After this there was a festival of the Jews, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem. 2Now in Jerusalem by the Sheep Gate there is a pool, called in Hebrew Beth-zatha, which has five porticoes. 3In these lay many invalids—blind, lame, and paralyzed. 5One man was there who had been ill for thirty-eight years. 6When Jesus saw him lying there and knew that he had been there a long time, he said to him, “Do you want to be made well?” 7The sick man answered him, “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.” 8Jesus said to him, “Stand up, take your mat and walk.” 9At once the man was made well, and he took up his mat and began to walk. Now that day was a sabbath.
Good morning, saints of Makemie Memorial. It is good to be with you this morning in Snow Hill. I was here once before a few years ago. In fact, I arrived before any of us knew Covid 19 would completely upend our lives. As I recall, there were signs in your restrooms that had just gone up suggesting hymns to sing while washing your hands. Seems like a simpler time, yes?
And here we are, more than 2 years later. And yes, we have been changed by the experience. Yesterday when I was meeting with your church leaders, we talked about some of the ways the pandemic has changed our lives and our church.
Some of the ways we have been changed are most certainly for the worst. I for one am battling the 20-odd pounds I gained since the last time I was in this part of Maryland. My mother died of Covid19 in November of 2020, just a few weeks before the vaccines were released. If someone had told me in March of 2020 that 1 million Americans would die of Covid in just two years, I would have been horrified. For the families and friends of those who died, and those who are still suffering the effects of Covid, the world has not changed for the better.
The pandemic has also accelerated changes in the church. Many – dare I say most — churches in the past two years have experienced some level of conflict over masks and shutting down worship services, and people on both sides of those conflicts have walked away. Even after most mandates were lifted, most congregations have seen a drop in both attendance and giving.
On the other hand, churches found themselves having to change in a hurry, and most stepped up to the task of rethinking everything they do. Churches responded creatively to continue mission and ministry without a building. Most figured out how to live stream or record worship for people stuck at home. Many church communities found ways to keep in touch with one another via Zoom, and some even re-discovered the old fashioned power of a well-timed phone call or card. Bible studies moved on line. One of the best things, I think, was that many churches were able to include shut-ins and nursing home residents in worship, many of the first time in years. It gave me great joy to hear about 70 and 80 year olds quickly learning how to use iPads and YouTube. Wise churches are now keeping those online options going even as we return to our buildings.
So, we’re all adjusting, and hoping that we will continue to hold serious illness from Covid at bay with vaccines and flexibility in wearing masks.
Some of you may be wondering about what the Unglued Church is all about. I know – funny name.
When my colleague Rev. Sarah Robbins and I were first ordained into ministry 11 years ago, we met each other at a pastors group. Both of us were pastoring churches who were in decline and not sure how to stop the bleeding. The members of our congregations were older and, while they had been worshipping together for years, they didn’t know much about the people right outside the church doors. Sarah and I realized that we had not been trained in seminary to help churches adapt their mission and ministries to a world that no longer considered church attendance to be necessary, much less sacred. Our congregations were stuck, and we were stuck for ideas to help them.
So, the Unglued Church Project was born. For Sarah and me, it felt absolutely unfaithful to our calls to allow the churches we loved stay stuck where they are. Now I spend my time trying to help churches hear what God was calling them to do and be in this time.
I have to tell you, I was delighted to discover that John 5:1-9 is one of the assigned lectionary texts for today. I didn’t have to go hunting for a text that talks about how Jesus reaches out to stuck people like us.
Jesus is attending a festival in Jerusalem and goes to a pool called Bethesda and sees a man lying there who has been ill for 38 years. Actually, there are a lot of sick people lying by the pool. The belief was that every so often the water would be stirred up by an angel, and whoever could get to the pool first would be healed of their sickness. So, people are waiting for their opportunity to be first in the pool. But for some reason, among all of these sick people, Jesus seeks out this one particular guy, someone who has been lying there for a very long time.
Jesus sees him and asks the man if he wants to be made well. The man doesn’t say yes or no. Instead, the man makes excuses for why he has been by the pool for so long. He tells Jesus that the competition for healing is fierce at the pool. Nobody offers to help the man. Every time he tries to get up, someone else gets ahead of him.
The man is stuck. And if we’re really honest about it, the man is whining to Jesus about being stuck.
We can have compassion for this man, though. Maybe, he’s been stuck so long that he’s decided it’s just easier to stay that way. Maybe that daily routine of trying and failing to get into the pool has become a meaningless but comforting ritual.
It makes me wonder if the man by the pool didn’t answer Jesus’ question because he really did want to stay right where he is.
I wonder if the reason the man doesn’t really answer Jesus’ question is because he doesn’t want to tell Jesus the truth.
Perhaps the man by the pool did want to be healed of his illness, but didn’t want to face the implications of what healing might mean.
Perhaps the truth is that he wants to stay stuck where he is because being stuck is better than having to face what is unknown after 3 decades by the pool.
If we are being honest with ourselves, there are very often times when we prefer the status quo than taking the necessary steps to change something. Even when that status quo is an uncomfortable place to be. Even when we know the status quo is hurting us.
It’s like Paul when he says, “I don’t understand why I keep doing what is wrong even when I know what is right.” We understand what Paul means. Ask anyone who is addicted to anything, whether it’s alcohol or drugs or cigarettes or even junk food. We know what we are doing is bad for us. Intellectually, we tell ourselves that we’re stuck in a terrible cycle, but the idea of moving ahead without that crutch is terrifying.
Eventually, it can seem much easier just to stay in one place, even if it isn’t a healthy or good place. Eventually, our sickness can begin to feel like normal.
I think it safe to say that every single one of us sitting in this room has seen the movie, “The Wizard of Oz,” at least once. For some of us, it’s been more than once. When I watched The Wizard of Oz with my children, I was amazed how well the movie held up. The music is wonderful, or course, but the part that struck me when I saw it as an adult is the same thing that always bothered me when I watched the movie as a child.
It was the ruby slippers. Those magical shoes that the Wicked Witch was willing to kill for, and that Glenda told Dorothy to hold onto no matter what.
The whole movie is about Dorothy and her three companions trying to make it to Oz on the yellow brick road without being captured by the Wicked Witch.
But at the end of the movie, after Dorothy has finally dispatched with the Wicked Witch, Glenda the Good Witch tells Dorothy that the girl had the power all along to go home to Kansas. https://youtu.be/ZrotkcWJFwo
The power was within Dorothy. I always thought it was somewhat unfair of Glenda, really, to make Dorothy go through all that danger when she could have easily gone back to Kansas once she had those stupid red slippers on her feet.
But by the end of the movie, Dorothy knows there’s no place like home. Her experience had changed her and made her realize the goodness of the place with her aunt and uncle. She had to go through all those experiences on the yellow brick road to be ready to go home to her family.
Like Dorothy, there is power within us, though we sometimes don’t know it.
The power of the Holy Spirit is in each one of us, working through us.
On those days when we’re pretty sure there’s no hope for us, that we’re going to be stuck in Oz forever, we can trust there is a power in us and around us and in the people around us. If we only have the faith the size of a mustard seed.
And this story about this man by the pool tells us that the thing about Jesus is he will not ever leave us in our stuck place.
Jesus will get in our face, just as he did with the man by the pool. And he’ll ask us the question again and again. Do you want to be made well? Do you want to be released from the stuck place you are in?
The power exists within each of us to move forward like the man, to tap into the generous resource of the Holy Spirit. Jesus is always with us, beside us, encouraging up to take the first step of faith even when we’ve been in one place for so long that our bones are weary and our muscles are sore.
My husband is an orthopedic surgeon. Every day, he performs miraculous surgeries, replacing people’s crumbling hips and worn out knees and aching shoulders. He puts broken bones back together with steel and titanium. I have learned two important things from him that, believe it or not, apply to ministry and maybe even our scripture text today..
First and foremost, people hate the idea of getting surgery. Which I completely understand. Surgery is scary. Hospitals are scary. Nobody likes the idea of anesthesia. Everybody harbors fears that something could go wrong. In my husband’s experience, a majority people will put off surgery as long as possible until the pain exceeds the fear.
In the church, I have learned that people will often put off making significant changes to the way they have been doing things until the pain of being stuck exceeds their fear of adapting to the community changes and needs around them.
Just think about what we have experienced over the past two years. Most small and medium size churches have historically had a hard time adopting the use of technology in their ministry. I have observed in the past two years that churches who would have never, ever agreed to worship online or have session meetings by Zoom before Covid are now doing exactly that. Who’d have thunk it? They had the power within them all along.
But people are people, and we will put off difficult change as long as possible until we’ve exhausted every other option.
The second thing I have learned from my orthopedic surgeon husband?
Surgery is the easiest part. Orthopedic surgery is essentially restoring something in your body that has been traumatically broken into bits, or worn out over a long period of time. All my husband does is put it all back together in the operating room.
The real healing? The real restoration? It comes in rehabilitation. Physical therapy. Learning to use the arm or leg or shoulder or knee again. What my husband does in the operating room won’t matter at all if the patient doesn’t work at the rehab. If all the person does is revert to their pre-surgical status when their pain limited their mobility, they’ll soon be back to exactly where they were. Stuck.
So, my husband always has to consider if the person in front of him is willing, ready and able to be made well by surgery. Because the healing is just the first step to being made well, which is another way to say, being made whole.
We don’t know if the man by the pool walked away from Bethesda, never to be seen again. Perhaps Jesus knew that the man was ready for healing, ready for rehab, ready to move into God’s future after 38 years of being stuck in the past. I don’t know.
I keep thinking about the sermon I preached a couple weeks ago about Doubting Thomas and the disciples on Easter evening. Even the presence of the resurrected Christ didn’t seem to inspire them to get out of the house they locked down tight out of fear that what happened to Jesus might happen to them. Yet Jesus didn’t leave them alone. He didn’t abandon his fearful friends. In fact, as I recall, he told them I am with you always, even until the end of everything.
Jesus never stops inviting us out of our stuck places. One of my favorite preachers says the fact that the man was able to take his mat and walk away had very little to do with the man’s desire to be healed. What it had to do is God’s desire for his healing.
Friends, I believe God loves you and me too much to allow us to stay stuck in our fear and our doubt.
I believe God calls every church in every place and time to be proclaimers of God’s love and mercy, and I believe that the Holy Spirit empowers the church to demonstrate God’s love and mercy made known to us in Jesus Christ.
That is why I’m here. More importantly, that is why YOU are here. You don’t even have to click your heels three times. Just pick up your mat and walk with Jesus.
Thanks be to God.