There are a number of things in these nine short verses which commentators and academics worry about. Some of them have spent time trying to identify which festival of the Jews it was, Weeks, Booths, Passover and so on, others whether the pool was by the Jerusalem Sheep gate or whether it was a sheep pool somewhere else, whether the place is called Bethzatha, Bethsaida, Bethesda and a few others, and whether 38 years is a direct reference to a verse in Deuteronomy referring to the time the israelites spent wandering in the wilderness. Now it may be that if you are looking for a subject for a PhD one of these might do but what has caught my attention is Jesus’ question.
“Do you want to be made well?”
So here is a man who has been ill for a long time and since 38 years can stand for a generation maybe from birth, but in any case a long while. He has been coming to the healing pool often enough to know the mythology that you have to be one of the first in the pool once the waters are stirred up - perhaps by bubbling from underground mineral springs - and who is yet lying there. So is Jesus’ question redundant ? Why does he ask it?
Notice that the man’s answer is not straight forward. He simply says that he cannot get into the pool. Like me you may have met people who by our assessment and language seem ill and who weave their identity around that. Frequently it is something you are told early on in an acquaintance “I suffer from X” and you are then obliged to some degree to frame your knowledge and understanding by this X. I sometimes then wonder to myself does this person want to be free of X or would that take away so much of who they are that they would be terrified? “I am the man who has been paralysed for thirty-eight years, I am the one who lies by this pillar by this pool - this is what I do. I am brought here in the morning and I wait.”
On Any Questions that is the one on the wireless some years ago they were debating depression, when one of the panelists made what I thought was a telling point: “I used to suffer from depression badly and I only began to get better, to take the first steps after I came to believe and then imagine that I could be well.” or going back to our story “Look, Jesus I am telling you there is no-one to take me to the pool and in any case it would be no use; for thirty eight years I have been like this, it is the way it is and it will always be.”
Jesus’ question is far from redundant for not all will answer it positively.
It is also a beautifully worded question - not “Do you want to walk?” or Do you want to carry your mat?” but do you want to be made WELL? With all the spiritual nuance of that word.
In just a moment I will go to the altar and say this
“Hear what comfortable words our Saviour Christ saith to all who truly turn to him:
Come unto me all that travail and are heavy laden and I will refresh you.”
These are words of invitation which is how I hear Jesus’ question to the man lying by the pool: Be clear it is not the man who asks but Jesus, Jesus takes the initiative.
So the question is not only pertinent but it needs to be asked.
Please let those words of invitation that I shall say in a moment dwell in you - hold fast to them, keep hold of the thought that He will refresh us whatever our burdens. Then wonder, when thinking of those we know who could be made whole by a knowledge of God’s love what our proper response should be.
It is far from easy this evangelism - Jesus was able to say to an unknown man “Do you want to be healed?” Now we do not have Jesus’ power to heal nor his confidence to minister nor his resilience should the answer be no. And it might be “no” because they do not want to be “made well” or perhaps cannot imagine what being well in this way would be like. But maybe we could in knowing that turning unto Him is the first step,maybe we could reach out to someone offer them an invitation and try to help them into the pool.