20 March 2013

John 5:1-18

"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.'" (vv. 6-8)


At the Church of St Anna, in Jerusalem, two pools separated by a portico, with four other porticoes surrounding them, have been excavated, and it is possible to imagine this spot surrounded by those who hope to be healed. Many later manuscripts have an extra few words in verse 3, and an additional verse 4, which scholars generally think were not part of the original text of the story, but which give an interesting insight into the traditions around the pool and its healing properties: "… waiting for the stirring of the water; for an angel of the Lord went down at certain seasons into the pool, and stirred up the water; whoever stepped in first after the stirring of the water was made well from whatever disease that person had".

The carrying of a bed is an activity which was prohibited on the sabbath, so John's Gospel's observation that it was the sabbath (verse 9), in the same breath as he describes the healed man picking up his mat and walking, shows that the healing is moving into a controversy story. The mention of "the Jews" supports this (v. 10), as John's Gospel typically uses this general term to refer to Jesus' opponents within Judaism. As we have already, John's Gospel speaks of 'signs', not 'miracles', so the Gospel relates the sign and the truth towards which it points.

Verse 14 is unsettling - is Jesus suggesting that the man's illness had been caused by his sin? But elsewhere (eg John 9:3), he challenges precisely this idea. Perhaps he is pointing to the need to be healed of more than physical ailments, pointing to consequences which are worse than physical disability.

Jesus' reply to the sabbath controversy is profoundly shocking (verse 17). The divine sabbath rest is understood as eternal - God has finished creating and is resting from it. Scripture shows, however, that God does not rest from involvement with people. Jesus is here putting his ministry alongside that of God, as activity which cannot stop for the Sabbath, which explains the anger in verse 18!

To Ponder

  • Some of Jesus' healings begin with an appeal for help. This one begins with his initiative. Should we seek to know and understand our need and ask for God's help in that? Or should we rather wait for God to identify our need and listen for the offer of healing? Which do you find more of a challenge?
  • Jesus' question to the man is striking: "Do you want to be made well?" In our attempts to live out kingdom values, do we ask those we seek to serve, "Do you want to be helped?" Or do we presume what constitutes healing for them?
  • Sometimes, to receive healing (literally or metaphorically) can be scary, can change our perception of ourselves, and can lead us into the unknown. Do we want to be made well, or do we prefer the familiarity of our limitations?

Bible notes author

The Revd Catrin Harland

Catrin Harland is the Methodist chaplain to the University of Sheffield, where she spends her time discussing life and faith with students and staff, aided by coffee and cake. She is passionate about equipping young adults to discover and live out their calling in the Church and the world.