When Jesus saw him lying there and knew that he had been there a long time, he said to him, “Do you want to be made well?”
The first question Jesus asks in the Fourth Gospel is “What do you want? What are looking for?” Jesus asks this same question to the reader. He wants us to get in touch with our desire. quid quaeritis?
He also asks, “Do you want to be made well?” vis sanus fieri. In Greek, he uses the word ὑγιὴς which comes from the word ὑγιεινή, where we get the word “hygiene.” Today we associate hygiene with staying clean and washing our hands, but in Koine Greek, it meant “wholeness” and “health.” In ancient Greece, Hygieia was the personification of wholeness and health, often depicted with a snake and a jar of water.
Jesus asks, “Do you want the healing that I can give you through my living water? (4:10) Do you want the healing that I can give you as the new serpent lifted up in the wilderness? (3:14) What an empowering question! He is saying, “You have the choice!”
It’s not very often that I get heavily addicted to a TV show, but I just started watching the show “Breaking Bad” and I’m hooked. When the main character Walter learns that he has lung cancer and informs his family, they insist that he seek treatment, but he wants to make the decision for himself. He chooses not to seek treatment. After making this choice, he seems to realize how much this choice devastates his family. He then agrees to ultimately seek treatment, but it had to be his choice.
Jesus is not going to force health and wholeness on anyone. He will guide us to wholeness if wholeness is what we desire. Did the man who had been ill for 38 years truly seek health and wholeness? Was he able to make the choice for himself and take responsibility for his decision or did he want others to make the choices for him so that he could blame others for the results?
His answer seems to imply the latter: “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.”
Instead of saying, “Yes,” he starts blaming others: other people won’t help him in the water and other people get in his way. Jesus responds to his blame game not by feeling sorry for him and condemning everyone around him for not providing assistance. He responds by giving him back his agency, just as he did when he asked him if he wanted to be well.
The ill man blames others, but can we really blame him for doing so? He’s been sick for 38 years, nothing has healed him and apparently no one has helped him. He has lost his agency and, in many ways, his own personhood. Jesus starts to give this back to him when he asks him to make a decision for himself. The man does not answer the question affirmatively so Jesus gives him another opportunity to do something for himself: “Stand up, take your mat and walk.”
This time the man does not hesitate, blame others or skirt the issue. Instead he chooses health and wholeness and is immediately made well: “At once the man was made well (ἐγένετο ὑγιὴς), and he took up his mat and began to walk” (5:9).
Jesus gives the ill man the agency to choose hygieia, to move out of a blame-bound existence into new wholeness. By making this choice, the man chooses to collaborate with the Creator who continues the process of creation within him, a process that will eventually lead to his ultimate health, which death cannot even threaten.
However, when he is accused of working on the Sabbath, he falls back into his blame-bound existence: The Jews said to the man, “It is the Sabbath; it is not lawful for you to carry your mat.” But he answered them, “The man who made me well said to me, ‘Take up your mat and walk.’” (5:10-11) Essentially, the man says, “Don’t blame me! Blame the guy who healed me. He told me to do it.”
So when Jesus sees him again in the temple, he says, “You have chosen wholeness (again ὑγιὴς), which means you have chosen to move out of your blame-bound existence into a new life that will lead to your ultimate death-defying health. Stop blaming others and start taking responsibility for your choices so that your creation can continue. If you keep blaming others you will be giving other people power over you and you will fall prey to their privilege and prejudice. And you may end up worse than before. This is your life and the Creator wants to collaborate with you in your ongoing creation.” (5:14)
The man went away and told the Jews that it was Jesus who had made him well. Therefore the Jews started persecuting Jesus (5:15).
Apparently, the man doesn’t get it and thus falls deeper into his blame-bound existence. He says, “The guy you want to blame is Jesus.” And so they started to blame Jesus…
How does Jesus respond to all of this?
Collaborating with the Creator
He says, “My Father is still working, and I also am working” (5:17).
Even though the people he loves are stuck in their blame-bound existence, he is still working on them and still inviting them to collaborate with their Creator in their (our) ongoing creation.
There were discussions among the Hellenistic Jews, particularly Philo, about whether or not God continued to work on the Sabbath. The grass still grew and the sun still shined so God had to keep doing something, right?
The great Jewish mystic Philo of Alexandria explains that God rested and continued to work:
“Since therefore it is naturally the case that things, which are changed, are changed in consequence of fatigue, and since God is subject to no variation and to no change, he must also by nature be free from fatigue, and that, which has no participation in weakness, even though it moves everything, cannot possibly cease to enjoy rest for ever. So that rest is the appropriate attribute of God alone.” (On the Cherubim, 90 http://www.earlychristianwritings.com/yonge/book5.html)
“Having desisted from the creation of mortal creatures on the seventh day, God began the formation of other and more divine beings. For God never ceases from making something or other; but, as it is the property of fire to burn, and of snow to chill, so also it is the property of God to be creating. And much more so, in proportion as he himself is to all other beings the author of their working.” (Allegorical Interpretation, 1.5)
God, I love Philo! And apparently Jesus (or the author of John) loved him too because the Johannine Jesus is saying the same thing.
“My Father is still working, and I also am working” (5:17)
James Alison elaborates on this verse: “God is creative effervescence, constantly and lovingly creating, so that the institution of the Sabbath, while it may be important for us humans to rest, is a symbol of creation yet to be completed and still needing its fullness. So Jesus also works, that is to say, brings creation to its proper fullness, making people whole (Ὑγιεία) on the Sabbath” Raising Abel, 72 – 73.
Just as Jesus asked the ill man “Do you want to be whole?” so he also asks us, “Do you want to be whole? Do you want to move out of your blame-bound and death-bound existence into abundant life and wholeness? Do you want to move into a life of creative collaboration with the Fount of all Health and Creativity? Whatever choice you make, I’m gonna keep working and keep inviting you into this wholeness…”