Jesus heals on the Sabbath in today’s Gospel lesson. This story is somewhat unfamiliar to many – it only appears in one gospel, the Gospel of John, and doesn’t get much attention from the Sunday lectionary cycle.
Here’s the short version: Jesus went up to Jerusalem, by the Sheep Gate, to the pool named Beth-zatha. The blind, the lame, and the paralyzed lie there, hoping to be made well. Although the pool is mainly drinking water for flocks of sheep who come in the Sheep Gate, there is evidently some mystery surrounding the healing properties of the water, especially when the waters are stirred up.
Jesus, who would have had to pick him up and put him in the water, a clear violation of Sabbath rules, chooses to simply say, “Stand up, take your mat and walk.” Even before the water is stirred up, the man is healed. He takes his mat and began to walk.
So why do people get in such an uproar? Sounds good, right? Carrying his mat is a violation of the Sabbath, and the Jewish authorities point this out. He responds, “The man who made me well said to me, ‘Take up your mat and walk.’” They want to know the identity of the man who healed, but Jesus had disappeared in the crowd.
Later Jesus found him in the temple, and the man told the authorities about Jesus’ identity. The Jews started persecuting Jesus and he responds, “My Father is still working, and I also am working.”
This convoluted story about Sabbath breaking is challenging. Of course one of the first things to point out is that all this laboring – this performing of a miracle too – is breaking the Sabbath. And I don’t know about you, but I thought this would end differently. That Jesus would weasel out of it by saying, “My Father is still working….and he can do whatever he wants!” Instead, he feeds their rage, pleading guilty to the charge, saying, “My Father is still working, and I also am working.”
Jesus is not concerned about breaking the Sabbath, instead he is interested in clarifying his role. By claiming God as his Father, he claims to be equal to God. He is revealing his Messiahship.
It is easy to understand why all this gets him in trouble. But the story reveals even more. Why was Jesus hanging out at the dirty, smelly Pool of Beth-zatha? What do the disciples have to do with herding sheep? Did they come for the medicinal properties of the water? Perhaps he came especially to see the people there.
Jesus seems to be playing with fire when it comes to the Jewish authorities. He is taking the role of Judge and Advocate. By performing these miracles, especially in the most unlikely of places, he is sending a clear message to the Jewish authorities: “God is not playing by the rules of the temple here. And there is no stopping it.”
This bold, abrasive message gets him killed. And yet, all the while, revealing the Word made Flesh. The Gospel of John is a unique picture of Jesus, but one that I see as essential.
May God reveal to you the healing waters you need this day, and may you rejoice that we follow a God who breaks the rules to err on the side of mercy, grace, and healing – for you and me.