Here are some stories I heard this week from the disabled community:
I applied for a job where I know they offer great support for dyslexic people like me. I can do the tasks at a high level when my dyslexia is taken into account. When I went for the interview, they had some tasks for me to do which I know I could do with support, but on the spot, I looked like I couldn’t do it at all because they didn’t offer the support in that situation. I didn’t get the job.
A café owner had the opportunity to put a ramp in where there were three steps to enter the café. He said “Why would I put in a ramp? I don’t get any customers in wheelchairs here.”
The NDIS offers great support for people, as long as they don’t have neurological issues that stop them doing the paperwork and administration to apply for it.
John 5 tells a story about a man who had help and healing available to him, right in front of him, but it was impossible for him to access it. For 38 years he sat by a pool that had healing properties. All he had to do was be the first person to jump in when the spring bubbled up. This sounds simple, but given the man couldn't walk, let alone jump, he was in a cruel situation, taunted by the inaccessibility of healing. Instead, he was caught in a system of:
Competition – he had to be the first to get in (scarcity again!)
Earning – if he was well enough to help himself then he would be helped
Helplessness – the one thing that would help him is the thing he can’t do
Impossible expectations – unrealistic about the man’s actual situation, not paying attention to his condition
Stuckness – 38 years unable to change his situation
Jesus does a couple of things in this story:
1. He asks the man what he wants: “Do you want to be made well?”
This is a weird question and hard to interpret.
It might be read as "Don't you want to get well?", assuming that this person was lazy or comfortable whilst being perfectly capable of saving themselves.
It might be read as a timing thing: "Do you want me to change the pattern, do something different?"
It might be read as "Do you enjoy not being well? What do you get out of not being well?"
The best reading is that Jesus is checking and asking permission to intervene: "Is healing what you want? Can I help you?"
The point is that Jesus actually asks him! Have you ever seen people do things to “help” someone and they didn’t want to be helped, or they didn’t want that kind of help?
Jesus actually empowers the man by asking him what he wants.
When we are in a position of helping, we can be curious, learn what is desired and needed, before jumping into rescue mode. (The disabled community has given a very clear message that disabled persons are not to be pitied, do not need condescension, and often are comfortable with their abilities. The problem is often the obstacles society puts in the way - like telling someone with no mobility to jump in a pool.)
2. Jesus cuts through all the magic rigmarole.
Note that the man doesn’t answer “yes please”. Instead, the man articulates all the complexities. He believes that it's just not an option. "It's never going to happen so why even imagine what I would want?" Jesus asks us questions that we don't even think are worth considering.
This pool had become a place of burden for the man. Jesus doesn’t make the man do anything, and he doesn’t even do anything to him. He SKIPS the rigmarole, and just tells him to get on with his new life. Jesus removes the obstacles that had disempowered the man.
The next section of the story gives us a problem. Let’s compare to John 9, when Jesus and his disciples come across a blind man:
As he went along, he saw a man blind from birth. His disciples asked him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?”
“Neither this man nor his parents sinned,” said Jesus
Jesus is super-clear that we mustn’t be blaming people’s illness on sin. But in John 5 he says to the man by the pool, “Don’t sin or something worse might happen.” That seems like a contradiction. It also sounds a bit mean. Is Jesus such a jerk that he’s threatening the man with worse disability? Jesus is about to get in trouble with the Pharisees because he did this on the Sabbath – so that’s a bit of a sin in their minds. Is he a hypocrite?
Let’s wind back a bit: Jesus doesn’t say anywhere that sin caused this man’s disability.
What he does say is that being caught in sin, is worse than the situation this man was in.
Let’s recall all the difficulties that this man had: competition, earning, helplessness, stuckness, impossible expectations. Sin does this to us, and this story confronts us that there is a point where we are unable to heal ourselves. The story of Jesus healing this man is a picture of grace, undeserved, unearned, purely dependent on the completely reliable mercy of Jesus.
Jesus empowers us, like he empowered that helpless man, by giving us a new life, doing for us what we couldn’t do ourselves, so we can live in new and godly ways. Jesus doesn’t wait for us to be righteous enough to forgive. He did everything to make it possible for us to have access to God and live an empowered life.
So we need to look at ways where we are stuck – patterns we repeat, guilt we can’t let go, temptations we don’t resist. Jesus asks us the question: "Do you want to be made well?"
What is your answer?