Get your copy of “Messiah: Biblical Retellings” here, or download a free chapter here. (Published under my pen name, C.A. Gray)
Today’s retelling comes from John 5:1-15.
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This is my retelling, though the podcast also includes the original text and a discussion:
Each day runs into the next without distinction. Day after day, I lay beneath one of the five porticoes at the pool of Bethesda in a spot that has become mine, for thirty-eight years. Bethesda—the “House of Mercy,” it’s called in Aramaic—which is why I and my fellow cripples and invalids spend our days and nights lounging by the pool. Tradition holds that every so often, an angel stirs the waters, and the first one in to the pool when the waters are agitated will be healed. But even that hope is thin, both because I’ve never actually seen anyone healed by this method, and also because I’m a cripple. Other invalids lying near the pool have some other infirmity, but are able of body, and always therefore reach the pool when the water ripples long before I do. I have a brother who cares for me, but he must work, and so I have no one to help me into the pool. When I think of it in these terms, which I often do, I realize how pointless it is to spend my days and nights here. Even if the stories are true, I could spend my whole life here and never make it to the pool first. But my only hope is a miracle, so where else am I to go?
Hope. It’s become nothing but a word to me, one that rings hollow and meaningless from empty repetition. The wise King Solomon wrote, “Hope deferred makes the heart sick.” I know very well that is me, but what can I do about it?
I suddenly become aware of a shadow above me. Well, not really a shadow, as I’m under the shadow of my portico already, but a presence, then. I look up, startled and confused to see a man in the garments of a rabbi. In itself, this was not so strange—outside of the pool is the market, where ceremonial animals are bought for sacrifice. Traditionally, before it was a place of healing, the Upper Pool as it was known then was for cleansing the sheep before they were taken in through the sheep gate to the temple. Yet this man has no sheep with him for cleansing. And he looks directly at me, though we’ve never met before.
“Are you really determined to be healed?” he asks me. No introductions. Just that.
It took me a moment to process the question. I didn’t know what he was asking me. Wasn’t my presence at the pool, day and night, evidence enough of the answer? And yet, he didn’t ask me just if I wished to be healed. He asked if I was thelo—determined and committed—to my healing.
“Sir,” I said, and explained the obvious, “I have no one to put me into the pool when the water is stirred up, and while I am going another steps down before me.” But as I said all this, I gazed into the rabbi’s eyes, and something within me stirred—something I hadn’t felt in a very, very long time. Hope. I’d never seen this man before, but I had a premonition that something momentous was about to occur. At the same time, stories I’d heard but never fully listened to began to swirl around in my mind—recent stories of a young rabbi about this man’s age who performed miracles. I thought they said his name was Jesus.
No sooner did I think this, then the man before me commanded, “Get up, take your bed, and walk.” It wasn’t a suggestion.
Had anybody else said that to me I’d have laughed, or perhaps rebuked him for his cruelty in telling me to do what I quite obviously could not. But the authority in this man’s words did something on the inside of me. I wanted to obey him, and at the same time, I believed I could obey him.
So I did obey him. First I rose, putting my weight on my arms like I was accustomed to doing. But then I put one twisted foot on the ground, then the other. And as I stood, my bones straightened out and my ankles and legs grew strong! I stooped, surprised that I was not off balance, and grabbed my bed from the ground to take with me. I took a step, and did not fall! I took another step, and another, and another, and soon I was walking and running and leaping and crying for joy and in disbelief. All around me, my fellow invalids had turned to see what the commotion was, though they mostly registered confusion. Those who had known me for decades looked at me as if they’d never seen me before, as if I must be someone else. I turned back to where the rabbi had stood a moment before, but he was gone.
Still delirious with my newfound mobility, amazed at the strength of my legs and unused muscles, I ran out of the porticoes and into the market. I ran! The market was overrun with scribes and Pharisees and teachers of the law, due to the proximity to the temple.
“Hey! You there!” cried one authoritative voice. I turned and saw that it belonged to a Pharisee with a wide phylactery on his forehead. He narrowed his eyes at me. “It is the Sabbath. The Law forbids you to carry your mat.”
I was still grinning, but the brightness of my smile dimmed just a notch. “The man who made me well said to me, ‘Pick up your mat and walk.’” Surely this Pharisee would pick up on the salient point here—I was well!
Another scribe joined him, and a third rabbi, watching me carefully. “Who is this fellow who told you to pick it up and walk?”
I was at a loss. I never got the man’s name, though I did have my suspicions. And he was gone now. “He slipped away afterwards. I do not know who he was.” I bowed my head to them. “Excuse me!” I alternately walked, skipped, and ran into the temple, drawing stares all around me and shouting to all who would listen, “I’m free! I’m healed! Look—I was lame and now I walk!” I proclaimed this all the way into the outer temple court, where I fell on my knees in worship to God for His goodness. I would have thanked the man who healed me, but I truly did not know who he was or how to find him.
Yet when I opened my eyes again, there he was! The very man himself, looking to me now like a holy angel, his hair illuminated in the light of the narrow window behind him. “Lord!” was what came spontaneously to my lips when I saw him. I heard the whispers around us saying his name—Jesus. So this was Jesus of Nazareth!
“You are now restored to health,” Jesus observed to me. “Do not sin any more, or a worse thing may befall you.”
I nodded and grinned at the time. In later years, though, in later years his words would come back to me and I would ponder them in my heart, wondering what precisely he meant. I did not think that my status as an invalid for thirty-eight years had been due to my own personal sin—it had been the result of an accident in my childhood. It was due to the existence of sin and suffering in the world, though, surely. Yet I was not sinless; of this, my brother and his family could certainly attest. In my misery, I had not been a particularly easy houseguest. But what was this ‘worse thing’ that may befall me? What could be worse than lying impotent beside the pool for my entire adult life?
For years afterwards, I would recall Jesus’ words to me whenever I became tempted to grumble and complain. I’d remember how much the Lord had done for me, and give thanks, fearful lest I should fall “short of the mark,” the literal translation of the Hebrew hhatah.
When Jesus again left me, I found one of the Pharisees, the one with the widest phylactery who had found me in the market. I still clutched my bed beneath my arm, as I had found nowhere to lay it since I’d met him the first time.
“It was Jesus!” I declared. “Jesus was the one who made me well!” I meant only to give Jesus the credit for the miracle he had performed, but I knew at once when I saw the darkening countenance of the Pharisee that I had not done the Lord a favor. He conferred with his fellow scribes and Pharisees, and I overheard enough to realize that they intended to find him and persecute him for healing on the Sabbath—something they considered “work,” and was therefore illegal, just as carrying my bed had been. A group of seven of them banded together and searched the temple court for Jesus. When they found him, a small crowd of onlookers gathered to listen to the exchange. I warred with my guilt that after this man had done so much for me, I had occasioned this confrontation—but my curiosity won out, and I joined the crowd.
I was glad I did, as my respect for Jesus only grew. He listened to the accusations with utmost calm, and replied, “My Father works unceasingly, and so do I.”
His Father! The ripples spread throughout the crowd, and his accusers gnashed their teeth, with murder in their eyes. Had this man really called God his Father?
As if to double down and make it worse, Jesus went on, “In most solemn truth I tell you that the Son can do nothing of Himself—He can only do what He sees the Father doing; for whatever He does, that the Son does in like manner.” He went on like this, preaching and gathering more and more listeners, to the shame of the Pharisees who had accused him. Jesus spoke with authority, backing his words with power. The religious leaders obviously hated him only out of jealousy. They wanted to kill him; I could see that plainly. Yet he was completely unafraid, turning their attacks to his advantage.
Who but the Son of God could do all that?