Healing Waters

John 5:1-18                New King James Version

A Man Healed at the Pool of Bethesda

5 After this there was a feast of the Jews, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem. 2 Now there is in Jerusalem by the Sheep Gate a pool, which is called in Hebrew, [a]Bethesda, having five porches. 3 In these lay a great multitude of sick people, blind, lame, [b]paralyzed, [c]waiting for the moving of the water. 4 For an angel went down at a certain time into the pool and stirred up the water; then whoever stepped in first, after the stirring of the water, was made well of whatever disease he had. 5 Now a certain man was there who had an infirmity thirty-eight years. 6 When Jesus saw him lying there, and knew that he already had been in that condition a long time, He said to him, “Do you want to be made well?”

7 The sick man answered Him, “Sir, I have no man to put me into the pool when the water is stirred up; but while I am coming, another steps down before me.”

8 Jesus said to him, “Rise, take up your bed and walk.” 9 And immediately the man was made well, took up his bed, and walked.

            Our passage today from John reminds us of the many ways in which Jesus brought healing to those who found their way to him in search of a cure for their physical, spiritual, or emotional struggles.  This healing of a man paralyzed for more than 38 years takes place in a pool in Jerusalem where many have come waiting to be cured.    Water has often been a source of healing for people throughout history.  We know that water is essential to life and that we are all comprised of water; in fact, the human body is made up of 60%water. About 70% of the earth’s surface is covered by water.  Water is a precious resource throughout the world and too many struggle each day to obtain clean water for drinking, cooking, and cleaning.  In many parts of the world, there is concern about water levels rising while in the western part of our nation, water tables are running terribly low.  Let us pray, Creator God, we thank you for the precious resource of water in our lives.  May it continue to be a source of healing, of life, and of hope in our lives and in our world.  Help us to be wise caretakers of this gift so that it may sustain all life.  Amen. 

            Just two weeks ago on the 15th of August, I was at the beach and remembered something I had heard as a child, both from my great aunt Margaret and from the mother of a friend of mine, of Irish descent.  They would say, “there’s a cure in the water on this day.”  They, along with many others, shared the  belief was that there was something special in the water that day that would bring healing.   This belief among some, especially of a certain generation, is based on an ancient Catholic tradition that on August 15th, the Feast of the Assumption, there is healing in the waters of the sea.  The idea was that there is a cure in the ocean on the Feast Day of  Mary.  The Polish also maintain this legend as well as many among certain cultures in our country.   In some coastal areas public processions to the ocean are held where the seas are also blessed on the feast, especially in fishing communities. Carrying a statue of Mary, they read passages from the gospels where Jesus went fishing with His apostles,  toss garlands of flowers into the water and pray as Holy Water is sprinkled on the ocean.  Many believe that a cure may result when wading in the waters.  Participants bring empty bottles (as we did) to fill at the shore and bring the waters to those who are unable to attend while some wade in the waters to “catch” the cure.

       Some speculate it might be because Mary is known as The Star of the Sea.  Others say that the custom may date back to 15th century Italy, when a bishop, traveling upon a stormy sea on the Feast day, threw his ring into the sea and calmed the waters.  Over time, many faithful attributed healing powers to the waters blessed on this feast. 

            Our passage from John today describes one of the many healing stories attributed to Jesus.  It was the time of the feast and Jesus and those with him are  in the city of Jerusalem on this, day of sabbath. They have come to the pool of Bethesda.  Bethesda means house of mercy or house of grace, and it is not really a house per say.  It is a couple of pools of water with 5 roofs, or porticos. The pools were in the northeast corner of the old city,  near the Sheep gate and like any central water source, they served all the people in that immediate area of the city. 

The best thing about these pools was the belief associated with them.  It was believed that from time to time an angel of the Lord would stir the water, the old word is “trouble” it, make them bubble up, and when this happened the belief was that the first person who could make it into the water first would be healed.

It’s only in the King James Version of this passage that we hear of an Angel ‘toubling the waters’, and so I selected the New King James Version in our reading for today.  In other translations, one can sometimes find an explanation in the footnote of why the waters are moved at certain times, but that was the belief.

One commentator noted that, “The facts, of course, are that the pool of Bethesda, like many similar pools in the Jerusalem area, is an intermittent spring. At times water is released in surges from hidden reservoirs in the hills around the city, causing these springs to rise and fall suddenly. This is what gave rise to the superstition about an angel troubling the pool. Undoubtedly healings did occur there.”

Like so many places in the world where miraculous healings are thought to occur, people were drawn to this pool who are in need of some form of healing or cure.  The passage says that people are there hoping to have their needs met, desperately trying to be the one in the water after it bubbles up, so that perhaps, they will finally be set free from whatever needs are weighing them down.

In Verse 3, we hear that there were a multitude of invalids of all types…blind, lame, paralyzed… all waiting and hoping and then Jesus steps into the area.  We might try to imagine this scene.

 If you’ve ever visited an ER on a Saturday night or any other busy time, or driven by an urban area where many homeless are camping out, or watched the scenes most recently of desperate refugees trying to leave Afghanistan.  So much need; so much suffering…all waiting for someone to respond, to help, to bring hope, to help share the burden.    And of course, it is likely that many of us have found ourselves in need at different moments in our lives.  Even now, I’d ask you to think about needs that may be weighing you down.  What need or burden may you be carrying that you are waiting to be lifted from you?

In John’s passage, we have this scene to which Jesus draws near, and then he focuses upon a ‘certain man’ who had been unwell for thirty-eight years; that’s a long time and especially at that time when the life span was considerably shorter.  Jesus understood that the many had been in that condition for a long time and so he asks him, ‘do you want to be made well?”  It seems like an unnecessary question, doesn’t it? It seems self-evident, doesn’t it?  I’m sure that we could consider this in many ways, because there are times for all of us that we hold onto things far longer than we should, when we carry them far too long because our identity is wrapped up in our challenges or burdens, or we cannot imagine a different way of life.  In any case, this man explains that there is no one to help him get to the pool in time after the water is stirred up.  Jesus says to him, “rise, take up your bed and walk.” Jesus has at times used water to help heal others, but in this brief conversation, he encourages this man; he invites him to move toward healing, to believe that healing is possible and it is.  “And immediately the man was made well, took up his bed, and walked.”

It doesn’t matter if it was Jerusalem in the time of Jesus or any time throughout history, people will travel to great lengths to try to find help, to try to find answers, to seek cures that can change the course of their lives. It’s interesting to note how many stories of healing are connected to water. Many of us may be familiar with Lourdes, France and the stories of healings that have been reported to have taken place at this spot where a young girl, Bernadette, is reported to have spoken to Mary, the mother of Jesus on several occasions. The story is that Mary told the girl to dig into the ground and a spring of water bubbled up and miraculous cures came to those who drank the water.  Thousands travel to Lourdes each year in search of healing and hope.  We know the Ganges River is a holy body of water for Hindus. This river is sacred to Hindus. All along its course, Hindus bathe in its waters, while paying homage to their ancestors and their gods by cupping the water in their hands, lifting it, and letting it fall back into the river; they offer flowers and rose petals and float shallow clay dishes filled with oil and lit with wicks. On the journey back home from the Ganges, they carry small quantities of river water with them for use in rituals.

As I read more on places of healing, I discovered other lesser known places in our country that people have visited for healing over time.  You likely have heard that Pres. Franklin Roosevelt would often visit Warm Springs, Georgia where he would bathe in the warm 88degree water to treat the pain and paralysis of the polio from which he suffered.

            God’s Acre Healing Springs is a natural spring in Blackville, South Carolina which has the unusual distinction of being legally owned by God. The spring was known for its healing powers by Native Americans, and news of its magical abilities spread when six badly wounded Revolutionary War soldiers made stunning recoveries after drinking and bathing in it.  The land was purchased by a man named Lute Boyston who believed the spring should be free for all. In 1944 he deeded the spring and surrounding acres to “Almighty God, for the use of the sick and afflicted.”

            Saratoga Mineral Springs in New York is one of the few naturally carbonated springs in the country. Historically both Iroquois and Mohawk tribes drank and bathed in the springs known for its restorative powers.  Located near Santa Fe, New Mexico, the Ojo Caleinete Mineral Springs are known as one of the oldest natural health resorts in the US.  Deemed sacred by 8 Northern Pueblo tribal communities, the springs are steeped in myth and legend. The healing powers of the waters can be traced back to the earliest human migrations in the region.  When the Spaniards discovered the springs, they named it “Ojo Caliente,” which translates to “warm eye.” Today, thousands make the trip to this special destination to experience relaxation and rejuvenation.   (www.guideposts.com)

This day, we know that too much rain will fall in Louisiana and Mississiippi with all the damage that will bring, while in the west, there is not enough water.  Water may bring comfort and healing to our lives.  As we remember the healing of the man in need by the pool in Jerusalem, we pause to think of our own needs and the needs of those in our circles of love.  What needs have we carried for far too long?  Perhaps now is the time to seek out a place where we might set those needs aside or find healing.  Let us close with a prayer for water, “Loving God, we thank you for the gift of water. No wonder you are known as the

fountain of life and your spirit in us spoken of as a living stream. No wonder we

are said to thirst for life, for love, for goodness, and for the sacred. No wonder we

speak of you as our source. So we thank you for the gift of water. We pray for water for those who lack it. We ask for rain for our forests and farms and land. We seek to assure on our planet water for all people to drink and from which to live. As we treasure this one gift from you we ask that we might live more gratefully day by day for all of your gifts so abundantly poured out for us and for all our sisters and brothers. Amen.  (Rev. Stephen Sundbourg, SJ)