5 After this there was a festival of the Jews, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem.
2 Now in Jerusalem by the Sheep Gate there is a pool, called in Hebrew Beth-zatha, which has five porticoes. 3 In these lay many invalids—blind, lame, and paralyzed. 5 One man was there who had been ill for thirty-eight years. 6 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?” 7 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.” 8 Jesus said to him, “Stand up, take your mat and walk.” 9 At once the man was made well, and he took up his mat and began to walk.
Now that day was a sabbath. 10 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.” 11 But he answered them, “The man who made me well said to me, ‘Take up your mat and walk.’” 12 They asked him, “Who is the man who said to you, ‘Take it up and walk’?” 13 Now the man who had been healed did not know who it was, for Jesus had disappeared in[d] the crowd that was there. 14 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.” 15 The man went away and told the Jews that it was Jesus who had made him well. [John 5:1-15, NRSV]
1.Church of St Anne. 2. Bethesda where Jesus healed the paralytic (Photo credit: Dr. LL Chan). 3. Christ Healing the Paralytic at the Pool of Bethesda by Estaban Murillo
Our visit to the Pool of Bethesda covered two sites, the archeological site of the Pool of Bethesda, and the Church of Saint Anne right next to it. Both are located within the Muslim Quarter of the old city of Jerusalem. Bethesda in Aramaic means “house of mercy”. In passing, we note that another name -“Bethzatha” – is found in some ancient manuscripts and is the preferred critical reading.
Since there is nothing physically impressive to ordinary pilgrims when they visit the Pool of Bethesda, it is quite understandable that instead of including this visit on their list of highlights of their pilgrimage, they would unconsciously discount its significance. For us, however, Bethesda reminds us of where Jesus healed a 38-year paralytic on the Sabbath. What Jesus did holds special significance for what it means to be Church and what the Lord Jesus wants to see us do. This visit held something very special for us.
Saint Anne’s Church
Saint Anne’s Church is located at the start of the Via Dolorosa, close to the Lion’s Gate and some churches along the Way of the Cross such as the Church of the Flagellation and the Church of the Condemnation.
The rather solemn and austere design of the stone interior of the Church, coupled with its amazing acoustics, reflect some typical features of medieval architecture. This Church is said to be a popular pilgrimage site for soloists and choirs. Some members of our group, led by Fr Albert, tested the acoustics with a hymn which they sang with gusto. Those who sang were rather impressive actually, despite appearances to the contrary.
At the Pool of Bethesda
Before anything else, it would be good to take note of Mr. Murad’s explanation on the name which seems to “confuse” people from different parts of the world. It is Bethesda. It is not Bethsaida which is in the north of Israel, on the northern edge of Lake Galilee.
It took quite a long time for archeologists to locate the site of the ancient Pool of Bethesda, after making some mistakes. On this point, our guide Mr. Murad, who is a member of the local archeological society, said something which was quite uplifting for us. In his and his colleagues’ considered opinion, he said, historical events narrated in the Gospels are all historically true. If some sites have not been discovered, they will be, one day. And when they are found, they will be archeologically identified and confirmed.
That said, however, the site which is officially marked as the archeological site of the Pool of Bethesda continues to be a subject of controversy.
If we side-step some variations in different ancient manuscripts and stick with the commonly accepted Johannine narrative in chapter 5 of the Gospel, a few points emerge quite clearly:
- a swimming bath with five porticos;
- within those porticos large numbers of infirm people were waiting;
- these people were waiting to go into the pool upon the troubling of the water, i.e., when the water was stirred (believed to be by an angel);
- a crippled, hopeless man, lame for 38 years had been suffering day after day awaiting the angel’s stir, but could not get his desired healing as others always got into the water ahead of him;
- he could not make his own way into the pool, and there was no one to help him;
- Jesus saw him, and on hearing his story, commanded him, “Rise, take up your pallet, and walk”;
- at once the man was healed, and he took up his pallet and walked;
- it being Sabbath, the man’s action in carrying the pallet thus contravened the Sabbath law, and so did Jesus who performed healing on him.
In Bethesda, what kind of “Church” does Jesus want to see?
The narrative begins with Jesus travelling up to Jerusalem to attend a Jewish feast. He took the opportunity to visit a pool by the Sheep Gate where he found “a multitude of invalids, blind, lame, and paralysed.”
The story line at once spotlights the kind of person Jesus was and the sort of behavior he did not hesitate to show in public:
- Despite it being a feast day, instead of busy feasting, Jesus was characteristically attentive to the needy and caring for the least.
- In the particular case of the paralytic of 38 years, Jesus saw him lying there, observed his crippling condition, and felt the agony in the eyes of one who has long endured his lame and hopeless disposition.
- Jesus saw the uselessness of the “system” to those in severe needs.
- With compassion, Jesus helped.
- Jesus did not let Sabbath-rules stop him from healing the man. Always putting the human person ahead of the law, his pattern of behavior enacted throughout the four Gospels for our instructions was: he saw, he had compassion, he helped. In a concrete situation of human need, Jesus’ response was concrete. This is an operative principle of authentic faith-life which Pope Francis, having learned well from his Lord, never tires of telling the laity and priests alike in the pastoral field: “Be concrete.”
- Instead of rejoicing over the healing of the man, the Jews at once thought it necessary to lecture the man on the Sabbath law. The hearts of these men, filled as they were with strict laws and harsh rules, had become hardened like stones. Driven only by the letters of the law rather than its spirit, they had no compassion for people suffering and in need. Healing on the Sabbath, Jesus also failed to meet their doctrinal demand. Their practice of the religion was law-based; but Jesus put the human person ahead of the law. His whole conduct was love-based, a clear echo of John 3:16 – “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son”.
For us today, from this story of Jesus healing at the Pool of Bethesda, what kind of a church does Jesus wish to see? We shall summarise some underlying truths about Jesus’ action at the Pool towards constructing the vision of Church Jesus had in mind:
- Jesus loved people more than tradition;
- Jesus went on his own to a place of needs;
- Jesus took the initiative to seek out those who needed help;
- Jesus took the initiative to speak to one paralysed for 38 years and not getting any help;
- Jesus did not let strict Sabbath-laws stop him from doing good to someone in need.
- Jesus (a) saw the need, (b) he had compassion, and (c) he helped.
From Jesus, we learn that the Church of the Bethesda vision is one which values people more than tradition. This Church goes out to meet people where the needs are. It does its mission by showing compassion to suffering people and giving them practical help. This Church actively engages in the mission of kingdom-advancement on earth. Those who follow the spirit of Jesus at Bethesda will keep clear of the Pharisaic pattern of a rule-based Christian life and embrace a Christian life style which is love-based instead.
Copyright © Dr. Jeffrey & Angie Goh, September 2019. All rights reserved.
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