Do you want to be well? (John 5:6)
Jesus has arrived to Jerusalem for a festival and stops off at the pool of Bethesda, the “house of mercy.” There he sees a man who has been bedridden for thirty-eight years. That tells us that he’s no spring chicken – by the standards of the day, he was middle-aged or beyond. We don’t know the details, but it’s safe to assume that, after such a length of time, he was weak, his muscles fairly atrophied; certainly he is unable walk or even stand for any length of time on his own. Sounds like what many would consider a “hopeless case.” Surrounded by a sizable number of people with disabilities, Jesus directs his attention to the person who seems most needy.
We can’t tell how the question Jesus poses strikes the man, but at first glance it strikes us as naïve (if sincere) or disingenuous or worse (if it’s not). On first blush, an appropriate response would seem to be, “Well, DUUHH!” Who would not want to be delivered from such a helpless condition?
We who are strong in body and mind have a troubling tendency to see people with disabilities as broken, needing to be “fixed” so that they can be “normal” “like us.” (After we finish our series on the Roma to the Nations conference, we’re going to reflect on this and a number of other things we’ve been learning about disability.)
But the plain reality is that this is not a safe assumption… not today. If you are like many mainstream “abled” people who do not have any friends with disabilities, you might assume that the first wish that a disabled person would ask of the proverbial “genie in the lamp” would be that their impairment would be “cured.” In reality, many would first desire to be able to live a “normal” life – to be able to do the things that all of us consider as part of a “normal” existence, without the fear of being marginalized or mistreated in the process.
But there is something else at play here… Jesus is zeroing in on the man’s will. He may be effectively physically paralyzed… but that doesn’t equate to paralysis of the will. What does this man actually want? Is that which is troubling him strictly physical, or is it volitional as well?
Without retelling the whole story (which is not the purpose here) it’s interesting to observe the response this question elicits. If he has any independent determination to pursue his betterment, he doesn’t show it. It seems he can’t do it on his own and no one will help him. Plus, other people are getting in his way. That which he seeks is understood as unattainable. But he never really DOES respond to the question.
There are things in our lives that block our own self-fulfillment; there are roadblocks along the path that begins at my next step and heads toward realizing the plans and desires that the Eternal has had for me since creation began.
It’s pretty easy for me to think that the reason I’m not where I should be or want to be is that someone else isn’t putting in the effort to get me there. It’s also possible that I simply am not willing to put in the effort to go the distance toward fulfilling my design… it might demand more than I’m willing to give. In such a situation despair can be seen as a live (and, in some circles, a tragic-heroic) option.
Maybe my identity has become wrapped up in my own lack of progress toward my goals – maybe I’ve slid into a “victim mentality” that I’d have to set aside if I really started acting out of a DESIRE to move forward. If I start moving too far toward what I really want to be, won’t I stop being what and who I’ve always been? Won’t I lose myself in the process? Have I become passive, waiting for someone else – an angel even – to do the work required for me to “get better”?
Jesus sees the man for who he is – which is why he asks what he does. It’s striking that he doesn’t only heal the folks that “have enough faith.” While sometimes he indicates that faith is the active ingredient in healing, that’s not always the case… if it were, then it would also be the case that the lack of faith would be the ingredient in lack of a cure, which is an abominable doctrine. Sometimes, he just blesses people, even before an articulation of their desire or their faith – sometimes even without it.
For us, Jesus’ question is a reminder that we cannot make assumptions from even “obvious” circumstances regarding what it is that other people want. Desire is a curious thing. Every one of us has both a will – the things we want to do right now – as well as “deep desires,” the things that we know in our hearts we were MEANT for.
But it’s easy for me to lose sight of those deeper desires, even to forget that I have them. I keep bumping into those obstacles that life seems to place in the path that leads to the realization of my heart’s desire. After a while, I can get so acclimatized to dealing with obstacles that I actually focus more on them than on what it is that my heart truly desires.
Jesus is, by the use of his questions, highlighting the man’s lack of will to experience something he deeply desires. He does the same with me, now that I think about it.
As we seek to help others along their particular paths, it might be helpful to ask what questions might be used to identify “surface” desires, and what might put them in touch with the deeper desires that flow from the essence of who they were meant to be?
They will likely be questions of the most “obvious” nature. What are you looking for? What would you change if you could? What would that give you?
But take the time to ask them – you, and those with whom you interact, may be surprised by what they uncover.