"A Bridge over Troubled Waters"

May 21, 1995 message
Long Green Valley Church of the Brethren
Glen Arm, Maryland  USA
based upon John 5:1-9

Around four years ago I referred someone to a psychologist in a public clinic. In the process, that therapist brought this preacher to a blunt reality. "You know, don't you," he told me, "that since the government is subsidizing less of mental health care, you ministers are going to have to pick up the slack. We can't do as much as we used to."

Fast forward to three weeks ago, to a lecture at the Johns Hopkins Institute on Ministry to the Sick. There, psychologist Lewis Andrews spoke of how the health care crisis is affecting mental health care. "Insurance companies now want the biggest bang for the fewest bucks," he told us. The trend toward managed care is turning the psychiatric community upside down. His prediction was that "congregation based counselling centers are the wave of the future," one reason being that mental health care can be provided more cheaply in a church setting, a fact not lost on insurers. "The only barrier," he told us point blank, "is the church itself, and you ministers. Will you get on board?"

Something else he said that day was this. More than all the various psychological theories and methods, the main thing that counts in restoring someone to mental health is the character of the therapist/the helper - who they are, and what they value. With this in mind, let me read a story from the Gospel of John (5:1-9).

"...there was a festival of the Jews, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem. Now in Jerusalem by the Sheep Gate there is a pool, called in Hebrew Beth-zatha, which has five porticoes. In these lay many invalids--blind, lame, and paralyzed waiting for the stirring of the water; for an angel of the Lord (it was said) went down at certain seasons into the pool, and stirred up the water; whoever stepped in first after the stirring of the water was made well from whatever disease that person had.

"One man was there who had been ill for thirty-eight years. 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?" 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." Jesus said to him, "Stand up, take your mat and walk." At once the man was made well, and he took up his mat and began to walk. Now that day was a sabbath."

As you may have noticed, our focus this Sabbath day is upon health. Along with other congregations around our denomination, this Sunday has been set aside by the Assoc. of Brethren Caregivers to lift up the ways in which our faith connects with the well-being of our mind and body. It was suggested that this year we might highlight mental health, since some form of mental illness affects one in four people, yet many of us are unprepared to respond and support such persons and their families.

Now, this story of Jesus is not necessarily about mental illness. It is, however, about a terribly cruel system from which Jesus liberated one man. Let's look behind the scenes of this episode. The pool of Beth-zatha (otherwise known as Bethesda, which I prefer, since I was born across the street from the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, MD), was said to have a curing power. Whenever the waters were troubled, the power was there, and the first to jump in would be healed. Such a system is an outrage.

Imagine all the false starts that must have occurred when what was supposed to have been an angel disturbing the water was merely the wind. And when the waters really did move, who do you suppose were the first to get in and be healed? Probably the ones who needed it least. A spiritual survival of the fittest. The person with a sickness as serious as chapped lips or hang-nail would be quick enough to win the prize. The rest, the truly needy, would be left in despair. That's disgraceful! I wonder, though, if we changed some of the details, would it describe the way things often are today? Think about it.

Anyway, in this story there was this man beside the pool, who had been ill (it says) for 38 years. Where was his family, I wonder? Was he rendered homeless by his infirmity and thus made his day and night bed in one of the 5 alcoves around the pool? Or did his loved ones bring him here every morning and take him home at night? The account doesn't say, just as it doesn't reveal exactly what his sickness was. All he said to Jesus was that he had no one to help him into the pool when the water stirred. It's a sad story, sin't it? He could see the possibility of health only inches away, but that distance might as well have been miles.

Many persons we know today face a similar situation, whether their ailment be physical or mental. And when it comes right down to it, the boundary between body, mind and soul is transparent, that is - all are interconnected. There are persons we know who, like this man beside the pool of Bethesda, can see health as always just an arm's reach away. It's a frustrating experience, no matter what the illness. And since body, mind, and soul are so interconnected, an illness in one can eat away at the others. A disease can truly make for dis-ease.

In our Bible story, one translation describes these dis-eased persons waiting for the water to stir as "invalids." I hate the word "invalid." Literally, it can be broken down to "in-valid." These persons have no validity, they are worthless, weak. The King James calls them "impotent," that is "without power." When you think about the cruelty of this pool, however, "invalid and impotent" aptly describe the situation these folks face. Those most needing care were powerless to reach for the carrot stick hung before them. They were worth nothing, it seems.

The words "impotent and invalid" can also describe how those with a mental illness can feel. Theirs is no less a malady than any physical disorder. In some ways it's even worse, for since the sickness is within, there is no outward sign for others to see and understand. "Just pull yourself together," we often tell them in words or actions. When they cannot, how do they feel? Powerless. Worthless. If only they could just get down into that blasted pool, so to speak, everything would get better. Life in the portico of the pool of health can be hell.

"...and Jesus went up to Jerusalem," and saw this man lying by the pool, and knew... This is part of the equation we in the church bring to health, physical or mental. We don't stand outside the system, bemoaning it's imperfections. Like Jesus we come to "the pool," and seek to understand, "to know." Furthermore, we bring with us our spiritual perspective that no one is worthless, none is powerless. There is a strength found in the source of life itself, the Creator of heaven and earth, whose image is reflected in the face of each person. There is a power discovered in the One who took all powerlessness, all worthlessness, all sin and brokenness upon himself that no one would be without a way out. There is an energy more substantial than any old wind which may or may not trouble the water of the "pool of health," a Holy Spirit that reaches into each person with that "Wind of God" instead of holding the carrot stick out always just beyond arm's reach.

In our story, Jesus came to that man, about whom we really know very little, and asked him, "Do you want to be made well?" After this man briefly described his situation with not a little self-pity, Jesus simply told him, "Stand up, take your mat and walk."

Now, there's a few things we should note about this encounter. In the first place, Jesus didn't prescribe some religious ritual. In fact, he didn't even ask a thing about this man's faith, like "do you believe?" He merely started at the place where the man was. "I have no one to put me into the water when it stirs." I can't get up. I can't help myself. I'm powerless, worthless. Someone is always ahead of me. Jesus broke into his litany by presenting another reality. "Stand up." The assumption behind those words is that, in truth, the man was not powerless, nor worthless. He could stand. The "pool of health" was not his only possibility.

In our story, the man stood. Was it the character of his helper, Jesus, that led this man to turn away from something which had abused him for so many years, and face a new possibility? What sort of miracle was this, anyway? Jesus went a step further. "Take your mat and walk," he told the man. Leave this place, go home. You are well. You are whole.

There's more to the story - about people who couldn't comprehend an invalid no longer being in-valid and impotent. They first complained about this man carrying his mat on a day reserved for rest, which is supposed to be short for restoration, re-creation. Then they were aghast at someone actually being made well. Don't laugh too hard at such people. Sometimes we can, likewise, be a stumbling block to another's well-being.

We could, after all, wrongly hear in Jesus' own words a license to say to those who suffer, "Just pull yourself together." But Jesus doesn't give us here carte blanche to "talk but not listen," to prescribe a solution instead of hearing another describe what they're going through, or even to criticize the pool without entering the portico.

The gospel of this story, and the good news we share now is that no one is worthless (or even "a wretch," to quote our final hymn), no one is in-valid in Jesus' eyes. Not any more. Likewise, no one is impotent, powerless. That truth can be like a breath of God's fresh air when we are burdened in body, mind, or soul. There's a strength we discover in Christ to stand up, take our mat and walk - whatever that may mean in our own particular situation. His character (Jesus Christ) begins to rub off on us, so to speak, as we come to know and trust him as our Savior, Lord, and friend.

During this final hymn, let me extend to you an invitation to come forward. See it as, maybe, a bridge over troubled waters.

Perhaps you are this day feeling a need for the supportive prayer of others, something for which you have a hard time asking. By coming forward you are not making any statement, other than that you are hearing Christ's call to "stand up, take your mat and walk," whatever that means for you.

Quite possibly the call you are sensing this hour is your need to place your well-being, your life into the hands of the One who created you, who loves you, who saves you through Jesus Christ. It could be that you have never done this, or that you are now needing to trust God in a much deeper way. If so, you're welcome to come forward, as we sing about God's "Amazing Grace." (#143)

1995Peter L. Haynes

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