13 May 2014
Homily: The man at the Bethesda pool (Jn. 5)
A good artist usually begins a work with a sketch, or a series of sketches. He draws in outline what will later be detailed. He may outline in charcoal or pencil what will later have vivid color. The sketch is not the final product, but it gives an idea of how the work will look.
In today’s text, the pool at Bethesda is a sketch of Holy Baptism. Consider, first, those who waited there. They were not healthy. They admitted themselves to be wounded, broken. Just so, we don’t call the mystery Holy Baptism because it is given to holy people; we call it Holy Baptism because it makes holy those who are broken and wounded by ancestral sin and all that they have added to it.
Consider, second, that God used water to bring about healing. Throughout the Old Testament water was used for cleansing defilement. At first it was for ritual defilement. But as the time for Baptism drew nearer, God used the water of this pool to heal bodily disease. As the water of Bethesda cured the lesser, bodily ills, so Holy Baptism cures the ills of our souls, and restores us to life with God.
Of course, it was not the water by itself that brought healing. It was the presence and action of the angel in and with the water that brought healing to the one who entered. And Holy Baptism is not merely an outward washing that symbolizes an inner commitment. Holy Baptism is God’s own act, and not merely an angel but God himself works in these waters, to join us to his Son by the power and operation of his Holy Spirit.
At Bethesda, only one person could be healed when the waters were disturbed. This points us to the fact that baptism is a personal act, like birth and death. Each birth, each death is unique. But unlike Bethesda, as Chrysostom says about baptism, “though the whole world should come, the grace is not spent, the power is not exhausted, but remains equally great as it was before. Just as the sun’s beams give light every day, yet are not exhausted, nor is their light made less by giving so abundant a supply; so, and much more, the power of the Spirit is in no way lessened by the numbers of those who enjoy it.”
Think of that man, sitting by the pool, unable to move, no one else there to help him. Thirty eight years is a long time—thirty eight years ago Gerald Ford was President!—a long time, plenty of time to wait. But waiting time was not wasted time for this man. He had learned how to be patient. He thought on his own sin, yes; but he also made himself available to God by sitting at the pool.
When, then, the Lord Jesus came to the pool and saw the man, he asked him, “Do you want to be healed?” That question might seem strange, at first, but it really isn’t strange to those who have struggled with a problem for a long time. There is always the danger that we can get used to dysfunctionality, that we come to prefer the misery we know, to the unknown problems that come from healing.
The man replied, “I have no one to help me,” and Jesus said, “Pick up your bed and walk.” Immediately the man grew strong and went his way.
When we sin after Baptism, we need not go to the font again. We believe in one Baptism for the remission of sins. Rather, we encounter Christ in the mystery of Confession. There, by the words of forgiveness he restores us to our baptismal purity.
At first the man didn’t know who Jesus was—even when he had been healed. Did you notice where the Lord found him after his healing? He had gone to the Temple. Why? Because his years of waiting, and the marvelous miracle had taught him to make himself available to God. So also us, beloved, when we come to Vespers, and Matins, and Divine Liturgy week after week. We come to the Temple to make ourselves available to God.
So how is it with you this morning? Do you struggle with some issue of habit or passion? No matter how deep it is, no matter how long it’s been, there’s no need to despair. God gives us Holy Baptism to join us to the death and rising of Christ. And for those who fall after Baptism, he gives us the mystery of Confession. Do you want to be healed? This is the place, and now is the time when Christ moves among us. Let us make ourselves available to him, for he who promised is faithful. He will do what he said; we can rely on his promise, both now and ever and unto ages of ages. Amen.