Hear a short recap of the Sunday service:
Watch the 11 AM Celebration of the Holy Eucharist
Watch the 6 PM Celebration of the Community Eucharist.
The written version of the sermon is here:
On Friday, I was walking in Central Park, and made a stop at one of my favorite spots. I’ve talked about it before, but it continues to feel like a kind of centerpiece to the park, for me. Bethesda Fountain.
At about 72nd Street, in the middle to the park, at the edge of the Lake, it’s the focal point of Bethesda Terrace. It was designed by Emma Stebbins in 1868, and it depicts today’s story of the healing fountain in Jerusalem. Bethzatha or Bethesda, was thought to get its healing properties because angels would dip down and stir the waters up.
I love that Bethesda Fountain (like our own church) is one of those secret winks of the Holy Spirit in New York City. It’s right there in plain sight, but if you pause and reflect, there are much deeper spiritual meanings. Just as Bethesda Fountain celebrated the wonders of the Croton Reservoir, which brought healing waters to the people of NYC in common everyday ways, so often, healing is right in our midst, if we open ourselves to it.
Today’s Gospel suggests a number of points about healing, about our role in healing, and even the place of faith in healing. It says something to those who are waiting for healing. It speaks to those who long for healing but can’t see a way forward. And it speaks to those of us who perhaps are the picture of health and might think a sermon on healing might only be for the sick.
First, the word to those who wait. The scriptures are filled with stories of Jesus healing, and even of the other disciples offering healing. Prophets sometimes heal, and one woman is healed simply by touching Jesus. If we’re not careful, it can seem like healing from God is instantaneous, like the faith healers we might read about or see on television or in movies. Notice that the man in today’s story had been ill for thirty-eight years. In another Gospel (Mark’s) a woman is healed who has been sick for twelve years. These stories remind us that healing doesn’t always come quickly. Healing doesn’t come with the right prayer, the right amount of faith, the right religious experience. Healing comes in time.
The story of the man at the pool of Bethesda speaks of one who persists, who continues, to carries on—each day, each year, waiting for healing. But this particular story also suggests that the route to healing (for this man) has perhaps been right there all along.
Secondly, there are those who look for healing, but overlook what is right in front of them. I’m reminded of the Old Testament story of Naaman, the military commander who had leprosy. He heard that the prophet Elisha was a man of wisdom and healing, so he went to see him. Elisha told Naaman to do something very simple and Naaman laughed at him. Naaman felt different from others, special from others, unique in his own illness. But Elisha knew what would bring healing and told him, but Naaman balked at first. It seemed too easy, too simple, too obvious. It’s not the calm waters that offer healing, after all, but the ones stirred up with holy healing.
The person Jesus meets at the Pool of Bethzatha is right there by the water, but he has all sorts of reasons for not stepping in: “others get in before me,” “there’s no one to help me in,” or who knows what other reason he might give.
This is like the person who limps in pain but whose doctor assures them that if they simply had a knee replacement, the pain would go away. It’s like the person who squints and misreads, when properly made glasses would solve the problem. It’s like the person who wrestles with an addiction and convinces herself or himself that their situation is unique, when there are twelve step groups that offer healing and new life. Sometimes healing is at hand, but we find reasons to delay or not ask for help, or remain just beyond arm’s reach.
And finally, there are those who wish for healing, but don’t know where to start. They need a little help reaching the source of healing. But in both cases, it might not be an angel from heaven who stoops to stir the waters, but it might be me or you. It might be another person—whether healthy and strong, or perhaps someone undergoing their own pathway into healing.
I’ve mentioned before how in the Hebrew scriptures, there’s often some ambiguity around the root word that is used both for “angel” and “messenger.” But I think that’s also a theological mystery—sometimes angels are ordinary people, coming at the right time, offering just the right word, offering a helping hand, or perhaps just being present, in silence.
As majestic and beautiful as the angel is on Bethesda Fountain, it might be that you or I are called to be the angel who prepares the waters for healing, who helps connect one with that water, or who helps to carry a person closer to the source of healing.
Often, when a person needs healing, the professional pastoral care giver (the priest) is not the most helpful person. If one is undergoing chemotherapy, often the most helpful person is another person who has gone through similar treatment. A person who faces having a heart procedure will often be helped by talking with someone who has already had a similar procedure. And certainly, the twelve-step recovery movement shows the wisdom and effectiveness of recovering people helping others to recover. And often the most healing person is someone to walk along side, not offering advice, not even talking so much. The great priest and writer Henri Nouwen describes this sort of person as a “wounded healer.” He writes,
To enter into solidarity with a suffering person does not mean that we have to talk with that person about our own suffering. Speaking about our own pain is seldom helpful for someone who is in pain. A wounded healer is someone who can listen to a person in pain without having to speak about his or her own wounds…. We have to trust that our own bandaged wounds will allow us to listen to others with our whole beings. That is healing.” The Wounded Healer, 1979
Who knows when, where, or in what we might be called upon to be an angel of healing, an agent of God’s healing; but I pray that the Holy Spirit would continue to stir the holy water and to show us how to help stir up the spirit of healing and health.
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.