I must admit that I like it when someone shows a little hustle. I haven’t done a lot of coaching, and I was probably that kid on the team that coaches didn’t really like (little motivation, lots of frustration, no talent). But I still like a player who puts forth a little effort. I think that’s true of most of us. No one like playing with a teammate who won’t dive for the grounder barely out of his reach. No one enjoys dancing with someone who doesn’t bother to practice her steps. No one looks forward to sitting next to the trombonist who never works hard enough to get the pep band’s fight song down pat.
We are programmed to expect some effort. Those who study hard make good grades. Those who practice hard receive the loudest ovation. But that’s not true in our faith. We don’t receive any reward for our efforts, and this morning’s gospel lesson (John 5:1-18) drives that point home. Jesus encounters an invalid who has been lying by the healing pool for a long time. He’s been sick for thirty-eight years, and, when Jesus asks him whether he wants to be healed, his response isn’t, “Absolutely. Please, tell me what I need to do, and I’ll do it.” Neither does he say, “I’ve been trying my hardest for years to get into that pool, but I’m sure I’ll get there some day.” Instead, he pathetically replies, “Sir, I have no one to put me into the pool when the water is stirred up.” In other words, he says, “Sure, but there’s nothing I can do about it.” He gives up.
Perhaps it’s because he didn’t know with whom he was speaking. Or maybe it’s because he was so empty of physical strength that he couldn’t even muster an enthusiastic or hopeful response. But, for whatever reason, the man gives Jesus very little reason to heal him—other than the fact that he was sick and helpless. And that’s exactly the reason Jesus was looking for. Faced with the man’s apathy, Jesus declares boldly, “Rise, take up your pallet and walk.” The man was healed despite his effortlessness and hopelessness.
I expect players to put forth a little effort, but that’s not how God works. He doesn’t wait for us to do anything. He doesn’t look down and say, “Wow, that guy is really trying hard. I’ll let him start this week against Riverdale High.” No, God loves us just as we are—pathetic, apathetic, lazy and all. And that’s good news—the best news—because we’re often in a state of physical and/or spiritual malaise that renders us powerless to even ask for help. Like the man by the pool, we sometimes find ourselves in a state of spiritual (or physical) depression that makes it impossible for us to pick ourselves up, approach the throne of God, and beg for mercy. Sometimes, we don’t even have that much energy within us. And God knows that. He knows that we have so little power over our situation that we can’t even ask for help. But he helps us anyway—because he loves us anyway.