Doing God’s work (part 1)

Ministry can be hard. Indeed, any of the helping professions can put an enormous strain on a person’s physical and emotional energy. People called to such professions are frequently candidates for burnout.

Why do it? Why keep doing it? Do we need the gratitude of the people we help to spur us on? Or would it be enough to know that we were doing the right thing? Or doing God’s work, whatever the outcome?

In John 5, Jesus is in Jerusalem for a festival. The great walled city can be entered through passages known as gates. In the eastern wall, facing the Mount of Olives, is a doorway known as the Sheep Gate, through which sacrificial animals are brought to the temple.

Just north of the Sheep Gate lie two pools of water, surrounded by covered colonnades. Their Aramaic name has come down to us alternatively as Bethesda, Bethsaida, or Beth-zatha. The waters were known for their supposed healing properties. Occasionally the waters would bubble and churn; some believed that this meant an angel was stirring the water, and the first person into it would be healed of his or her infirmity. Not surprisingly, therefore, the pool was surrounded by invalids of various kinds who hoped to be the next one healed.

One man, who was unable to walk, had been there for 38 years. Thirty-eight years. We’re not told the state of his mind. Did he still have hope, after all that time? Did he even bother to try anymore?

Jesus approaches and asks him if he wants to be made well.

He doesn’t answer directly. “Sir,” the man replies, “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” (vs. 7, CEB). I imagine him thinking, What kind of a question is that? Of course I want to be well. Why else would I be here? But I can’t do it by myself, and I don’t have anyone to help me. The man doesn’t know who Jesus is. Is this stranger offering to help me into the pool? It may be a long wait.

Then, unexpectedly, Jesus orders him to stand and pick up his mat. He does. And for the first time in 38 years, he walks.

Confusion ensues as the crowds press in, and Jesus quietly slips away.

Jesus’ first miraculous sign in the gospel of John, changing the water into wine, was done at the request of his mother (2:1-12). The second was at the request of a royal official (4:46-54).

But here, there’s no request. The man doesn’t know Jesus and there’s no indication whatsoever that he anticipated being healed. The miracle comes as sheer grace like a bolt from the blue. And John says nothing about the man having faith either before or after the life-changing event. Indeed, quite the contrary: as we’ll see in the next post, considering the gift he had just received, the man behaves reprehensibly.

It hardly seems fair.

But we may need to broaden our horizons.

The gospel is not the story of a guy with crazy powers who comes out of nowhere to do nice things for people. It’s about the dawning of God’s eschatological age, the beginning of the end, the coming of God’s Messiah to redeem his people at last. The healing of the lame is a sign of that age (Isa 35:6; Matt 11:5).

And the work must be done, whether the lame seem grateful or not. More in the next post.