People Jesus Met: The man at the pool of Bethesda
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A new video is here!
You can find a service sheet here, if you’d like one:
That great figure of the Reformation, Martin Luther, was once asked to describe the nature of true worship.
He answered: the tenth leper turning back.
Often when people talk about today’s gospel reading they focus on the importance of gratitude – I’ve done this myself before.
But today I want to focus more on seeing and believing.
When Jesus first met the ten lepers in today’s gospel reading they addressed him as ‘Master’.
They didn’t call him ‘Lord’, ‘Messiah’ or ‘Son of David’, all of which would suggest that they saw him for who he truly was.
Instead, they called him ‘Master’.
This suggests they saw him as a respected teacher, a worker of miracles, a holy man – but only a man.
They believed that Jesus could help them, certainly, but did they really see and believe what was going on and who was in front of them?
The disease that these ten people had may not have been actual leprosy as we understand it today, as the word was used to cover a whole range of disfiguring skin diseases.
But regardless of what they were actually suffering from they were outcasts, required by law to live away from other people, and to shout ‘unclean’ in warning if they met another person.
And being unclean they weren’t allowed into the temple to worship God, so they were outcasts from their faith as well.
This is why when we meet them in today’s reading they are described as keeping their distance.
The idea was to protect the community from contagious diseases at a time when medical knowledge and understanding were very limited, and the simplest disease was potentially life-threatening.
So people described as lepers in the Bible weren’t just physically ill – they were also socially isolated, cut off from their faith community and feared by everyone they met.
They lived in a kind of in-between state, not really welcome or at home anywhere, even among their own families.
Strangely enough, the place where Jesus is said to have met these lepers doesn’t actually exist.
He’s described as travelling in the region between Samaria and Galilee but the two places border each other – there is no region between them.
So, either Luke was seriously bad at geography or he was making a deeper point.
And perhaps this point was to do with God being at work in the in-between places and among the in-between people.
Jesus reaches out, then and now, to the people who don’t really belong or fit, the people who are rejected and unsure of themselves.
The people who fall between the cracks in society.
The ones most people don’t want to think about.
He even reaches out to people who don’t really understand who he is or what he’s about.
So, Jesus hears the cries of these outsiders and promises them healing.
Unlike in most healing miracles he doesn’t directly heal the lepers by touching them or speaking words of power but instead sends them to the priests.
The reason for this was that only the priests in the temple could declare the lepers clean and free of disease and restore them to both worship and society.
And the lepers turn to go and find themselves healed.
Yet only one comes back to thank Jesus.
Hence the common focus on gratitude when preaching about this story.
But in fact this man does more than just thank Jesus – he throws himself at Jesus’s feet in an act of worship and praises God.
All the lepers were healed but only one saw and believed.
Only one recognised who Jesus really was and what the miracle he’d just received really meant – that God was here and at work even among those who thought there was no hope for them.
All the lepers were healed but only one saw, noticed and let it sink in.
And that made all the difference.
Because he saw what had happened that one leper recognised Jesus – who he was and the source of his power.
Because the leper saw what had happened he had something to praise and thank God for – his healing and the wide-ranging compassion of God.
And because the leper saw what had happened he changed direction and came back to Jesus – his life was changed for good.
This story gives us an invitation to think about how and what we see and how that might affect our lives.
When we meet challenges do we see danger or opportunity?
When we get up in the morning do we see a list of things we have to do or a new chance to do some good?
When we see someone in need do we see a burden or an opportunity to love our neighbour?
When we see a stranger do we see a potential enemy or a potential friend?
And even more, when we consider God do we see a stern judge or a loving parent or friend?
When we consider ourselves do we see a failure or a beloved child?
When we look at our faith do we see rules and duties or a relationship with God?
When we look to the future are we full of fear and uncertainty or do we hold on to hope and faith?
We all have different answers to questions like these, and probably our answers change at different times, but what we see can drastically change our lives, for better or worse.
If we can look at our lives and search for the good things that are happening, instead of focusing on the bad, then we might find ourselves happier, more grateful and more hopeful.
And if we take the time to notice what is good, and remember that God is the source of all good things, then we, like the leper in the gospel, will find ourselves growing in faith and trust in God.
Then, as we recognise God at work in us, in the people around us, and in the wider world, we will want to come to him in worship and praise, finding that it’s not just a Sunday duty but a joyful daily response to seeing and believing.
We will join with that leper in offering true worship by coming to Jesus with gratitude and praise.
All we need to do is open our eyes, see and believe.
A Jewish saying counsels that each person should have a note in each pocket.
In one pocket, the note should announce “for you the universe was created”.
In the other, “you are dust”.
Ash Wednesday reminds us that we are dust, that our lives are short, and that we go wrong in so many ways.
It reminds us of our need for forgiveness and God’s loving grace in giving it to us.
Today is also the day when we might begin a Lenten fast.
We might give up chocolate or alcohol, spend less time staring at screens, or let go of whatever else it is that distracts us from eternity.
Not that these things are necessarily wrong, but the best things can become a problem if they push out things that are more important.
Alternatively, we might resolve to take things up: to spend more time in prayer or Bible reading, to volunteer our time to help others, to follow a Lent course.
Whatever we do or stop doing, our aim is the same: to make more room for God in our lives, to refocus on what’s really important, to make ourselves a little more prepared for the day when we become dust and meet God face to face.
We clear our lives out a bit to let in God’s light and grow in wholeness, just as a fruit farmer prunes trees to let light in and encourage fruit to grow.
Not that this is necessarily easy.
It’s when we give up our cherished comforts or sacrifice our precious free time that we realise what a hold such things can have on us.
We suddenly notice the empty place inside us that we’ve been trying to fill with chocolate or TV or the internet.
We find out what we really miss and what we’re really afraid of, whether it’s hunger, silence, loneliness, boredom or something else.
But if we feel emptiness and longing, impatience or boredom, a craving to be filled, or a restless desire to go back to our old comforts, this isn’t something to run away from.
This is a call to connect with our need for God.
It’s a reminder that there’s a place within us designed for God and which nothing else can really fill for long.
In St Augustine’s famous words, “Our hearts are restless until they rest in you”.
So, the journey of Lent, though it may seem negative with its talk of sin and repentance, and though it reminds us that we are dust and our lives are short, is an invitation to travel towards wholeness and healing.
It calls us to face the reality of our lives, not to harm but to heal.
It draws us towards a more joyful and fulfilled life, full of wonder at God’s love, seen all around us in the grace he extends and the world he’s given us.
Lent invites us to experience restoration, and a newer, deeper relationship with the God who loves us, rejoices over us and created the universe for us.
Lent is a call to find new life through shaking off the things that trap us and the things that separate us from God and one another.
May we all be able to hear and respond to this call.