The paralysis of familiarity

Tonight I have the opportunity to preach at an ecumenical evening service outdoors in the park. It’s going to be really hot, so I’m not planning to talk for too long. What follows is the outline of my talk. Before you go any further, click this link and read John 5:1-17 so you’ll be familiar with the passage from the Gospel.

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The question isn’t designed to be a stumper: “Do you want to be made well?” So says Jesus to the man, who has been sitting by the pool of Bethzatha for 38 years. 38 years! The locals probably stop seeing him after six months. After a year, he probably melts into the architecture.  After ten, the stones behind his back probably retain their original color, while the rest fade in the sunlight. 20 years. Each day is the same, and he never makes it into the pool. 30 years. Each day is the same, but he no longer even attempts to crawl to the water. 38 years. Each day is the same, and his excuse as to why he is still sitting here is his response to anything anybody says to him.

“Do you want to be made well?” The obvious answer is “YES! Of course, I want to be made well.” But, perhaps the question might stump the man more easily than I originally thought. If he’s made well, he’ll have to stand up and leave the pool and find something new to do. He’ll have to negotiate a place that has no doubt changed in the last 38 years. He’ll have to begin a new life full of new possibilities and chances and hopes and dangers. If he’s made well, his paralysis will be healed, but the paralyzing familiarity of the routine will also need a cure.

No wonder he fails to answer Jesus’ question: “Do you want to be made well?” Yes is the correct answer, but this paralyzing familiarity makes No look more and more attractive. The man answers neither Yes nor No. Instead, he replies with what sounds like a well-rehearsed speech: “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.” If you read the previous chapter of John, you’d notice that Jesus doesn’t need a bucket to offer living water. So, he sure doesn’t need a pool now. Jesus is the gift of God, and the man at the pool of Bethzatha has encountered so much more than he bargained for.

Jesus asks the question, and the man deflects it. Jesus doesn’t ask it again. Nor does he say anything like: “You are healed!” or “Be healed!” or “You have been made well!” No. Jesus is not interested simply in giving health to the man. Now, giving him health seems like a pretty good reason to me. Jesus knows better. Saying “You are healed” leaves the man the opportunity to remain paralyzed by familiarity, to stay seated with his back to the bright stones and melted into the architecture. But Jesus doesn’t give the man this option.

Instead, Jesus commands the man to act: “Stand up, take your mat and walk.” Somewhere between this command and the man obeying it, Jesus heals him. But the healing is secondary to Jesus’ desire to change the man’s situation. Jesus, the gift of God, gives him new life by denying him the option to remain in his current condition. By saying, “Stand up, take your mat and walk,” Jesus confronts the man with the terrifying new possibility: Believe what I am saying to you, obey my commands, and you will discover abilities that 38 years of monotony have made inaccessible to you. I am the gift of God, and I am here to bestow upon you the gifts of movement and change and renewal. I have healed you, but you won’t notice it until you get up.

While I am not physically disabled like the man at the pool of Bethzatha, I suffer all too often from the paralysis of familiarity. All too often, I mistake routine for life. All too often, I recite instead of pray. I mumble instead of proclaim. I talk instead of listen, afraid that if I were to listen, Christ might confront me and tell me to stand and take and walk. When did I become so complacent, I wonder? When did I melt into the architecture of my life, content to sit with the stones warming my back?

Every time I discover that I have fallen back into this complacency, this paralysis of familiarity, I wonder when I will be healed, when the waters will be stirred up and I can tip myself into the pool. Then I hear Christ calling out to me: Forget the pool. I healed you already. You’ll realize it if you stand up, take your mat and walk.

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