Why did no one help the man for 38 years?

John 5:1-9

Now in Jerusalem by the Sheep Gate there is a pool, called in Hebrew Beth-zatha, which has five porticoes. In these lay many invalids– blind, lame, and paralyzed. One man was there who had been ill for thirty-eight years. When Jesus saw him lying there and knew that he had been there a long time, he said to him, “Do you want to be made well?” (Read the whole passage)


We are coming to the end of the season of Easter. Over the past 6 Sundays we have been with the women at the empty tomb, locked away with Thomas, fishing on the other side of the boat with the disciples, walking in temple with Jesus at Hannukah, and back to Maundy Thursday with the new commandment to love.

But today we reach way back into the story of Jesus. Before Last Suppers, betrayals, trials, crucifixions. Before resurrection and miracles. We go back and see with Easter eyes that the resurrection was not just on the Sunday morning of the empty tomb. We see that Jesus has been showing us resurrection right from the beginning. But we can only see it now, only after we have made our way through the Easter story.

Today, a man who cannot walk lays between the pillars of the Sheep Gate Portico. A public square in Jerusalem. He watches as people file by, merchants, soldiers, farmers, religious authorities. He watches as other beggars, the lame, blind, deaf and unclean lay there with him. Many are bathing in the spring water pool hoping to be healed of their infirmities, but the man who cannot walk has no such hope. Instead, he is only looking for the charity of others, as he has been doing for 38 years. Legend has it that at certain times, an Angel of the Lord comes to stir up the waters of the pool. The first person into the water after this is believed to be healed. This portico is a place that gatherers people in need of healing. But the man cannot walk, and there is no way he could ever drag himself into the pool first – without help.

As the man who cannot walk lays there, a group of men come by and stop, one of them speaks to the beggar, asking him question. But without really hearing what has been asked, the man who cannot walk launches into his story, his hands extended. ‘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.’ Its a well rehearsed story, it is short, to the point and designed to make people dig deep in their pockets. The man has been telling it for decades. He isn’t expecting healing, he is expecting pity or charity. A few coins so he can provide for himself a few more days.

But the question that is asked to the man is not “Why haven’t you bathed in the healing waters of the pool?”

That question is too absurd to contemplate. 38 years is far too long for no one to have done anything for this man. Its is impossible to think that this man could have been laying just a few meters from healing for nearly four decades. The answer that this man has simply fallen through the cracks of human compassion for so long if too painful to imagine. How could that happen?

This story demands a question. “Why has no one helped this man? How could he have been left to suffer for 38 years?”

It seems ridiculous… almost too absurd to be true.

And yet the same question could be asked all around us in our world. This story is not only NOT absurd, but it is a story told all around us.

How long must the community of Shoal Lake First Nation go without clean water? 100 years? 200 years? Why has no one helped this community?

How long must Syrian refugees camp out a the boarders of closed nations? 5 years? 10 years? Why have these nations turned their backs?

How many people have to die of fentanyl overdoses until we do something? 100? 1000? Why has no one helped them?

How many children on First Nations must attempt suicide before we commit to making their living situations worth staying alive for? 50? 100? Why has no one noticed before now?

These questions are hard to ask, and even harder to imagine the indifference it took to let these things happen in our world.

Yet, there is a problem will all these questions. The questions are no more compassionate than the indifference and inaction that they question. Asking why no one has helped is more about us than the people suffering. It is more about making our own guilt go away, than offering what suffering people really need.

Notice that when Jesus approached the man who couldn’t walk today he didn’t ask, “Why has no one helped this man in 38 years?”

Jesus doesn’t jump to solving problems. He doesn’t define the man by his condition. Jesus doesn’t dehumanize the man in some attempt to be the white knight riding in to save the day.

Instead, Jesus asks the man who cannot walk, “Do you want to be made well?” 

Jesus presumes nothing. Jesus doesn’t jump right to problem solving. Jesus isn’t worried about saving the day or about making his own guilty feelings better.

Jesus is concerned with the man. Jesus recognizes the man. Jesus humanizes the man.

Jesus isn’t there to save the day, but to save the man. Jesus doesn’t do it by dragging the man into the pool. He doesn’t even do it by helping the man walk.

Jesus saves the man by seeing a person first and condition second. By seeing a person rather than a problem. Jesus embraces and acknowledges the man’s humanity.

“Do you want to be made well?”

It is a question that is about what the man who cannot walk needs and wants. It is about how the man wants to address his own suffering. Jesus isn’t there to force solutions on a problem, but to care for a person in the way they need to be cared for.

It is this that saves the man. Not the healing pool. Not the command to walk.

Jesus saves the man by caring for him as a person. But turing him from a problem into a human being. Before the man ever takes a step, Jesus welcomes this man back into relationship. Jesus welcomes this man back into life.

And the man who had been lame for 38 years gets up and walks. He walks because Jesus has seen him, recognized him, welcomed him back to life. Restored him to true life, to be more than his problems, to be more than injustice, to be more than legs that don’t work right.

“Do you want to be made well?”

Jesus’ question is rarely one we ask of those who are suffering. Human beings rarely take the time to ask this of each other, because it requires we get out of ourselves.

Because we when ask it we realize that problems we see around us are not just situations needing solutions. If we were to ask questions that humanize one another, we would see that we too are the people of Shoal Lake living for generations without clean water. That we are refugees fleeing for our lives. That we are those dying as we try to numb our pain with drugs. That we are people whose living conditions aren’t worth living for. We are all those people, just as we are the man who has not walked for 38 years too.

We are the ones whom Jesus is asking “Do you want to be made well?”

Today, as Brooklyn is dunked into the healing waters of Baptism, we are reminded that Jesus has asked us this question too. That God has seen us, recognized us, named us and claimed us. In the waters of baptism Jesus turns into people, Jesus welcomes us into new life. We stop being defined by the problems of sin and death, we stop being the sum total of the suffering we endure. And Jesus turns is into people. Into beloved children of God.

And in this act of God, in these cleansing and healing waters, God says to us, “Stand up and walk.” And through the waters of Baptism, we are raised to new life, we are raised to walk, to walk in this life of faith.

Today, as we near the end of Easter, we see that Jesus has been showing us resurrection all the way along. We just couldn’t see it before now, we couldn’t see it without Easter eyes. As Jesus sees the man who couldn’t walk, whom no one bothered to help for 38 years, Jesus sees us too. Jesus sees all the suffering and injustice of our world, Jesus sees us – not as the problems that define us, but as people who are beloved and cherished by God.

And because God has seen us and loved us we are able to stand up and walk.


One thought on “Why did no one help the man for 38 years?”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s