Of Baptismal Largesse and Healing Outside the Pool
All pessimism has a secret optimism for its object.
“You have your swimsuit on,” my son Nicky observed. “Does that mean you’re going to swim?”
“May-be,” I replied, adding a bit of upward lift to the second syllable. Nicky correctly interpreted this as an affirmation.
“Yes,” he hissed with a fist pump, and turning to Katharine, “Papa’s going to get in this time!”
It’s been a chilly summer around here, and the first couple times I took the kids swimming I had no intention of joining them. They wore their suits and did the polar bear thing; I wore clothes and sat by the poolside with a newspaper.
What was I thinking?
Maybe I physically stayed out of the pool itself, but there were plenty of other soaking modes to contend with – saturated splash balls flying to and fro, pool noodles doused and whipped around, and gargantuan water guns blasting away around the perimeter. Plus, my own kids coming up – for snack money, for swimsuit re-ties – and dripping chlorinated goodness all over me. So, this time, despite the cool temperatures, I decided to throw in the towel (as it were) and suit up. Besides, getting wet is why we go to the pool, right? Why try to avoid it?
St. John tells the story of another poolside sitter that had the opposite problem: the paralytic at Bethesda. Here was a man suffering a debilitating illness for 38 years – thirty-eight! – and his last ditch effort to obtain a cure was Bethesda’s miracle pond. The tradition was that there were healing properties in those waters, but only when they were “stirred up” – by an underground spring, perhaps, or an angel (if you take the word of the “other ancient authority” who added a verse to that effect sometime in the second century).
Anyway, as John indicates, the paralytic had plenty of competition at the pool’s edge – “a large number of ill, blind, lame, and crippled” – and he was already at a severe disadvantage to boot. Although folks must’ve assisted him to the site itself at some point, nobody was hanging around to help him get into the curative waters at the magic moment. Understandably, then, the man was bitter and had pretty much given up hope – pretty much, but not totally.
Enter Jesus, who scans the scene and zeroes in on this one particularly sad case. “Do you want to be well?” he asks him. It seems like a silly question – of course he wants to be made well! – and the paralytic doesn’t even dignify it with a direct answer. “Sir, I have no one to put me into the pool when the water is stirred up,” he replies, very matter of fact. “While I am on my way, someone else gets down there before me.”
That’s good enough for the Lord. “Rise, take up your mat, and walk,” Jesus commands – and it happens. The healing is accomplished solely by Jesus’ word, and the wonder pool is bypassed altogether!
Modern Bible commentaries tend to focus on what follows this miraculous event: the Jewish leaders accusing the man (and, by extension, his healer) of breaking the Sabbath for the mat-carrying, followed by Jesus’ assertion of his superiority over the Law and the Sabbath. I can see the scholars’ argument that John primarily included this story as a further illustration of one of his main theological points, but I can’t help being drawn to the paralytic himself.
This is no walk-on character, but someone tangibly real and three-dimensional, and wholly sympathetic in his character flaws – which uncomfortably mirror my own. The paralytic’s “crotchety grumbling about the ‘whippersnappers’ who outrace him to the water betrays a chronic inability to seize opportunity,” writes Fr. Raymond Brown, “a trait reflected again in his oblique response to Jesus’ offer of a cure.” Brown notes as well that the man ungraciously neglects to ask the name of his healer, and then goes on to rat Jesus out to the Jewish authorities. “This is less an example of treachery,” Brown concludes, “than of persistent naïveté.”
Clearly the paralytic has faith – again, it’s been thirty-eight years, and he’s still poolside – yet he lacks imagination. It never occurs to him that healing might be possible outside of the pool, and even when it does occur out of season, he seems utterly uninterested in connecting the dots: “Let’s see,” he might’ve pondered, “that guy asks me a dumb question, tells me to get up, and then I’m all better – weird! Who he anyway?” None of that.
So, why did Jesus heal him? Wouldn’t he have known about the paralytic’s stunted spiritual vision and self-absorption? Shouldn’t the Lord have perceived that the healed man was to report him to his persecutors? And what about all those other crippled folks at Bethesda – weren’t they at least as deserving of healing, if not more so?
The fact that these questions even occur to me betrays my own cranky short-sightedness. As Tertullian and other Church Fathers have pointed out, there are clear baptismal overtones in this story of John’s, and baptism is anything but stingy in its outflow. “Now everyone may attain this blessing,” St. John Chrysostom expounded, “for it is not an Angel which troubles the water, but the Lord of Angels, which works everywhere.” He continued:
Though the whole world come, grace fails not, but remains as full as ever; like the sun's rays which give light all day, and every day, and yet are not spent. The sun's light is not diminished by this bountiful expenditure: no more is the influence of the Holy Spirit by the largeness of its outpourings.
You see, we don’t need to get in any pools for our healing, for the pool has come to us. We’re swamped with the baptismal tidal wave of Jesus, so we need not hold on to our hurts and failures, big and small. Like John’s paralytic, we think we have to do something to get fixed up – to get in another pool, in other words, to follow whatever rigid proscriptions we imagine are required of us. Yet, John will have none of that, and he tells us that we’re already in the pool – the Lord is surrounding us, and grace is drenching us all the time, regardless of our awareness or even our worthiness!
Here’s an example of how I think this plays out. My friend Michelle, the mother of a large family, was upset. She’d befriended a jobless woman who was caring for three grandchildren, and Michelle felt guilty that she could do little beyond prayer, encouragement, and facilitating connections with social services. “How could this possibly be fair?” she told me. “I hated that we had so much and they had so little. But what am I supposed to? Where’s the balance?”
Ah, but there is no balance – God is not an accountant. His bookkeeping is not the same as our bookkeeping: “To anyone who has, more will be given,” he tells us, and “from anyone who has not, even what he has will be taken away.” What’s fair about that? And if there is a balance sheet at all, it’s merely a record of how we responded the last time he offered us a challenge: Did our love expand or contract; did we move closer to him (and to others) or farther away? It’s not how many crosses we bear, but how well we respond to the crosses we’re given.
This is the extravagance of baptismal munificence – forget about staying dry. We’re in the pool of grace, so splash around – and allow others to splash you! Take the good with the bad, learn from your errors, make adjustments, and keep swimming. It never seems quite fair – it’s all out of whack, and there’s no way to second guess it. Our healing is accomplished despite ourselves, and Jesus wins again. He always wins, always.
“Nothing will surprise me about your religion,” says the agnostic Charles Ryder to the pious Cordelia in Brideshead Revisited. Surely we who believe are bound to concur.