Let us pray: Gracious God, help us not only to open our hearts and minds to your Scripture that we might better discern and understand your transforming word, but help us also by giving us the strength and will to respond. And now, may the words of my mouth and the meditations of all of our hearts, be acceptable in thy sight, O Lord, our Rock and our Redeemer. Amen.
There are two pieces of advice that members of this congregation have shared time and again. The first: “do not get old.” To which I usually respond, “I am not sure to follow your advice.” The other recommendation came often since the birth of our children. The advice, “Do not blink, or your children will grow up too fast.” I tried to follow that advice and lasted about a minute. Both pieces of advice relate to how quickly the years pass. Just yesterday at our Presbyterian’s Men’s meeting, I asked a member of our church about how his children and grandchildren were doing. He responded, “Roberto, those grandkids are growing so fast.” To which I thought, maybe you should stop blinking, but I did not say that.
I imagine that the man sitting at the healing pool for thirty eight years was wondering where all the years had gone? And lamenting how little there was to show for those years. Today’s story of healing from the Gospel according to John is a story about how we can be released from spiritual and psychological ruts. Jesus comes upon a natural pool called “Beth-zatha,” renowned for its healing powers. Its older name was “Bethesda,” which is why so many hospitals have that name. It was believed that the pool would occasionally bubble and that the first person in would be healed of an affliction—so the story goes. One can only imagine the melee when the pool began to bubble: the blind listening for the sounds from the direction of where to run and the paralyzed crying out for assistance.
As Jesus approaches the pool, he encounters a man who has been ill for at least thirty eight years. Through the eyes of this forty-one year old, that seems like a long time to be suffering. Often in healing stories that we encounter in the gospels, someone approaches Jesus asking for help—they reach for his cloak or plead for his intervention. In this case, Jesus approaches the man and asks a question. The question that he asks is not just for the man, but for anyone who is trapped in an unhealthy cycle that it is diminishing the quality of life and faith: “Do you want to be made well?”
“Sir, 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.” Reading into his response, it is conceivable that the man may not have wanted to get better. He may have grown accustomed to his condition, and beyond accustomed maybe even comfortable.
In the words of one preacher, “Note that he doesn’t say, ‘of course I want to be healed. I’ve been here forever!’ No, the first thing out of his mouth is equivocation. ‘I don’t have anyone to carry me to the water, so I never get there.’ Which might lead you to ask, ‘then why have you been hanging out there for thirty eight years?’…My guess is this: life at the pool was all he knew. Life at the pool had become his way of being: a bit of pity, some attention, perhaps a little charity, and that’s where all his friends were. It had become his life. But he can’t say that of course so he offers an excuse.”
Jesus is not convinced and will not take the indirect “no” that the man offers. I can almost imagine Jesus wearing a shirt with the words: “No excuses,” printed on the front. “Stand up, take your mat, and walk.” He doesn’t waffle. Nor does he wait for the Sabbath to end. We know that healing on the Sabbath was prohibited by the law. (By the way, if you keep reading on in the chapter that Don and I read, you discover that Jesus’s healing on the Sabbath only made the church authorities want to kill him more.) Jesus doesn’t allow escape clauses or room for excuses to seep into his command. For the man, the music that accompanied the thirty eight year dance around his issue stopped. “Stand up, take your mat, and walk.”
This story is for all experiencing paralyzed by unproductive thinking and detrimental habits. Habits like falling into the trap of life by the pool. A path to healing is right there by your side. And you may even feel close to healing just by hanging around the healing waters, but they don’t work unless you take the plunge. The story is about hanging out at the pool, stuck in dysfunctional ways of being, coming up with reasons why you can’t get in.
You may remember the parable I shared with you that I learned in Guatemala. A version of it also appears in the movie “The Pursuit of Happiness.” A man finds himself and his pueblo in the midst of a storm. The rains fall begin and do not cease. A family pulls up in a car and offers to drive the man to safety. “No thanks, I have faith that God will save me.” The water level rises and someone in a boat paddles up to the man and offers to take him to safety. “No thanks, I have faith that God will save me.” Finally, the man has to climb to his roof because of the high water level. A helicopter hovers over and drops a ladder down to the man. “No thanks,” he yells, brushing aside the ladder, “I have faith that God will help me.” A few hours later the man drowns. After his death, he approaches God and cries, “Why did you not rescue me when I had faith in you?” “I tried,” replied God. “I sent you a car, a boat, and a helicopter, but you would not get into to any of them.”
The story of the man taking up his mat reminds us that faith is not complete without our initiative. Sure, our Presbyterian roots teach us that there is nothing we can do to earn God’s grace. God’s gives it as a gift. But, in order to be used, a gift must be accepted. Salvation requires a little human agency even though the gift is from God. As much as we wish deep down that we can heal and find fulfillment without lifting a finger, the older we get, the more we realize that isn’t true. Our unhealthy patterns, addictions, and dysfunctional relationships both in and outside our homes, become grooves off the track toward wholeness that we slip into. We, like the man at the pool, begin to perceive the unhealthiness as normal and are unable to imagine a better way.
There are times when we need healing help from God. But this is not simply a personal faith matter. The same goes for churches and other communities. There are times when churches must submerge in the pool and consider new rituals. Churches often do not desire change even when it is called for. We are blessed that our community of faith is one that recognizes and often embraces the change. We know that establishing a healthy pattern in one’s own life, or as a community, does not happen overnight. And we know that if we do not change and adapt throughout life, we will find ourselves trapped and unable to live the abundant life God desires for us.
Last week in our sermon about love, I mentioned the science behind falling in love. Researchers have looked at brain chemistry of people in love and how chemicals kick in during the process. This week I discovered that there is newer research about the brain when it comes to feeling trapped by things like stress and addiction. It is the science of being stuck. Scientists at the University of Minho in Portugal and the U.S. National Institutes of Health (NIH) in Bethesda, Maryland examined the brain chemistry and behaviors of two sets of rats. One set were rats that were confined to small spaces—trapped, while the other rats enjoyed freedom. They discovered that the rats that were stressed tended rely on habitual actions to take care of their needs—even when those habits were not helpful. Conversely, the rats free from stress became more creative and measured when it came to meeting their needs. In both cases, the situations actually changed their brain chemistry. The stressed out rats’ brains suppressed the parts of their brains that generated creativity and goal oriented behavior, while the unstressed rats grew new connections in their brains in the goal-oriented areas. Stress suppresses creativity and can trap us into habitual behavior that keeps us in a rut. It is a vicious cycle. Looking at it that way, how we behave actually changes our brain chemistry over time. So if we allegorically sit by the pool for 38 years and do not change our behavior, we are really stuck.
Scientist Andrew Newberg agrees. In his book How God Changes your Brain, he argues through his research, that engaging in prayer and meditation, will over time, actually change your brain chemistry. His finding include insights like: (1) contemplating a loving God rather than a punitive God reduces anxiety and depression and increases feelings of security, compassion, and love, (2) fundamentalism, in and of itself, can be personally beneficial, but the prejudice generated by extreme beliefs can permanently damage your brain, and that (3) intense prayer and meditation permanently change numerous structures and functions in the brain, altering your values and the way you perceive reality. In an interview, he acknowledges that the brain does change over time as you change your practices. That is why our rituals, church and otherwise, help shape who we are. That is one of the great benefits of worship. And that is why the worship committee tries to keep some repetition in our structure and style and at the same time, implement new rituals or slightly alter the ones we have. The change keeps shaping our brains positively.
When someone actually picks up their mat in a difficult situation and begins to walk a new path, like making the difficult step of leaving behind substance abuse, he or she has to work extra hard to keep doing new, positive, healthy rituals—so they can change the brain that has gotten stuck in one way of functioning. It is ongoing hard work, but with a tremendous payoff.
Queridos hermanos y hermanas, all we have to do is blink and realize have fast the years are passing. The Good News in our passage is that we are not helpless in making those good years. We are called to live faithfully, committed, and determined in the direction Jesus calls us. Taking up the mat is simply the first step of being released from that which would entrap us. May we not be daunted by the task. Remember the words of the text, “‘stand up, take your mat, and walk.’ At once, the man was made well.’” Once we take that first step, we can take heart that someone will walk with us the rest of the way.
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Palabra de Vida
You will find sermons preached by Rev. Robert Woodruff and guests preachers.