Guest commentary by Dave Coles
God’s messages in Scripture often turn on just a word or two. Take the story of the healing at the Pool of Bethesda (John 5:1-9). John’s Gospel tells us that Jesus met an invalid there who had been seeking healing for 38 years.
Here’s the backstory.
Legend was that at times the Angel of the Lord would come down and stir the water in the pool. On such occasions, the first person to get into the pool after the water was stirred would be healed of his affliction. It is possible the man in this story had some form of lower extremity disability, otherwise he would not have said, “I have no one to help me into the pool when the water is stirred.”
Stop for a minute and think what this man’s life must have been like. He had been seeking healing by coming to the Pool of Bethesda for 38 years. That is nearly a complete working lifetime for most people in 21st-century America. In fact, it is possible he could have had children and grandchildren who were born and raised during the years that he had been seeking a healing.
For 38 years, his life probably consisted of waking up, getting dressed, eating breakfast, packing a lunch, grabbing his mat and somehow making his way to the pool. His disability likely required him to have help getting to the pool by leaning on someone for support as he hobbled along, or maybe a family member or friend actually took him there on a donkey or in a cart.
On a typical day, he would arrive at the pool with his mat and lunch, and settle in for yet another day of watching the water and hoping for healing. He probably had a favorite spot where he liked to sit. And he likely was close friends with the other healing-seekers who gathered daily at the pool.
Their topics of conversation might have been about the economy (“How about that new Roman tax?”), or politics (“That new Roman official is sure a piece of work, huh?”), or their families (“How is that son-in-law of yours doing?”) and their disabilities (“My poor old legs really hurt this morning.”).
Then along comes Jesus. He stops in front of the man and asks, “Do you want to get well?”
After 38 years at the pool hoping for a healing, the man might have thought to himself, “What kind of idiotic question is that?” He may even have been tempted to say something snarky like, “Well duh, man, why do you think I have been coming here for 38 years?” Instead, the man simply tells Jesus that he cannot get into the pool in time to get a healing.
Jesus does not hesitate. He says, “Pick up your mat and walk.”
I have heard it said that the phrase “pick up your mat and walk” may be the main point in the passage. You see, if all Jesus wanted to do was to show the man that he had been healed, Jesus could have just told him to stand up (ta da!). Or maybe Jesus could have told him to jump up and down to test out his new legs. Or, if Jesus wanted those at the pool to see what he had done for the man, he could have told him to run around the pool, maybe stopping every once in a while to do a few jumping jacks in front of the folks.
But, no. Jesus just told the man, “Pick up your mat and walk.” The key to this story seems to be the words mat and walk. Telling the man to pick up his mat implied that Jesus knew the now-healed invalid would need to leave the pool, thus the instruction to pick up his mat. In fact, the message within Jesus’ words may have been, “Pick up your mat and walk… right on out of here and into the life you have been praying for.”
Now why would Jesus want him to leave the pool that had been his home away from home for 38 years? Jesus would know that, now healed of his disability, the invalid no longer would fit in with the others at the pool. Much as the man may have wanted to continue coming to the pool, Jesus was telling him he no longer had things in common with his poolside comrades. If he came back, he would be out of place when the conversations turned to the others’ ongoing disabilities, their aches and pains, how their disability was negatively affecting their lives or how unfair it was that they were disabled and others were not.
The same thing is true today when we are healed of our challenges. For example, someone who is healed of a substance use disorder must pick up his or her mat and walk away. Even though fast friendships may have developed over drugs or alcohol, the newly sober person cannot keep going to the old hangouts. If she does, the likelihood is great that, sooner or later, she will be tempted into a relapse and that old substance use problem will be back with a vengeance.
Like the invalid, I often find myself complaining to Jesus that I have no one to help me “into the pool” in my search for greater consistency in my spiritual practice. Likewise, I complain about not being able to be more grateful, compassionate, patient, generous, forgiving, humble… well, you get the idea.
But then Jesus tells me to pick up my mat and walk in the new life I have been praying for. Yes, as probably was true for the invalid, later I sometimes find myself tempted to reach for my mat and head back to the familiar old places and ways. Fortunately, though, when that happens I again hear Jesus saying, “Walk.”
Jesus asks each of us the same question he asked of the invalid: “Do you want to be healed?” If our answer is, “Yes,” then we must pick up our mat and walk into new places and into the company of new friends who can help make his gift of healing stick.
DAVE COLES worked in the substance use disorder field for 25 years and is now semi-retired. He is a ruling elder, worships at Pines Presbyterian Church in Houston and works part-time as the coordinator of family faith formation at First Presbyterian Church of Sugar Land, Texas. He is active in the Presbytery of New Covenant and currently serves on the examinations committee. Dave can be reached at [email protected].