May 26, 2019 – The 6th Sunday of Easter
© 2019 Evan D. Garner
The man was hard to miss. He had positioned himself on the sidewalk so that people could see him on their way in and out of the store. He didn’t have a sign and didn’t bother to lift up his eyes to see the people who passed by, but there was a basket in front of him with a handful of change in it that told them why he was there. Paul gave him a quick look as he went inside to get the three or four things his wife had asked him to pick up on the way home, but the man gave no indication that he noticed that someone had walked past. There was something strangely calm about the beggar that got Paul’s attention. Up and down the aisles, grabbing the few things on his list, Paul couldn’t stop thinking about the man.
Like many people these days, Paul hardly ever carried cash, but a friend at work had paid him back for the bottle of wine that he had brought back from his trip to Napa. He used the $20-bill to pay for his things and kept the change in his hand as he approached the door. As he passed through the automatic sliding doors, Paul turned and stopped right in front of him, but the man did not even shift his weight to acknowledge Paul’s presence. “Good evening,” Paul said politely, but, still, the man did not respond. Confused and a little annoyed, Paul cleared his throat and said, “I said, ‘Good evening.’” The man slowly looked up and stared back at Paul and said, “Yes, I heard you.” Surprised at the man’s deliberate tone, Paul blurted out, “I walked over here to give you …” Paul stopped in midsentence and gathered himself and asked, “What are you going to do with the money you get tonight?” For more than a few seconds, the man just stared back at Paul. Finally, he said quietly but firmly, “Sir, that’s none of your business.” Paul was incensed. “None of my business? Are you kidding… Well, I’m not giving you anything,” he said exasperatedly. And the man replied coolly, “That’s your business, mister.”
Paul turned and walked quickly toward his car, shaking his head in astonishment. “Can you believe that?” he wondered aloud to himself. As he neared his car, a different man approached him, palms extended in a sign intended to communicate the universal sign for the absence of hostility. “Sir? Excuse me, sir?” he said as he approached. “Sir, I’m real sorry to bother you, and I don’t want to startle you here in the parking lot.” “What is it?” Paul asked, still a little upset about what had happened a moment earlier. “Sir, I hate to ask you for anything. I’m a prideful man, and I’ve never been in a position like this before, but my wife over there is pregnant.” The man gestured a few rows over in the parking lot to a woman standing by a car with a visible baby bump. “We are on our way to see her mother in Jackson, Mississippi. Her mother’s real sick, and we’re trying to get there, but I work for a landscaper, and there hadn’t been much work because of all the rain. Well, I ran out of money, and I’m trying to get my wife a motel room where she rest. Her blood pressure has been real high, and the doctor said she’s supposed to be on bed rest, but we’ve got to get to Jackson. Well, the room costs $48.00, and I’ve managed to scrape together all but $8.60. I’d be ever so grateful if there was any way you could spare a few dollars to help us get a place to stay for the night.”
Why do we help some people but not others? What makes us glad to give one person $5 but angry at someone else for asking? When we hand someone some money, what are we buying? What kind of response are we paying for? How much humility and gratitude from a beggar will it take to warm our heart?
At the pool of Beth-zatha, Jesus does something rather strange. He comes upon a man who has been lying there for a long, long time. For thirty-eight years, the man has been incapacitated. That’s almost as long as I’ve been alive. That’s a lifetime of knowing nothing except one’s inability. Jesus approaches the man and, perhaps because of the stuff that has accumulated around him, can tell right away that the man has been there for a long time. Jesus looks down at the man and says to him, “Do you want to be made well?” But all the man can say in response is, “Sir, I have no one to put me into the pool when the water is stirred up.”
The legend of the pool was that an angel would come down and stir up the water with its wings, and whoever was the first to enter the pool after the water was stirred up would be healed. But that didn’t do the man any good. He was stuck. He couldn’t get into the water on his own, and there was no one who was willing to help him, except Jesus. And Jesus, the divine healer, had just asked him if he wanted to be made well, and all the man could see was his own predicament. For thirty-eight years the man had been stuck without an answer, and, at this rate, he’d be stuck for thirty-eight more. Even if he didn’t know who Jesus was, he could at least ask him for some help getting a little closer to the edge or maybe even ask Jesus to sit and wait with him until the angel came back. But the man was so accustomed to being incapacitated that he didn’t have the capacity to imagine that life could be any other way.
But Jesus didn’t let that get in the way. Jesus said to the man, “Stand up, take your mat and walk.” And immediately the man was healed. He stood up, and picked up his mat, just as Jesus had told him to, and set off to pursue a new life with new possibilities that 60 seconds earlier the man didn’t even know existed.
Sometimes people are stuck. Sometimes they’re stuck in that place where life has been so bad for so long that they can’t imagine that life could be any other way but bad. Sometimes they’re stuck so low in the depths of depression that they can’t even want things to get better—much less do anything about it. Sometimes people are so caught up in the bonds of addiction that even when salvation is staring them in the face they can’t accept it. And what is our response? When we encounter someone whose life has been shaped by systemic challenges like poverty or mental illness or racism, what do we ask for in return? In order to share our hard-earned generosity with them, we ask for respect, humility, gratitude, and maybe even an apology that they have let things get so bad.
What happens when we’re the one who is stuck like that? What happens when the person whose life has always been the consequence of his or her own choices doesn’t have the power to change the outcome anymore? What happens when the soul-sucking, spirit-draining predicament of incapacity comes to us? What happens? Here’s what Jesus says: “It doesn’t matter.” Here’s what God says: “You’re still my beloved child.” That’s what Jesus says to all of us.
God wants us to believe in God—to put our faith, our trust, in God. But that’s not for God’s sake. God doesn’t need our confidence. God’s ego is not satisfied because billions of people are counting on God. God wants us to believe in God because faith leads to peace. God wants us to know and trust in the power of God’s saving love. When God became flesh and dwelt among us, God took our very nature onto God’s self not because we believed in God but because God believed in us—the faithful one giving faith to the faithless. Our salvation doesn’t begin when we find the ability to believe in God. Our salvation is born out of God’s decision to have faith in us. Even when we cannot believe, God believes in us and for us. That’s where salvation starts. That’s where faith starts. Before we can believe in God, God has already believed in us.