The following sermon was preached by James Nieman, President, in Augustana Chapel at the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago on Wednesday, May 8, 2013.
1 After this there was a festival of the Jews,
and Jesus went up to Jerusalem.
2 Now in Jerusalem by the Sheep Gate there is a pool,
called in Hebrew Beth-zatha,
which has five porticoes.
3 In these lay many invalids
—blind, lame, and paralyzed.
5 One man was there who had been ill for thirty-eight years.
6 When 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?”
7 The 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.”
8 Jesus said to him,
“Stand up, take your mat and walk.”
9 At once the man was made well,
and he took up his mat and began to walk.
Now that day was a sabbath.
It’s amazing just how much you can forget in a very short time. While that might seem aimed at students near the end of the semester or even their degree, or at faculty or staff who would rather not recall some duty to which they once agreed, I really had something else in mind. The budding warmth of this springtime led me to think about a house we once rented long ago in sultry Atlanta and something important from that distant home. Today’s reading from John helped me remember a feature of that place I had nearly forgotten: its porch.
Yes, the porch—as distinctive a feature of Southern living as anything I can name. Let’s be clear, though: I mean neither the suggestively Spanish “patio” that huddles on the rear of a house safely out of view, nor the nautically-styled “deck” from which you boldly command the vessel of your back yard. No, in the South, the porch is proudly affixed to the front of the house. It’s no tiny slab for the doormat, but a space for serious furniture. Folks wile away hours on the porch, unashamed to be seen watching the world go by. Porches are in-between spaces, thresholds between public and private, civic and domestic. They are ideal places to wait or rest or think or play. From them, you can greet a passer-by, welcome a stranger, linger with a neighbor just a moment more.
So let that be our task today, in these lengthening days of spring. Right now, on this in-between space where we have gathered so often, on this threshold between yesterday and what is yet to come, let us linger just a moment more. Let us linger and recall another meeting, a meeting with life itself. Let us linger and so speak, because this is what our gospel reading asks of us. Here in the waning weeks of this grand Easter season, John points us to an ancient meeting with life itself—and it all began on a porch.
Yes, I know there are fancier biblical terms for this place: “portico” in our translation today, or in other versions, “colonnade.” But that’s just to dress up the starkness of those five porches beside the waters at Bethzatha. For under these porches lingered none other than the most hopeless and helpless of all: the blind, the lame, the paralyzed. In the artlessness of the NRSV, they are spoken of as “invalids”—invalid, get it?—people without legitimacy, like the casual way we today refer to the “undocumented” or “illegals”. But surely I digress.
In any case, arrayed in plain sight just outside the walls of Jerusalem was a scandalous blend of Jewish and pagan piety waiting for the waters to be troubled and for healing to happen. But healing was rare, and trouble constant. Most of the time, these desperate ones simply sprawled beneath those five porches, endlessly trapped on a quite public threshold between corrupt and clean, despair and hope, death and life. Have you ever lingered in a place like that? Who knows…maybe you linger there still.
Perhaps the most pitiable among them was one grumbling goat who was afflicted with God-knows-what for thirty-eight years. Consider that for a moment. Whoever you are, however long you’ve been here, just think about your time at LSTC. Turn back the clock to your lowest point in just the last few years, a difficult or frustrating period that has now passed—a time of great hardship, maybe even despair. Imagine you’ve been stuck there ever since. It’s a horrible thought, isn’t it? Now, turn back the clock to 1975—you know, the Ford administration, the fall of Saigon, the Thrilla in Manilla, and so on—and imagine you’ve been stuck in that sadness or sorrow for that long. Of course, many of you simply can’t imagine this because that period exceeds the entire span of your life. It’s beyond horrible. It’s a living hell.
Well, that’s what it was like for this guy on the porch near the pool at Bethzatha, sick so long that health itself was a forgotten dream. After so much sickness and sorrow, this weary fellow was not exactly what you’d call a role model for believers. With limited mobility, he lounged in a society of the sick, disease his closest companion. A desperate believer, he was willing to push aside the boundaries of proper Judaism and come to this pagan pool for a cure. And even when Jesus strolled past, this poor schmo was so worn down he couldn’t recognize the chance for healing that stood right in front of him. Jesus even asked whether he wanted to be healed, and instead of jumping at it, this old goat began to whine all over again, lapsing into a well-worn litany of complaint: “No one helps me, every day’s the same, woe is me…” And this is the very person John wants us to notice? A whiny grouch, a religious flake, a person most at home in the company of longing? Thank goodness we don’t have folks like that in our church today, or on the rosters of public ministry. And thank goodness you and I are far beyond such self-absorbed paralysis as well.
A whiny grouch, a religious flake, a person at home in the company of longing—yet this is whom Jesus sought, and thank God, since we surely aren’t too far behind. Jesus met this man where he made his bed: on the porch, near the pool, at the threshold between death and life. And rejecting the supposed power of those pagan pools, Jesus healed this guy without a single drop of water. It came down to a few simple words: “Stand up, take your mat, and walk.” That’s it. Three quick commands—arise, take, walk—followed by three equally quick results—healing, standing, and moving toward a new horizon. Do you get it? It’s like a little Easter story, with this poor guy now raised, freed from his daily death, sent off to live once more. On this porch, on this threshold by the pool, came a meeting with Jesus, with life itself.
Amazing as this is, there’s something more amazing still. For this healing came not just at an in-between place, but at an in-between time. After this fellow finally met life itself through Jesus, John concludes with an odd comment: “And that day was the sabbath.” Now it’s easy to hear only irony and danger in that remark. How ironic that a guy whose last four decades have been a sort of imposed sabbath rest should now, by virtue of taking up his bed, break the sabbath law! And how dangerous that by healing this one fellow, Jesus broke that same law, setting in motion the plot that would soon lead to his death.
But that’s what we’re supposed to notice. How unsettling, how mysterious that this little healing points ahead in John’s gospel to the cross from which all healing comes. True healing, true sabbath, involves that cross and nothing less. And that’s good news not just for one sick fellow way back when, but for all whose bed has been laid amidst despair and longing. Healing has begun, and it pours from the Crucified for our sake. God is working still, even on the threshold of death and life. It’s like the creation has started all over again, with powerful words to shape a new world, all crowned by a holy gift of sabbath peace and rest. So no wonder when this healing happened at Bethzatha, John just had to blurt out, “Now that day was the sabbath!” A new world awakened, a new day dawned, the Lord’s own day of healing and hope.
And since we have gathered to recall such a day and such a sabbath, friends, let us linger just a moment more. Before we step from this threshold between serenity and society, cloister and confusion, what we know now and what lies ahead, let us listen again to the one who meets us at this in-between place and speaks with words both creative and healing. Arise, he says—new life is yours through my dying and rising. Take—my body and blood are for you. Walk—old burdens are light and new horizons stretch ahead. It’s a new day, a day of hope. It’s the Easter day that rearranges all of time. It’s a day to linger with all who pass by and share what we have first received. For today, in this place, on this threshold, we have met life itself in Jesus Christ. And that is a sabbath, indeed.