Gospel of John: Pool of Bethesda


Probably the most famous mathematical equation in the world today is E=MC2.

Einstein figured out that energy equals mass times the speed of light squared. This is the formula that transforms matter, like plutonium, or uranium, into energy. It is just a simple little equation, but it has profoundly changed all of our lives. It is what we all wonder about—who has nuclear power? And what will they do with it? Will they use it to bring clean energy into their communities, or will they use it to wipe out others’ communities?

In the next series of posts we are going to experience the E=MC2 of Christianity


Remember that John was writing a reflective gospel, one that I think was meant to nuance the teaching-ness and male-centric nature of Matthew’s missive, and that explained many of the events Peter described in Mark’s account.

Toward the end of his gospel, John would illustrate the difference between what he wrote and Peter’s message, as these were the first two gospels to be widely preached. John pointed out that when they both rushed to Jesus’ empty tomb, he was able to outrun Peter but he allowed Peter to make his way inside first, puzzle over its emptiness, then rush back out to tell everyone else. Meanwhile, John lingered and thought deeply about what they had just witnessed.

Chronology of events was less critical to John than chronology of signs and sayings, though timing was deeply important to him. Nevertheless, he did not indicate how much time transpired between the healing of the nobleman’s son and this next event. Months? Days? A year or more? He also did not identify the feast Jesus went to.

Best guess, judging from the sequence of events, this feast probably was held in the early fall.

Pool of Bethesda, by the Sheep Gate | Carole Raddato from FRANKFURT, Germany / CC BY-SA (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)

But, John did give some very detailed data about where exactly Jesus went, once he was arrived in Jerusalem—in fact, John’s description is so specific, it has helped archaeologists determine where this spot was, in relation to the temple, within the greater temple complex.

Pool of Bethesda | New York Public Library / Public Domain

As Jesus was in town, he came to a famous pool, the Pool of Bethesda, that was fed by a subterranean spring which caused the pool to rise and fall—to move—at certain times of the year. It was believed an angel stirred up the water, and each day the first person who was touched by this freshly stirred water would be healed. There were other pools like this, dotted around the ancient middle east, and Jerusalem’s was very well-known. It had, in fact, been built up with five covered porches to accommodate all the ailing pilgrims.


Imagine the scene, especially during festival times. There was no such thing as protecting one’s “personal bubble,” here. Cheek by jowl, they stack themselves, anyone and everyone with an ailment, a disability, a frailty of any kind, those who are blind, others lame or paralyzed. The ones nearest to the front perhaps have bribed their way there.

Many are accompanied by hale and hearty family, or friends, or even servants who will shove, muscle, and otherwise force their way through to the pool’s edge at just the right moment, when the first eddies and currents begin to form.

Imagine the heat of all those people pressed against each other, the heavy air, the many moans, and shouts of irritation being pushed aside, crowing victory or abject disappointment, the cries of crushed hopes.

Far to the back lies an elderly man, thin, pale, listless. His threadbare robes, though not stained, are also not clean and lie in gray creases around his sickly body. His feet are bony and his legs seem hardly there under the folds of his garments. He half lifts himself onto one lank elbow and watches sorrowfully as the roil of people begin to swarm and writhe towards the moving water. He makes a small show of trying to struggle his way forward, but soon leaves off.


As he entered this famous sacred place, Jesus was drawn to a particularly helpless and hopeless invalid, who had been ill for thirty-eight years, so weak and feeble, he was unable to walk or even stand.

As the reader of hearts and discerner of souls looked at him, he perceived the whole story, and asked, “Would like to become whole?” 

What?

It is an important question. Jesus knows your story and mine, too. He knows about the struggle, the suffering, the loneliness. So, what was Jesus bringing to the surface with his question?

The man’s answer was forlorn, full of sadness . . . Sir, I have no people who might thrust me into the pool whenever the water is stirred—and before I myself go in it, someone else comes before me.   

It is interesting to me that the man felt somehow as though he needed to defend himself to Jesus. What he seemed to hear in the question was a hint of judgment. I wonder why? Knowing Jesus, it was not in his voice, nor in his demeanor. Instead, he would have asked with compassion and invitation.

So what was going on, here?

Is it possible the man sensed, perhaps without really realizing it, that to enter into wholeness, to be made complete, might include a willingness to change?

A commitment to change?

A movement away from being a passive victim to an active agent in his own life?

Requiring the plain hard work of growth live out?

Thirty-eight years is a long time to lie on a mat by the pool of Bethesda. It is a whole life, a whole career of being an invalid, helpless, at the mercy of others.

What would happen in the mind and heart of someone who had lived like that? How would they view themselves?

I imagine Jesus standing quietly, studying the man, looking deep into his eyes, and holding them. There was much Jesus did not say with words, but was surely still eloquently communicated.

For Jesus did not condole with the man, Jesus did not offer to help the man get more comfortable. He gave him no encouragement to persevere. He did not try to brainstorm ways of finding those who might help the man get to the pool next time. Jesus did not even offer himself to help the man get to the pool.

Picture the silence growing awkward.

Perhaps the man looked away, or down, or simply moved to his side, closed his eyes, and dismissed Jesus with a dejected air.

Arise.”

Jesus spoke with intensity, one word, layered with meaning. For it implied getting up from a sickbed, but it also intimated arising from slumber, or perhaps even stupor. Finally, it was a demand to literally get to his feet.

Jesus spoke with challenge. Here was the crossroads, a chance to be whole as well as healed.

From strange question to startling command, the man must have begun to fumble about with his cloak and his mat.

“Lift up your bedding and walk.”

Jesus’ voice reverberated with such compelling power the man’s body rose up before he quite knew what was happening. His atrophied legs and withered feet filled with muscle and sinew, straightening into the limbs of a youth beneath him, now one frail arm was scooping up his bedroll, the other gathering his cloak and garment about him, and in one long smooth movement he was walking away as Jesus melted silently into the throng.


[The Pool of Bethesda | Yale Center for British Art / Public domain]

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