In the Monty Python movie Life of Brian, there is a scene in which a man solicits Brian (the main character) for money. He runs alongside Brian and says, “Alms for an old ex-leper?”
When Brian finally understands what the man is saying, he replies, “Ex-leper?” The man explains that he had made his living, with his leprosy, by begging. Then Jesus came by and healed him, “without so much as a by-your-leave.” Now the man is begging as an ex-leper and he’s mad that Jesus robbed him of his trade.
Brian says, “There’s just no pleasing some people.” The ex-leper replies, “That’s just what Jesus said, sir.”
This is a very funny skit in the movie and we are able to laugh at it even out of context. The hard part to admit is the ring of truth that is lies in the dialogue. Becoming well, being healed, requires change. Not everyone is ready to embrace that kind of change.
In today’s gospel reading, there is a man who has been ill for thirty-eight years. Given the relative life expectancy, he’s been sick for most, if not all, of his life. His parents are probably dead. His community is the other sick people around him. They wait by the pool, hoping to be the first in when the water ripples. In the man’s case, he may lack friends with the capability to get him to the pool. He may have stopped expecting to ever get there. His life has likely become begging for coins and food, receiving the prayers of well-meaning people who come to the pool, and waiting to die.
Then Jesus comes along and asks, “Do you want to be made well?” What kind of a question is that? It’s actually an excellent question. Do you want your circumstances to change? Do you actually desire this? Are you willing to participate in a change? Are you prepared for how hard this might be?
When people struggle with addiction, when they wrestle with illnesses that may have resulted from smoking, alcoholism, or overeating, when they experience failed relationships because of personal decisions… we have a tendency to assume that they don’t want to be well. That if they did, if they truly did, if way, way deep down, they really, really, really wanted to be well… they would do something differently. It’s not always that simple. It’s rarely that simple.
In this story, the religious authorities see the man carrying his mat on the Sabbath. They chastise him for this. “You can’t do that on the Sabbath! It’s work!” The previously-ill man immediately passes the blame, “Hey, the guy who healed me told me to pick it up and carry it!” The authorities then go sniffing for the one who committed the more egregious Sabbath violation- a mat-carrier is a parking violation compared to the definite 8-point violation that is healing on the Sabbath!
Why do they care so much? Aren’t they glad the man is healed? The truth is that these authorities are trying to protect their community. They are trying to preserve Jewish identity by protecting the things that make the community special and holy: circumcision, food laws, and Sabbath observance.
The Jewish community is living under Roman rule. The Roman emperor portrays himself as a son of the gods and as a god himself. Those communities who are occupied by Rome, but desire to maintain their own identities have to cling to what makes them unique, over and against what Roman occupiers may want or expect.
Keeping the Sabbath observance meant that Jewish people were not working, not selling to Romans or buying from them, not interacting with them and, thus, not acknowledging their power. Theorectically, then, the absence of work and the presence of worship marked the Jews as followers of the true God. Unfortunately, some of the Jewish leaders (not all leaders and NOT all Jews) became more concerned about the outward behavior than what it was supposed to represent. Rather than emphasizing the honoring God aspect, their focus because strict adherence to the rules.
Thus, Jesus threatened their efforts to preserve the community. The change that he brought, the emphasis on belief and action in faith in God, disturbed the way that the authorities had structured the community. The change was too much. God was right in front of them… bringing in a new age of wholeness, encounter, and support for faith, but it was too much. Change is hard. Though many had prayed for the Messiah, when he wasn’t what they expected… they wanted him to go away. There’s no pleasing some people (which applies across all religions and denominations.
Which brings us back to where we are, to our own lives, and to people we know who are struggling with all kinds of illnesses and demons. Don’t they want to be made well? Many of them do. Most of them do. More than we know. Many of us here may have similar longings in our lives. However, change is hard.
Becoming well, being well, staying well… for many the change that is required is too difficult to maintain, if it can be conceived. It requires effort. An minute by minute process- not weekly, daily, or hourly- but a minute to minute awareness.
Jesus tells the man not to sin again, so that nothing worse may happen to him. In the gospel according to John, sin is persisting in unbelief. It is not what you do necessarily, but sin is what you are unwilling to do… to trust in, to act on, to follow what God is revealing right in front of you. Jesus isn’t saying if the man messes up, God will smite him with illness. Jesus is pressing the man to move into the way of trust, into the life of believing, into the light that no darkness can overcome.
Making that change will bring the man into a new relationship with God- a relationship that will come with wholeness, renewal, and community. Surely that’s worth it. We’d think so. We say so. Yet, in our hearts, we know when we haven’t wanted to change. We know making changes in ourselves, in our families, as a congregation, as a community is hard. Change means a shift in how we see those around us and ourselves. Change may mean altering some of our “rules” or ways of being and doing. Do we want change?
This is the question that we live with- minute by minute, hour by hour, day by day. The question for the larger world and for the world within ourselves. God has revealed a desire for healing, relationship, hope, and forgiveness for us and for all people. So the question is: do you, do I, do we want to be made well?