(A Lection Reflection on John 5: 1-9)
There are events in the Bible that are so overlaid with symbolism and meaning that trying to unpack them feels like opening one of those Russian nesting doll sets: you take out the next doll, marvel at its beauty, then see that there is yet another doll to unpack. The healing of the paralytic in John 5 is one of those events. The act of healing itself, the loaded question do you want to be made well?, the presence of water and all the symbolism of that, the act of healing on the Sabbath — each facet of the story worthy of its own reflection, each rich for exploration and contemplation.
But I have found another piece, a doll off to the side, that is also worthy of examination, and perhaps meaningful for today. Let’s look, and you decide.
The Pool of Bethsaida is an interesting place. For centuries, scholars believed there was no such pool, as there was no sign of it in modern-day Jerusalem. It was assumed that the relatively exact description in John’s gospel (“in Jerusalem by the Sheep Gate there is a pool, called in Hebrew Beth-zatha, which has five porticoes”) was a mistake, written by someone unfamiliar with the city. Thus, it was usually treated as metaphorical, rather than an actual place.
Then, in the 19th century, the archaeologist Schick discovered a pool, which he contended was the pool of John 5. Further excavation in 1964 revealed other features that confirmed that, indeed, the Pool of Bethsaida had been found, and in fact this was part of a larger collection of waterworks that included the “upper pool” of the Hebrew scriptures.
But, here’s the piece I find most interesting: the pool was also used as an Asclepieion, a place where healing was supposed to take place by the power of Asclepius, the Greek god of healing. In fact, Asclepius was called “savior” (soter) by his followers.
So let’s re-describe the scene with this new context.
It is the time of a festival, so Jesus goes to Jerusalem. On the Sabbath, he goes to a local landmark dedicated to the Greek god of healing, walks up to the person with the least chance of getting better (38 years!), and proceeds to heal the man, right there in the middle of the building. It’s as if a Muslim walked into a Pentecostal healing service, strode up to the oldest wheelchair-bound person he saw, and, right in front of the preacher, healed the person in the wheelchair.
Obviously, I don’t know Jesus’s thought process during this act. I don’t know if he was making a point about his power versus the power of other “gods.” I don’t know if he was making a point by choosing a man who had been lame 38 years.
Nevertheless, I think there is a point here, and it is this:
Sometimes, we sit and sit and sit, waiting for something magical to happen. The angel never appears, the water never stirs, and we are just as broken and just as powerless today as we were yesterday. Asclepius, that false god, has let us down again.
Then Jesus reaches out to us, and our waiting is over, and our healing begins.
And THIS is the sign, the point I believe Jesus is making:
Jesus brings life, while everything else just brings waiting.