Like some older people, Beryl loved talking about her ailments, and not just talking about them but seriously dwelling on them. Each time I visited she had the same long script. It would begin with accounts of her arthritis and move on to many other things, including her insomnia and the disabling tinnitus she had in both ears. Over the last few years I have had tinnitus in my left ear, so I sometimes think of Beryl in that regard, but I hope that, as my ailments increase with old age, I may spare others too much constant retelling. For ill-health is a dreadful burden, and none of us can quite comprehend another’s pain, only empathise. Yet sometimes it is possible to become over-fixated on our difficulties. Indeed, we can become so stuck on our perceived problems we may never seize the opportunities for growth.
The effects of becoming stuck on illness of body also applies to becoming stuck on our emotional and psychological wounds too. In Beryl and Bill’s case, they certainly had some genuine cause for lasting sadness. They had never been able to have children of their own but had for a little while fostered a little girl. Unfortunately, despite their best efforts, the authorities decided against them adopting her. They had had, as I say, a beautiful marriage, but there was therefore that sense of emptiness they had had to bear. In Bill’s case, he had to some extent come to terms with this. Beryl however would still collapse into tears as she repeated the unfortunate story every time I visited. Almost to her dying day, there seemed no way she could move on. Now pain and wounds must be recognised and some never completely heal. Yet if we always dwell upon them parts at least of us will never grow. This is what happened to Beryl I think. Like the man by the pool in our Gospel story today, she remained fixed in the same stage of illness. In the case of the man by the pool it was thirty-eight years before he was shaken out of his self-absorption by Jesus.
What about us? Is there something in our lives we are hanging on to which we need to let go of, or put in the hands of Jesus for healing? Like Beryl, the man by the pool represents each of us when we too hold on to something which has shaped our identity for so long that we are almost incapable of receiving healing when it is offered. Sometimes we can hold on to, or exaggerate our wounds, because it at least means we have something to say about ourselves, something for others to take notice of, something to cling to. Yet unless we let go of clinging to our hurts, our angers, our disappointments, we can never be free, or know the fresh things God will give us, even in our continuing suffering and challenges.
One of the wonderful things about Christian life over the last hundred years or so has been the rediscovery of the ministry of healing which Jesus exercised and which he passed on to his first disciples to share with others. Somewhere in the first centuries of the Church, the energy of this dynamic ministry began to peter out and Christians emphasised too much sin and the after-life, rather than the living presence of Jesus and the Holy Spirit among us. Today the Church is recovering its balance and we are invited to pray for one another, to ask for healing of bodies, minds and souls, to share caring touch, anointing and the laying on of hands. Yet none of these will work unless we are open to receiving healing. The man by the pool of healing stayed there 38 years until Jesus finally said enough, stop clinging to what you have been, become what God wants you to be.
Does this speak to you? It does to me. For in own family I know someone who is similarly struggling to let go, to ‘stand up, take up their mat, and walk’. They have struggled with genuine wounds and even become addicted to them. Yet God has always been there for them. Now they have the opportunity to claim their healing and move on to the new things God is calling them to. Will they do so? I hope so. Will we all make that same journey ourselves, knowing that God is always calling us into new life out of the hurts and pain of the past? Together we can help one another stand, take up our mats and walk.
For the final verse of our Gospel today reminds us that healing is not simply a personal matter, sometimes very personal. It is also a social, community, matter. Today we may not stop people being healed, or claiming their healing, because it is a sabbath as such. Yet we can sometimes make it difficult for people to claim God’s healing or come out to full fullness of life when it disrupts our own lives or expectations. Sometimes we are so used to seeing or relating to others in one way that when they stand up and act differently we find it uncomfortable – even when they are much happier or more healthy in themselves. Even churches can sometimes keep people sick or dependent rather than help them heal, change, and empower them. For God in Jesus Christ does not wish us simply to be lifted from pain and suffering. God seeks us to much more than we have ever been. This can be disturbing for us and for others. Yet, unlike those who opposed healing on the sabbath in Jesus’ day, we need not be afraid. The Holy Spirit may blow through us like wind and fire, but it is a healing wind and a fire of love.
Let us then stand up and claim our healing. Let us let go of our false sticks and addictions, and let us share in God’s work of healing in, and for, each and every one of us. In Jesus’ Name, Amen.
Jon Inkpin for Easter 6, Year C, Sunday 1 May 2016