Week of Dec. 20

Christ’s Presence at the Pool of Our Misery

Read: John 5-6

“When Jesus saw him lying there and knew that he had already been there for a long time, he said to him, ‘Do you want to be healed?’”
John 5:6, ESV


Some of the most unsettling moments in my ministry occurred throughout a two-year period when I, as a young pastor, served as an “on-call” (PRN) chaplain for the V.A. hospital in Big Spring, Texas. I made dozens of visits each week, but the most difficult encounters to process were the ones on a special unit for ALS (Lou Gehrig’s Disease) patients. What hope is there for such life circumstances? I will return to those encounters in a moment, but we first need to see that Jesus is the hope in every life circumstance.

A Biblical Lens

I am indebted to Gerald Borchert for providing us with a clear context for John, chapter 5. The events in this chapter are placed within the broader Festival Cycle in the gospel, but John wants us to focus on implications that surface from a Sabbath controversy (NAV; BNTC). Dr. Borchert believes that Leviticus 23 holds a key to interpreting our passage and developing our understanding. The first day of a Jewish Passover was set aside as a holy convocation in which no labor was to be done (23:7). There were many restrictions linked to the observance of festivals. Jesus’ activity on the Sabbath provides the background for conflict with the Jews, but our focus will be on the healing of the lame man.

The physical setting for the miracle that took place in 5:2-9a was the Sheep Gate which was a small entrance to the city in the northeast segment of the wall near the temple (NAC). Invalids gathered around a double pool that was linked by a bridge. There were five colonnaded porches (5:2). Evidently many hurting people were gathered in that place. “All we like sheep have gone astray” comes to my mind (Isaiah 53:6). There were many there, who like this man, had fallen upon terrible circumstances; some of which was of their own doing (5:14). Jesus stepped into their midst and called to his sheep (10:3-4)!

I find it powerfully telling that Jesus spent his time in Jerusalem among the hurting and those who would hear what he had to say. In the midst of such helplessness, Jesus came to focus on a man who was the epitome of misery. He had been crippled for 38 years, which was strangely similar to Israel’s own four decades of wilderness wandering (5:5; NAC; cf. Mark 5:24-34; Luke 13:10-17, BNTC). He lay there suspended in time with no hope. His was a miserable existence.

The man was doubled disabled, it appears, because he fumbled for an answer when Jesus raised the possibility of healing. He offered a weak--no pun intended--response that indicated his hopelessness and also his poor theology. Unlike medical wizardry in our day that enables some to walk again, this man truly had no place to go and, even if he did, no one to help him get there (5:7)! He would lay there and watch when the pool was stirred, but he knew that there would be no healing.

God was not distant to this man: he was totally absent! Was it C.S. Lewis who once wrote that in hell misery hates company? Everyone by that poolside was very likely in it for himself or herself, so there was not even community in the agony. Jesus asked him, “Do you want to be healed?” The passage begs the question of us: “Do we want to be healed?”

A Moral Pathway

Now, allow me to finish the story with which I introduced today’s devotional. There was one man in the hospital who lay in total stillness with only a fan blowing across his body. I supposed that it was there to keep him comfortable, even though he could not move or respond. The only other noise in that space came from the mechanical ventilator which, in those days, made an audible sound as air was forced into and removed from his lungs. I faced my finitude at that man’s bedside each time I entered the room where he lay. How does one pray to God at times like the ones I spent by that man’s bedside? Let me ask it this way. How do you pray when you are crippled by life’s circumstances?

Even though I did not know what it was termed at the time, I decided to make my weekly visits a time to offer “the ministry of presence” to the man. I stood beside his bed, and I gave my silent presence at times, while, at other times, I whispered words of encouragement and blessing. Looking back now, I suppose that the hospital room was that patient’s Bethesda. Like the man beside the pool, I do not believe that the man in the V.A. hospital ever had a visitor, so his entire existence was clothed in isolation. Jesus offered his presence to the man at the pool, and I sensed that he offered it to the patient in that hospital bed. How was this so?

Andrew Lincoln writes, “. . .Jesus does for the man what he so desperately needs. Again, the miraculous intervention is related very succinctly. Contrary to the man’s receding hopes, Jesus does not need to employ the powers of the pool but simply exercises the power of his word [italics mine], as he issues the command, Rise, take up your mat and walk” (BNTC). I believe that my bedside witness was heard, and that the man lying there was able to respond to Christ’s powerful word of hope and, if it was needed, to receive salvation. I also believe that those moments offered the eschatological promise of a coming day when all the pain and hurt and sorrow will be washed away by Christ’s words of victory (Revelation 21:3-4). Christ’s presence means everything when we suffer and when we encounter others who live in misery. Christ’s words call to our hearts today. He says “Get up!”

For Your Journaling

1. Life has a way of crippling us physically, then emotionally. What has caused you to lie in your misery? Call out to Jesus and invite his presence in your life.

2. Countless people are living as though God does not exist. Your ministry of presence is vitally needed in our world today. When you speak, share words of hope from God’s word. When silence is required, then pray for Christ to be present in your life. Either way, offer your life to others who are helpless and hopeless.

May all your paths be straight,
Larry C. Ashlock