John 5:1-9a (NLT)
“Afterward Jesus returned to Jerusalem for one of the Jewish holy days. 2 Inside the city, near the Sheep Gate, was the pool of Bethesda, with five covered porches. 3 Crowds of sick people—blind, lame, or paralyzed—lay on the porches. 5 One of the men lying there had been sick for thirty-eight years. 6 When Jesus saw him and knew he had been ill for a long time, he asked him, “Would you like to get well?” 7 “I can’t, sir,” the sick man said, “for I have no one to put me into the pool when the water bubbles up. Someone else always gets there ahead of me.” 8 Jesus told him, “Stand up, pick up your mat, and walk!” 9 Instantly, the man was healed! He rolled up his sleeping mat and began walking!” (emphasis mine).
As I have reflected on our trip to Israel, our experience at the Pool of Bethesda has impacted me deeply. It wasn’t just the site itself but the visit to the site along side the encounters and conversations surrounding this experience. While we were there, I was able to offer a reflection or devotion on this passage and the significance of the word “saw” found in verse 6 and the imago Dei. I’ll let you in on a little Mustain family secret: we aren’t perfect. Never have been. Never will be. Never tried to give the impression we were. Life can be messy. Family can be messy. But life and family can both be beautiful and life giving as well. Love and risk walk hand in hand.
Our family is made up of a collection of unique individuals made in the image of God. In the midst of our similarities, we have different backgrounds, different educations, and different beliefs. We each bring our unique set of experiences to the table. We see eye to eye on some things and on other things we couldn’t think more differently. Yet, we are still family. During one family debrief at the end of the day, my dad reminded us that what we desire in our family is love and unity, NOT uniformity. Too often uniformity is the expectation for many families, churches, and communities. That may be how it works in your family but that is not how it works in ours. And I wouldn’t have it any other way.
So, why this Scripture passage and this background information? This past Wednesday, I was given the opportunity to share a devotional at our Baylor Scott and White system staff meeting for the Office of Mission and Ministry. There were roughly 50 chaplains and other staff members present in the room and linked in via video conference. Slightly intimidating to say the least. I shared a devotional reflection on this experience at the Pool of Bethesda. This is what I shared:
I have always loved this story but I especially fell in love with it when I sat by the actual Pool of Bethesda with my family on our recent trip to Israel.
I learned that until the pools were discovered by archeologists, we did not know if these pools existed or if it was more of a metaphoric or symbolic teaching from the Gospel of John. I also learned that the name Bethesda is a sort of play on words as well. The name is made up two Hebrew or Aramaic words: “beth” meaning house and “hesda” meaning mercy or grace. I’ve been told that depending on the context, hesda can also mean shame or disgrace.
So, in our passage, we read of a pool in Jerusalem where people would gather, hoping to be healed, to be shown mercy. It says there were crowds of sick people. They were blind, lame, and paralyzed. We don’t know specifically what was wrong with the man in the story but it says he was sick or ill. I am guess he was disabled in some way because he needed help getting into the water.
Perhaps these people who gathered at the pool outcasts? They might be the shame of their family or community. They might be or feel disgraced because of their disability but they are hoping to be healed or shown grace. So, I think you can see how the name Bethesda is fitting. Perhaps it was a place of shame or disgrace, hoping to encounter mercy and grace?
So, the man in the story was sick for 38 years and I am guessing he has also been completely overlooked and forgotten. When he meets Jesus, he says someone else always gets in the water before him. He was over looked. No one cared. No one helped him. It does not seem he has anyone to advocate for him.
But all that changed when he met Jesus.
I think the key word or phrase is saw: “When Jesus saw him…”. I don’t think Jesus saw just the outside of the man. I think Jesus SAW him. I think Jesus saw not just someone who was disable and felt pity for him. I think Jesus SAW deep into the soul of a man who despite his illness was still a person who bears the image of God.
In the creation poems of Genesis 1 and 2 we find this idea of the imago Dei, the image of God. And for many of us chaplains, that is a basic building block of our ministry, believing every patient we encounter bears the image of God.
However, do we really believe or treat everyone as one who bears the image of God? How often do we fail to see or chose not to see? The homeless person on the street corner begging for change? That church board member who just makes your church experience a living hell? Perhaps it’s that Facebook friend or family member who’s political or religious views are just so different form yours you’re convinced you can’t love and serve the same God?
We could take this deeper still. In a recent article my wife had published she said that “We so often attach labels to people who are different than us or that we don’t understand. We have a human tendency to assign categories to people that only really help us disconnect from the biblical idea of the imago Dei.” She says, “as a Christian, I believe no one is so far beyond God’s grasp of redemption, not even the one lost sheep, coin or son.”
We often see people but do we truly see them? Do we see them and stop? Do we see them and engage them in conversation? Do we see them and listen? Do we see them as someone who bears the image of God?
Here in the hospital, I see a lot of patients and families as a resident chaplain. I have the opportunity, hopefully, to see people. So often, people are defined by their illness. What I have learned through the power of story is that people are more than their illness or struggles. Prior to needing a a liver or kidney transplant they were a successful business person. Or they loved to be outdoors and were very active. Or they loved babysitting their grandkids. Their story has been consumed by their illness and they are only seen as someone who’s color is changing to yellow as their liver fails them or they are extremely bloated from kidney failure.
Every day I am presented with opportunities to stop, to see, to listen, engage, and to learn. As I discover the imago Dei in them they also help highlight the imago Dei within me.
So, do we really see people? Can we see beyond skin color? Can we see past the illness or disability? Can we see in spite of the political and religious difference? Can we like Jesus, see some because they bear the image of God? May it be so.
So, that’s what I shared on Wednesday. A good sermon or message is always most pertinent to the one who delivers it. I am in need of the message just as much, if not more, than to those who have heard it or read it. This question of the imago Dei is hitting home for me right now in more ways than one. In order to get home from Baylor University Medical Center, I drive through not the best part of Dallas. After a hard day of ministry at the hospital, I just want to get home but I pass by numerous people who I want to choose not to see because I am tired but yet they bear the image of God. It is a difficult tension to ask when am I “on the clock” and when and am I “off the clock?” When have I served enough for one day?
And honestly, in recent days, church people have been some of the most difficult people for me to love and see as ones who bear the image of God.
So, I close with some words from the recovery tradition praying: “God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things that I can, and the wisdom to know it’s ME!”
(P.S. I had intended to post pictures I took at the Pool of Bethesda but for some reason I am unable to right now. I will try to edit this post later and post a picture or two.)