Luke 19:1-10; John 5:2-9; Mark 2:1-12
The Rev. Tom Herbek
November 6, 2016
Trying to find a way to be made well is a theme throughout the New Testament. We find stories of people who were willing to do anything to be made well. The wellness they sought sometimes was physical, but more often was spiritual and emotional. Most often the healing was not just from some physical limitation, but was a dramatic change in the person’s entire being.
In Luke’s story, Zacchaeus was a rich tax collector, a collaborator with the hated Roman occupiers, a short, self-centered but curious guy. Because of his self-centered nature, he was all alone. He was the Ebenezer Scrooge of his time. But tremendous change came to him. He finally found what was most important in life, something that all of his money could not buy, something the powerful Roman overlords could not give him.
For some people, healing has to be a solitary experience. For them, whatever needs to be made well has become an insurmountable barrier to true friendship, to any real help from outside of themselves. Believing that they are self-sufficient, it takes a dramatic intervention, perhaps from a stranger who has no interest in their money or their arrogance, for people like Zacchaeus to be made well.
Sometimes healing comes in other ways, just as dramatic, but necessitating the help of friends or family. In Mark’s story, the paralyzed man’s friends were determined, not about to let anything get in their way. They were going to get healing for their friend, no matter what. Sometimes it takes determined and creative friends to help us find healing, friends whose energy and determination go far beyond what we might do ourselves.
Mark Nepo describes his own journey with cancer, as well as his wife’s journey:
It’s next to impossible to do this alone. We need the loving truth of others to be well. Inevitably, some come with us and are forever changed while others watch as we’re forced out to sea. It’s the power of love that enables those who come along, where a language of experience is unearthed that can’t be translated to those who stay behind.
-Inside the Miracle
Healing impacts both the one seeking healing, and those compassionate friends who work beside us in our journey toward healing. Everyone is changed by the journey. Sometimes our friends on the journey enable us to do things that we would never have done on our own. In the story in Mark, I can imagine the paralyzed man protesting: “Not through the roof! This is way too embarrassing. Let’s come back another day. What will Jesus say if we disturb him in this way? What will the others do to us because of this disruption? Who is going to fix this roof?”
Sometimes the enthusiasm, creativity, and determination of friends or family cause healing to occur even when we ourselves are ready to give up, to go home, to put it off until another day. Whether strangers have to sharply intervene or friends have to creatively find help, most healing involves others. At times, we all have to allow others to help us.
In John’s gospel story, a man has been sitting by the healing waters of a sacred pool for 38 years, waiting to be healed. When Jesus comes there, his first question to this man is: “Do you really want to be made well?” It seems like a stupid question. He’s been waiting for 38 years there, every day for 38 years.
But actually it is a really good question. In 38 years, he was never able to get himself into the healing waters, never willing to seek the help of friends, never able to request that a stranger help him. “Do you really want to be made well?” It’s a good question after all. In fact, the question that Jesus asked is the most important question.
Perhaps being made well was not what this man actually wanted. When we have had something that has been a part of us for a very long time, sometimes it’s hard to think about what life would be like without it, even something that everyone else sees as a terrible or negative thing. It is one of the reasons that abused people stay with abusing spouses for long periods of time. It is inexplicable to anyone else, but it is the only “normal” that the abused person knows, and changing that can be just as scary as being abused.
The same is true of forgiveness for some people. The idea that we can be forgiven, can give up our guilt, our sense of failure, can be inexplicably frightening sometimes. Perhaps it is why Jesus came to help those who were considered less than valuable people: tax collectors and sinners, women and children, Samaritans and unclean people.
He knew that “those who are well have no need for a physician.” Instead he came for “those who are sick.” His message was clear that God wanted us to feel mercy, grace, love – not something relying on the rules or being the right kind of person. He said: “For I have come to call not the righteous, but sinners.”
To be made well, there are some things we must do for ourselves. As Frederick Douglas once said, “I prayed for freedom twenty years, but received no answer until I prayed with my legs.”
Anthony DeMello describes how difficult it is for some people to get over the fact that bad things, tough things, have happened to them: “In life one plays the hand one is dealt to the best of one’s ability. Those who insist on playing, not the hand they were given, but the one they insist they should have been dealt – these are life’s failures. We are not asked if we will play. That is not an option. Play we must. The option is how.”
Whether it takes 20 years to take action for ourselves, to “pray with our legs”, or 38 years sitting by the pool until someone finally asks us, “Do you really want to be made well?”, a part of it is up to us. But we need people who care enough to ask the hard questions, enough to lower us through the roof, enough to startle us by inviting themselves to dinner at our house when no one else wants anything to do with us.
Mark Nepo says that we must always remember that we need a balance of what we can only do by ourselves, and what others can do that we can’t do:
Now that I’m well, the ways in which we survived – alone and together – have stayed with me, and the more I have thought about them, the more they represent a basic and unavoidable paradox about living, which is this:
Though each of us must go through our suffering alone, no one can make it alone. Though no one can save us from our own feelings, not one of us can carry those feelings in the world without the support of others.
He then describes his wife’s surgery day:
I remember wheeling Ann to her surgery, her stretcher wobbling down the sanitized hall, her groggy eyes looking back at me, our hands entwined. I wheeled her as far as they would let me, and then, quite suddenly, though I knew it was coming, the glass doors of the operating room stopped me and she was wheeled on. I stood there, pressed against the glass, watching her grow smaller and smaller.
I realized then that whether it be our search for purpose, our struggle with confusion, our working through grief, or the violent evolution of our identity, no one can go beyond the glass door with you. Each of us must do that work alone. Each of us must ask our questions and feel our pain and be surprised by wonder in the very personal terrain that exists beyond that glass door. The best we can do in loving others is wheel each other as far as possible and be there when our loved ones return. But the work that changes our very lives, the work that yields inner transformation, the work that allows us to be reborn within the same skin must always be done alone. This is the work of solitude, and the attending up to and from the glass door is the work of compassion, and the sharing with others of what we each discover in our solitude is the work of education, and the wisdom by which we weave that inner knowledge and that compassion – this is the work of community.
Crisis helps us discover the healing power within us and within the compassionate people around us who go up to the glass door with us, and help us to recover afterwards, and help us to sustain our wellness. But – no matter what happens – we will be changed, as will those who journey with us.
When we choose to be made well, it means that we will climb trees and have strangers to dinner who challenge us to become someone entirely different.
When we choose to be made well, it means that we will trust the enthusiasm and ingenuity of our friends – who tear open a roof to get us to the source of healing.
When we choose to be made well, it means that we will not passively sit by at a place of healing, waiting for someone else to do something.
When we choose to be made well, it means that we will seek healing of our entire being, not just the cure of one small part of who we are.
So let us choose to be made well- physically, emotionally, spiritually- and may we hear in our hearts what Zacchaeus heard: “Today wellness and wholeness have come to this house.”
Each day, let us choose to be made well, to remove those things that keep us from becoming all that we were created to be. And may today be a day of wellness for each of us, each in our own unique and special way.