Sharing Hope, even in Bethzatha

(John 5:1-15)

Well, I remember it was a hot day, anyway. It was a Sabbath, too. But my chances of ever going to Temple… That just made me want to cry… There we all were, just laying there, motionless… There was really nothing else we could do. We all; there was something wrong with all of us. For some or another physical weakness, we were all just… laying here… None of us could leave, or we absolutely would… There were 5 porches, 5 level areas; Bethzatha it was called. My… home… Each porch wasn’t very big but we were packed as tightly together, as close together as we could get, and still have room to, well, move some. There had to be enough room around us for those precious few people who came and attended to most of us; bringing tidbits of food and water, talking to us and telling us that Yahweh still cared about us (that was hard). But only a few brave… they cleaned up after us. I mean really, none of us could move, well not very far. And we didn’t eat much anyway, but still. I asked one of the older women who took it on themselves to clean up what came out of us. She quietly said “I have a flow. I can’t go to Temple. I serve Yahweh by taking care of others less fortunate than myself.” I never heard her say anything more. But I know we all appreciated what she did. At least she could walk though.

My mother used to come visit me most every day, to talk to me, to try and cheer me up. When they brought me here, I was far up along the back wall. That was how it worked. We all started far away from the tiny pool in the center of the porches. As others were healed, or died, usually died, we would all move quickly down closer to the pool. Well, rumor has it that, when the water ripples, the first one into that pool would be healed, and could leave. A few volunteered stories about this actually happening. It didn’t seem; the rippling, I had never seen it. Still, when others vacated their spot, like melting snow, the rest of us gravitated closer to the pool. I was most of the way down to that pool. I felt I had been here longer than most; many that had been around me died, they were gone. And I could have been even closer by now, up next to the pool, but I realized… The way the roof was over these porches; if I moved closer, it would snow on me in the Winter. The Sun already baked me on some Summer days (like today). I was not sure I wanted to get any closer, because I doubted I would survive very long covered with snow. Still, “thirty eight years…” I remember thinking this to myself that day.

There were never fights; we were all too weak to fight. In fact, we were too weak to even think usually. There was little to no talking. Most of us would be hard-pressed to carry on a decent conversation. When you sit, er lay down in the same spot, day after day, week after weak, year after year… Everything gets weak. Everything stops working. Most of the time, even though there are over a hundred of us packed in here I think, it is just very quiet, very still. Well, there is occasional crying from the new-comers along the back walls. I did that a lot too, when I first came here. When reality sets in, the crying usually tapers off. I think we enter the stupor phase, barely cognizent of anything, anyone around us. I think it is a survival mechanism. Well, the stench, you never lose the sense of that. But even that — that is who we are, who we have become. That will likely never change. And when the water does ripple… Those closest quickly make their way… or die trying… or drown in the pool. That I have seen… Unless you have someone to help you, and who in their right mind would stay here… with us? Well, death is just meaningless to all of us, I think. We all have pretty much died anyway, and just barely cope, through every day. I think a lot of us think that dying would hurt less. A Rabbi does occasionally visit, usually one of the younger ones. I think older Rabbis force them to come. After the Rabbi gets over the stench, and assuming he has not decided he has had enough right away, someone always asks “How do we get to heaven?” As I hinted at before, this is intensely practical to most of us. Death would be the only way we leave, our only exit from Bethzatha.

Their answer is usually similar. “Love Yahweh with all your heart, soul, mind and strength, and love your neighbor as yourself.” I think we are all doing that, or trying to. Such dire conditions make Yahweh pretty practical; He is our only hope. We can’t go to Temple, but we can still love Him supremely. Well, we don’t have any strength, or much, and our minds… But if He doesn’t help us, nobody else will… And loving our neighbor is pretty easy. We can’t move, or move far, but I think we have the ‘pity’ part worked out. We are all such a pitiful lot, each of us. And, I don’t know… I never stopped praying to Yahweh. Those few I talked to, they never… not any more. Whatever, but the first place I would go if I ever got out of here, which I doubt… I would join the throng worshipping in the Temple. That one goal seems to be the only thing I really want to accomplish right now. Well, there might be other things, but when every desire seems permanently out of reach, and our bodies have grown so weak… Back to stuporing again.

I feel genuinely sorry for the few that I have talked briefly to here who have no clue why they are here. I know why I am here, and I will never tell a soul… Oh, never mind, that doesn’t matter, won’t ever matter. It was early spring, and I was twelve at the time; wow that was a long time ago. I had run back to the house from the flock because I was thirsty. I ran home to get a drink, and intended to be right back out with the sheep. I did that a lot when it was hot, and the flock wasn’t far. One afternoon I heard a strange noise, and decided to investigate. It was from our neighbor’s house, their barn actually. A man and his wife… Well, the man was not that much older than me, and I could have had what… But I absolutely should not have been watching as they… Not near soon enough, I ran back out to my sheep. That happened on one more occasion, and I knew inside that watching them like that was wrong. It was very wrong. I think I was in denial; this never came up in my prayers to Yahweh, at that point anyway. A week later, my father bought a bigger house with our own big barn, closer to our sheep. The move went fine, I just found myself one afternoon later that summer wanting to check up on my neighbors. I was in a hurry, of course. Dodging one wagon, another knocked me over, then both wagon wheels rolled over the back of my legs, above my knees, breaking them both instantly. I just cried out in agony, and cried for days, completely unaware of what was going on around me. It hurt so bad… When the pain started to ease, I found myself against the back wall, here… in Bethzatha, with my mother weeping quietly beside me. My mother couldn’t stay; I have younger brothers and a sister. I cried days more, until I realized that I was the only one here crying. My crying slowly tapered off.

Like I said, I knew why I was here. At first I prayed… I wept before Yahweh and freely admitted my foolishness, my sin. I confessed it constantly, hoping that there would be some way… Jerusalem is not a big city, and one day, just the man came through on his way somewhere. I knew I had to apologize, confess to him; besides, maybe that would… maybe then I could… My legs were painfully useless. Moving them at all brought tears, but I managed to prop myself up with my arms, get his attention, then call him over. This was after 3 or 4 years; all of me was pretty weak, even my voice. Still, I explained what I had done. Tears came, but I couldn’t, didn’t have the strength to even cry. He listened patiently, sardonically, then sighed when I was done. He spoke slowly. “Son, you were a few years away from having that yourself.” He paused briefly. “I don’t think you would appreciate someone else doing that to you. I love my woman and intend to show her that every chance I get.” Then he paused for a minute maybe. “I think you got what you deserved.” Well, I knew this was true. But to hear him say that… My doom was sealed. He stood slowly up, then said quietly “What you thought you enjoyed was surely not worth this…” Then he turned to walk away. “I’ll try to remember you in my prayers…” he said as he walked off. I never saw him again. But once he was gone, I realized that almost everyone I could see, laying there waiting for the water to ripple, they were looking at me. I didn’t wait to try to figure out if it was compassion or disgust I was seeing; they certainly all heard my confession, knew what I had done. I buried my head in my mattress and wanted to just… die… I got over it. The stupor took over.

Years wandered meaninglessly by. I confessed less and less. I think Yahweh knew what I had done. I think my family moving to a different house, He was trying to help me. I didn’t listen. The man was right. Well, at least Yahweh knew I was sorry for what I had done. Like I said, I brought it up less and less in my prayers as the years passed. I think we both viewed that the same way. But I also found that even focusing enough to pray was increasingly a chore. Laying there, day in, day out… hoping someone would feed you, if even occasionally… The older woman who cleaned up after us, she finally died. Maybe a month later, another older woman took her place, and cleaned us all up again. We all, well those of us that could talk, we thanked her. We really did appreciate it. Still, even existing became such a huge chore…

And Winters were the worst… I hate being cold… Ok, so our mattresses… Take two pieces of rough woven material, and sew all the ends together except for a short part of one of the shorter ends. Then fill it with dry straw. If the straw is clean and new, they are very comfortable, and they protect you nicely from the cold floor, or the ground. Growing up, they were always very comfortable. But they got replaced every Spring. My mother made new ones for our family every spring. Well, only the rich could afford to pay a servant to keep a fire going all night, in order to stay warm during the Winter. Some of the fathers I heard about did this themselves, stayed up all night tending the fire. But either they didn’t sleep much, or they burned their own house down. My father piled on blankets, and we all crowded together underneath. Even with snow on the ground outside, we all kept each other warm. But if we had to go to the bathroom in the middle of the night… Or if the baby needed his straps changed… Well, Winter was hard on these mattresses, and so they were replaced each Spring (bed-clothes too). Our mattress smelled like it needed replacing by then as I remember. That is the way most families in and around Jerusalem did things. That’s also where our mattresses came from here in Bethzatha. People in the town slept on them for a while first, then we got those that they were done with. The straw was mostly flat, and the odor… Well the odor didn’t bother us. After we used these ‘new to us’ mattresses for less then a week, they smelled a lot worse. We couldn’t just get up and go… Eh, you get used to it. Maybe there is a lot we just get used to. We have to.

But like I said, that day was a Sabbath. I used to pray a lot more on the Sabbath. I could tell from the horns, bells and singing, when it was the Sabbath. But as time passed… And it was really hot that day, too. The only thing I remember thinking that day… “Thirty-eight years…” I was so stupored. And, after hearing so many Sabbaths, it just came crashing home that day that I would never get to ever go to another Sabbath. I couldn’t even cry. I was thirsty anyway, so I just rolled over on my side, away from the hot Sun, hoping that I would get some shade soon… Well, one tear came… I was just laying there, stinking hot, literally, mouth open, tongue draped loosely where gravity put it… I was just so stupored… so at my wit’s end… Maybe I was always like that…

Cool shade suddenly covered the upper part of my body. My legs, my feet were still baking; I felt that much. I just slowly sighed, pulled my tongue in, and swallowed. Part of me was cool now, anyway. That felt a little less awful. I vaguely realized that the Sun moving off to the West wouldn’t do that, but I don’t think I really cared. Then I heard a man’s voice, behind me, gently…

“Do you want to be healed?”

I… It certainly took a long time for me to even understand what this stranger was asking. Everything just moved so slow for me, especially as the Sun baked all of us crowded in these porches, especially those of us who were closest to the pool, in the direct Sun most of the day. Why would anyone want to know why I wasn’t healed yet? Slowly, very slowly, I replied very quietly, very slowly, without even looking up, without looking around, without even moving…

“Sir, I don’t have a man, that, when the water is troubled, he can put me in the pool. And while I am coming, another goes down before me…”

Well, that and I didn’t have the heart to tell him that I had never seen that pool heal anyone anyway. I felt pretty hopeless about ever getting out of here. I wasn’t the only one who felt that way though. Still, giving even this brief explanation and I was mentally exhausted. It took a lot to even think this, to put together these words and answer what I thought he was asking. Time went back to sleep, and I just stupored right there some more. I was thankful for the shade of his shadow though.

The stranger spoke again, also slowly, softly, but almost demanding…

“Get up, pick up your mattress and walk.”

Stupored as I was, it would have taken minutes to realize exactly what he was saying, what he was commanding me really, only to formulate the most cynical laugh and explain that I would prefer he go mock someone else. But… I knew… I felt… Immediately, the bones in my upper legs were turned… lined up correctly… fused… healed… I felt exactly… My legs felt exactly like they did as I ran through the streets… That single realization… jolted that stupor away immediately. I knew that this stranger… Something he had done, something Yahweh had done through him maybe… I was healed… I wanted to cry as I prayed and thanked Yahweh in my heart immediately. I was hopeless… But now… Only He could have…

I slowly rolled over onto my back. The stranger was gone. Maybe that part was just a dream anyway, I wouldn’t know. Still, I absolutely knew I had been given my legs back. I sat slowly up. Nothing hurt. I was pretty sure I could walk again; whatever had happened had returned my legs to what they were like before that terrible accident. I got slowly up, then I rolled my horrible stench of a mattress up, and… walked… away… After 38 long years… I was healed… I walked slowly out of Bethzatha… And, as I walked carefully out of that collection of porches, few even acknowledged me… I would have responded the same way…

But like I said… My first destination was the Temple. And it was a Sabbath, no less! Praising Yahweh already, that is where I headed. I was totally oblivious to the fact that I smelled terrible, and was dressed in, well, rags, and had this horribly stinking mattress…

“It is the Sabbath. It is illegal for you to carry your… mattress.”

That voice rang out of a crowd. And the man who said this clearly re-considered what he was saying by the time he was done. I could have dropped my mattress immediately. But it smelled terrible. I probably smelled terrible. And honestly, leaving this stinking mattress in the midst of other hurting people back in Bethzatha; that didn’t seem very considerate to me anyway. Besides, my place had probably already been taken by another, and their place taken by the one behind… That was just how it was done. I couldn’t just leave my smelly mattress there… Before I knew it, a crowd was quickly gathered around me. Nobody got close; getting out of the stench of Bethzatha, I realized that I smelled really bad. Still, I felt I needed to explain. I just shrugged.

“The man who healed me, that man said take up your mattress and walk.”

I wasn’t trying to break the law, violate the Sabbath. Well, I was still not thinking so well yet, anyway. But I always knew if I was ever healed, the Temple would be my next destination. They asked me next who this man was. I didn’t know. I had absolutely no clue. I just shrugged, again, and told them I didn’t know. A few Rabbis out of the crowd gathered around me (at a safe distance) and forced me to swear that I would tell them who the man was that healed me if I found out. I… After 38 years, I was healed! Yahweh had healed me! These Rabbis though, they seemed upset by this whole thing. That made no sense to me. Yahweh worked a miracle, and the Rabbis were upset… After that, after they left, I think everyone relaxed. Someone threw a nice cloak around me. I dropped my mattress, and somebody else kicked it over to the edge of the broad walk-way leading to the Temple. We went inside. For the first time in 38 years… I praised Yahweh God on the Sabbath… I told everyone there what Yahweh God had done for me, that He had just healed me after 38 years in Bethzatha (many gasped), from what I knew. I cried a lot… We all did. This was so amazing…

Later that afternoon, Jesus came up to me. Well, he was the man who healed me; I recognized his voice right away. And the crowd around him whispered his name constantly. They also whispered another name that sent chills up my spine… Messiah… But after 38 years, I was healed. And this Jesus… I wanted to cry on the spot, but the look on his face was stern, and he warned me.

“Son, you have been healed. Turn away from your sin lest a worse thing comes upon you.”

I… There was absolutely no doubt in my mind that I would never do again what… But I think Jesus was after more than just that. I really felt that Jesus was trying to warn me that “sin crouches at the door”, as we read in the Torah. I had to be much more careful about that. Jesus’ warning; I would take that very seriously. 38 years in a smelly stupor — that was enough warning for me. After I thought this slowly through, I looked up. I wanted to hug Jesus, to cry on his shoulder, to somehow try and thank him. He had transformed my life in so concrete a way. Jesus was gone. Well, there were a lot of people, a lot of worshippers in this crowd. I was not too surprised. But I was surprised that one of the younger men nearby, ran quickly off, knocking into people on the way.

I was not really sure what to do next. I really should go take care of my smelly mattress, but that needed to wait until after sundown, after the Sabbath was over. I also needed to go see if anything, anyone was left in my home; it had been a while since my mother had visited. Honestly, there was not much of a reason for her to come see me anyway; laying there in a stupor, I could barely function. Late in the Fall, every Fall, she wove me a new blanket, and brought it to me. She did that last Fall, anyway. I realized that my home, my mother, that would probably be where I went, if I could remember the way in the dark. But I didn’t need to worry about any of that just yet. That same bunch of Rabbis gathered around me (again at a safe distance), really they acosted me. “Was Jesus the one?” they asked harshly. I nodded yes. They seemed very displeased, even angry, maybe even angry with me… Through this Jesus, Yahweh had healed me after 38 years in Bethzatha! Like I said, that was a miracle, a sign from Yahweh God! “This man is evil; he breaks the Sabbath” one of these Rabbis grumbled, and the rest grumbled in agreement. I was incredulous. A man that Yahweh chooses to work through? He couldn’t be evil in my book. Yelling at each other, they wandered off. “No way could He be the Messiah of Yahweh…” another said with a distinct sneer in his voice.

I was thinking much better now. The Messiah… He is here! He healed me! Curiously, there was nobody around me anymore to share this with. Well, I did smell awful still, and it was a hot day… Moving slowly, deep in thought, I felt again that my legs, my leg muscles… I really was healed. Well, it seemed like my whole body… I thanked Yahweh some more. And Messiah Jesus’ warning, I would heed that. Wow, I needed to be careful… The Torah warned me too, and repeatedly. I scolded myself as I thought that. Torah classes were among my most cherished memories from my youth…

I found my smelly mattress, waited for Sundown, then carried it to the garbage pit outside the city walls. That place smelled awful, too! And I found the brook outside the walls that I used to play in when much younger, still flowing nicely. I took a bath. I got clean, got my rags clean… Then I went home… For the first time in 38 years… I went home. My father was long since dead, but my mother and I cried all night. My mother kept saying “I prayed… I knew Yahweh would heal you…”

At one point, I said quietly “Mother… The Messiah is here. The Messiah healed me… I saw him…” My mother got this most wondrous look on her face. “Mother, the Rabbis seem very angry with Messiah Jesus. Please be very careful who you tell this.” And, just like when I was 12, I slept next to my mother like I always did…

The next morning, I knew what I had to do. Through His Messiah, Yahweh had given me hope, helped me start over. I needed to share that. And I was pretty sure how I needed to do that, how He wanted me to do that. But I had to go back… to… Bethzatha… I knew why, and I knew I would need Yahweh’s help every step of the way. The closer I got, my steps slowed. Was I really doing this? Did I really want to go back to the place I had spent 38 years, wasting away, barely surviving, barely able to even think? I pressed on, only because I felt… Yahweh had shown me grace, He had given me hope. If there was somebody else I could do the same thing for… but not just anybody… I stopped short of the entrance, prayed, then sighed. Then I took a few steps in, and the stench was almost overpowering. I guess we really had gotten used to it; but it was awful. And I noticed right away that my spot had already been filled; a bunch of people were now closer to the pool since I left. Well, nobody even acknowledged my presence. I acted the same way. If you are condemned to a stupor, someone from outside these porches has little meaning.

I looked carefully around, asking for Yahweh’s help, for His direction. I noticed a woman, maybe 30, along the back wall, crying very softly. From the sound of her crying, I remembered, I realized she had been brought here last summer, crying loudly then. She was leaning up against the wall behind her back, but one look at her legs… She couldn’t use them, she couldn’t walk. Tears came to my eyes, at this point. I slowly, carefully made my way over to her. I had to step over others stuporing away like I was, just yesterday morning at that… I knelt down next to her. She sensed my presence, slowly opened her eyes briefly, then closed them again, looked away, and went back to crying softly. I knew what she was thinking. “Please just go away…”

I didn’t leave. Instead, I asked quietly; I needed to know this first. “Do you have a man?” I was asking her if she was married. That was rather important to what I felt Yahweh wanted to accomplish, what He wanted me to accomplish, and maybe, what He wanted to accomplish for me.

What started as a deeply cynical laugh, this woman was quickly crying fiercely. She then screamed out “I can’t even walk… What man in his right mind would ever want me? I’ve been like this since I was a little girl…” Then she cried loudly, only slowly drifting back into quiet tears. Her eyes stayed shut the whole time. She was probably hoping even more that I was gone, that I would just go away. Of course, everyone else just ignored her, ignored us.

I said quietly “Miss…”

She stopped me right away “Ruth. My name is Ruth. My father is a Priest, and I can’t even…” She was quiet, but she still kept her eyes closed.

I said quietly “Ruth…”

It was only then that she opened her eyes, and looked at me. I slowly pointed over, down to where I used to be. Of course, it took a little while for her to actually look, to focus in the right direction. And it was getting hard for me to keep from crying now too. As I pointed…

“Ruth, I used to be right there. For 38 years, I…” I had to stop briefly, then I continued. “The Messiah healed me yesterday. I can walk now.” I had to stop again, but noticed she was mouthing the word “Messiah” with the most wondrous look on her face. I forged onward. “Yahweh gave me hope yesterday. I want to share that hope… with you.”

Thinking very slowly… she turned slowly to look at me. “So you want… me…?”

I didn’t wait for her finish, and I gently picked her up. I won’t tell you what I put one of my hands in as I did that. But when you can’t walk… And that didn’t matter to me. Someone else had cleaned up after me for a long time… I carried Ruth out of Bethzatha that morning. As she cried on my shoulder, I carried her to that same brook outside the walls, and gave her a bath. I had to hold her so she didn’t drown, of course. But as I was giving her that bath, her crying distinctly changed. When I carried her out of Bethzatha, she was crying out in pain, crying out her pain, probably oblivious to where she was. But as I bathed her, her crying distinctly changed. She realized I was taking her… that I wanted her… She was cying out with hope now, maybe even gratitude. She kept crying, and hugged me tighter with each passing minute, as the cool, clean water flowed past us. I took her home. A few days later, as I carried her, as I held her up, we were married. She cried a lot, but her crying was so vastly different. I gave her hope. And, really, we gave each other hope, for many years to come. And we thanked Yahweh and His Messiah together for every day we enjoyed together. We cried together a lot, too. The Messiah one day healed Ruth’s legs, but that is a different story. Still, being able to go into the Temple together, that meant so much to us…

c2017 by ACR


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