By Jorge Zetino
There is an ancient pool located in the Muslim Quarter inside the Old City of Jerusalem that once was thought lost, buried by the remains of the many civilizations that once occupied the area, or just thought to be allegorical. However, archaeologists excavating the area discovered this Jewish ritual bath as the place of one of Jesus’ most famous miracles – the healing of the crippled man at the Bethesda Pool (John 5:2-9).
This pool fits the descriptions given by John the evangelist in the fifth chapter of his Gospel. It was one of my favorite sites during my visit to the Holy Land last May—a physical confirmation of one of my favorite Gospel stories.
In this Gospel story, Jesus encounters a man who had been ill for almost 38 years (longer that I’ve been alive!). Such an encounter took place at a pool near the Sheep Gate in the North East wall of the temple area. This must had been a crowded area for at the gate the animals were brought in to be sacrificed.
At the time of Jesus, this pool was one of the many Jewish ritual baths that could be found all over the city, especially in the vicinity of the temple area. At this pool, people with physical disabilities–invalids, blind, lepers and crippled—gathered. In other words, this pool was the meeting spot for all those who were outcast by the society of the time. These people would have come to pool to bathe and seek healing.
According to John, Jesus seems to be aware that this man had been ill for a long time. Nonetheless, he goes ahead and asks the crippled man a question: “Do you want to be well?” This question made me think, “Duh, why would he even ask that?” Of course anyone who has been ill for many years wants to be healed. I’m sure my blind grandfather, now deceased, and my father, who suffers paralysis on the left side of his body, would agree with me. This question seems stupid. I was becoming infuriated.
However, this man’s heartbreaking response to Jesus’ question moved me deeply. He responded, “Sir, I have no one to put me into the pool when the water is stirred up; while I am on my way, someone else gets down there before me.” For me, the story of this man is reflected in the lives of those whom I love the most. His story hits close to home.
In the story of this ill man, I hear the voices of the marginalized and outcast of our time: the poor, the immigrant, the refugees, the indigenous, the women, gays and lesbians, and anyone from a cultural ethnic minority who is being victimized by hateful rhetoric being promoted by some of our politicians nowadays.
I also hear the voices of those who hope to attain physical healing such as my father who hopes to one day be free from his paralysis, and our infirm SVDs living at the residence who tirelessly pray with the hope of being healed of their own illnesses.
In the Gospel story, the man’s response to Jesus’ question also echoes a tremendous sense of loneliness. It is here where those of us who enjoy physical health can perhaps try to relate to him. This man appears to have no one in his life. No family, friends or a religious community to care for him. He is alone! This man has suffered for 38 years. Perhaps he has spent most of those years trying to get into that pool with the hope of being made well. He, like many of the people I know, wants to be healed but wonders how he could ever do it without anyone there to help him.
This “may explain why Jesus is drawn to him,” writes Rev. James Martin SJ in his book “Jesus: A Pilgrimage” (HarperCollins, 2016). Jesus’ own disciples might have pointed out the man as the one “who had been suffering the longest.” This explains why Jesus was aware of his illness although this could have been self-evident by looking at the ill man at first sight. Perhaps Jesus’ question, “Do you want to be made well” wasn’t that stupid after all.
Jesus was meeting this man where he was, both physically and spiritually. Even in his solitude. In “The Gospel of John: Volume 1 (Westminster John Knox, 1955),” William Barclay writes, “He has no one to help him in, and Jesus was always a friend of the friendless, and the helper of the person who has no earthly help.” I wonder if just when this friendless man had lost his hope and was giving up the idea of ever being healed, Jesus entered into the scene. Perhaps it was during his deepest moment of desolation and solitude when he received the greatest consolation of all: Jesus.
By asking the man “Do you want to be made well,” Jesus also may be asking him another question, “Have you given up hope?” He might be asking if he still has faith. Perhaps as we go forth in the season of Easter, it might be helpful to ask ourselves these same questions: Have we given up hope? Have we given up faith? Maybe, just maybe, such a question is as relevant to us now as it was to the ill man then. Some of us may not have a physical paralysis like the ill man; however, it might be the case that instead of a physical affliction, we may be experiencing a spiritual paralysis that needs to be healed.
Perhaps today is a good time to ask ourselves what kind of spiritual paralysis (if any) we have. Perhaps we have it and are unaware of it. Perhaps we refuse to recognize our spiritual vulnerability. Perhaps we need to ask Jesus to help us recognize the paralysis of our own spiritual life. Perhaps asking ourselves questions such as, “Have we given up hope?” or “Do we still have faith?” would be a good starting point. The good news is that buried down in the deepest despair lies hope.
Maybe, just maybe, we too need to drag ourselves to the pool of Bethesda like this man did. For me, this ancient pool represents a symbol of hope. “For many years,” writes Father Martin, “that place [the pool] was thought to be lost, then just a myth. For years it was covered by dirt and trash. Perhaps it existed once, people taught, but no more. But it was always there, waiting to be uncovered, waiting to be restored, and waiting to be seen again. It took work, but it was found.”
This is how I am starting to believe how God comes to meet us where we are–asking if we still want healing, if we still have faith, if we still have hope. Perhaps this is the reason Jesus asks the man (and us too), “Do you really want to made well?”
Jorge Zetino is a novice in the Divine Word Novitiate Program in North America. Originally from Guatemala, he grew up in Michigan and earned a bachelor’s degree from Divine Word College in Epworth, Iowa, in 2015.