Preacher: The Rev. Kate Wesch
Acts 16:9-15, Revelation 21:10, 22-22:5, John 5:1-9
In the name of God: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Today, there are 22 pilgrims from Epiphany celebrating orthodox Easter in the city of Jerusalem. They are gathered in that most holy place with millions of others marking the day of Jesus’ resurrection in the very place where it all happened so many years ago. Last night, they experienced “The Miracle of the Holy Fire” known by orthodox Christians as “The greatest of all Christian miracles”. In many ways, it is similar to our Saturday evening service of the Easter Vigil where we begin outside with the new fire, processing into the dark church by candlelight and tracing the history of God’s covenant through word and song. But, in other ways, what they experienced in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre last night was completely different.
It takes place every single year, at the same time, in the same manner, and on the same spot. No other miracle is known to occur so regularly and for such an extensive period of time. There are written accounts of this ritual from the 8th century of the Common Era, 1200 years ago.
“The Church of the Holy Sepulchre itself is an enigmatic place. Theologians, historians and archaeologists consider the church to contain both Golgotha, the little hill on which Jesus Christ was crucified, as well as the “new tomb” close to Golgotha that received his dead body, as one reads in the Gospels. It is on this same spot that Christians believe he rose from the dead.” (by Niels Christian Hvidt) http://orthodoxinfo.com/general/holyfire.aspx
Why do I bring this up?
We celebrated Easter according to the western calendar more than a month ago. Six weeks have passed and we are almost to the Feast of the Ascension and Pentecost. I mention it because I want to spend a few moments talking about pilgrimage. Being a pilgrim is about leaving the place where one is settled and going to a different place. A pilgrim is not someone going somewhere; a pilgrim is a person away from home. Pilgrim means resident alien, and Abraham is our prototype. He lived on faith, in full pursuit of a deeper relationship with God. For Abraham it began with the commandment to depart from his country and kindred for a new land, a land that God promised to give him (Gen 12:1-3). This journey came to be the model for how to live a life of faith as a pilgrim.
There are a number of us who have been on pilgrimage, whether it was to the Holy Land, to Taize, on a long hiking or bike trip, or some other journey away from home. Pilgrimage is an important part of our faith journey and we never return home the same. It changes us in ways that are sometimes difficult to express or even discern until some time has passed and we are able to reflect back upon the journey from a new place.
The last time I was in the Holy Land was with a group of teenagers. We were on pilgrimage and I had the opportunity to experience it through their eyes.
We were there over summer vacation, not during any high holy days and one of the most memorable sites for me that trip was the pool by the Sheep Gate mentioned in today’s gospel reading from John.
Beth-zatha is the name of the ancient healing pools with five porticos located in Jerusalem. The Hebrew word “Beth-zatha” means house of mercy or house of grace. The word could also mean shame or disgrace, which makes sense given the history and condition of people who would seek its shelter and healing powers.
The natural pools had been a healing site for a long time, used by the pagans many years before the Jews. In it, the water would bubble up periodically and it was believed that the first one into the water would be healed. Some believed an angel was the one to cause the bubbling.
In this story from John’s gospel, Jesus is in Jerusalem during the time of a festival. We don’t know what festival, but the city is alive with energy on an average day, so things were really happening on this day. In stark contrast to a city bursting with festivities and joy, we have this image of many invalids crowding around two small pools of healing water vying for a spot as close as possible so as to be the first one in at the sight of some bubbles.
The pools of Beth-zatha were excavated in 1956 and you can still visit them today on the grounds of St. Anna’s church. Like so many places in the Holy Lands, you literally peer through the layers of history as you see the ruins of the Crusaders on top of Byzantine ruins, on top of Roman ruins, built over the original pools from the 1st and 2nd Temple periods 3000 years ago.
It isn’t clear exactly what took place at these healing pools during the time of Jesus. But we do know that the man in our story had been ill for thirty-eight years and for whatever reason, he was unable to make it all the way down into the healing waters of the pool.
It makes you pause and wonder. THIRTY-EIGHT YEARS of lying near the pool, but NEVER being the first one in when the water bubbled up. Really?! You would think he would have figured something out. Did this man really WANT to be healed or had he simply made a way of life out of waiting to be healed? Think about your own life. What are you waiting for? What in your life paralyzes you so – that you are willing to lie there for 38 years just to avoid the inevitable? An irrational fear? A bad marriage? A failed relationship? A toxic work environment? Major regret or guilt?
Whatever it was that pinned this man to the spot, rendering him powerless to move or change his situation — Jesus heals this man. Because that is what Jesus did and continues to do in the lives of people today. The man “was made well, and he took up his mat and began to walk.” Healed, his life is drastically changed. So now, what? What do we do next when we are “healed” and our excuses don’t work anymore?
Jesus offers healing as a new reality for the created world. The reading from the Revelation to John is about the Kingdom of God where relationship is primary and all else is derivative. What we are living is the scaffolding on a huge building being painstakingly restored. Things are obscured and a little hazy, but we catch glimpses of what lies beneath. And what lies beneath is the kingdom in all its glory.
I challenge each of us to name something, which is paralyzing. Name it and pray about it and seek a way in which Jesus can help you take that first step towards healing.