Archive for July, 2012

The Man at Bethzatha

July 29, 2012
The Pool of Bethesda, St. Neots

The Pool of Bethesda, St. Neots (Photo credit: TheRevSteve)


“Do you want to be healed?”

What kind of question is that? When he first asked me I answered by reflex but almost at once it struck me as an odd thing for him to ask.  However, in the months since I’ve thought about it a lot more and I have come to realize that it is actually a very perceptive question after all.  Did I really want to be healed?

I’d been crippled for over forty years, since a large log crushed my legs when I was a child.  At first I missed what I had had.  Unlike those born lame, I knew what it was to walk and run, and the loss of those abilities seemed so unfair and impossible to bear.  I would have done anything, given anything, to get the use of my legs back, and I think anyone else in my position would have too.  But we had nothing to give, and there was no-one who could help me anyway.  I was condemned to a life, probably a short one, of begging and depending on charity.  For all that I was one of the lucky ones—my family stood by me and cared for me even though it was clear I’d never be able to work or earn my keep.

Then, as the months and years passed, life inevitably slipped into a routine.  My disability was always there, of course, but it sort of slipped into the background for long periods.  One or others of my brothers would help me get out each morning to a spot where I could sit and pass the day seeking alms.  In the late afternoon they would collect me again and take me home, where my sisters would look after me.  There were still times when I missed what might have been, especially when my childhood friends got married one by one, or had their children, but those events were, blessedly, relatively rare.

There is a very definite code amongst beggars, a hierarchy that determines who gets to be where.  Not all spots are as good as others for begging, and the best spots would be held by those who had put in their time in the lesser spots.  For instance, most beggars, when they first arrived in town, would have to beg outside the gate.  This is a busy spot, with many people coming and going, but that is the problem: they are all either just setting out or almost at the end of their journeys.  In either case they are so focussed on their coming and going that they have no attention to spare for beggars.  In time, as others who had the better spots inside the gates would move on (or, more likely, die) those lower down would move up the line to fill the gap.

It was years before I go out of the gates and into the city proper, and more years still before I got back outside again to Bethzatha.  Bethzatha is only just outside the walls, to the north of the city, near the Roman fortress of Antonia that overlooks the temple.  Although it is outside the walls, it is one of the best places to seek alms.  Almost all of the travellers coming to the temple from the north pass by the pools there rather than taking the more westerly road through the city itself.  As a result they would often stop at the pools to cleanse and refresh themselves from their journey before entering the temple itself through the sheep gate.  Those entering from the city itself had the mikvah baths by the tunnels but there were no baths on this route so the pools filled that niche.  It was these pilgrims and devout people who were going into the temple who were our reason for being there—people are rarely more generous than just before they go in to worship.

Bethzatha also has the advantage that its two pools are surrounded by porches, as also is the middle path between the pools.  These porches offer those begging respite from the hot sun, which can be really brutal when one cannot move for hours on end.  And there is another special feature of the pools as well: It is rumoured that an angel comes done every once in a while and stirs up the water.  Whoever is first into the pool after that gets healed.  Not many of us really believed that, I think, but it gave us an excuse for being there.  Indeed, I think by the time I first got to the pool I was almost never thinking about being healed.  I was an accomplished beggar in a good location.  In fact, there were days, especially around the great festivals, that I would bring home more money than my brothers, for all their hard labour.

As I said, time passed and life fell into a comfortable routine.  Oh, I’d have said that I wanted to be healed, to get the use of my legs back, but it would have been a rote, unthinking answer.  In truth, I was settled into my ways.  If I were to get healed, what would I do? I wouldn’t be able to beg any more, but how would I find work? I was no longer a child or even a young man.  I was almost fifty and yet had no skills or trade.  No, being healed, had I seriously thought about it, would have been a very scary, almost unwelcome, proposition.  But I didn’t have to think about it or worry, after all, healings just didn’t happen.

So it was on that hot day just before the festival that I lay in the shade of “my” porch with my begging bowl and a jar of water.  I was doing quite well, for there were a lot of people passing through.  I didn’t notice him when he came in.  He was alone, and solitary people are usually less generous than those in groups.  I think people feel the need to show off how generous they are when they are surrounded by people they know.  I didn’t even look up as he came close, not until he asked that question.

“Do you want to be healed?”

“Yes, Sir,” I said, “But I have no-one to help me into the pool when the angel comes,” and here I pointed to my obviously useless legs, “and before I can get myself there someone else always gets in first.”

“Get up! Pick up your mat and walk.”

That threw me! What could he mean, surely not that.  I would have thought he was being mean, implying that I was just pretending or doing less than I could, but one couldn’t look into that face and believe that.  There was something there, something earnest, honest, open.  He wasn’t joking, wasn’t criticizing.  There was understanding and compassion and…well, power, I suppose, though maybe authority is a better word.  He was dressed simply, not someone you would notice in the crowd, at least not until he spoke to you.  Then you noticed.  All this passed through my mind in an instant, but before I could ask what he meant something very strange happened.  I found myself stirring, my body obeying him even before my mind understood.  To my amazement I felt my legs straighten by themselves for the first time in almost forty years! I lifted my body up on my arms and my legs moved under me to let me get up as if it were the most natural thing in the world, as if it were something they had been doing several times every day.  I stood up!

He had told me to pick up my mat, so I turned around and bent down.  Rolling it up, I picked it up and turned back to thank him.  He was gone, vanished into the crowd as though he had never been.  I scanned the crowd, looking for him or for some sign of someone pushing their way through, but there were too many people and they were all in motion.  How strange: why would he heal me and then disappear before I could thank him? I stood there and began to tremble as the realisation set in: I was healed! I took a very tentative step, afraid I would collapse again back to the pavement but somehow not believing I would.  I didn’t, and took another step, and another.  Soon I was strolling around the pools as though I owned them, those of my fellow beggars who saw me either cheering me on or just standing or sitting with their mouths open in astonishment.

What to do? I wanted to walk—no, run!—home and show my family what had happened.  But as I started out of the pool area I realised that I should go first to the temple, which was so near, and offer thanks to God, especially since I couldn’t thank the mysterious man who had done this.  So I walked up the short hill to the gate and into the temple.

It was only as I was passing through the gate that I realised my error—today was the Sabbath and I was still carrying my mat, which was classified as work, which was against the Law.  But I had been told to carry it by my healer, surely a man blessed by God, how could I disobey him? Perhaps, if I just said a quick prayer and left no-one would notice.

No such luck.  I had barely passed into the outer court than I was approached by a group of five or six Pharisees, none of whom looked happy.

“It is the Sabbath! What do you mean by carrying your bed! Stop at once!”

“Sirs, please forgive me, but I was told to carry my mat by the man who just healed me!” Foolishly, I thought the mention of healing would interest them, but they were more concerned for the Law than for me or my gift from God.

“Who is this man? Who dares to break the Sabbath and order others to do so?”

“That I do not know.  He didn’t tell me his name, nor had I seen him before.”

They conferred amongst themselves for a while, clearly agitated.  Then, since there really was little they could do, they ordered me to offer my prayer quickly and then leave.  One of them showed me a place near the gate where I could leave my mat in the care of a temple guard while I prayed.

I went into the inner courtyard and prayed, facing the temple proper and the altar.  I am not a man of many words usually, and so my prayer was simple and short, though heartfelt.  As I finished I sensed someone behind me, and then I heard a voice, speaking into my ear.

“See, you have been made well.  Sin no more, lest a worse thing come upon you.”

I turned to find him standing there.  ow he found me, I don’t know.  Perhaps he had been following me at a distance to see what I would do with his gift.  He seemed pleased that I had come here first.  I started to thank him, but he didn’t seem too interested in that, as though it was just something he had done because it needed doing, almost part of his job in a way.

Then, over his shoulder, I saw those same Pharisees who had accosted me.  Surely, I thought, they needed to meet this man, to see for themselves that he was a good man, a godly man.  Then they would welcome him into their midst as one who deserved to be in the temple, worthy of honour.  I pressed him to stay where he was, told him that I would be right back, and ran over to the Pharisees.

“He’s here! See, over there…the man who healed me! Come, meet him.”

It took a moment for them to understand my excited babbling and to remember who I was.  Then they looked where I was pointing and, seeing him standing there, they set of in a group towards him.  I hurried after them, not wanting to miss this happy meeting.

Yet as I came up to them, I was shocked.  They were not greeting him as a healer, as a good man.  All they seemed to be able to think of was the Sabbath! I heard them launch into an attack without even greeting him or asking his name!

“Why would you tell a man to work on the Sabbath?”

“How could you heal on the Sabbath? That is work!”

“Have you no respect for the Law? For the Traditions?”

He looked at me as I stood, baffled, behind them.  He had a strange, knowing expression on his face: It said that he understood that I had meant well, that he knew I was surprised, but that he was not surprised, merely disappointed.  I merely stood gaping, looking in shock from him to the Pharisees and back again.  Finally they slowed down and he answered them.

“My Father has been working until now, and I have been working.”

That threw them.  They began to debate amongst themselves what he meant: Was he claiming God as his Father? Did he mean to imply that God himself broke His own Sabbath? Clearly this answer had done nothing at all to calm them down, but had had rather the opposite effect.  While they debated what answer to give him, he motioned to me and with a nod of his head indicated that I should leave.  I began to refuse, wanting to stay there, as though I could help him somehow, but he was insistent, so I turned and left.  I heard later that their debate lasted quite some time, that he laid into them very hard, challenging their adherence to traditions, their lack of understanding about God’s ways, their lack of love and mercy.  He made no friends, in fact he made enemies of many of them.  But the scene provided one good thing: Everyone was talking about it for days and I finally learned my benefactor’s name: Jesus.

I went home and there was joy there such as we hadn’t had in a long time, joy to rival, even surpass, that of my siblings’ weddings or the births of their children.  For a few days I stayed around the house, learning anew all the little things that most people take for granted but that had been denied me for so long.  Then I began to accompany my brothers to their work.  There I was, almost fifty, learning my trade like the rawest child! Oh, we laughed long and hard at my clumsiness and errors.  It was so good to be there, to be moving, nothing could get me down.

Now life has settled into a new pattern.  I still marvel that I walk again, but the novelty has worn off.  Sometimes I even go for a day or two without thinking of my old life.  But I don’t want to forget, don’t want to lose the sense of awe and wonder that filled me there in Bethzatha.  And I don’t want to forget him, ever.  It has been some months now and I hear that he is up north in Galilee.  Surely he will return soon and I will get to meet him again.  Maybe next time those in authority will see him as I do and accept him, but whether or not they do, I know he is from God and I will learn from him.


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