Jesus is in Jerusalem for a festival. But he goes first of all not straight to the Temple, but to the place where the sick gather hoping for a cure. A bit like going to London for the Lord Mayor’s parade, but getting off the train to go first to an overcrowded AandE department or to places near the South Bank where the homeless gather. At the pool of Bethesda there was a legend that sometimes an angel came to stir the waters and that the first into the water would be cured. So you can imagine that this was not somewhere like Bath spa, but more like Lourdes – where the faithful and the sick and the often poor wait for a miracle. Jesus notices one man who’s been there a long time – 38 years – and Jesus asks him whether he actually wants to be healed? You might suspect that someone who’s been on the waiting list that long doesn’t really want to get the top, but has become rather attached just to being on the list. But the man explains that he is all alone – that he has no-one to put him into the water when the ripples come and so he’s never ever going to be first in. So Jesus helps him – and he walks. Somehow Jesus helps him to find the healing he needs.
I’m very attached to this story and there is a special reason. A colleague of mine lives in Jerusalem. He’s a gentle wise, Belgian Roman Catholic and he belongs to an order called the White fathers – so-called because they wear white cassocks. Once when I was staying with him and his community I was taken to the archeological ruins at the bottom of their garden. I had to climb down quite far – deep into the ground – sometimes on steps and sometimes just jumping from stone to stone. There were remains of a Byzantine church and deep, deep down I could see the remains of cisterns and porticoes. With ancient history it is hard always to be certain, but there seems to be a good deal of confidence that this was the pool of Bethesda. My friend lives in this place, where Jesus once brought a man disabled for 38 years to his feet. I find it so striking that Jesus went there rather than immediately to the Temple. We find him first among those to whom he had promised a place in the Kingdom – the disabled, the ill, the paralysed, those in pain, those in a dark place…
I remember so vividly the experience of climbing down, of going deep below ground level into a place where the upper world seemed far away. It’s often like this with archeological sites of course. But in this case there’s something else. Because this is a story of Jesus going into a place almost like a kind of underworld. It’s a place where the lowest of the lowly, the desperate and the unrespectable wait, lurk, hope or sometimes just despair. It’s the kind of subterranean, hidden place that’s so different from the light of the upper world. This was the underside of Jerusalem, where the most desperate people were.
You can see Burra’s picture of this story on the cover of the order of service. It’s a dark picture, a picture of it’s time and a picture full of horrors. For Burra it’s the place of the abandoned, the dark underside of culture. He paints the dark places that in our deepest selves we all know sometimes.
There’s another painting of this story I know too. On the staircase in Bart’s hospital there is a huge picture of this story painted by Hogarth. Jesus is surrounded by people clearly from Hogarth’s time and enduring the illnesses of his time. They may well have been real patients immortalised in paint! There’s a wonderful website where you can look at the picture and if you click on a character the good people who made the website will give you a diagnosis for each patient! There’s a baby with congenital syphyllis, a drinker with gout, a woman suffering from what people then called ‘dissipation’, a woman pale with anaemia – and lots more. They don’t have the diseases of the genteel, but the diseases of the poor. Hogarth has painted Jesus among the poor of his time. This is the world Jesus is in – among the grotesque and the distorted, in the dark, low places where the deepest human suffering lies. And Jesus comes to lift up the lowly, to bring light into the dark places, to bring life even in the place of the dead and the dying.
One Christian Easter tradition we make relatively little of these days is what people sometimes call the harrowing of Hell. Many Christians would say that on Holy Saturday, on the day between Good Friday and Easter Sunday, Jesus descended into hell so that he could rescue the dead and bring them to life. If we are to use images and metaphors of height and depth then we should be ready to say that just as Christ ascended into the heights so he also descended into the depths (you’ll find that thought in the Scriptures). The Gospel tells us that there is no direction Christ did not or would not go to save and redeem the wounded and the broken. This is the language of poetry and image, but it is beautiful and powerful. Christ went into the deepest underworlds of Jerusalem, into the dark places.
We have deep and dark places within ourselves too, places we might need a therapist to reach or the places we would choose to bury forever if we could. This story from the Bible tells us that Jesus can go there too. And in a community like this one we can find the kind of friends who will carry us to the waters of healing and stand beside us as long as it takes… We are all those who have dark places where light is needed. All of us. And our faith comes bringing light to our darkness..
As I once climbed down deep into a place of healing in a Jerusalem garden, perhaps it is also possible that by climbing down deep into the story of our lives we can find a voice with which to speak to one another about our brokenness. For all are wounded – all ahe darkness. Perhaps Jesus can only heal us because he too carried wounds and still does even as he is risen. Only the incarnate Christ, only the one who has carried our burdens and touched our joys, can save us. And we can heal each other, at least a little, by speaking honestly from the depths of our own darkness – as well as from the moments when we truly see light….
The writer of the book of Revelation has a striking and very moving vision of a different Jerusalem from the one Jesus knew and that we might see today – this writer saw a great shining city. In the new Jerusalem there is no darkness, no deeps, no underworld – but everything is flooded with the light of the glory of God. And the healing water of the river of life flows down the middle of the city’s street – it is not to be searched for by the desperate in the puddles and drains below the surface. It flows freely and for everyone. ‘Every accursed thing shall disappear’ says the visionary. This is the world God is bringing. But even while Jesus proclaimed this kind of hope himself, he also walked resolutely not to the Temple, but to the pool of Bethesda, to the dribble of water around which the desperate waited in the gloom. And we are called to follow him there too. We share the great vision of a different world – and we pray for it, long for it, and hope for it. But we also know that God inhabits not only the great aspirational vision, but also the darkest and dingiest part of human life – that Christ goes into the corners of the world to touch with healing and grace.
A few weeks ago Ruth went to the Pool of Bethesda too. Like me she climbed right down from the sunny garden into the darkness of the archeological dig, down, down into the depths. Right down there she found a woman who was crouching beside the pool of water at the bottom. The woman had taken an olive branch and she was dipping it into the water and splashing up to the people who couldn’t get down there to reach the water. If they couldn’t get to the water, she took the water to them. Perhaps that’s a helpful image for our mission as a church. We carry the light into the darkness and we splash the water of life onto the faces of the wounded. We all have dark places; Nadiya Hussain, Alasdair Campbell, all of us. And that is where Christ is – whether in person or through his people – and into the dark he brings light and life. Let’s join him there. There is light flooding the dark. There is water in the desert. There is a pool of lifegiving water at the very depths. There is love and life. May it be so. Amen.