Easter 6C: A Complicated Healing

Easter 6C: A Complicated Healing

John 5:1-9

By: The Rev. Leah Lyman Waldron

It’s like Beyoncé singing Happy Birthday and picking up the tab for someone who, inconceivably, does not recognize Queen Bey’s voice or visage.

Jesus slips through a side gate into Jerusalem, where he is not yet known by sight, and decides to do a little joyriding—a little freelance healing complete with all the satisfaction of seeing a life restored and none of the hoopla of being Messiah. It’s got to be liberating for Jesus to leave that heavy mantle of first century celebrity to the side for just a moment and exercise his God-given gifts, no strings attached—no throngs lined up to touch his cloak, no paparazzi Pharisees peering around the corner and taking notes on his every misinterpreted move.

Except, of course, the Pharisees do eventually show up and the crowds soon follow, because word of Jesus’ healings has a way of getting around. Perhaps it was a little naive of Jesus to think no one would find out.

Or maybe Jesus knew exactly what he was doing. Perhaps Jesus was healing on the Sabbath in a move calculated to stir up the hornet’s nest. We might imagine him mischievously provoking the religious authorities’ tightly-held proscriptions, relishing the opportunity to make a point about the extravagant, rule-breaking generosity of God’s life-restoring love.

Because in the 1st century, that’s exactly what this act would have meant for the man

ancient
Archaeological Site of the Pools at Bethesda

suffering from the debilitating weakness called asthenia: restoration to a full and autonomous life. After 38 years of limited mobility, several of them spent in poolside vigil at Bethesda, the man is now free: free to worship at the Temple, free to rejoin his family, free to make a living, and free to enjoy the embrace of the community that had abandoned him to his condition. Talk about resurrection!

Before we wax too eloquently, though, let’s acknowledge that the text does not read as liberating to everyone.

Through a disability rights lens, this scripture is fraught with the problematic issues that all healing texts raise. When I called up a friend who works in disability rights activism to parse out this passage, he was happy to discuss the fixation on finding medical “solutions” instead of adapting our environment to a variety of needs. But although I know him through church and he considers himself a Christian, he showed considerable reluctance to comment on the politics of healing in scripture.

I think his reticence points to the complicated intersection of disability and divine power.

Surely meant, in the narrative of the time, to demonstrate God’s abundant grace and miraculous power, biblical healing stories can read rather disturbingly in our time. Are the people with disabilities at the heart of these stories merely symbolic vessels whom Jesus uses to make visible his invisible, spiritual power?

More troubling questions: why is healing bestowed on this one man at the pool, and not others—especially given that faith, the usual differentiator in healing stories, isn’t brought into this equation at all? Why the question, often used to patronizing effect in sermons to imply that the man was making excuses rather than a real effort to be healed: “Do you want to be made well?” Why Jesus’ stomach-turning admonishment several verses later: “Do not sin any more, so that nothing worse happens to you” (verse 14)? That at worst implies the man’s disability is due to sin and at best sounds like a threat.

Foremost among the unsettling things about this and other healing passages is the assumption that there is something “wrong” with people with disabilities, something that needs to be “healed”—a religiously lacquered euphemism for “fixed.”

Does this healing restore the man to society?  It would appear so, yes.  But in doing so it also perpetuates the idea that it is people with disabilities who need restoration, not society itself that needs to be reborn into a body marked by inclusion and adaptability.

It’s true that some people living with disability indeed look to God as the ultimate Healer who will restore their bodies to a “whole” state—if not in this life, then in the next. Just today I was struck by a blogger’s passionate claim[1] on what she sees as God’s promise of redemption through bodily restoration.

But even if some members of my congregation living with disability or debilitating chronic illness were to take this approach, I err on the side of assuming the opposite: that no one wants to be included in the kin-dom if admission is contingent on the erasure of parts society deems undesirable, inconvenient, or less than acceptable.

As the late theologian and disability activist Nancy Eiesland put it, the words of those seeking to comfort her that “in heaven this won’t be a problem” are more about comforting the speaker than the person with the disability.  If being disabled “is a part of who I am,” Eiesland says, then “what these statements are saying to people with disabilities is that you can’t be who you are and be a part of eternity.”[2]

So where does that leave us vis-à-vis Jesus and the healing of the man at the pool?

First, let’s look to other parts of the Bible for some context. In her lecture on “Violence, Disability, and the Politics of Healing,”[3] Rabbi Julia Watts Belser points out that scripture is no stranger to sweeping people with disabilities under the rug in the name of demonstrating just how miraculous and all-encompassing God’s restoration of the world will be: “Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped; then the lame shall leap like a deer, and the tongue of the speechless sing for joy” (Isaiah 35:5-6). “Liberation,” she notes, is thus “signaled by an erasure of disability…its absence a cause for celebration.”

But much more frequently in the Hebrew Bible, Watts Belser continues, the prophets use disability imagery unaltered by healing as a way to signify “eschatological inclusion.”  These passages illustrate the fullness of “God’s promise by bringing marginalized peoples into the center of a restored and renewed community.”  Jeremiah 31:8, for example, describes how God will gather the people in, “among them the blind and the lame,” just as they are.

Here disability is not imperfection to be wiped away, but rather an inherently valuable variation on the human experience without which the ingathering of God’s people would be incomplete.

Seen through this lens, Jesus’ question, “Do you want to be made well?” can be heard as empowering rather than offensive. Instead of assuming that “fixing” the disability is the desired goal, Jesus puts the choice in the hands of the person living with the disability. It’s not much of a surprise that in Jesus’ time and culture, when the absolute lack of adaptation made outcasts of people with disabilities, the man answered “yes.”

But in our time and culture, where disability activists and allies have fought tirelessly for inclusion and accessibility, it’s entirely conceivable that a person with a disability—like my friend, or like Rabbi Watts Belser or Professor Eiesland—would choose not to be “made well,” but rather to remain their complete selves, disability included.

I imagine that Jesus—whom Eiesland deftly points out is, himself, disabled, his resurrected “hands, feet and side bear[ing] the marks of profound physical impairment”—would be just fine with that.

Back to our initial interpretive dilemma: If Jesus was asking a genuine question to which the answer could have been “no,” it reinforces the idea of an incognito Messiah looking to do some quietly powerful good without being lauded or lambasted for his actions. That is, after all, how God so often works in the world: more substance than flash, more subtle shoring up of dignified wholeness than instant medical makeover.

If instead Jesus was seeking to provoke the Pharisees, our healing scenario might be read as a model for what Rabbi Watts Belser calls “the power of the disabled body as a site of cultural protest.” In an all-too-strong parallel to today, the man by the pool was excluded from participating in the life of the faith community, his disabled body confined to a secluded space where no one’s conscience would be pricked by its difference or his segregation.

With Jesus’ question, however, the man seizes an opening to claim his agency and carries his mat right over to the authorities in the Temple. Now they can no longer ignore his body, its very mobility a confrontation of their stringent legalism. In this reading, Jesus not only challenges religious complacency but cedes the stage to the person with the disability—“healed” or not—to do the same, both then and now.

As for Jesus’ foreboding postscript, “Do not sin any more, so that nothing worse happens to you?” Perhaps he isn’t referring to the man’s disability at all. Jesus’ admonition follows immediately after the man has been accosted by the hypocritical Pharisees so eager to live the law rather than love. I think Jesus’ words both acknowledge the profound pain of living on the margins, and the truth that the worse fate, by far, is the impoverishment of valuing our own comfort and customs over the inclusion of all.

[1] Nielson, Stephanie. “Holding Fast to Hope.” Blog post. The NieNie Dialogues.  March 28, 2016. Accessed March 28, 2016.

[2] Justice, Elaine. “Books in Review -The Disabled God: Toward a Liberatory Theology of Disability by Nancy Eiesland.” E-Newsletter. Emory Report, January 1995. Accessed March 28, 2016.

[3] Watts Belser, Julia. “Violence, Disability, and the Politics of Healing.” Vimeo. Candler School of Theology, March 31, 2015. Accessed March 28, 2016.

LLW headshot
The Rev. Leah Lyman Waldron

A Midwest transplant to the South, The Rev. Leah Lyman Waldron is ordained in the United Church of Christ (UCC) and serves as a preaching pastor at Decatur UCC in Atlanta.  She works bi-vocationally as an administrator for a PC(USA) church; if one day she serves a church with its own administrator, she plans to treat that person like royalty.  She’s also a mama, pastor’s wife, contributing writer at www.newsacred.org, and Head Thriftvangelist over at www.thriftshopchic.com.

 

 

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