A few months ago I was sitting around a seminar table with my students. The conversation had a particular intensity because a number of my students are from Africa.
We were talking about how to read Scripture’s miracles of healing in the context of overwhelming death from AIDS.
One of my students, Patrick, is from Malawi, which has a very high incidence of HIV/AIDS. And Patrick wanted to know how to preach these texts to a people who experience no healing.
(I should say that we all realize many kinds of healing do happen when physical healing is not present, but our concern, and my concern in this article, is the grief and pain that come when physical healing just doesn’t happen.)
As the discussion progressed it became clear that this concern was not limited to my African students. The kind of healing that Jesus engaged in hasn’t been experienced by any of the students. We North Americans don’t generally expect or experience miraculous healing either. So when my 5-year-old daughter prayed recently, “We pray that Esther will live a long, long time and that she will be healed quickly,” I felt the tears come.
That day we had found out how serious Esther’s cancer is. Only a child who has not been disappointed already by unexpected death could pray such a prayer of open trust and hope, I thought.
What’s more, sometimes we don’t even receive much opportunity for such prayer. I’ve been to two funerals in the past three weeks. One was for a grandfather who died from cancer in a matter of weeks, leaving a large family still coming to grips with his illness. The other funeral was for a newborn.
How do we read the stories of miraculous healing when we experience such quick and inexplicable death? How do we trust the stories of healing when our prayers for healing so often go answered? What exactly is going on when Jesus heals someone?
Why Only One?
I would like to explore these questions through one story in particular, the healing of the lame man at the pool of Bethsaida (John 5). You recall the setting: an angel would stir the water of the pool, and whoever stepped into the water first after the stirring was made well. It is at this pool that Jesus heals a lame man by telling him to take up his mat and walk.
John begins the story this way: “Now in Jerusalem by the Sheep Gate there is a pool, called in Aramaic Bethsaida, which has five porticoes. In these lay many invalids—blind, lame, and paralyzed” (vv. 2-3, NRSV).
Around this pool are many who are blind, lame, and paralyzed. And Jesus heals only one of them. With so many there—all waiting, all wanting to be healed—Jesus heals only one. Why only one?
It isn’t as though this man asks Jesus to heal him. No, when he approaches the man Jesus says, “Do you want to be made well?” The man’s answer demonstrates that he doesn’t expect Jesus to do anything about it. He doesn’t say he wants to be made well. He says, rather, “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, “Given this system of healing, I don’t have much chance of getting well!” The man doesn’t expect healing to happen, given his circumstances.
It’s not as though he has some secret faith in Jesus that causes Jesus to heal him. We read later that when the leaders ask who healed him, the man doesn’t know (v. 13). He didn’t even know who Jesus was! Clearly his faith did not make him well.
So why was this man healed? It’s hard to say. But there are a few things that we can learn about healing from his story.
In the first place, this story isn’t intended to demonstrate that Jesus heals only those who have faith in him. This healing is an unexpected and unanticipated act of grace, a gift.
Second, Jesus was apparently not out to heal as many people as he could. He healed only one person out of many. Yet the gospels tell us that Jesus spent his time—perhaps most of his time—healing people of their diseases. Jesus healed, but he didn’t try to heal everyone.
Third, John describes these healings in an interesting way, as “signs that Jesus was doing for the sick” (John 6:2). That is to say, Jesus meant his healings to tell people something about who he was and about the kingdom he was bringing.
Reading the Signs
How might these signs have been read by first-century Jews?
The gospel of John is deeply steeped in the Old Testament. And the people who followed Jesus knew the stories, psalms, and prophecies of the Old Testament well. These were their stories of hope, their songs of hope.
A central theme in the stories and prophecies of Israel’s Scriptures was the theme of God as healer. Hosea puts it most clearly in his recollection of the exodus:
It was I who taught Ephraim to walk,
I took them up in my arms,
but they did not know that I healed them (11:3).
Again and again in the psalms God is the one who forgives our iniquity and heals our diseases (for example, see Ps. 103:3).
When Jesus goes among the people and heals them, it’s a sign that God is present, that God is among the people. When he heals people, Jesus is a sign that God is in their midst.
But healing was never intended to be the sole task of God. The prophets make clear that leaders of the people are to bring healing as well. So Ezekiel talks about the leaders of the people as shepherds of the sheep, shepherds who are to strengthen the weak, heal the sick, bind up the injured, bring back the strayed, and seek the lost (34:4).
That’s why it’s so significant that the lame man’s healing happens at the “Sheep Gate” (John 5:2). I don’t think the overtones would be lost on a first-century Jew: by the Sheep Gate a leader comes who acts like a shepherd and heals the sick. And if such a leader has come, this can only mean one thing. God’s kingdom has come! This healing is a sign that the healing kingdom of God has arrived.
A kingdom of healing and a God who brings healing. The point of Jesus’ healings is not that Jesus wanted to do miracles, not that Jesus was showing he had the power to intervene, like a neat magic trick to demonstrate divinity. No, Jesus heals people because that is what happens when God’s kingdom has come and God is present: people are healed. Because Jesus does the kind of work God does, healing is in his hands.
A Terrible Tension
So what does this mean for us, as we struggle with sickness and death in the face of our prayers for healing and health? What does God’s healing presence in the first century have to do with us now?
First, as the bearers of the good news of God’s kingdom, we have a call to bring healing. You may recall that at the end of John’s gospel, Jesus tells Peter to feed his lambs and tend his sheep. Peter knew what that meant. He knew that a shepherd of Jesus’ kingdom was called to strengthen the weak, heal the sick, and bind up the injured. That’s why, after Pentecost, the first thing that Peter does is heal a lame man outside the temple (Acts 3). Those who proclaim Jesus are those who bring healing.
Second, despite the evidence around us, when we proclaim this kingdom, God is present and God does bring healing. Despite our stories of death, we also know stories of life, of unexpected grace, of unexplained healing. My daughters have prayed for healing for many people during their short lives, and some of those prayers have been answered. We proclaim healing because our God does heal.
But not always. And that brings us to the third point. We are painfully aware that God’s kingdom is not yet here. We know too well that the powers of darkness still have a deathly grip on our world. We know that sickness, sudden death, unfair death, and injustice—in short, sin—still wield a deathly power over us and our communities. And we know that this isn’t how God intended it to be.
So we live with a terrible tension between what we experience and the vision of the kingdom that Jesus proclaims.
We find the biblical outworking of that vision in John’s description of the new heaven and the new earth in Revelation 21 and 22. We know that someday Jesus will return, that there will be a new Jerusalem where death and crying and pain will be no more, where the leaves of the trees will be for the healing of the nations. This is a vision of healing, John tells us, where there will be no night—no dark nights of pain and no long, lonely hours plagued by fear and anxiety in the face of illness and death.
This is the incredible vision of hope that we await, and it stands in tension with our experience of death here and now. But this is not only a terrible tension; it is a hopeful tension. For it tells us that we do not have to accept the way things are, we do not have to “go gentle into that good night,” that our rage against the dying of the light is right (Dylan Thomas). For we fully expect to see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living (Ps. 27:13).
And so we wait. And while we wait we cry out, “How long?” How long before this kingdom of healing is fully present in our midst? How long before there is no need to put away the empty cradle and no need to explain to a child why prayers are not always answered? How long before there is no need for Sheep Gate healing pools because the Shepherd-King has returned to establish his healing kingdom?
A whole continent devastated by AIDS. A grandfather taken away too quickly. A child gone after only a couple of days. We stand weeping with grieving families and devastated parents. And in the end, we wait. We wait as we work to bring healing in our lives and our communities. We wait as we experience the gracious gift of unexpected healing from our God. We wait in the midst of death and grief for Jesus to come with healing in his hands.