John 5.1-3, 5-16
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 paralysed. 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. So the Jews said to the man who had been cured, ‘It is the sabbath; it is not lawful for you to carry your mat.’ But he answered them, ‘The man who made me well said to me, “Take up your mat and walk.”‘ They asked him, ‘Who is the man who said to you, “Take it up and walk”?’ Now the man who had been healed did not know who it was, for Jesus had disappeared in the crowd that was there. Later Jesus found him in the temple and said to him, ‘See, you have been made well! Do not sin any more, so that nothing worse happens to you.’ The man went away and told the Jews that it was Jesus who had made him well. Therefore the Jews started persecuting Jesus, because he was doing such things on the sabbath.
… while I am making my way, someone else steps down ahead of me.
It is a popular myth that Napoleon, during his period of exile, described the British as a ‘nation of shop keepers’. Whether we subscribe (or have ever subscribed) to this description, which was intended as a criticism of Britain’s ‘interference’ in European politics, or whether we view it as insulting and outdated there is one thing of which we can be sure: the British are good at queuing. Or are we? Those who lived through the Second World War tell stories of the queues, and of how children were deployed on different queues at the same time, as a way of ensuring that precious, but meagre, rations were secured for the whole family. Even today the idea of forming a queue and taking our turn is generally accepted as the civilized and courteous way of carrying on.
But … the notion of forming a queue is not a universally accepted norm. When we travel outside the United Kingdom we are surprised, and sometimes outraged, by they way in which ‘first come, first served’ is translated into ‘survival of the fittest’. This is the situation Jesus finds as he comes to the pool named Beth-zatha (or Bethesda), which means ‘house of mercy’ or ‘house of grace’. The waters of this pool were known as healing waters. Every day, many came to the pool in the hope of being made well. In today’s reading Jesus encounters just such a person. As he arrives he meets a man who has joined the queue every day, for many, many years. However, despite his patience and persistence that unfortunate man has never got to the front of the queue. He has always been pushed aside by those faster and stronger than him.
Today’s reading is, of course, another moment when we encounter Jesus’ life-changing gift of healing, but it is also something else. This reading is also an admonition to each and every one of us. We live in a world where success is measured in terms of determination, strength and ruthlessness. If we buy into this negativity we harden our hearts to the needs of those who are weaker than ourselves. Every time we push our way to the front of the queue we are dashing the hopes of others, we are trampling on their needs as though they do not matter.
Let us pray that we may always put those weaker than ourselves ahead of ourselves. Let us pray that we may always love our neighbours as we love ourselves.