A week before my birthday my husband prayed it would not be like the last two. In 2015, I witnessed the violent shooting of a police officer. In 2016, my husband was gone on a trip that didn’t go as planned—a terrible disappointment—and I celebrated by making myself banana pancakes and sharing them with my dog. It was a sad, rainy and lonely day. In 2017, I was supposed to be camping with a few close friends, but instead I spent the day moving from my bed to the bathroom, losing yet another little life inside me, our third miscarriage in three years.
A birthday is simply a marker, an anniversary of sorts, a stake in the ground: I have been alive for 37 years and am now in my 38th year. But when that marker is marked doubly by sadness, tragedy or pain on an ongoing basis, it creates inward stasis. Moving forward seems impossible, so staying in place seems the way of safety. There comes a paralyzing fear of feeling anything in regard to pain; instead, it seems better to become stoic and indifferent to it. We know life holds suffering and God is sovereign over it, but when the suffering comes in waves and leaves no corner of our hearts and lives untouched, it can be tempting to find the deepest corner and bed ourselves there permanently, praying we can bear it. The Bible is not silent on this stasis, though, nor does it offer demands too insurmountable for the broken. The Word of God and the gospel offer living water even to those waiting by broken wells.
On the morning after my birthday this year, my husband read John 5:2-9 to me, the narrative of another person in his 38th year, another man who was waiting for wholeness too, while he watched others receive what he desired:
Now there is in Jerusalem by the Sheep Gate a pool, in Aramaic called Bethesda, which has five roofed colonnades. In these lay a multitude of invalids—blind, lame, and paralyzed. One man was there who had been an invalid for thirty-eight years. When Jesus saw him lying there and knew that he had already been there a long time, he said to him, “Do you want to be healed?” The sick man answered him, “Sir, I have no one to put me into the pool when the water is stirred up, and while I am going another steps down before me.” Jesus said to him, “Get up, take up your bed, and walk.” And at once the man was healed, and he took up his bed and walked.
Over the past month, I have been asking the Lord to show me the way out of my insufficient corner and into the way of trusting God with all my emotions, frailty, paralyzation and sorrow. He has been using this passage as a roadmap of sorts, and I am grateful for it. This passage is descriptive and not prescriptive—meaning it tells us what happened then, but not necessarily how it should always happen. But it does show us a common malady in the hearts of men and the posture of our Savior.
The man was waiting by what would not heal, but Jesus found him even there.
The Pool of Bethesda is located in a corner of Jerusalem, near the Sheep Gate. It means House of Mercy, but the word for mercy here also means disgrace in Hebrew and Aramaic. Invalids and the diseased gathered in this place hoping for a miracle. It was said that an angel would occasionally stir up the waters, and the first person to step in would be healed. Here was this man, disgraced by his inability to get himself to the waters and waiting for mercy—yet at a pool that could not satisfy.
Often we find ourselves there too, right? We are desperate for mercy, grace, healing and restoration but feel so paralyzed by our circumstances that we run to what the Bible calls “broken cisterns and empty wells” (Jer. 2:13), instead of running to Jesus, who only gives living water. We read self-help books, listen to podcasts and skim articles (like this one), hoping beyond hope that we’ll be fully satisfied by what we find there. The truth is we won’t—we never can be. But the greater truth is Jesus finds us there still. In the midst of broken cisterns, empty wells, superstitious stories about angels and stirring waters, Jesus finds us there. In our disgrace and in our search for a place of mercy, with imperfect efforts, Jesus is there.
The man knew he needed others to move toward healing, but ultimately only Jesus could heal.
“Sir, I have no one to put me into the pool when the water is stirred up,” the man said. He knew he needed others to help him do what he could not do, and so he waited for years, in stasis because he wanted others to move him forward. Whether it was pride that kept him from asking or the pride of others who refused him help, we can all see vestiges of our own sin here. We cannot enter into wholeness of body or mind because we cannot trust others to help us along the way, yet we still need others. This man was utterly dependent on people, and yet the people around him were untrustworthy—and still he waited. Still wanting, still aching, still probably asking, still so desperate for healing, he submitted himself to those who could not heal or bring him the full healing he needed. And Jesus found him there.
We who are broken (which is all of us) need to position ourselves around others—as broken and untrustworthy as they can be. We need to be willing to say, “I cannot walk this path myself; I need the help of God and the Church to get me there.” What saved this man is that he was in the way of God in flesh by positioning himself among other imperfect, disgraced and weak humans.
The man felt pushed aside, marginalized and held back, but Jesus superseded all that kept him back.
The man finished by saying to Jesus,“While I am going another steps down before me.” On the rare occasion, it seemed, that this man was able to near the edges of the pool, another stepped in front of him to receive the blessing. Because the tradition was only the first to touch the waters would be healed, the man fell back, dejected and disappointed again, paralyzed by his belief that healing was impossible yet again. Others would be healed. Others would get what he wanted. Others would experience wholeness, but he never would.
When we believe that wholeness is for everyone else but us, we keep our eyes on the prize of wholeness and not on the existence of Jesus. Wholeness seems elusive, out of our grasp, and yet Jesus, visiting this dank, disease-ridden, disgraced place offers mercy to the man who can’t take his eyes off the pool that wouldn’t satisfy, the people who wouldn’t help and the pushed-aside feeling inside of him. But Jesus met him there. Jesus met him at the broken cistern and empty well. Jesus alone could help him among imperfect people. Jesus superseded the man’s marginalization. He healed.
We need to be willing to say, “I cannot walk this path myself; I need the help of God and the Church to get me there.”
Friends, the way to healing—true healing—is not the easy way. It means existing in our disgrace in a place of mercy, it means seeking out truth where we can find it, but knowing only Jesus satisfies, it means surrounding ourselves with people who can help, but may not do it perfectly, and it means trusting that Jesus can overcome years of disappointment, marginalization, and illness to give wholeness. What might it look like to submit ourselves, our hurts, emotions, suffering, fear, stoicism, frailty, indifference, and apathy, to the sovereign faithfulness of a God who can find us paralyzed on a mat in a corner in the House of Mercy?
Perhaps you, too, have days or moments marked by suffering. Perhaps you feel left in a permanent cycle of brokenness. There is good news for you, friend: Jesus came to save the broken and He came toward you, finding you in the midst of your mess, fear and inability to save yourself. He is not limited by days or moments or years of brokenness, and when He shows up, He changes things.