Nightmares still plague me from the tour of the Billy Graham Museum. Once inside the touring section that outlines the ministry of Bill Graham, unless things have changed, you can’t get out. They won’t let you out. You either go through the whole thing or nothing. That really bothered me. It was not long into the “tour” that I knew where things were going and I chose not to continue until the invitation time. But they wouldn’t let me out. Like a soup kitchen that won’t feed you until you’ve heard the sermon, part of the price of the tour was getting the invitation at the end.
In the Gospel of John, the writer takes specific effort to capsulize “signs” that represent Christ as the son of God. Some of them don’t end quite like we might expect. One such story is the lame man sitting by the Pool of Bethesda for some 38 years. Let’s just make a few points about this story.
First, during the time of Christ, it is said that most males lived to their early forties. If this is true, that means the lame man has been lame essentially from birth. If not birth, than shortly afterwards. This may seem insignificant but it is not.
A second point to be made is how the lame man responds to Jesus initially. When Jesus asks the man if he would “wish to get well”, the man’s response is more of an excuse than an affirmation. He bemoans the fact that “I have no man to put me into the pool when the water is stirred up…” Being one step behind had become the story of this man’s life and his focus.
We might also observe a third point. When Jesus gives the imperative for the man to “arise and take up (his) pallet and walk” the man does just that without any comment to the one who just changed his life. No thank you was offered, no inquiry as to who it was who just altered his life forever, no worship, and no jumping and shouting for joy. John simply tells us he “took up his pallet and began to walk.”
As the story progresses John gets to his point when he lays out the fact that the healing took place on the Sabbath and this was upsetting to the Jewish leaders. They apparently had no qualms about the lame man being healed. They did however take issue with his carrying his mat on the Sabbath. They – unlike the lame man – wanted to know who did this deed. Of course, the lame man had no idea since he never asked.
Later, Jesus happens across the man in the temple. This time the man learns Jesus’ identity and hears these words; “Behold, you have become well; do not sin anymore, so that nothing worse may befall you.” (Remember, the average lifespan of a male in this period was about forty years. What sins could this man have committed so early in his life that would cause him such physical pain? And what could the “worse” be?)
Again, John gives us no reaction from the lame man, now walking. The man simply goes back to the Jewish leaders and told them he now knows who it was that healed him, it was Jesus.
Here’s the interesting part about this whole thing. Like turning the water into wine, there is no indication in this story that the lame man came to a “saving” faith in Christ. It just isn’t part of the text. We might speculate, but the text gives us no indication that the purpose of this healing was to bring the man to faith. Apparently, John’s purpose in the story is not the healing of the lame man, but to show the Jewish leaders’ reaction to Jesus and their accusation that Jesus was a blasphemer “calling God his own father, making himself equal with God.”
At times, for whatever reason, people want to make every act that God or Jesus does a “saving act.” It wasn’t the case with the water into wine event, it wasn’t the case with Nicodemus, and it isn’t the case here. It seems there are times when God does what he does because he does it. In the grand scheme of things it may result in someone somewhere coming to a belief in Christ, but not always. It’s important for us to understand this because we can’t build our church’s ministry or outreach solely around bringing people to faith. Because of God’s love we can rise up and meet people’s needs without an expectation that they are going to pray a prayer or join the congregation. We don’t need to lock them in the tour until they hear the invitation. Our responsibility is to meet the needs of those around us because we love God not because we expect them to love God.
What do you think? Is the church’s responsibility solely to present the Gospel before meeting people’s needs? Or is the church’s responsibility to plant and water feeling comfortable that meeting people’s needs may result in a harvest later?