By the time I arrived in Des Moines last Sunday, at my sister’s apartment, I discovered she had already managed to catch the cold that seems to be going around. Her nose was beginning to turn that tell-tale bright shade of pink, and when she came home early from work on Monday afternoon I knew things were serious because she went straight to bed. A while later, I asked if I could pick something up for her—maybe chicken noodle soup or Sudafed, or both. “Yes, please,” she said. And then I asked if there something else I could bring her, and she said, “Yes, actually; there is. Can you bring me orange Jell-O?” Orange Jello-O? “Okay,” I said. “Whatever you want.” Never in a million years would I have expected her to ask for orange Jello-O. I mean, gross. But you never know what people want until you ask them.
It might be true that there’s no such thing as a silly question, but the question Jesus asks the man waiting by the pool of Beth-zatha, might come really close. There he is, sitting by a pool renowned for its healing powers (which had a reputation like Lourdes in France). There he is, a man who has been ill for thirty-eight years. (That was a lifetime to most people in that day). There he is, a man whose only possession in the world is the mat he sits on, day in and day out, as he watches other people enter the pool, and maybe get healed, or maybe not. When Jesus sees him and singles him out amongst all the other ill, blind, lame and paralyzed people in the place, Jesus has one question for him. And it is a silly, silly question. He asks the man: “Do you want to be made well?” Remember: Jesus is asking the guy who is sitting by a healing pool. Of course, he wants to get better. Right? But you never know what people want until you ask them.
Several years ago, someone who was raised in this congregation led a group of us here on a learning trip to Haiti. It was an amazing experience; Haiti is an amazing country. But one thing stuck out to me, again and again, as I toured the capital city, Port-au-Prince, and a few of the surrounding villages. On the whole, with a few exceptions, but on the whole, very few of us in the west (especially in the United States) have asked Haitians what they want. How do they want to address the systemic problems they face? What do they need to make it day to day? What would help them live better lives and fulfill their dreams? Before we left on the trip, generous people in this community opened their hearts, they gave us generous donations of clothing and other goods. But you see the problem, right? We hadn’t yet asked the question: What do you want? From what I saw in Haiti, they wanted us to support them as they transformed their communities themselves. And some of them wanted us to come to Haiti for our next Caribbean vacation. That’s not what I expected. But you never know what people want until you ask them.
We make assumptions all the time about what other people need. But those are based, more than we’d like to admit, on our own judgments, our own perceptions. At the last church I served, there was a man named Ronald who came to every single Saturday evening worship service. If he wasn’t there, worship just didn’t feel right. Ronald was a sweet man with intellectual disabilities who gave thanks for his dog every single Saturday at worship. Now, you might think that if Jesus walked into the door of a Saturday evening worship service and asked Ronald what he wanted, Ronald might say he wanted to be like everybody else. But he didn’t. What Ronald wanted, what Ronald prayed for, in fact what he prayed for out loud every week during the Prayers of the People, was a girlfriend. That’s what Ronald wanted, and so that’s what we prayed for. A few months after I came here to Maquoketa, Ronald sent me a Facebook message. It said: “Hey Stephanie: Will you come meet my girlfriend Laura sometime at church?” We can’t know what people want unless we ask them.
But Jesus’s question goes a step beyond that. He’s not simply asking the man at the pool what he wants. He’s asking if the man is ready to be healed. If he’s ready to be healed. The sick man doesn’t answer Jesus directly, which is telling by itself. Instead, look what he does. Look what he does. He makes an excuse. Instead, he says: “Sir, I have no one to put me into the pool when the water is stirred up; and while I am making my way, someone else steps down ahead of me.” In other words, Jesus: it’s their fault. It’s their fault I’m not healed. The man makes other people responsible for his healing. That doesn’t seem fair, does it? But it’s what we do all the time, right? If only that person wasn’t such a jerk, then I could be happy. If only I had enough money, then I would have some peace. If only we had a different president, if only this situation was fixed to my liking, if only my kid would behave, if only, if only, if only. If only this other person would change, then I can be happy. Then I can be healed. Do you want to be healed? Jesus asks. It turns out this is not such a silly question. Not a silly question at all. Do you want to be healed? Sometimes, if we’re honest, the answer is “no.”
A friend of mine who is in Al-Anon talks about what differentiates the newcomers from the more seasoned participants. She says the newcomers often come to Al-Anon expecting to learn how to change their loved ones who are alcoholics. While the seasoned participants, if they’ve worked the program long enough, have stopped trying to change their loved ones. They’ve started to focus on changing themselves. Jesus, I imagine, looked at this man straight in the eye and asked a question that only he could answer. “Do you want to be healed?” Do YOU want to be healed? Is this something that you actually want, or is this something you only think you want? How attached are you to your mat, to your mat of suffering, of self-pity, of boredom, of loneliness and isolation? Do you want to be healed? Not just because you think you should, but because you really want to change and live a different life, a life that is not centered on your sense of your own your brokenness, but on God’s goodness? Do you want to be healed? You never know what people want until you ask them.
Do you want to be healed? It’s a question worth asking. It’s a question anyone can ask, at any time. “Do you want to be well?” It’s a good question. It’s a question with an answer God is interested in. If Jesus didn’t want to know the answer, he wouldn’t ask.
I want us to take a few minutes here in quiet first, and then in reflection. Please close your eyes, and bring the face and figure of Jesus to mind. Just the first image. As you imagine Jesus before you, let him ask you: “What do you want me to do for you?” And let yourself answer.
May it be so…Amen.