a sermon to trouble the waters

Sixth Sunday of Easter
Texts: Acts 16:9-15 | Psalm 67 | Revelation 21:10, 22–22:5 | John 5:1-9

A note from the preacher: I am a non-disabled person. I have learned a lot from friends, disability theologians, and activists about recognizing and resisting ableism. And I am still learning. I am certain that I have not gotten it 100% right in this sermon. In the meantime, I am seeking out feedback from trusted editors, and compensating them for their valuable time and knowledge. I would welcome your feedback too.

If, like me, you’re still learning about ableism, check out resources like this, or comment below with things that have been helpful for you.

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One person was there by the side of the pool who had been ill for thirty-eight years. When Jesus saw them lying there and knew that they had been there a long time, Jesus said, ‘Do you want to be made well?’

I wonder what it was like to lie there for so long. I wonder how it felt for people to walk right by as they entered the city for a celebration. They probably had to beg for coins to survive. People passing by might have felt pity, or shown their disgust.

I wonder how Jesus knew that this person had been ill for thirty eight years? That is a long time. Maybe Jesus had seen them before, on other occasions when Jesus was in the city. Maybe they had talked before. Jesus is in his early thirties, and maybe this person had been lying right there on that mat, in that spot, for Jesus’s whole life.

thirty. eight. years.

The story doesn’t tell us what prevented this person from living in a house with a roof and a family and instead has them lying alone by this pool. We don’t know whether they had trouble walking, or whether they had some kind of skin disease, or mental illness. The story doesn’t tell us, but we know that the place had all kinds of people, people with various ailments who are evidently excluded from the community’s life on a long-term basis. I mean thirty-eight years.

And I wonder what it felt like to hear Jesus ask, “Do you want to be made well?”

And I wonder why the person doesn’t say, “YES.” Yes, of course! I mean I’ve been lying here for thirty-eight years!

But the person doesn’t say yes.

Disability theologians sometimes refer to texts like this, stories about Jesus miraculously healing people from blindness, or paralysis, or demon possession, as “texts of terror.” Because when read through the lens of internalized ableism, these texts often just confirm biases that suggest that disability is terrible, or that people with disabilities are “problems” waiting to be “fixed” by Jesus.

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Of course, people with disabilities are not a problem. People with disabilities bear the holy image of God in this world just like everyone, and furthermore bring particular gifts to Christian community that non-disabled people do not. Without disabled people, the church would not be complete.

People with disabilities are not a problem. But there is a problem in this healing story. Because it is a problem that this person has been alone for thirty eight years. And it is a problem that they cannot access the healing of the pool. And it is a problem that day after day people walk by, and year after year nothing changes.

What could be so “wrong” with this person that there is no other option for them than to lay forever by the pool? Can a person with limited mobility not live at home with people who love them? Can a blind or a hearing-impaired person not get around the city and have an occupation and be part of a community? Can a person with mental illness or intellectual or developmental disability not get along just fine, with the right accommodations?

Of course they can. Yes, there is a problem in this story, and there is an illness in need of healing, and that illness does not belong to the thirty-eight-years-sick person. It belongs to the community. What’s sick is that the whole society taught them they belong alone by that pool. And still that illness belongs to all of us, to this world that *could* fully integrate and protect and celebrate people of all abilities but fails to do so every day.

Like how the city of Chicago spent months and $17 million renovating the Belmont blue line station so that it now has a nice fancy blue overhang, but still has no elevator. Or how the insulin that people depend on to live costs them so much that they have to work a second job. Or like how until a few months ago when some activists used our worship space for a meeting, we had no solution for the ledge that prevents people who use walkers or wheelchairs from getting in our front door. (Now we have two small wooden ramps).

We are sick with ableism, and it comes from meritocracy rooted in capitalism, and it teaches all of us that we’re only worth what we can produce or achieve. Which might sound good so long as you can produce or achieve for now. But taken to its logical conclusion it means that once someone can’t work or produce by society’s standards, because of age or disability or difference, we are disposable.

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Yes, this is a serious problem, and its infection eats away at even those of us who are temporarily non-disabled. We all need to be made well, brought back to community, made whole with one another.

And so every once in a while, an angel of God would come down, to stir up the waters. Maybe she carried a big cosmic wooden spoon. Or maybe it was more stirred up like a mysterious boiling from beneath. In the original language of this story, the word for “stirred up” the waters could be translated “to move” or “to stir” or “to agitate” like the agitator in a top-load washing machine. The community of enslaved African-descent people who sung the great Negro spirituals into existence heard the King James Version of this story in church, and so they sang the translation, “God’s gonna trouble the water.”

In John’s gospel, you gotta keep an eye on the water. The water is a clue to what Jesus is up to.

And in this story, Jesus is up to trouble. Jesus is on the scene agitating the status quo. Jesus is agitating the powerful ones by breaking the rules about when and where and how healing can happen, and who can heal and who deserves healing. Jesus is agitating the system, and Jesus is also agitating the individual. Because as we know, oppression doesn’t just come from out there. It has this way of lodging itself in our hearts and minds until we’re not even sure who is keeping us by the pool anymore. Is someone making me lay here at this point, or have I just been here so long that I’ve started to believe this is where I belong? No one will put me in. No one will help me.

And Jesus agitates: Stand up. Take your mat and go.

This is a healing that empowers. Jesus doesn’t meet this person with pity or with a savior complex. Jesus doesn’t try to fix, and Jesus doesn’t erase this person’s suffering. It’s not, “Stand up, take a shower and burn the evidence.” No. Stand up and don’t forget to take your mat. The mat you laid on for thirty-eight years goes out of here right under your arm, because this healing doesn’t try to pretend the pain never happened. That mat is a testimony to where you’ve been and how God has brought you up out of there. You’ve got this. You don’t belong stuck here. Get up and go.

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Y’all, I gotta be honest. When I saw this text on our calendar, I knew we should do a rite for healing in this service, but I was kind of dreading it. I have been hurt by Christian communities that have made it seem like sickness or pain are signs of God’s absence, or like if we pray right or deserve it, God will suspend the laws of nature and medicine to help us escape. I don’t know about all that, although I have certainly seen some things that defy explanation.

What I do know is how it has felt for someone to help me get up out of a rut. The sense of relief when someone has helped me realize my suffering is because there is something wrong with this world, not something wrong with me. I know how my heart opens up when someone puts a hand on my shoulder and prays for me. Or when my forehead is anointed with oil and I know that somehow, God will meet me with peace and wholeness, and will not leave me alone.

And maybe, I don’t know… Maybe for the thirty-eight-years sick person nothing else changes in this healing except that now they believe they deserve to walk away from that pool, ill or not. Maybe this healing isn’t supernatural; maybe it’s as ordinary as when someone loves you enough to agitate you to get! up! because you were madefor more than the limitations that other people impose on you. Made for more, just like the faithful people who first sang to each other to Wade in the Water knew that God was going to trouble the water, because they were certainly made for more than slavery.

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There will come a day when those of us who are sick or alone or oppressed no longer need to compete for the scarce bits of healing we can find. There will be a day when healing comes for you and for me, and for the nations, and for all creation. A new city where the pool of isolation is transformed into a river of life flowing through the city, bright as crystal, accessible to everyone.

But for now—until that day comes—for now, the voice of Jesus is calling us to get up—to live like the world has already been healed. To tuck our vulnerabilities under our arm and carry them with us, and show them to each other. And to be on our way. Because God is still not done stirring up the waters.

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