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John 5: healing and disability at the pool of Bethesda

Updated: May 16, 2023

On Sunday we considered the story of the healing of the man at the pool of Bethesda. This is actually the second healing story recorded in the gospel of John, although it is the first we have encountered in our readings and reflections. Chapter four ends with an official coming to Jesus to seek healing for his son, being assured by Jesus that he will live, and then returning home to find that his son’s fever had broken at the exact moment that Jesus said those words. I didn't touch on that story last week, when we focused on Jesus’ conversation with the woman at the well, because I didn't want to treat healing lightly. It seemed better to hold off until this week, when we could have more space to dig into some of the questions and issues it raises, although what we are able to cover here will still only be the beginning of what might be said.

The healing miracles are clearly an important part of Jesus' ministry, and I want to say clearly that I believe they happened then and I believe they still happen now, although I don’t understand the rhyme or reason behind them, but I do have a concern that they have often been taught and understood in ways that have become unhelpful, setting a pattern and creating an expectation that was never intended and can never be met, and so this morning I want to try and acknowledge and address some of the difficulties around the way we speak of healing, and what that means for the way we speak of disability and illness.

I would love for us to have heard from someone with closer experience of these issues, and perhaps if I planned services a month ahead rather than a week ahead we might have managed that, but I did try to listen to voices of experience in my preparation, including voices from within our fellowship and from the world of disability theology. I am still aware however that there will be other experiences I haven't heard. Some writers on disability have suggested that ability is really the anomaly, as most of us experience some form of disability in our lives, even if temporarily because of illness or latterly because of age, so I know that there will be lots of experience among those reading this. And it’s worth remembering - even if it ought to go without saying - that people with disabilities and those suffering from illness are not a homogenous group, so that experience will lead to a range of perspectives.

I will try to faithfully represent the other voices I have listened to, but I speak mainly as myself, and I may make mistakes or be clumsy in my language or say things that just don’t chime with your experience or understanding, and I hope you will be graceful but also push back at me as appropriate. That is true every time I teach, but it felt important to say it explicitly here, because some of the things we touch on may feel more personal than usual.

That’s quite a bit of set up already, but before we get into the reading, I do want to try and provide a little bit of background. The treatment of people with disabilities in the Hebrew scriptures, and therefore in the society that shaped and was shaped by them, was somewhat mixed. They were excluded from certain roles within the temple, and therefore not fully able to partake in the religious and cultural life of their society, in part because it was commonly believed that sickness and disability were punishments for sin, There also appears to have been little in the way of a safety net for those made vulnerable by their conditions, as they were not named among the “widows, orphans and aliens” as those to be cared for by the wider community, and this is borne out by the fact that most of the people with disabilities that Jesus meets are living as outcasts or beggars.

However, Jeremiah 31:8 includes the blind and the lame among those God will call, while Proverbs 31:8 demands that the reader champion those in need, and rabbinical commentaries on the Torah emphasise the importance of looking at the person not the body, with specific prayers which praise God for making all people different suggesting a desire to accept rather than reject disability as part of human difference. In the grand scheme of a tradition which declares the Lord to be gracious and compassionate, and in the light of Jesus who touched those considered untouchable even before they were held to be worthy of touch in the eyes of the law, these positive parts seem to me to be the most authentic in as much as they are the most true to the heart of God.

That leaves us to decide whether to redeem or reject the more problematic parts, but I’m not sure that large parts of the church have successfully done either. Often the healing miracles are taught in such a way that it seems that Jesus heals every person with disabilities that he meets, which can lead to a tacit assumption that people with disabilities who have not been healed have not yet met Jesus, and that has all sorts of consequences. Sadly some churches do still teach that disability is the result of sin, or at least that lack of healing is evidence of a lack of faith, and I have heard stories of prayer for healing being forced on people with disabilities, and of people with disabilities being told that they are not welcome in worship because they will disrupt or disturb. Even in churches that would not deliberately use this kind of language or promote this kind of teaching, an overemphasis on faith healing can leave the same impression.

We need to pay attention to our unconscious biases, and to the unspoken implications of our theology, because without care they can lead to a low view of people with disabilities and do incredible damage to their own self understanding. And it goes wider than that, because how we treat people with disabilities says much about how we value people generally, what we prioritise in life, how we view our bodies, the picture of God we offer to those outside of the church...

With all of that in mind, I want to come more directly to the story we heard earlier. It seems that people with disabilities gathered at this pool because it was believed to have healing properties. We don’t know if Jesus visited the pool intentionally or just happened to be walking by, but he sees a man who has lain there for thirty eight years. Jesus asks this man if he wants to be well, and while he doesn't say yes directly, his answer suggests a desire to get into the pool. It’s easy to put the focus on the healing itself, but I think this interaction beforehand is really important. This man, who appears able to do very little for himself, is given agency and choice, perhaps for the first time in his life. Jesus does not just turn up and tell him to stand, and I believe that is because he respected him and he did not assume or demand that he needed physical wellness, because he could and should be loved and accepted just as he was.

I don’t want to underestimate or undermine the difficulty or pain or frustration of living with disability or severe illness, and of course many who experience illness or disability do wish to be healed, but it is not for us to decide what is normative or comfortable or right for anyone else, except in special circumstances where we have a particular duty of care for another, and it is not for us to say that another must be healed when that may not be their desire. Frances Young is a Methodist minister and theologian, and she has questioned the sense of praying for her son Arthur to be healed, or assuming that he will be healed in heaven, because his condition affects him so greatly that he wouldn't be him without it. And I have heard of a deaf lady who spoke of having a vision of meeting Jesus in heaven, and ended her story by saying that his sign language was perfect. She had no desire to be healed of her deafness, and for her healing and wholeness and heaven did not mean being able to hear, but everyone else being able to sign.

Back to our story, Jesus does heal the man and then later encounters him in the temple, where he warns him not to sin again. This part is a little tricky. Elsewhere, in the healing of the paralysed man in Matthew 9, Jesus seems to use "your sins are forgiven" and "get up and walk" simultaneously, and these passages have been used to affirm the belief that disability and illness are the consequences of sin, but it is my conviction that this is a misreading of what Jesus is saying. Of course the man was a sinner, because we all are, but there is no clear correlation drawn between that sin and his infirmity, and there are other possible meanings which I will come to in a moment. It also seems to me that "your sins are forgiven" reflects and speaks to the understanding and language of the culture not of Jesus or of God.

In fact the association between sin and suffering is directly challenged in several places in the Bible. In the book of Job, his friends blame him for the suffering he endures and Job refutes their accusations, then when God appears in the final chapters, he says that the friends have spoken poorly of him, while Job has spoken well. And in John 9, when the disciples ask "who sinned that this man was born blind", Jesus replies that "no one sinned". In other words, neither Job nor the man born blind suffered because of sin. I want to say this very clearly, illness and disability are not punishments for sin, and the absence of healing does not mean a lack of faith. Of course sometimes we are responsible for the things that happen to us - my grandad smoked his way to emphysema - but we know when those times are. Most of the time the bad stuff has no explanation, it is simply the result of a world that doesn’t quite work the way we want it to. There’s not much comfort in that, I know, but there’s no blame either.

So why did Jesus tell the man to sin no more? Perhaps he meant that to live well is more important than to be well. And as sin is particularly associated with unbelief in the fourth gospel, perhaps this is a suggestion that faith or spiritual wellness is more important than health or physical wellness. But even there we need to take care not to assume that faith is purely cognitive or must be expressed in ways that have become normative for church. A couple of years ago, I had the great joy of being at the baptism of a young woman with multiple and pround disabilities. She could not express her faith in the form of a testimony as is common practice, but her delight at being part of a worshipping community was evident in the responses she gave to the simple questions asked by her dad, and most of all in her smiles, and that was testimony enough. And her physical needs meant that immersion would have been unduly difficult and stressful, but sprinkling with water was a fitting and sufficient sign of her baptism.

I think there are more complex things happening in the healing miracles than we often allow for. In the last chapter we heard Jesus offer living water, which I said was a colloquial term for flowing water. This pool is said to have healing properties when the water is stirred up, and so in that sense it might also be said to be living water, and yet Jesus does not use the living water of the pool, but rather heals from his own power, and so proves himself to be the true living water. I also think it is interesting that there is no sign of faith on the part of man - unlike in other healing stories, there is no declaration that the healed one’s faith has made them well, so this really is all about the power exercised by Jesus. And there were others at the pool, also in need of healing, and yet there is nothing to suggest that Jesus healed all of them. I find it hard to believe that Jesus did not care for them or wish for them the abundant life he promised others, but it seems that he thought that care could be shown and that abundant life could be experienced in ways other than healing.

Perhaps then this miracle was never about setting a pattern which makes healing the only or even best outcome of an encounter with Christ. That might be hard to hear for those who long for healing, but I hope there is also liberation in hearing that you are loved and accepted and can know abundant life even without it.

What then is the pattern for us? One of my tutors at college was Sally Nelson, who has done a great deal of work in the area of disability theology, and she suggests that we might perhaps look to the parable of the great banquet, told in Luke 14. The story ends with “the poor, the crippled, the blind and the lame” being in brought in to a feast, and there is nothing to say that any of them are changed, but rather it seems that they are welcomed and included as they are. Sally also notes that in the story we have heard this morning, Jesus violates the Sabbath and heals without the aid of the pool, so that social structures are transformed as much as the individual man. Surely these are patterns that we can follow, transforming social structures of exclusion in order to offer full inclusion.

What does that mean in practice? First, I think we need a wider understanding of healing, starting with recognising a diversity of healing experiences. Jennifer Rees Larcombe, who spent many years in a post-encephalitis coma and then living with severe physical disability, has written powerfully about her experiences of healing, including an acknowledgement that the emotional healing which enabled her to deal with her condition and flourish in spite of it was at least as significant as her later physical healing. And I have spoken of my own experience of mental health, in which healing has come not as a cure but as the capacity to cope.

I believe we can still pray for healing, but it has to be on the terms of the person being prayed for - people with disabilities may not want healing or may want healing from something entirely unrelated like a headache or anxiety. We need to ask, just as Jesus did. And I believe we can pray in the hope and belief that miracles are possible, but we need to be prepared for them not to happen or to happen in ways we did not expect, and we need to understand that in those times it is not because of lack of our faith or God's love. As I said earlier, I don't know the rhyme or reason why healings do and don’t happen, and so often it seems desperately unfair, but perhaps where we don’t see miracles we can see affirmation that all life has value just as it is.

Second, we need to recognise our shared responsibilities. To get slightly technical for a moment, there are two main models of disability. The medical model focuses purely on a person’s physical condition, while the social model says that a person may be impaired by their condition but they are disabled by society’s inability to accommodate and include them. We see that in this story, as the man was impaired by whatever illness or disability kept him by the pool, but he was further disabled by a society which provided no one to help him. How different might that man's life have been with a community of care around him? Might he then have answered Jesus differently? We are called to create the community of care that we see so sadly lacking in this story, and that shouldn't all be on people with disabilities and their carers. A member of our congregation, who acts as a carer for her daughter, said she has lost count of the number of time she has been told “I don’t know how you do it” or “I so admire you”, when really she would rather someone asked "how can I help?"

Third, we need inclusion in its broadest sense to be an integrated part of our thinking, not a later addition. Our church was not built to be accessible for those with mobility issues, and so we have had to adapt it by putting a ramp at the front. I’m not suggesting we pull the whole thing down and start again, and many things we do will need to be adaptations, but how much better if from here, we think of accessibility from the start. In practice, giving greater thought to accessibility may mean simple things like offering a blessing to those whose physical needs mean they cannot share in the bread and cup of communion, or it may be more radical changes to the building. We’ve already talked about reconfiguring the platform to make it fully accessible to those with mobility issues, and we are also aware that our accessible toilet is not fit for everyone who might need it, and so I’m pleased to say that we are looking at conducting an access audit, so that we can get some expert advice on what we need to do and how we might do it.

We can also take care with our language. You may have noticed I have used “people with disabilities” rather than “disabled people” - that is currently the favoured language because it is people centred, focusing on the person who happens to have disabilities, rather than defining them as disabled. Although even having said that, it is still important to listen to the language people use for themselves - I know there is disagreement among people on the autistic spectrum over whether it is better to say “autistic people” our “people with autism”, and it’s important to respect what people as individuals are comfortable with.

Perhaps most importantly though, research among people with disabilities has shown that ultimately relationship is more important than access in making them feel fully included as members of a community. So at the end of the day, let us just love each other, warts and wheelchairs and all.

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