“Thirty-Eight Years”

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Rev. Jocelyn B. Gardner Spencer

May 26, 2019

John 5:1-9


One man was there, the story says, who had been ill for 38 years.

Thirty-eight years.  Can you imagine?

For some of you, that’s the length of time you’ve been married.  For others, that’s the age of your kids.  For some of you, that’s somewhere near the entirety of your lifetime, or longer.

If the story were happening today, he would have arrived by the pool in 1981 and been lying there ever since.  Or, if he arrived there today, he would still be there in the year 2057.

He had been there for two generations, likely for his entire adult life.  Or perhaps he had been there since he was a child.  Thirty-eight years is a really long time.


He was lying there beside the pool, along with many other people with disabilities and illnesses, because there was a commonly-held belief that this particular pool was a site of healing.  Every so often, the story goes, an angel would appear to stir up the waters of the pool, and when the waters were stirred, those who entered the pool were healed.  It was a first come, first served, kind of arrangement.  There was only so much healing available.  So you can imagine the jostling and bumping and flat-out pushing and shoving that might have ensued when the waters were stirred.  And you can imagine how someone whose disability made walking difficult or impossible, and who had no one to lift them into the pool, would have a hard time accessing the waters when the opportune moment arose.

Thirty-eight years is a really long time.  Can you imagine?

Can you imagine what happens to a person’s spirit when they are overlooked, pushed aside, rendered invisible for that many years?  Can you imagine being so close to healing for so, so long, and yet unable to reach it?  Can you imagine how many cycles of hope and heartbreak, hope and heartbreak, hope and heartbreak, oh-maybe-this-is-it and missed-it-again, how many rounds of devastation this man must have endured?  Do you know how hard it is to keep hoping when your dreams have been turned to despair so many times?

After languishing for so long by the pool, you can understand how he might have started to believe the things they said about people like him.  That his illness was somehow his own fault.  That if he just tried harder, he could get well.  That he was less valuable, less worthy, less deserving of care or attention or love.  That he was a burden on society.  That he was a shame to his family.  That there was nothing that could be done to help him.  That it was too late.

And then Jesus showed up.  And he demonstrated that first come, first served, is not how it works in the Realm of God.  All of a sudden, it was not too late.  That which had seemed inconceivable, even impossible, came to pass.  Jesus saw this man, truly saw him.  He knew that he had been there for a long time.  He did not apply some kind of merit-based assessment.  He did not ask questions about his faith or beliefs.  He did not check his citizenship or ancestry.  He did not allocate healing based on who had the most potential, or the saddest story, or the most demonstrated initiative.

Jesus showed up.  He was moved with compassion.  He asked for the man’s consent.  And the man was healed.  Stand up, take your mat, and walk.


Here’s what I wonder:  What happened next?

John’s gospel continues the story for a little bit longer.  In the next few verses, we are told that the healed man encountered the religious authorities, who gave him a hard time for carrying a mat, since no work was allowed on the sabbath.  When it was revealed that someone had healed the man and told him to take up his mat and walk, and then when it was further revealed that that someone was Jesus, the conflict shifted to the realm of the theological, to what was and was not allowed on the sabbath and to how Jesus spoke of his relationship to God.

But my What next? is a longer-term question.  After the exchanges related here, then what?

Did the man just go on his merry way?  Maybe… but I doubt it.

When you’ve been away for that long, you don’t usually just waltz on home and expect a warm welcome.  And where was home?  If he had local family, they seemingly would have come to see him by the pool and perhaps even helped him into the waters, and yet he says that he has no one to help him.  If they were far away, how would he get there?  How would he even know where to find them?  Having been ill for that long, he probably had no spouse, no children, no familial or social connections save for the others with whom he had languished for so long—and who had been so often his competitors as well as his companions.

And it’s not like those 38 years of suffering were just erased, canceled out by his sudden and inexplicable healing.  That experience, that trauma, was still part of him.  He still knew in his body what it felt like to be unseen, invisible, cast aside like a forgotten heap of rags.  He still remembered what it felt like when, time after time, the waters would be stirred up and someone else would be healed.  He could still feel the simultaneous, paradoxical emotions that moment would invariably create:  a glimmer of hope because healing was possible for someone, anyone, and maybe it could be for him; and a burning resentment that the one who was healed was not him, again.

So I wonder…

When he was finally healed, did the experience move him to charity?  Did he go back to the porticoes to become an agent of healing for the others lying around that pool?  Did he lift them down into the water, making sure that as many as possible had access and that no one was shoved aside?

Did he move behind charity to justice?  Did he become an advocate for better accommodations and health care for people who were ill or living with disabilities?  Did he start asking questions about why in God’s name, in a society that was supposed to extend special care to its most vulnerable members, sick people were left languishing for decades with no one to help them?

Did other people see his actions, learn his story, and start to ask questions that challenged the narratives they had been fed all their lives?  That “those people” were sick because of their own sin… that it was lamentable, but there really wasn’t anything that could be done to help them… that if they were poor, it was because they were lazy or because their family or culture was deficient… that a few cents worth of spare change, tossed without making eye contact, was all that was required, because “they” weren’t really “our” problem.

When he was finally healed, what happened next?  When he received that grace, what did it mean for him, and what did it mean for his community?

The story doesn’t tell us what happened next.  We don’t get to know for sure what it meant, but I know for sure that it meant something, because this is how grace works.  It is freely given, initiated not by our human effort but by God’s compassionate solidarity.  It is extravagantly poured out, far beyond what we can ask or imagine.  It is unpredictable, hard to pin down; its arrival is difficult to forecast.

When it comes, and come it will, it is a free gift, but it is not cheap.  When it comes, and come it will, it brings not only healing, but also a revealing of the injustices that are rampant in every human community.  When it comes, and come it will, it restores bodies and minds and souls, and it charges those it touches to do the same—not in some calculated, tit-for-tat repayment system, but as a welling-up, a pouring-forth, a how-can-I-keep-from-singing chorus that swells to include every voice in the land.


Thirty-eight years is a really long time.  And then, in a moment, healing went from off-in-the-distance to close-at-hand, from out-of-reach to already-accomplished.  It was not too late for him.  It is not too late for you, not too late for whatever part of your life, whatever aspect of your identity, whatever facet of your experience, to move from languishing to flourishing, to be seen and known and cherished and embraced by the tender heart of God.

And every individual act of healing… every claiming of sacred worth and identity… every restoration of relationship… every move toward mercy and justice… becomes part of our communal healing, of the renewal of our society and the salvation of our world.

May it be so.


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