Encounters With Jesus — the Man With the Disability

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Scripture: John 5:1-15

Theme: With this man, Jesus shows grace which seeks and heals.

We don’t know the man’s exact disability. He may have been paralyzed or lame or withered by some disease. We do know that his disability didn’t develop recently. He had it for 38 years.

The man lay by the pool of Bethesda. Back in 1888 archeologists uncovered the pool. The pool was near the Sheep Gate, which was about 200 meters north of the temple. This was probably the gate sheep were led through to serve as sacrifices in the temple.

In Jesus’ day, a great number of people with disabilities gathered by the pool of Bethesda. There were two reasons why they hung out there. First, the pool was surrounded by five covered colonnades. That covering provided them protection from sun and rain.

Second and far more importantly, they hoped to be healed there. Some manuscripts of John’s gospel include another verse. It reads: From time to time an angel of the Lord would come down and stir up the waters. The first one into the pool after each such disturbance would be cured of whatever disease he had.

Today we have Olympic races in the pool; then they had races to the pool. Scholars think that this verse probably wasn’t part of John’s original account. Many reliable manuscripts don’t include it. And some of the words used are not typical of John’s vocabulary. So, scholars conclude it was added later to explain what the man said to Jesus. Now, with this background let’s observe another encounter with Jesus.

One day Jesus came to this pool. In the throng there Jesus spotted this man. Here again we see that Jesus notices individuals. Jesus took an interest in him. He inquired about the man. Jesus learned that he had been in this condition a long time.

"Do you want to get well?" Jesus asks. The man proves eager to explain his situation; he is eager to tell his story. "Sir, I have no one to help me into the pool when the water is stirred. While I am trying to get in, someone else goes down ahead of me." I have no one to help me. Here is a cry from the heart.

In these few words are wrapped a lifetime of misery and loneliness and despair. For a long time this man has lived with disability. For a long time he’s had no one to help him- no wife, no family, no friends. No one. For a long time he’s been by the pool and it’s hope of healing, but never quite makes it. For a long time he’s finished runner up in every race to the pool. He feels like a loser.

Loneliness and despair. This man isn’t the only one to feel that. There are lonely children: parents always gone or divorced; lonely without a close friend. There are lonely adults: living far from family, neighbors busy with their own lives, no friend to have a heart to heart talk with, hanging out at bars for fellowship. There are lonely seniors: many friends have died, unable to get out much, long days to fill.

One growing alarm for our military is the rise in suicides among our troops. Last year there were more suicides than fatalities in battle. Suicide is the ultimate sign of loneliness and despair. Despair over horrific memories. Despair that no one back home can understand the stress and trauma of warfare. Despair over soured relationships. Despair over injuries and disabilities. When the man cried: "I have no one to help me", he speaks for millions of Americans. 

Here we see that Jesus is a friend to the lonely. He brings hope in despair. Jesus said to him: "Get up! Pick up your mat and walk." At once the man was cured; he picked up his mat and walked. John says nothing about the man’s reaction. But you can imagine his astonishment and joy! After 38 years of dealing with his disability, the man could walk!

In our generation there has been a growing sensitivity to people with disabilities. Joni Eareckson was a teen when a diving accident left her a quadriplegic. She became a great advocate for people, like her, with disabilities.

The CRC has been a pioneer in establishing an office of Disability Concerns. Churches have been urged to make their space receptive to those with disabilities. All of this flows from the ministry of Jesus. This man had no one to help him. Then Jesus came and helped him. Do you have a disability of any kind? Here is a sparkling reminder: if we have a need, Jesus can help us.

Now, if John’s account ended there, it would be plenty to ponder- plenty to marvel at. But it turns out there is an Act II. Vs 9:The day on which this took place was a Sabbath, and so the Jews said to the man who had been healed: "It is the Sabbath; the law forbids you to carry your mat." Wow! Talk about being killjoys. After 38 years this man could walk! But all these Jews could think about was a Sabbath technicality. This is the epitome of legalism.

Legalism is an excessive concern for the letter of the law while losing sight of the broader purpose of the law: to protect us and promote our wellbeing. For example, speed limits are set to protect and save life. It’s not good to have people driving along the S-curve at 100 miles per hour. The 55 limit there is meant to protect us. But suppose at midnight, with little warning, a woman is about to give birth. Her husband is hustling her to Saint Mary’s Hospital and hits the S-curve at 70 mph. A police officer pulls them over for speeding. The husband explains the emergency. For the mother and baby’s wellbeing they need to get to the hospital as soon as possible. But the officer pays no attention. They have exceeded the limit. It’s against the law. They will wait while he writes out a ticket. That’s legalism: excessive concern for the letter of the law, while losing sight of its purpose: to promote our wellbeing.

The Sabbath was intended to promote our wellbeing. God didn’t intend that we become sheerly beasts of burden. The Sabbath was intended to limit endless work that otherwise might snuff out time with God, time for rest, time for play, time to be fully human. Healing this man fit the spirit of the Sabbath- promoting his wellbeing. But the Jews showed no interest in the man’s healing. They were too hung up on the law. It is the Sabbath; the law forbids you to carry your mat. That’s so sad!

I hope we will take a lesson from this. Let’s respect the law. But let’s remember its broader purpose- to promote the wellbeing of people. When we keep the positive purpose of the law in mind, we avoid legalism: as a police officer, as parents, as teachers, as a Christian community.

In response to this rebuke the healed man pleads innocent. The man who made me well said to me: "Pick up your mat and walk." So the Jews want to track down the man who would urge violating the Sabbath law. "Who is this fellow who told you to pick it up and walk?" Their legalism is almost comical! And now this key detail: The man who was healed had no idea who it was, for Jesus had slipped away into the crowd. The man had no idea who it was.

Notice the contrast between the encounter with the royal official and the man with a disability. The official knew who Jesus was; the man didn’t. The official came to Jesus; Jesus came to the man. The official asked Jesus to heal his son; the man made no request for healing. In the official we find a quest of faith; with the man we find Jesus’ quest of grace. Here we see that God’s sovereign grace isn’t limited by our knowledge and faith. The man didn’t know it was Jesus. He didn’t believe he was the Son of God. Yet in his goodness and mercy, Jesus healed him.

Now, faith is a channel through which God’s power and grace flows to us. No question. But the point here is: God’s grace isn’t limited to our faith. That’s a great relief, isn’t it? I think of times in my life when I’ve been discouraged. I think of times when I’ve gone through some rejection or failure or disappointment. In moments like that it can be hard to just trust God and not worry. Just when I need God’s help the most, my faith might be at its lowest ebb. If God’s grace depended on my faith, I’d be in bad shape. What a comfort that God’s grace isn’t limited by our puny faith!

The man didn’t even know who Jesus was, but Jesus healed him. We find this very dynamic in God’s work of salvation. Romans 5 says: "While we were still sinners, Christ died for us." No faith first. As Ephesians 2 puts it: "God made us alive, even when we were dead in transgressions." Praise God that his grace precedes our knowledge and faith.

Now Act III in this encounter. Later Jesus found him at the temple and said: "See, you are well again. Stop sinning or something worse may happen to you." Here Jesus shows a tender concern not just for the body but also for the soul. Living with a disability is hard- but not nearly as bad as facing the wrath of God at the Judgment Day. What an encounter with Jesus! It changed the man’s life.

He found that Jesus seeks out people with disabilities. Jesus takes an interest in people who have disabling conditions. Jesus’ power to heal isn’t limited to our faith. And Jesus cares about us, body and soul.

Jesus is amazing! I hope that you will admire him and believe in him and receive his help.

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