The miracle in John 5:1-9a is the second Jesus performed in his hometown. Jesus was attending a Jewish festival in Jerusalem and chose to visit this pool where so many who were crippled and disabled lay in wait beside the pool for the disturbance of the water in the expectation that it would heal them.
Jesus hears of this man who has been languishing by the pool for 38 long years waiting for someone to just lift him and lead him to the pool. He walks up to him and asks him the most “ridiculous” question! “Do you want to be made well?” If I were a disciple, standing next to Jesus, I would have said “Come on Jesus, what kind of a question is that? Isn’t it a bit obvious that this person wants to be healed?” But we all know Jesus does not speak out of turn. There is a purpose behind his question. “Do you want to be healed?”
We live in an Asian context where “fatalism” is almost a cultural trait. We have often heard people saying “Oh that is our fate” “You can’t question it. It was destined to be this way” – a sense of fatalism that has conditioned us to accept the bad things that happen to us. Jesus’ words shake this man out of this sense of lethargy and fatalism.
There is no direct response from the man to Jesus’ question. He merely begins to complain. “There is nobody to lead me to the pool.” He does not expect or envision divine healing. He is only dependent upon the worldly form of healing. How like us who are always focused on our own way of thinking, materialistic and worldly.
We have often heard of faith bringing about healing – the healing of Jairus’ daughter, the woman in the crowd who touched Jesus’ robe for healing - all these people demonstrated implicit faith and obtained healing through faith – but here, we find a story which does not talk about faith. This man did not know Jesus, he didn’t ask to be healed and did not demonstrate faith but he received God’s grace freely without any conditions. This episode shows us a different aspect of our God – God who sees our needs, who is filled with compassion and grants us unconditional healing.
Jesus says “Rise! Take your mat and walk!” Three strong, clear commands. The Greek word for stand up or “rise” is egeiro, which also means “awaken”. Jesus urges the man to awaken into a new beginning, to awaken from his sense of victimhood, shed his disgruntled disposition and rise. That was his first step. But to just rise is not enough! “Take your mat…” The man was asked to roll up his mat. To us, the logical course of action would be to leave the mat behind! We would have said to him “Leave your mat, it tells your sordid stories” - but that is not what Jesus says. Why?
The mat has been taken as a symbol in our service today. As such let us dwell on the significance of the mat in Jesus’ miracle. The man’s whole life and his sad story were woven around the mat.
When Jesus urges him to take the “mat”, Jesus was reminding him that he had to be mindful of the way he had come. This is where the mat becomes symbolic – reminding us that the past that we have come through - although painful and full of strife – becomes a tool that transforms and strengthens us in our onward journey. Secondly, looking back at the way we came, assures us of God’s eternal grace, grace which is freely given. Looking back at our past reminds us to be always sensitive to the needs of others and helps us clothe ourselves in humility. After this man’s encounter with Jesus – the mat takes on new meaning and becomes a symbol that reminds him of Jesus’ healing. He is required to take up his mat - not a new mat - but the same mat woven with the sad stories of his past which has now become the mat of redemption, responsibility, the mat of remembrance of the loneliness that he had faced, which in turn makes him sensitive to the pain and suffering of others.
What is Jesus’ third command? “Walk”. This is the healing in this story – Jesus restored the man into wholeness, Jesus empowers him to claim personal agency. He has gained his independence, regained assurance and now he has to ACT! “Walk”.
Reading the letter of the Zimbabwean women and men in the worship service, we are brought close to them through their challenges, struggles and suffering because of poverty, separation, drug abuse, violence of all kinds. Mothers, wives and sisters await news of their family members who have been made to disappear; deaths due to HIV and Aids and domestic violence - situations similar to ours. We are all yearning for peace and a peaceful existence and striving for peace and reconciliation. Just as Jesus picked out this man in the multitude of crippled and sick people, he has seen and heard our cries and commanded us to arise, take our mats and walk.
Let’s walk into the future with the faith and confidence that Jesus gives us out of the bounty of his grace. Jesus has seen our needs, healed us and summons us to walk on.
By Shiranee Mills, an activist who worked hard in the North during the ethnic conflict in Sri Lanka. She served as Principal at a Christian girls school, and is currently retired living in Colombo. This reflection was part of the World Day of Prayer celebration on March 6th, in Sri Lanka.