Some time later, Jesus went up to Jerusalem for feast for the Jews. 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. Here a great number of disabled people used to lie--the blind, the lame, the paralyzed. One who was there had been an invalid for thirty-eight years. 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?"
"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."
Then Jesus said to him, "Get up! Pick up your mat and walk." At once the man was cured; he picked up his mat and walked.
I went to a play last night--Next to Normal. It was astounding. As one who rarely has trouble finding something to say, I find that there really aren't words to express how incredible this play was. The acting was phenomenal; the story itself was extraordinary.
It is the tale of a woman who has a nervous breakdown. It is not her first. In the aftermath, as the truth of what is happening to her and within her, we see the ways in which her brokenness is affecting those around her. It is at times funny, but more often than not heartbreaking. She reminds me of the man lying at the pool of Bethesda. She reminds me of people in my own life whom I love deeply. In some ways, she reminds me of myself and parts of her story resonate with parts of my story.
"Do you want to get well?" This is what Jesus asks the paralytic. I think in many cases it is the same question he asks us. Jesus approaches us in all our messy, wounded, broken humanity and he asks us, "Do you want to get well?"
I have participated in many bible studies that look at his passage, and I have always left fairly disturbed by the reaction people have to the response given by the paralyzed man. Inevitably, someone says, "He's just making excuses! He won't even answer Jesus' question! He's not interested in getting better; he's just interested in justifying what's wrong with him." It is a judgment against a person whose greater circumstances and whose very heart we do not know. It is a harsh judgment, and it makes me sad to hear it, especially when it comes from those I know and love.
Here's the rub, though--too many times, I think they're right. Not about the man in the story. Oh, no. It seems I have enough empathy for an individual whose encounter with Jesus 2,000 years ago is recorded in eight verses of the New Testament. No, too many times that is the judgment I pass on people I know--people whose circumstances and hearts I do know.
It's not kind. It's not compassionate. It's not Christ-like.
Watching Next to Normal last night, and seeing myself in the main character, Diana, I was reminded of a time when Jesus asked me, "Do you want to get well?" and my reply was, "No. I'm not ready." Jesus respected my response. This is largely the reason I disagree with the interpretation that the man at Bethesda was making excuses--Jesus never forces his healing upon us. He extends to us an invitation.
But so what if it is true? If we are to be imitators of Christ, does it really matter all that much if this man is making excuses or simply sharing a frustration? What if the man had said, "You know Jesus, I really don't want to get well. I'm not ready to let go of my mat"? Do any of us really have the right to judge that? Too often, I respond as if I do.
Here's what so amazing about Jesus, though--He never does! Jesus never judges our brokenness, no matter how tightly we hold onto it. Nope. Jesus just pulls out his own mat, plops down in the dirt next to us and says, "Tell me about it." Jesus chooses to meet us where we are, to join us there, and he sticks with us until we're ready to move.
A little over two years ago I faced circumstances that broke me. As Diana sang, "What happens if the cut, the burn, the break was never in my brain, or in my blood, but in my soul," I knew what she meant. I know what it is to have a broken soul. I know what it is to want to hold onto that brokenness. I know what it is to believe that holding onto the brokenness is the only way to hold on to what was lost that broke you in the first place.
After two years, I woke up one morning, and I said to Jesus, "Okay. I'm ready now. I want to get well." Jesus said, "Get up! Put a leash on your dog, and go for a walk." I got up, I put a leash on my dog, and I went for a walk. Every single day. For the last two months.
I have no desire to go back to my brokenness, though I was initially hesitant to leave it. I love my life, and while I still miss what was lost, I no longer mourn that loss. I know now that holding onto Jesus and saying, "Yes!" to his healing do not further remove from me what was lost, but rather allow me to fully appreciate what I had. Choosing wholeness, letting go of the brokenness, allows me to hold onto the love.
There are people in my life who are deeply broken. I know their circumstances. While I cannot, at times, fathom how they could continue to hold onto their brokenness, I see why they've made the choices they have, how they've come to the place they're in, and I understand how some of them see no other option. They do not know Jesus, and do not know that he's sitting on a mat, in the dirt, next to them, offering them something better.
It does not matter to me whether they haven't chosen healing because they do not want it, or because they do not know it exists. What does matter to me is that too often I have been the one pointing the finger and making accusations: they just want to make excuses and justify what's wrong with them. What matters to me is that I see how my heart has been hardened, and how I have failed to show others the love that Jesus has shown me. What matters to me is that my self-righteousness has wounded others, and led to more brokenness.
The next time I have a conversation with someone I love who is holding onto their brokenness and pain, I hope I can plop down on my mat in the dirt next to them and say with genuine love and interest, "Tell me about it."
I hope being loved by Jesus transforms me into a radical lover of others.