Water is already rare and extraordinary in the desert. But these waters were even more so. These waters were said to be holy. These waters, they said, fed by unseen springs beneath the desert, were stirred every so often by God’s own angel. A messenger of Heaven sent to spread holy healing. Superstition or legend or miracle, it was all the same. It was sacred hope, the very last wisp of it for the many crowded around its edges.
It had been nearly forty years – almost his whole life – of total paralysis. We aren’t told how he got to the pools of Bethesda, only that he had made it there. Maybe his family brought him, his last resort, maybe out of pity or charity or even good riddance. Regardless, he made it as far as the pools’ edges, folded into the desperate crowds anxious for healing.
The air was thick with broken bodies, each pressing closer through pain to the water’s edge, relief, hope just a stirring away. How long this man waited is unclear, irrelevant. He was as close as he could get, close enough to see the water, to smell it, this promise of wholeness. But he was alone, no one to help him slide into the pools, not one person who knew his name, willing to bring him the last few precious feet to the healing waters. He was ill for so long. Cursed, he was taught, suffering from crippling sin, his unmoving body so close, so still, still broken. Unable to reach out on his own accord for the health he believed was inches from his grasp.
His heart must have broken a hundred different ways, hope and wholeness shimmering just a few staggered steps away. There was nothing – not one thing – he could do to cross those last few feet into the healing pools.
So he, with everyone else, would wait. Every last one of them holding breaths against the pain, waiting for the waters to stir; any other time it was just water. But when the waters stirred, something sacred was happening. Healing was happening.
This man, his whole life dependent on the charity of others, would wait for the unseen angel to trouble the waters. There wasn’t anything else he could do, anywhere else he could be. So he would wait, staring into the pools as if he, a mere man, could bend the will of angels, of God Himself.
And then the waters would stir. Maybe slowly at first, barely a ripple, hardly noticed. Or maybe all at once, the huge heavenly host churning the pools into waves. The man would see it – how could he miss it? His every last hope pinned on the moment the waters so much as sighed differently. Even the subtlest flicker across the waters he would catch. This man was here because he could not control his own body, this dead weight. But maybe, because he wanted it desperately enough, because his mind and heart and soul felt ready to burst with longing…maybe he could move himself just enough to fall into the bubbling waters.
Maybe some days he came close. Maybe he thought he felt a muscle twitch in response. Maybe he called out to those around him to take him with them as they slipped into the rolling waters. But then the waters would still. The healing hour had come and gone. Those who had made it would rise up whole somehow, their brokenness restored. No doubt this man witnessed hope and relief on the other side, breaking the surface of the now-calm waters, smooth as glass.
A hundred different heartbreaks, a hundred missed-out hopes.
Maybe this man held fast, clutching the far-off chance he’d one day reach into the waters. Maybe this man had long given up, yet remained by the pools because he had no choice. He might have been there days or weeks or months or even years. Who could know any one man’s story lost in the endless press of desperate people?
However long he waited on the outskirts of hope, we do know the day everything changed.
On that day, this man, his life consumed and defined by his brokenness, was approached by Jesus. Jesus, God in the flesh, divine authority wrapped in human skin with the holy power to heal with just a word or a touch or a slather of mud, approaches.
I try to imagine how Jesus must have felt, surrounded by such extravagant suffering, such tailspins of last resorts and final breaths.
Jesus, His good, good heart beating bold for every broken one gathered around the miracle pools, leans down to this man, overlooked by everyone else, forgotten, unseen, and Jesus knows. Jesus knows his story, his illness, his desperation, all forty years of it. This man, lying flat and unmoving mere inches from the healing waters, and Jesus, Lord of all, Son of God, sacred healer, asks, “Do you want to get well?”
What a question to ask this man, or anyone journeying to Bethesda, for that matter.
Do you want to get well?
I know this Jesus. I know the infinite tenderness He poured onto the suffering, the broken and weary. I can hear the exquisite gentleness in His question to this man, one man out of dozens or hundreds.
Maybe the man knew Jesus’ reputation. Maybe he had just hoped this stranger, in His kindness, would help him into the waters. This man encountered Jesus in the flesh, face to face, asking him, inviting him, to wholeness. Jesus asked a simple, loaded question, packed to bursting with life-changing, life-giving meaning. You and I know Jesus was offering this man so much more than the ability to walk again. You and I know the offer was for complete wellness, for restoration, a reconciled relationship with God Himself.
Every time I open my Bible, every time I pray, every time I speak to or focus on or serve my God, He leans down, leans close, and with soul-stunning tenderness asks me, “Beloved, do you want to get well?”
When Jesus saw him lying there and learned that he had been in this condition for a long time, He asked him, “Do you want to get well?” -John 5.6