The following is taken from a homily I gave earlier this week. The Gospel reading was John 5:1–16, the story about the man who was waiting by the healing waters of theTemple pool (Bethesda) for thirty-eight years, perpetually frustrated because no one would help him in. Then along came Jesus, who, out of compassion, simply healed him.
Today I benefitted from one of the medical marvels of our time—a benefit that I was able to enjoy because of my privileged position as a well-educated, well-insured, citizen-resident of one of the most scientifically-advanced places on the planet. I underwent an advanced radiation technique at Stanford that zeroed in on some tiny “ditzels” on my brain—a charming way of referring to metastases. The entire procedure was painless, a bit like science fiction. Mozart was playing in the background. The medical personnel were all so kind. An experience beyond belief. I was beyond fortunate—I’d been taken to the pool, its healing waters, and was given a great dose of hope. The drive back home afterwards, through the glistening green hills, was glorious, uplifting. What an incredible gift.
Not everyone is so lucky. We don’t have to look far to see people who do not have the wherewithal to share in the bounty of our time, especially with regard to healthcare. This is the case for people in the poor nations of the majority world, but also, quite clearly, right here in the USA. (And, if my experience is what Medicare for all might look like, then I say, go for it. The push to take health care away from people in need is positively sinful).
In today’s Gospel we have a man, helpless, with no one to get him into the healing waters on time. He represents so many human beings—surrounded by scores of others, yet, in the final analysis, alone and helpless, unable to navigate the systems of life. One can only begin to imagine the depths of his hopelessness, even despair, as, each day others more nimble would rush into the waters before he could bestir himself. It was a matter of survival of the fittest, and, near as he was to the healing waters, he was barely surviving.
I recently spoke with someone who is upending her life in order to move thousands of miles away to help care for an aging grandparent—a mentally disabled old woman living alone, isolated, unstable, in a ten by twelve room in Ohio. In a generous and even courageous decision, my friend has elected to act on her desire to help. Without any self-credit, she nevertheless said through her tears that there was no one else in her family who would do it. Yet, for reasons too much for her to comprehend, she found herself moved to undertake this life change. She has decided herself to help her grandmother into the healing waters of living, and dying, with dignity—the final leg of life. Rather than rely on institutions of the state to move in and warehouse her, my friend’s heart was moved with pity, compassion, for someone who could in no other way find the help she needed.
This is the kind of example Jesus shows us, the third great “sign” of Jesus’s ministry as depicted in the Gospel of John. It is this kind of helping of others to which we are called, not only in the spirit of Lent, but by the waters of our baptism that stirred us to life, and faith, in the first place. Those of us who have already found our way into those healing waters know full well the needs that surround us. If one of the notes of Lent is the giving of alms, then, taken in its broadest sense, we might ask ourselves how we can be better “almsgivers” in our own lives, how we can help people get the help they need, how we can let the healing and life-giving waters from the Temple wash over them, and over us as well. For wherever there is frailty or helplessness, there is God’s possibility.