If at first the man’s response to Jesus’ question seems bewildering, it might be because we think we know how we would answer. Do you want to be healed? Yes, of course. But what is Jesus really asking the man at the pool – what is he asking each of us in turn?
How brave are you? How brave am I? Because when we look at all that the man at the pool is being asked to give up, his hesitation starts to make sense.
For thirty-eight years, for a lifetime, he has at least had the comfort of his illusions. If he is paralyzed, then he cannot be expected to change his circumstances. If he gets beaten to the pool, that’s beyond his control. If he cannot change his circumstances, then he cannot be responsible for them. There is in his situation the comfort of familiarity. He does not have to venture into an attempt to change, an attempt to transform, that just might fail.
So when Jesus confronts him with the question – do you want to be healed? – more questions come with it. Are you brave enough to try a new way of looking at the world – and yourself? Are you ready to rejoin the community and begin the hard work of building relationships? Will you try a new way of being – a way that does not define you by what you lack? Who are you if you are not your limitations, your failures? What is it that paralyzes you? What is holding you in place? What is keeping you on your mat?
The question for the man at the pool, or rather the questions, might be the same questions that Jesus has for each of us.
What is it that paralyzes us? For how long have you and I been accustomed to defining ourselves by our limitations, by our failures, by what we cannot do? For how long have we been allowing our circumstances to define us?
When Jesus calls to us, do we shrink from the invitation? Do we think only of the effort involved? We are so quick to make excuses and to define ourselves by our limitations. I couldn’t invite my neighbor to church; she’ll think I’m a fanatic. I couldn’t read the lessons in church; I’d be much too nervous. Even in more private settings, there is so much to paralyze us, to keep us pinned to the mat of our own excuses.
I don’t have time to pray. It’s a waste of effort. God already knows what’s on my heart. It wouldn’t change anything. I’ve tried reading the Bible before. I just get bogged down and lose track. I started out promising to read a little each day, then I got behind and never did get caught up.
So what if I flipped off that other driver? She shouldn’t have cut me off. And I deserve that parking space. I’ve been circling for ten minutes. Every man for himself.
Why bother getting to know the neighbors? They’ll only move anyway. I don’t need to call the widow from church; probably she has lots of other people checking in on her.
We have so many excuses – and then we wonder why we feel paralyzed in our walk with Christ. We can’t quite look forward to going to church, so it becomes easier not to go. The easy way, the effortless way, the thoughtless way, becomes habit until we wonder why our faith life itself has become paralyzed, why our days are empty and our nights are too long.
And into these doubts and excuses that pin you and me to our mats, comes Jesus. He has a simple question for us, so simple it takes our breath away.
Do you want to be healed? Do you wish to be made whole? What is absent from your life that makes you incomplete? What if everything you count as a failure is in fact a gift from God, something that will strengthen and complete you if you stay on the right path? What if you had confidence in yourself as a beloved child of God? Then would you be whole?
Do you want to be healed? What if the only thing holding you and me in place – is you and me? Do we have the courage that He can give us, do we have the heart with which we have been made, are we awake and aware of all our lives can be with Him at the center? Be healed, be made new, be restored.
Take up your mat, Jesus says to each of us, take up your mat and walk with Me. Try something new. And even if you stumble, when you stumble, I will be alongside you. My presence will give your life meaning, my peace will give your life focus. Where you look at yourself and see only your failures, I look at you and see the beauty of creation.
Imagine how limitless our lives could be if we saw ourselves as Jesus sees each of us. Imagine how limitless, how abundant, how present the Kingdom of God could be if we saw one another as Jesus sees each of us – if we looked at one another and saw not that person in my way but Christ himself, for there is that of God in every one.
What if we looked at the driver who cut us off and saw our sister in Christ, distracted by the child in the back seat? What if we used our imagination, that splendid gift from God, to put ourselves in another’s shoes? What if we lived by the principle of doing unto others?
What if we were to begin each day, itself a gift from God, with a simple prayer: Lord, make me a blessing to someone today – and then focused our energy less on finding reasons to be irritated and frustrated and more on looking for ways truly to be a blessing to someone else?
Instead of being consumed by our own circumstances, perhaps we would find a new way of walking, a way that put Christ at the center. And with Christ extending his hand to us in loving invitation, we might take up our mat – and walk.