the pool when the water is stirred up; and while I am making my way, someone else steps down ahead of me.”
Notice how limited this man’s thinking is. The man finds his situation helpless and hopeless. He is paralyzed. He is always going to be paralyzed. His world has become his illness. His hope has become the pool.
Have you been around those people? I remember when Diane and I first got married and I met some of her elderly relatives. On the way home I joked about how there were times where it sounded like they were playing what I called “illness poker.” One would talk about her bunion, and someone would in essence say, “I’ll see your bunion and raise you arthritis in my knees.” To which someone would respond, “I’ll see your bunion and arthritis in your knee and raise you a slipped disc.” And this went on and on. They were defining their lives based on what was wrong with them.
You don’t have to be elderly to do this. You don’t have to be a paralyzed man sitting beside a pool. Many of us define ourselves by our brokenness. Oh, we might not talk about that to many people, but deep in our hearts we look in the mirror and see – the fat kid from high school, we see the alcoholism, we see the one who was sent the message by our parents that we were unlovable, we see the anxiety and depression, we see the temper, the one who was divorced – rejected by our spouse, the one whose relationship with his/her children is damaged, the one who knows this pain or that pain. We look in the mirror and we see one who is defined by our brokenness.
When Jesus walks up to that broken man who had been seeking healing for 38 years and asks “Do you want to be made well?” he is asking him an identity question. He is asking him which story about himself does he believe, and is he willing to change it.
What that man believed about himself that he was broken. What he believed about himself was that the only way to get better was through some kind of miracle when the waters were stirred and became alive. His thinking is limited by his paralysis.
Jesus arrives in his life and offers the man a different story.
As a seminary student, I was appointed to a small two-point charge, which means I was the pastor of two small congregations with a total weekly attendance of about 100 (the one had about 85 and the other 15). Like many student pastors, I was eager to learn and always ready to experiment. If I read about something that seemed worth a shot, I would do it. I was bold and daring, and today very thankful to those congregations that were taken along for this ride.
The experiment that made the biggest impression on me, and I think on the congregation, was when we instituted a regular healing service. Once a month we would close our service with a time for healing. I instructed the congregation that this was not healing in the way they would normally think of it, nor would it be how they would see it on TV. We weren’t just after the miraculous physical healing, but we invited people to come forward to receive an anointing of oil and prayer for healing and wholeness in their physical, spiritual, or emotional lives.
A Sunday or two after the very first healing service we conducted, one of the women of the church came up to me and told me that she wanted to share with me her story of healing. I was very excited. She said since she had received the anointing and we had prayed together, she had begun to take her medicine regularly, which apparently had been an issue in the past, and she was feeling much better.
On the one hand, we could say that she was being physically healed through the hands of her doctor and pharmacist. But now she had begun to participate in her own healing, out of faithfulness to God. It was as if she was answering that question that Jesus asks this man, “Do you want to be made well?” Her answer was a resounding yes. She was no longer going to allow the story of her illness to define her. She was going to be part of a better story.
Do you want to be made well? Like the man beside the pool you may think your situation is helpless, hopeless. No matter how hard you try, this has been going on for a long time now, and has become part of who you are. We find ourselves defined by our brokenness.
It is easy to get sucked into this kind of defeatist thinking, and begin to accept your own excuses. You’re just bad. The world is against you. You can’t fight your genes. You had a rough upbringing. Your marriage fell apart because you did something wrong. Your anger at that former friend or co-worker consumes you. Before you know it, you are just accepting that this is the way that it is, and always will be. There is nothing that can be done. I’ve tried, Jesus, to get into the pool. I’ve tried to get better. And I just can’t do it.
Then Jesus shows up and asks, “Do you want to be made well?”
Will you listen to a different story about who you are?
Without any water, Jesus simply says to the man, “Stand up, take your mat and walk.” And he does. Remarkable.
Not only is it remarkable that the man is healed, but it is remarkable that the man is willing to see himself as something other than the paralyzed guy by the side of the pool for the last 38 years. He is willing to change, to get up and walk, to accept a new story about himself where he can walk.
Unfortunately though, he never seems to fully embrace it. He still seems to be stuck in old patterns. When the religious authorities come up to him to chastise him for carrying his mat on the Sabbath, a breach of the Sabbath Laws, he quickly passes the blame. “The man who made me well said to me, ‘Take up your mat and walk’” (5:11). Not my fault, he says, I was commanded to break the law by the guy who did this for me.
Notice how everyone glosses over the “man who made me well” part and just goes right to the Sabbath breaking. Here is another group, defined by a story, who when confronted with a better story cannot give up the one they have known for so long.
The man cannot identify Jesus, he’s lost him in the crowd. But then, John tells us, “Later Jesus found him in the temple and said to him, ‘See you have been made well! Do not sin anymore, so that nothing worse happens to you’” (5:14).
Pastor Bob and I were joking not long ago about how we would like to do a sermon series on “Things We Wish Jesus Had Not Said.” If we did that, this line would be the basis of one of those sermons because on the surface Jesus sounds like he might be making a connection between his sin and his physical ailment. Almost as if Jesus is saying, if you don’t start living right you are going to wind up back beside the pool. Some have suggested that the healing was dependent upon him doing the right things.
I don’t think we can interpret it that way. A few chapters later in the Gospel of John Jesus addresses this very issue. In John 9 Jesus and his disciples meet a man born blind, and one of the disciples asks, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” Jesus answered, “Neither this man nor his parents sinned; he was born blind so that God’s works might be reveled in him” (John 9:2-3). Jesus doesn’t equate the sin and a physical malady, nor does he allow for a cause-and-effect relationship to exist between them. Neither should we. Therefore, I don’t think we can read Jesus’ statement, “Do not sin anymore, so that nothing worse happens to you” as a contradiction to that.
I think something much more profound is happening when Jesus says, “See you have been made well! Do not sin anymore, so that nothing worse happens to you.” He is saying, “I have given you a new story. Leave the old one behind, and live into this new story.”
Unfortunately, the man cannot do that. He is still stuck in his old way of thinking. John writes that all the man got from this exchange was the name of the one who had healed him and he reports it to the authorities. “The man went away and told the Jews that it was Jesus who had made him well” (5:15). Again he is so caught up in being right, in being justified, in not getting in trouble for having carried his mat on the Sabbath, that he stays stuck in his story of brokenness and sells Jesus out. And the persecution begins.
It is difficult to imagine, isn’t it, that someone would be so worked up about being right that they miss the miracle. Or is it? Seems to happen just about every day. Church members who appear to want nothing more than to win an argument. People who are more concerned about right theology than they are about people. Christians who are quick to condemn and slow to offer the grace and love of God. Followers of Jesus who keep people locked in their story of brokenness rather than proclaiming in them a better story – the story of the love, forgiveness and wholeness that is found in Christ Jesus.
A new story
This whole section, and in some ways this whole sermon series up to this point is about being offered a new story for us to live into (thank you to Rob Bell’s book Love Wins New York: HarperOne 2011, p.165f). Not just a new story in the history of religion, but a new story in your life and in mine. There was water at a wedding in Cana, water that was used to make people and things ritually clean. Jesus replaced that water with wine, a symbol of the presence of God, and it was that wine that was able to keep the wedding party, one of Jesus’ favorite images for the Kingdom of God going. The old story of trying to clean yourself up with the ritual water was replaced with a new better story about the Kingdom of God in our midst.
With a man named Nicodemus in the middle of the night, Jesus gets into this theological conversation about what it means to be in the Kingdom, to see the Kingdom. Jesus tells Nicodemus that his physical birth, through the water of the womb, is incomplete. He needs to be born twice – of water and the Spirit. Once physically and once from above (or again). His physical birth story that makes him a child of Abraham is incomplete without acceptance of the better story of being born in the Spirit as a true child of God.
Sitting beside a well in Samaria Jesus chats with a woman. She has a story defined by water. Every day she needs to go to that well, that place where everyone gathers to remind her of who she is – an oft-divorced woman now living with a guy who is not her husband. She knows that she is the talk of the town. Jesus tells her that he has available to her new, living water. A new story about who she is. Soon this one who has been trying to hide by going to the well in the middle of the day is proclaiming to others, “Come and see a man who told me everything I have ever done!” Jesus has replaced her old story with a new one, and she joyfully embraces it.
Jesus comes to a pool of water and meets a paralyzed man who has sat at the pool longing to be healed for 38 years. The man has been defined by his brokenness for the majority of his life. Jesus replaces the water and brings healing. Jesus offers this man a new story, one he never seems to embrace. Jesus warns him that the physical healing gives him a new story, and invites him to live into it.
A group of incarcerated teenagers – convinced that they are defined by their neighborhood, by their parents, by what they have done – meet Jesus through the people at a football game who cheer for them. The Gatorade that was there to keep them hydrated during a warm Texas next, was poured out over the head of their coach. They lost the game, but they won a new story. Will they live into it?
So it is with you and me.
Jesus has come and he is offering you a new story.
You no longer need to be defined by your brokenness. You no longer need to be defined by the mistakes that you have made. You no longer need to be defined by your parents, your anxiety, your depression. You no longer need to be defined by your poverty or wealth, by your job or your unemployment, by your addiction. You no longer need to be defined by your grief, your weakness, by that sin that haunts you. You no longer need to be defined by that negative script, that voice in your head of a parent or spouse who constantly put you down. You no longer need to be defined as the victim. You need no longer be defined by a religion that has told you that there is something wrong with you that God is angry with and he wants to keep you at arm’s length.
There is a new story. Not a story of water, but of wine. Not a story of stagnant water that will only satisfy for a brief period, but of living water that changes everything. Not of a prison bus ride, but of one night and a Gatorade shower. A story of hope.
Which story will you believe? The one that says that you are broken, paralyzed, helpless and hopeless sitting beside a pool of healing that no matter how hard you try you can’t get to in time; or the one where Jesus notices you, approaches you, and with compassion says, “Stand up, take your mat and walk”?
Do you want to be made well?