Preached by Canon Lesley McCormack at St Michael and All Angels on 1st of May 2016.
I wonder; I wonder what it must have been like, sitting by the poolside in Beth-zatha, with all those people, each living with their own problems and struggles, longing to be healed, longing to be made whole. Over the years, he had seen so many broken people come. He would talk to them, and some he would get to know, listening to their stories. Then after a while, sometimes days, sometimes weeks, occasionally much longer, they would go – rejoicing in the possibility of new life. But still he remained.
What was wrong with him, I wonder – and how old was he when he first arrived. But so long he had been here – years and years had passed, it seems! And nothing, for him, had changed. Just the same routine, the same struggle, day after day – begging for whatever charity he could get from anyone who happened to pass by; and never, never succeeding in getting into the pool first. It just became normal – oh, long ago, it became normal – a sad, hopeless, way of life!
The pool was a well known place of healing, and what is believed to have been the original site has been excavated by archaeologists and I visited when I went to the Holy Land seven years ago. I remember trying to imagine the people who, over the years, had sat there, waiting for their moment, struggling to get into the waters for healing. Evidence suggests it wasn’t just a Jewish place of healing, but was regarded by others also as a sacred site and at one time was dedicated to the healing god Asclepius. Today the site is watched over by the Crusader Church of St. Anne.
At the time of Jesus, the waters in the pool would bubble up periodically; it was believed that when the waters bubbled up, the first person in would be healed.
Into this scene comes Jesus who seemed to know that the man had been there a long time (rather as he seemed to know the life story of the woman at the well in Samaria). And he asks the man, somewhat disconcertingly out of the blue: “Do you want to be made well?” But perhaps the question was not just about being made well, but about being ready to begin a new life, in place of resignation to sad hopelessness.
But our man did what I know I can sometimes do when I am challenged, and perhaps many of us do the same: make excuses! Albeit very practical reasons for not expecting to be made well.
Jesus, the life-giver, cuts through it all with those words ‘Stand up, take your mat and walk.’ These echo the words spoken by Jesus to the man lowered down through the roof by his four friends. On both occasions, and at once we are told, the men are made well, pick up their mats and begin to walk into new life.
And all of this takes place on the Sabbath. In a profoundly symbolic sense, the man is brought into the Sabbath rest of God, and glimpses the ‘Joy of heaven to earth come down’. Jesus chose to face the consequences of the ensuing controversy rather than waste time waiting another day; kowtow to his critics was never an option!
Like the man who had lived with disappointment for 38 years, Luke tells us in Acts that Paul also has had to live with disappointment. Clearly, Paul had a very particular idea of where he would go and what he would do, but this was not to be – but something prevented him, disrupted his plans. So we read in Acts that having been forbidden by the Holy Spirit to preach in Asia, he diverted to Phrigia and Galatia, was stopped from going to Bithynia and so went to Troas via Mysia. If you look at this on a map, it is clear that Paul had planned to go North and East, but this was thwarted and instead he goes North West ideally placing him so that he could respond to his dream, his vision – the nudging of God urging him to travel to Macedonia across the Ageaen Sea.
Having crossed the sea, Paul goes to Philippi and it is here that he meets Lydia, who was possibly Greek, but certainly according to Acts a dealer in purple cloth. Purple dye was expensive, very expensive! In the 4th Century, the historian Theopompus reported that ‘purple for dyes fetched its weight in silver’. Consequently, purple dyed textiles became status symbols. We might therefore assume that Lydia was a wealthy woman, otherwise she would never have afforded to buy the cloth in which she dealt. She was a woman of means, a woman the world.
So here we are, at this place of prayer by a river and a conversation opens between her, Paul and his companions. She listens eagerly, intently, with heart and mind opened by God. What she hears has an immediate impact and her response is equally immediate; she and her household are baptised. Lydia hears the invitation, grasps it and quite literally walking into the waterfor baptism, walks into the promise of new life.
But there is a second response to this extraordinary gift of God, and she offers hospitality reflecting if you like God’s invitation to all of us to ‘Come and eat’.
And who know, that gift of hospitality, making people feel welcome may have been instrumental in the foundation of the Philippian Church. Hospitality is fundamental to the Gospel, to mission, to living out the love and welcome we are called to proclaim. This love is the kind of love that is willing to take a risk, commits itself in trust, long before it has full knowledge of where it might lead!
And so it was with enormous sadness and regret that I learned of the shocking news that on Monday night, MPs voted to block a new law that would have fast-tracked 3,000 refugee children reuniting them with their families here in the UK. I simply cannot comprehend how our government can think it is acceptable on any level to turn our backs on the needs of vulnerable, frightened, traumatized children who desperately need to know once more what it is to feel safe, warm, loved and protected. ‘Let the children come to me’ said Jesus to his disciples as they tried to stop them approaching.
Living the life of the gospel, demands our willingness to take risks.
The man at the pool of Beth-zatha was faced with a choice. Stay with the life he had with its grim familiarity which lent its own sense of safety – or risk accepting the invitation to take a step into the unknown with its life-enhancing possibilities! ‘Come and stay at my home’ says Lydia to the strangers she has only just met at the water’s edge, reflecting the open welcoming love of God revealed in Christ
The life of open, welcoming, sacrificial, self-giving love is the life we are all called to live as people who dare to call ourselves followers of Christ. It may be risky, it will be costly.
But such a life always brings with it life-enhancing joys and possibilities that will turn the world upside down, turn night into day, and enable us to glimpse God’s new creation of healing, wholeness and peace.