John 5:1 Some time later, Jesus went up to Jerusalem for one of the Jewish festivals. 2 Now there is in Jerusalem near the Sheep Gate a pool, which in Aramaic is called Bethesda and which is surrounded by five covered colonnades. 3 Here a great number of disabled people used to lie—the blind, the lame, the paralyzed. 5 One who was there had been an invalid for thirty-eight years. 6 When Jesus saw him lying there and learned that he had been in this condition for a long time, he asked him, “Do you want to get well?”
John 5:7 “Sir,” the invalid replied, “I have no one to help me into the pool when the water is stirred. While I am trying to get in, someone else goes down ahead of me.”
John 5:8 Then Jesus said to him, “Get up! Pick up your mat and walk.” 9 At once the man was cured; he picked up his mat and walked.
The day on which this took place was a Sabbath,
10 and so the Jewish leaders said to the man who had been healed, “It is the Sabbath; the law forbids you to carry your mat.”
John 5:11 But he replied, “The man who made me well said to me, ‘Pick up your mat and walk.’ ”
John 5:12 So they asked him, “Who is this fellow who told you to pick it up and walk?”
John 5:13 The man who was healed had no idea who it was, for Jesus had slipped away into the crowd that was there.
Chapter 5 begins a new section of John’s gospel which focuses on the work of God. There is a general pattern where Jesus performs a sign, which is then followed by controversy and an extended dialogue, through which Jesus reveals himself as the Son of God who is co-worker with God and divine in nature.
The situation surrounding the pool is hard to imagine. Archaeologists have recently uncovered a pool with 5 colonnades in Jerusalem which seems to fit the description, but it is still difficult to imagine how squalid this ‘hospice’ might really have been. A large number of disabled, sick, paralysed and blind people are left lying around the pool, waiting for a miracle to happen to them. There was a legend (recounted in verse 4, which was probably not in John’s original text) that said that an angel of the Lord used to come and stir the waters of the pool, from time to time. When this happened, the first invalid into the pool after the stirring of the waters would be healed.
One man lying by the pool had been there 38 years. As I write today in 2018, I recall 1980 as the year I left high school. A lot has happened in my life– and in the world generally– since 1980. But this man had pretty much been lying by the pool waiting for a miracle to happen since 1980.
So in verse 6, it seems a comedic moment when Jesus asks the man, “Do you want to get well?” Surely, that’s a no-brainer! He’s been waiting for 38 years. But in response to Jesus’ question, the man starts making excuses for why he can’t be healed. He has been there so long, he is so institutionalised, he seems reluctant to be healed. So, in verse 7, he begins by complaining, “There’s no one to help me.”
Jesus puts an end to his complaining and misery, swiftly and simply. He says in verse 8, “Get up! Pick up your mat and walk.”
And not for the first time in John’s gospel, the author reveals another detail which completely reframes the whole incident: this took place on the Sabbath. And Jesus’ specific instruction to the healed man was to walk around carrying his sick-bed… on the Sabbath! Jesus turned the man into an instant walking billboard.
So it seems that Jesus was very intentional about setting up the controversy which follows. Conflict with the religious authorities is certain.
This is another of Jesus’ “signs” which point towards the nature of the kingdom of God. Humanity has been passively lying, helpless and hopeless, for a very long time, in hospice by a stinking pool of water. Only God can intervene. And in Jesus we now see a radical transformation breaking into this world. There is healing! There is restoration to wholeness. And the sabbath is the most appropriate day upon which to declare liberty, freedom and jubilee. God has come to rescue his people. Hallelujah!