Healing at the ‘house of mercy’
Jesus’ encounter with the man at the pool of Bethesda is unique among the gospel accounts - only appearing in the gospel of John. Bethesda, to all intents and purposes, seems to have been functioning as an almshouse, or even a hospital, and a ‘great number’ of sick lay there (John 5:3). However, it wasn’t just for the possibility of some charitable donation that the sick congregated around the colonnaded pool - the waters of the pool were well known for what were considered to be their healing properties. The text of John 5 explains that the waters were mysteriously and intermittently ‘stirred’, at which point the first person to enter the waters was seemingly healed. However, such beliefs were problematic for those who first recorded and copied the gospel accounts and it is a shock to discover that verse four has been completely removed or footnoted in many translations - the missing verse reads;
‘From time to time an angel of the Lord would come down and stir up the waters. The first one into the pool after each such disturbance would be cured of whatever disease they had.’
It is much more likely that the pool, which was part of the spring system that fed the famous pool of Siloam, experienced a sudden ‘bubbling up’ of the waters which could then rise a number of feet very suddenly. It is probably this natural phenomenon that was witnessed at the pool of Bethesda and it is into this place of superstition and suffering that Jesus stepped. It is initially curious that Jesus is not noticed by the many sick there, but the events that unfold seem to reveal that Jesus went incognito, with a single purpose in mind to meet the poor man - even the man that is ultimately healed did not realise who had healed him.
The plight of the man is piteous and although Bethesda meant ‘house of mercy’ he found little mercy or compassion there until Jesus shows up - when Jesus asks him if he wants to be healed the man admits that there was no one willing to help him into the pool when the waters were stirred. In truth the man was, it seems, abandoned and had suffered under his affliction for a long thirty-eight years. Moreover, it seems he had reached for his healing time and time again, but no doubt felt continually frustrated, disappointed and even forgotten - perhaps he felt he would die there, perhaps he had given up believing for a miracle or perhaps he had prayed some secret and deeply felt prayer that God had heard and was now responding to - in truth, we do not know. In the end despite the man’s reasons as to why he cannot be healed, Jesus circumvents these and simply commands the man ‘Get up! Pick up your mat and walk’ (John 5:8).
After the miraculous healing Jesus disappears and the text reads that the man made his way to the place of worship, the temple. The recorded moment was a kairos moment, a God ordained moment, in which a person moved from a place of constriction, suffering and abandonment to a place of freedom and worship. The story demonstrates that the man at the pool of Bethesda was never just one in the crowd, he was not forgotten and overlooked, but that God truly knew of his predicament and had a moment in store in which everything would change. And so, if in any way you relate with this man, if your healing has felt out of reach, or if you have been tempted to give up believing for a miracle, perhaps the actions of Jesus in this story can reignite hope.