St Bride's: Sermons

'My very chains and I grew friends'

John 5:1-9

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After this there was a feast of the Jews; and Jesus went up to Jerusalem.

Now there is at Jerusalem by the sheep market a pool, which is called in the Hebrew tongue Bethesda, having five porches.

In these lay a great multitude of impotent folk, of blind, halt, withered, waiting for the moving of the water.

For an angel went down at a certain season into the pool, and troubled the water: whosoever then first after the troubling of the water stepped in was made whole of whatsoever disease he had.

And a certain man was there, which had an infirmity thirty and eight years.

When Jesus saw him lie, and knew that he had been now a long time in that case, he saith unto him, Wilt thou be made whole?

The impotent man answered him, Sir, I have no man, when the water is troubled, to put me into the pool: but while I am coming, another steppeth down before me.

Jesus saith unto him, Rise, take up thy bed, and walk.

And immediately the man was made whole, and took up his bed, and walked: and on the same day was the sabbath.

'My very chains and I grew friends'

Goodness me, what a fascinating Gospel reading that is - but perhaps not for the reason you might expect.  Because it seems to me that possibly the least interesting thing about the story of Jesus healing the sick man by the pool of Bethesda is the amazing healing miracle it describes.  What is far more significant and more revealing than that, it seems to me, is the conversation that Jesus has with the man in question.  But you have to watch closely to see what is really going on here, because it is very easy to miss it altogether.

So let's revisit the whole story for a moment.  As we heard, Jesus is in Jerusalem for a religious festival, and he goes to a pool which is called Bethesda, or Bethzatha.  The pool, which was believed to have healing properties, was surrounded by a colonnade, where many invalids lay: the blind, the lame, and the paralysed.  One of the men who was lying there had been unwell, we are told, for thirty eight years, although the nature of his sickness is unclear - the Greek word simply means 'weak' or 'ill'.  And Jesus goes up to him and says to him something that, if you think about it, is really rather odd.  His opening words to the man are:  'Do you want to be made well?'  'Do you want to be made well?'  For heaven's sake - the man has been ill for thirty eight years, he is lying by a pool amongst a host of people desperate to have their ailments cured, and Jesus says to him, 'Do you want to be made well?'

But then it gets even more interesting.  Because in responding, the sick man ducks the question altogether.  Instead he replies -'Sir, I have no one to put me into the pool when the water is stirred up; and while I am making my way, someone else steps down ahead of me.'  How very curious: it is as if he is saying:  'I can't help it.  Nobody helps me.'

And how does Jesus respond to that?  He tells the man to get up and walk.  And he does.  And that is all it takes.  In the end, the sick man didn't need anyone to help him at all.  It just took a commandment from Jesus to startle him into realizing it.

You will all, I am sure, be familiar with the famous line of poetry: 'Stone walls do not a prison make, nor iron bars a cage.'  Those words were written by the seventeenth century poet Richard Lovelace.  (As some of you may be aware, Lovelace died in the year 1657 and was buried here, at St Bride's.)  And Lovelace, who was himself jailed for his political allegiances, was absolutely right: you cannot imprison the human spirit simply by physically locking someone up.  But conversely, some of the most oppressive prisons of all are those that do not involve walls or iron bars or any kind of physical constraint - because they are the prisons that are of our own construction.

I found myself reflecting long and hard about the story of the healing of the man at Bethesda when a former colleague of mine once told me the following story about his own brother.  His brother was a man who had never really managed to do anything with his life.  He never held down a job, or a relationship, for very long; he was prone to depression; and he had a pretty miserable existence.  His family were incredibly loving and supportive and did everything they possibly could to encourage him, to find him places to live, to find him work, and to help him to build an independent life.  But whatever they tried, and however hard they tried, it always fell apart in the end, and he would sink back into inactivity and misery. 

This cycle continued for a number of years, until one day he said to his family something along the following lines: 'I am really grateful for all that you are trying to do for me - but you need to understand that, although the hole I am in is a terrible place, it is at least familiar.  It is what I know.   And I don't think I will ever have the energy, or the courage, to climb out of it.' 

Another story: many years ago I had a secretary working for me, who used to complain constantly about how lonely and isolated she was.  This was a woman who chose not to have a telephone, who chose not to own a television set, who had a driving licence but chose not to own a car, who had deliberately severed all links with her family, who never went out, who had no hobbies or interests, and who even declined to have coffee with the other administrative staff, preferring to sit on her own at her desk.  Bizarrely it was as if she took active steps to ensure that she remained permanently lonely and isolated, so that she could complain about it.  Until I began to recognize that that was precisely what she was doing: the only way that she knew how to relate to other people was by inhabiting the role of poor lonely victim, so that she could demand their attention and their sympathy.  It had become a whole way of life for her.  And that kind of self-constructed prison can be the hardest of all from which to break free.

Now I am not for a moment either underestimating or devaluing the devastating impact of physical or mental illness on an individual human life; far less am I suggesting that such people basically just need to pull their socks up and take control of their lives.  Because I really do recognize how hard it can be to break free from the things that hold us in chains; whether they are our fears, or our addictions, or simply our habitual life-denying patterns of behaviour.   On the contrary, the prisons that we construct for ourselves are often the hardest to escape, either because we are blind to their very existence, or because we have become so accustomed to them, that they redefine our normality, and our sense of who we are.  'Do you want to be made well?'

You will all be very familiar with the Old Testament story of the slavery of the Israelites in Egypt, and how they were led to freedom in the Promised Land by Moses.  But it is the small but significant details of that narrative which turn it into a powerful human reality that is symbolic of so much else in human experience.  Because initially, we are told, the Israelites were so broken by their experience of enslavement that they simply would not listen to Moses.  And when, eventually, they do gain the courage to follow him out of slavery into the wilderness, all they do is complain constantly and wish they were back in chains.  A modern Jewish reflection on this story puts it like this:

'Not only were they enslaved, but they accepted their lot: when they first heard the divine promise of redemption, they would not listen, because of their broken spirit.


My very chains and I grew friends,

So much a long communion tends

To make us what we are - even I

Regain'd my freedom with a sigh.

The real slavery of Israel in Egypt was that they had learned to endure it.'[i]

Sometimes breaking free takes courage, because we have learned to define our sense of who and what we are by the very things that imprison us.  Which is why the question that Jesus asks the sick man by the pool of Bethesda, whose life he opens up and redefines with a simple command, is a question that is relevant to each and every one of us.

'Do you want to be made well?  Then stand up, take your mat and walk.'



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