5After this there was a festival of the Jews, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem. 2Now in Jerusalem by the Sheep Gate there is a pool, called in Hebrew Beth-zatha, which has five porticoes. 3In these lay many invalids—blind, lame, and paralyzed. 5One man was there who had been ill for thirty-eight years. 6When Jesus saw him lying there and knew that he had been there a long time, he said to him, “Do you want to be made well?” 7The sick man answered him, “Sir, I have no one to put me into the pool when the water is stirred up; and while I am making my way, someone else steps down ahead of me.” 8Jesus said to him, “Stand up, take your mat and walk.” 9At once the man was made well, and he took up his mat and began to walk. Now that day was a sabbath. 10So the Jews said to the man who had been cured, “It is the sabbath; it is not lawful for you to carry your mat.” 11But he answered them, “The man who made me well said to me, ‘Take up your mat and walk.’” 12They asked him, “Who is the man who said to you, ‘Take it up and walk’?”13Now the man who had been healed did not know who it was, for Jesus had disappeared in the crowd that was there. 14Later Jesus found him in the temple and said to him, “See, you have been made well! Do not sin any more, so that nothing worse happens to you.” 15The man went away and told the Jews that it was Jesus who had made him well.
I have an overdeveloped sense of guilt.
Maybe this comes from my Catholic grade school roots. Maybe it’s just from my serotonin issues. Or that it’s Always February in my brain. Or I have a case of the Mondays. Maybe I just absorbed all the spankings and yelling and timeouts that came to my troublemaker sister. But I have this uncanny ability to be able to figure out how to make everything my fault. Morning gridlock traffic? It was me. Hungry homeless kids? I didn’t do enough to stop it. U2 comes out with a series of mediocre albums? It’s because I am a fairweather fan and haven’t truly appreciated them since The Joshua Tree.
Is it grey and gross in Pittsburgh at the end of January? Somehow, Eeyore and I worked together to staple big gray wool clouds up into the sky. Whatever it is, I’m sure I can figure out a way to blame myself for it.
And when I DO screw up, which isn’t rare, my guilt is totally out of proportion with the crime. Just the other day, I missed an appointment. For no good reason. It just slipped my mind. And, it was the SECOND time that I’d missed this appointment.
I was so upset with myself that you would have thought that I had thrown away those plastic can holders without cutting them first or thrown my Starbucks coffee cup out of my car window on the highway while idealistic teenagers in bright orange vests and United Way t-shirts were stabbing at litter with those spear things. You would have thought that I’d just been caught torturing puppies or clubbing seals. I missed an appointment, and I felt like I deserved to be hung for treason or at least sent to solitary confinement and fed prison loaf for the next 57 days.
Ok. True confessions. Appropriately, this was an appointment with my therapist…
So I sent an email. And this is what it said:
crap crap crap.
i'm so sorry.
send me the bill.
i'm so so sorry.
And you can’t see it, but I was even too ashamed to use capital letters. And then for the next 48 hours, I proceeded to contemplate things like bridges and exposure and bottles of aspirin. I trapped myself inside of my guilt-ridden brain, alone, beating myself up every moment.
And then she emailed me back. And she said, “There is grace.”
There is grace.
There is grace.
Grace didn’t exist for me. Grace didn’t exist until those words were said. “There is grace,” she said.
For me, in the midst of my overdeveloped, out-of-proportion guilt and shame, there was no such thing as grace. It didn’t exist.
Everything I did was weighed down by the guilt of my screw up. I drank my coffee, guilty. I took my shower, guilty. I changed my son’s diaper and dropped off my other son at preschool…guilty.
I had locked myself in a cage of guilt. Alone. And for a ridiculous reason - I’d missed an appointment. I’d inconvenienced someone. I’d made a mistake and now someone thought poorly of me. It was the worst. I was the worst.
And then she said, “there is grace.”
And it wasn’t just that she forgave me, or was willing to reschedule, or wasn’t sitting on her therapist couch stewing with her Jenn-shaped voodoo doll and contemplating ways she could plot her revenge.
She’d made an ontological statement. A statement that was true. Real. A statement that defied my doubts simply because it was spoken into existence. A statement that became true as soon as the words were said out loud.
See, the grace didn’t exist until there was a speaker and a hearer. A voice and a receiver. A narrator and a narratee. A connection. A relationship. And she chose to speak the grace into existence.
In the seventies, some scientists did an experiment. They took a rat and put him in a cage all by himself. And then they gave him two water bottles - one filled with just plain old water, and the other, laced with cocaine.
The rat went back to the cocaine-laced water again and again until it killed him.
Proof, they said, the chemicals in drugs are so evil, so addictive, that once we try them, we will be forever on a downward spiral of addiction until it kills us. Time for the war on drugs.
But then another scientist, a guy by the name of Bruce Alexander, came up with a follow-up of this experiment. He created a cage he called “rat park” - a place with the best rat food, great ratty tunnels to burrow through, fun, brightly colored rat-toys to play with, and a whole bunch rat-friends to live together. And, he included one bottle with plain water, and one laced with cocaine.
And wouldn’t you know it — the rats tried the cocaine water, but quickly gave it up, the majority of them rejecting it for the plain-old water and the toys and the delicious rat-food and tunnels and friends.
Alexander began to wonder, what if it isn’t simply chemical reactions in our brain that bring us down to our knees, that have us calling out to God in our despair, that have us contemplating cocaine water and bridges and exposure and bottles of aspirin?
I mean, it has an impact. Serotonin is nothing to mess with.
But, what if it was our isolation? What if it was our cages we lock ourselves in, or feel we have been locked in by circumstances or fear or betrayal or the sins of others?
What if we all had a “rat park” a place where our needs were met and we had other ratty-friends around us? What if we were surrounded by folks who speak the truth of who you are, and thus, bring the truth of who you are into existence?
What if we heard, “there is grace”? That it exists. That it’s for you. That you’re surrounded by it all the time simply because you live in the rat park?
What if we had other rat friends who speak the truth of who we are - out loud - and then we are pulled out of our heads, out of our obsessions about how terrible we think we are, and into a world of the truth?
‘Cause if you’re just in your own head, you’ll still be hanging out at the pool in Bethesda, alone, for 38 years. 36 years, in my case.
It was the tradition that this pool would get stirred up by an angel of the Lord every so often, and there would be this mad dash of folks racing towards it, thinking only of themselves and their personal illnesses, and the first one to get to the pool would be healed of whatever ailment he or she had.
And here’s this guy hanging out for 38 years, waiting for his turn. Sitting around, waiting to get better. Sitting there alone in his own cage of isolation, waiting for healing in the way that he expects it to come.
And Jesus comes along and asks him what seems like a ridiculous question: “Hey, pool boy. Do you want to get well? Do you really want it? ‘Cause you’re just sitting here, alone, trapped in your own body, alone on your mat. Do you want to be made well?”
At first it sounds like such a ridiculous question. Of course he wants to get well. That’s why he’s been hanging out there for 38 years!
And so the sick man answers Jesus, and gives him a whole line of excuses: “no one’s around to help me. I’m all alone. So by the time I get myself up and moving, someone else gets in to the pool ahead of me.”
I used to think that this guy should just get his head out of his ass and buck up. Quit your whining. You’re there at the pool, trapped, because really, that’s where you want to be. You’re comfortable there, on your little mat, with all kinds of excuses why you won’t get better. Mind over matter. Drag yourself out of the cage, stop drinking the cocaine water. Get it together, man. Just get better.
And the crazy thing is, Jesus heals him, even though he’s all whiny and helpless. Even though he’s alone and weak and only thinking about himself. Even though he has no idea who this Jesus guy is.
But I really don’t think pool boy is healed. Not yet.
Sure, he takes his mat and he walks away. His legs work now. Great.
But when he is confronted by the authorities, he has no idea who healed him. Jesus has been lost in the crowds. Pool boy is still alone. Still isolated. And now he is in trouble. He’s doing something he considered miraculous - carrying his mat - but it is unlawful to do so on the Sabbath. He’s simply gone from lying down with a mat alone, to walking around carrying a mat, alone. And they ask him who told him to pick up his mat and walk and he has no idea who it was.
He is still alone. He still has no community. No rat park.
But the true healing is coming.
Jesus comes back to find him. He declares to him that he has been made well. He speaks his wholeness into existence - not just because he can walk around now. Not just because he can carry a mat. But because he is back in the temple. He is back in community. He knows the name and the face and the voice of the One who made him well. He goes back to his community and tells them who it is that has made him well. The pool boy goes away and tells the Jews that it was Jesus who healed him.
This is the true healing.
He is brought out of the cage of his own isolation, his own helplessness, his own addiction to his struggles and weakness and obsession with guilt, and back into the rat park.
And the rat park isn’t Facebook. It isn’t texting or tweeting. It isn’t putting a status or blog post online or going in to a chat room and waiting for the waters to stir. It’s not getting trapped in your own head and thinking about how you wish folks could read your mind and notice how very much you’re struggling.
The rat park is the place where you’re connected, where you matter, where you’re invested and invested in. It’s the place where your true value and worth are spoken into existence. Where someone speaks. Where someone hears. “See! you’ve been made well!” You’re back in the temple, back in the rat park, back in community. Go and be who you were made to be. Go and be in community so that you’re not isolated again, so that you don’t ever feel like your sippy cup of cocaine water or self-depravation or anger or helplessness is all that you have to go back to. Go and enter the rat park. Guys - This is the rat park.
There is grace. Because it has been spoken in to existence, and because you’ve heard it.
There is grace, because you’re not alone. Because it’s been said. Because you hear it.
There is grace.
Thanks be to God.