In The Presence
After this there was a festival of the Jews, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem. Now in Jerusalem by the Sheep Gate there is a pool, called in Hebrew Beth-zatha, which has five porticoes. In these lay many invalids—blind, lame, and paralyzed. One man was there who had been ill for thirty-eight years. When Jesus saw him lying there and knew that he had been there a long time, he said to him, “Do you want to be made well?” The sick man answered him, “Sir, I have no one to put me into the pool when the water is stirred up; and while I am making my way, someone else steps down ahead of me.” Jesus said to him, “Stand up, take your mat and walk.” At once the man was made well, and he took up his mat and began to walk. Now that day was a Sabbath.
The place was called Bethsada, the House of Mercy. But he couldn’t tell you what mercy looked like. Mercy was supposed to be kindness shown to someone in a desperate situation. But he was desperate and no one had shown him kindness. Not that he could see anyway.
He stared at the ceiling of the stone porch day after day. It was the best view of least resistance from his thin pallet of blankets. And when he tired of staring at the ceiling, he would turn to face the water in the pool, staring so hard his eyes hurt. He stared until he hallucinated, imagining the fingers of the angel brushing the top of the water like a dragonfly.
But when the angel finally came to trouble the waters, everyone got into the pool before he did. Of course they all believed the same thing: that the first one into waters troubled by an angel was the one healed. First come first served. They all believed that there was not enough mercy to go around. Mercy was a limited commodity. Grace was handed out sparingly.
“Do you want to be made well?” The stranger asked him.
What kind of question was that? The man couldn’t help but be a little insulted by the question. Of course he wanted to be made well. He had positioned himself beside the healing waters for a very long time. Was the stranger making fun of him? Judging him? Was he suggesting that the sick man was clinging to his illness on purpose? Jesus’ question was salt in the man’s wounds.
There was once a time when the sick man was full of hope. He dreamed of a life where healing was within reach. He imagined himself that new man, one without his problems, one with a renewed vitality. He made plans and promises to himself that he was never able to keep. In time his spirit was so broken, his disappointment in God so deep, his despair and hopelessness so profound, that he forgot what it was like to even hope anymore. “It’s just the way I am,” he told himself. “I’ll never change. Change is not possible.”
Over time he tried to take satisfaction in the little things, making his hope smaller and smaller. “I hope I will be healed and return to a normal life” turned into “I hope it won’t rain on me tonight.” “I hope I can be a productive citizen” turned into “Maybe if I just wiggle a little to the right I will be able to see the stars.” He dared not hope for more. Hope was a dangerous thing.
Do you want to change? “Do you want to be made well?” Jesus asks. But the man doesn’t answer that question. He sidesteps the question that might have been answered with a simple “Yes,” or “No.” The man who had been ill for 38 years goes instead to a litany of excuses for why he can’t change.
“It’s not my fault. It’s just the way things are. No one will help me get into the pool when the angel troubles the waters. Everyone gets in ahead of me. And the rule is that the first one in is the one healed.” The man looks up at Jesus, feeling a little defensive. “You can’t blame me,” says the man is quick to blame everyone else for being stuck. He no longer can take responsibility for not being able to get out of his own way. His defensive response to Jesus reveals that he is mired in shame about who he is. His prickliness discloses that he feels his life is a failure.
I imagine Jesus squatting down beside the man so that he could look him in the eye. “Do you want to be made well,” he asks again, gently, not criticizing, not blaming, not shaming, just curious. “Do you want to be made well,” not assuming anything, but connecting with the man through a powerful question.
38 years is a long time to be stuck. Think of it, 38 years would be, what, 1976? 38 years is a long time to wander in the desert, trying to make your way to the promise land. 38 years is a long time to be the way you are, never having hope that you can really change. 38 years is long enough to kill what little hope is left in you. The man beside the pool had been stuck with being who he was for a very long time.
“Well,” Jesus said. “Why don’t you just stand up?”
Surely the man at least thought to himself: “Gee, why didn’t I think of that.” But he couldn’t turn away from Jesus intense stare. What was it about Jesus’ presence that gave the man a different sense of who he was? What was it about Jesus’ presence that gave the man the capacity to act in a new way? What was it about Jesus’ presence that helped him to stand up, to walk into his future a changed man? What is it about being in the presence of Jesus that changes us, heals us, and makes us whole?
Doug Silsbee writes about the power of presence to help people move into change. Silsbee says that when we seek to lead others or to help people grow, develop or change that the best gift we can offer is the mysterious reality of “presence.”
Silsbee defines presence as “…a state of awareness, in the moment, characterized by the felt experience of timelessness, connectedness, and a larger truth.” He writes that “presence engenders creativity, agility, resilience, and authenticity…when we are present, we are maximally resourceful and responsive to what our circumstances require of us.”
Jesus’ presence puts the man who had been ill forever in touch with the possibility of a new way of being in the world. Silsbee writes: “…presence is an invitation” that opens us up to joy and fulfillment. “Presence produces a feeling of waking up. Things come into sharper focus, and we immediately experience more energy, alertness, and resourcefulness.”
The man beside the pool had become a prisoner of his own habit of thinking of himself only in terms of his lack. He was caught up in blame and not open to considering a reality other than what he already knew. The man beside the pool believed that mercy and grace were limited commodities. His worldview was one of scarcity and lack. His theology was that God grudgingly handed out healing only one little miracle at a time. Jesus’ presence declared otherwise. Jesus’ presence interrupted the man’s habits of brokenness, less than, lack.
38 years is a long time to be stuck, to resist change, to hope for something better only to be disappointed. Jesus breaks through all of that. His presence invites the man to change that which has long seemed unchangeable.
Is there a part of you lying beside the pool of Bethsada? Are there places where you feel that you have been stuck forever? Are there aspects of yourself that you dismiss as ill formed or not worthy of mercy? Do you have moments of wanting to blame others for your stuckness? Welcome to Bethsada, the place of being in the healing presence of God. God invites us into the presence which heals us.
And God calls us to go out into the world and be the presence that heals. We are to go to the border and be a presence to the children crossing over alone, we are to go to New York and be a presence with those who call attention to the dangers of climate change, we are to go into places of injustice and be the presence of righteousness.
We live in the House of Mercy, that place where the impossible becomes possible. We live in the House of Mercy, where there is an abundance of grace for all. AMEN.
Preached at the Old Cambridge Baptist Church, Cambridge, MA
By Meg Hess: Teacher of Preachers, Clergy Leadership Development Coach, Ordained Minister, Life Coach
 Doug Silsbee. 2008. Presence-Based Coaching: Cultivating Self-Generative Leaders Through Mind, Body, and Heart. Jossey-Bass.