After this 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 paralyzed. 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.
I remember being on a family vacation once, when the girls were pretty young. We were in a McDonalds, grabbing a quick breakfast before getting on with the rest of the day. We’d allowed ourselves to sleep in, and we were getting a bit of a late start, so our breakfast was pushing right up against the time when the McDonalds was about to switch over to serving its lunch menu. This particular McDonalds had what’s now an old-school mechanical menu board, where at the designated time – I think it was ten o’clock – all the strips showing the breakfast menu items would mechanically flip to the lunch menu items. While we were eating, Andrea was really hungry, and she really liked the pancakes she’d gotten, and she said she wanted to get another order of them. But by this time, it was just a couple of minutes before ten, so we told her she’d better hurry if she wanted to get more. So she got her sister to slide out of the way, and she wiggled out of the booth and was making a beeline to the counter – but when she was still only about halfway there, all of a sudden – flipflipflipflipflip…. The menu board changed over to lunch. And from where we were sitting, we could only see Andrea from behind, so what we saw as she was going up to the counter was something like this: [walking fast toward counter – stops – shoulders dramatically sag – dejected, turn around, trudge back to booth]. Not a word was said, but the disappointment was palpable, and I’m sorry to say that we all got a laugh at her expense that day.
That incident came to mind again this week when I read through this gospel text. I expect the lame man must have felt something like that, but of course, in a much more serious way. I mean, just imagine, 38 years of trying unsuccessfully to be the first one into the pool when the water stirred, and tradition was that the stirring was caused by an angel who would heal the first one into the water – and never getting there in time.
But in today’s lesson, we heard that this was the man’s lucky day. This day, he encountered Jesus and was healed. It happened without any stirring of the water, but Jesus certainly stirred the pot – because he had had the nerve of healing this man on a sabbath day. And we all know from countless past sermons and Sunday School lessons that healing was considered work, and work was prohibited on the sabbath, according to long-standing religious rules and customs. Imagine that – being so beholden to rules and traditions that the big news here wasn’t that a man who had been lame for 38 years had been healed, but instead, that it broke the rules because it was done on a particular day of the week.
Here, and in numerous other places in the gospels, Jesus makes a point of breaking established rules, of violating long-standing customs and cherished traditions, whenever it was necessary to extend compassion in a situation – to bring healing, wholeness, something good into a person’s life. Based on Jesus’ example, it seems that any time there’s a conflict between showing compassion or obeying established rules or laws, being compassionate always trumps following the rules. Always.
We’ve talked before about our need to be willing to break the rules when necessary to show and stand up for compassion. I won’t tick off the list of historical examples again here today; we’ve been through all that before, and that isn’t what I want to talk about this morning. But still, we almost can’t stress enough how important this concept seems to be to Jesus – the idea of showing others compassion even when we have to break or reframe the rules in order to do it. Jesus shows us clearly, over and over again, that sometimes, the old rules, the old normal, have to give way in order for new avenues of compassion and goodness to come forth.
A lot of times, when the old rules, the old normal, gets disrupted in the largest ways, it isn’t intentional – it’s some kind of change or disruption or getting shaken up that’s thrust upon us, that we don’t really want. A relationship crumbles. A loved one dies. A job situation changes. Or even war breaks out, and causes a complete upheaval in life, and requires starting life all over again from scratch – maybe even in a strange new country surrounded by strange new people.
When that kind of unbidden change happens, all we can do is to look for how compassion and goodness might arise out of this in new and different ways. If this weren’t “Congregation’s Choice” Sunday, one of the hymns I might have picked today would have been “Hymn of Promise,” #250. The last verse of that hymn says,
In our end is our beginning, in our time, infinity;
in our doubt there is believing, in our life, eternity.
In our death, a resurrection, at the last, a victory,
unrevealed until its season, something God alone can see.
There’s a lot of truth in those words. When we experience unexpected, unbidden, unwanted change in our lives, when the rules and customs and patterns we’d come to know and trust get broken, we can, and should, search for how God could be bringing new compassion and goodness out of it.
But that deals with unbidden breaking of the rules and norms. It’s the other kind of situation, the kind more like Jesus’ intentional breaking of rules and customs in order to show compassion, in order to heal the lame man at the pool, that I want to think about now. In order to follow Jesus’ lead on this, we need to always have the kind of personal flexibility that would allow us to do that. Our hearts and minds need to always be in the right place, where we aren’t worshipping our rules and traditions more than the God who says that we should always be willing to toss them all aside, if it would lead to greater compassion in the world.
It isn’t always easy to have that kind of flexibility. It’s almost like we need to do some spiritual and mental stretching exercises, so that we’re limber enough to see and take those opportunities when they arise.
Several years ago, I suggested to another congregation, in another sermon, some possible things that we could do that might help us to have that kind of flexibility, and to not be overly beholden to old rules or customs or patterns in our lives. They were little things – silly things, really; they certainly weren’t anything that would ever be mistaken for true spiritual disciplines or practices, and they really didn’t have anything directly to do with being more compassionate per se. They were just suggested activities that might loosen us up a bit, and make us more ready and able to break rules in order to be more compassionate when the opportunity arose. These were the suggestions I offered to them, and now, I offer to you:
Try some kind of international food you’ve never tried before, but always thought you might like to try. Take a different route to work, so you’ll experience another part of town than you’re used to. Sit in a completely different place in church from where you normally sit, so you experience worship from a different vantage point. If for fifty years, the first thing you did when you jumped into the shower is wash your left arm, start washing your right leg first. Find some common hobby or interest that you share with someone on the completely opposite end of the political spectrum, and engage in that hobby with them. Let your grandchildren take you to a concert of their favorite music group. Let your grandparents take you to one of theirs. And in both of those options, be sure to dance. If you haven’t done it in decades, go to a costume party, and don’t be timid; go large – be fabulous; be outrageous; be over the top. I can tell you from personal experience, clown shoes work well for that. Go zip lining, or maybe even, if you’re feeling really adventurous, try tandem skydiving. Commit to go skinny dipping at least once a year. Have breakfast for dinner – at least, that is, if they’re still serving it.
Thanks be to God.