you have to take it with you
So this morning we’re going to do something that used to drive me nuts. Something I swore at seminary i would never ever do:
Im going to ignore 95% of that story we just heard. I'm not even going to address it. I’m going to pretend like it doesn’t even exist.
See, when I was growing up I remember all these times at church when the scripture would be read and I’d be all “Woah. Jesus did that?! What does that even mean?! This is going to be good." Then my minister, Peter, he’d get up there but he’d only speak to this tiny portion of what was read - like just a word or only a line or just a person. He’d get up there and completely ignore the rest of the story. So I of course would get all indignant and miss out on what was saying because I was too busy frowning and staring out the window in protest, thinking “How can you not speak on the whole thing?! Why's he not speaking on the part I want to know about?!"
But here’s the thing: Peter knew something that I would only figure out later.
He knew that the point of opening up the Bible isn’t just to read these stories. It’s to let these stories read us.
It’s about letting the Spirit speak to us through these ancient and primitive stories, offering us these divine and universal truths and wisdoms about the Mystery Underneath It All and what it means to be human and alive in the world, and trusting that sometimes, if we hold it the right way, we can get all of that through just a word.
So we’re going to try to honour that this morning. Were going to hold this story in a way where we can ignore 95% of it and still find a truth and wisdom, and in this case, I think it’s a truth and a wisdom that we all don’t want to hear but we all need to hear.
So. my friends, this morning, we’ll visit that one part of the story, we’ll hang out there for a bit, and then we’ll end it all with a question to take home with us.
So before I tell you about the part that stood out for me in this story, Im curious, what part stood out for you? What word, image, line resonated with you?
For me, the place where I pretty much stopped reading was when it says how long that man had been laying on his mat. 38 years. 38 years! 38 YEARS! That’s 13,870 days! Think about that for a sec … think about how long that is … that’s basically as long as Ive been alive. That’s 38 years of laying on a mat waiting and hoping to be healed.
When I read this, it was his story that I couldn’t get out of my head and kept coming back to.
Now we know absolutely nothing about this guy other than that, for whatever reason, he can’t stand up and for 38 years he’s been laying on a mat near this pool called Bethesda waiting for the waters to bubble up.
At this time in the first century middle east it was a common belief that some pools or streams had magical healing properties. People thought that some how in some way, the divine gods and goddesses would occasionally use these pools to heal people. So this practice evolved of people gathering around certain bodies of water to wait for a sign, usually a bubbling up in the water or a ripple in the pond, and that let them know something special was happening and this was their chance for new life.
This is what we think is going on here.
From what we now know about the city of Jerusalem at this time there were these four or five pools by the city gates. People would gather around them and wait for an angel to swoop down and touch the waters, making them ripple, and whoever was the first person in could be healed from whatever it is they were suffering from.
So we can imagine the scene.
Hundreds of people are there, all of them suffering from something, all of them waiting, all of them jostling for position, anxious to be healed, waiting for their pain and suffering to be taken away. So this man is there, laying on that mat, in pain and unable to move, watching those waters for 38 years.
38 years of waiting, of let down, isolation, and neglect. 38 years of being pushed aside and stepped on whenever that pool would bubble up. 38 years of laying on that mat imagining the day when he can finally leave it all behind.
Now maybe we havent been laying by a pool for 38 years, but we get that don’t we? We know what that’s like. His story is our story.
Think of the 38 years no so much as the length of his pain, but about the depths of it. It’s speaking to the kind of despair he’s feeling. It’s about the kind of existence that man has.
If we’ve done any kind of living at all, if we’ve empathy for the world around us, we know what that feels like.
We know what its like to sit and wait only to have our hopes deferred. We know what its like to to have the system against us. We know what its like to be pushed aside and unable to get to the one thing we need. We know what its like to feel stuck. We know the kind of pain that defines our existence.
We know what it’s like to be on that mat.
Anyone know what we’re talking about?
Yah, I think we all can get it. So it makes complete and total sense to me that when Jesus comes up to the guy and asks “do you want to be healed?” the guy responds with:
“What?! Of course I want it. You think Im just sitting here on my mat for fun? You think I havent tried to get in the pool?! I keep getting pushed aside. I get stepped on! Ive all but given up!”
And again, we get it. Its kind of a patronizing question. “Do you want to be healed?" Of course we want to be healed! Who doesn’t? We all want to leave those painful parts of our lives behind. We all want to step into something new, free, and different.
So the man tells Jesus all of that, never really answering his question, because as far as he’s concerned healing is out of the question. He’s got 38 years of evidence pointing to the fact a new reality is impossible. Any faith he had was taken away from him years ago. He’s basically resigned to the fact that he’ll be on that mat for the rest of his life.
But then ….
and pay attention here cause this is SO powerful:
not caring the man’s lost hope,
not caring the man has no faith,
not caring about the man’s attitude,
“Get up, walk away, and take your mat"
And the man, without saying a word, does exactly that. After 38 years on his mat, he stands up, walks away, and takes his mat with him.
Now, i dont know about you, but this is super duper strange to me. And it’s not because the guy walked away. As foreign as that may for us to hear today, that’s not the shocking part of the story. Jesus did this kind of stuff all the time.
The strange part is that Jesus told the man to do the one thing he would never want to do.
The shocking part of this story is that Jesus said: “Take your mat with you.”
Why? Why would Jesus say that?
I mean, first of all, after 38 years its probably barely a mat anymore. But even more to the point, we can imagine the man thinking:
“I need to do what, now?! I need to take this mat with me? You want me to take this symbol of all my pain, suffering, and struggle with me?! This one thing I never ever want to see again? I dont want to be reminded about his part of my life! I hate this part of my story! I want to leave it behind!”
And again, we get it.
Id be right there with the guy. There are parts of my life I wish never happened. Ive got my own mat. There’s a reason I didn’t keep my Jr High School year books. Junior High was brutal to me. There are people from that part of my life where if they came in to my office looking for help, I honestly don’t think I would give them the time of day. I dont want to remember that. I want for forget that part of my life. Every time my mom tries to unload them on me, Im like “hell no. Throw them out. I don't want those around.” I dont want to be reminded of that pain and struggle. I dont want to take those things with me.
Anyone know what Im talking about? Yah, I think we can all get down on that. We’ve all got our own mats. We’ve all go those things that symbolize parts of our stories we’d rather forget. We dont want to take our mats with us. That’s the last thing we want. We too would yell out “you want me to do what, now?!”
Cause the truth is, when it comes to our pain and suffering, we want to be healed, but we also want to leave it all behind.
But here’s the thing about all this …
and this is where that truth and wisdom kicks in, a truth and wisdom that is going to rub us the wrong way, but a truth and wisdom that we have to learn to embrace and surrender to:
When it comes to our mats, we have to take them with us.
When it comes to moving forward into new life, we can’t leave the old behind.
As much as we would love to leave pain & suffering behind, as much as we’d love to never be reminded of it again, as much as we’d want to delete those parts of our stories, the only way to move on, the only way to healing, is to take it with us.
To be healed isn’t the same thing as to be cured.
When we talk about being healed, what we’re talking about is being made whole.
To be healed is to be at peace with your story.
To be healed, as Brene Brown would put it, is learning to integrate all of our experiences, including the falls.
If you look at what Jesus is about, if you look at his life and his work, we see that he isn’t so much concerned with curing people. In fact, I dont think you can find a single story where he cures someone. Instead, what we see him doing again and again is going out of his way to heal people.
I think this is important to sit with because if Jesus is all about showing us how to be human and what it means to live fully and truly, then this is something to we need to sit with cause it reminds us of something super hard but also super liberating.
It reminds us that suffering and pain is simply a part of being alive. To be alive is to experience hardship. What God offers us isn’t a way to escape it, but a way to exist within it.
This is what we’re talking about when we talk about salvation. There’s a reason why the Greek word ‘salvation’ is the same word as ‘to be healed’ Salvation isn’t being saved from life, it’s being saved for life. It’s a way to live, move, and have our being within the very heights and depths of our humanity.
The work God invites us into isn’t to leaving it all behind, it’s learning to take it with us.
Its learning to embrace it.
It’s learning to say “it all belongs.”
It’s getting to the point where we can say: “I hate that this happened to be, but this is my story and I love who I am.”
And the only way to do that, the only way to wholeness, is to take our mats with us.
The wisdom this story invites us into is that the only way to wholeness is to embrace all your parts.
I read this story once about a woman named Grace who lived in a nursing home. One day her friend Joe came to visit her and found her sitting in bed clearly upset about something. “Oh, Joe!” She said, "Come in! Can you do me a favor? I’ve lost something and could use your help finding it.” Joe asked: “Sure, What’s missing?” “I can’t find my left boob,” she said. “Would you be a dear and look around for it?” See, Grace was a cancer survivor. She had a double mastectomy. She had prosthetic breasts. So Joe looked around, found it under the bed, handed it to her, and Grace said: “Thanks. It’s good to have all my parts."
It’s good to have all my parts.
The truth and wisdom this story offers us is that it is good to have all our parts.
If the only thing God is asking of us is to be who we are where we are, if all we need to do to be fully and wholly alive is be who we are, then we need to have all our parts, the parts we love and the parts we hate.
We can only be ourselves when we embrace everything that has happened to us and say:
“this is who I am. Its been hard. Its been tough. But it’s my story and I love who I am."
So I’ll leave you with a question:
Knowing we can all be healed, knowing that wholeness is there for all of us, and knowing its good to have all our parts …
whats your mat?
what do you need to take with you?
what have you been wanting to leave behind but need to carry forward?
May you have the courage to pick it up and may you move towards wholeness knowing it doesnt define your worth or your future, but simply belongs.