Our questions about healing are complicated. How does it happen? Who is responsible for it? What does it really mean to be well? For as long as humans have gathered in communities, we’ve wondered: “Doctor, will I walk again? Will my baby die?” Or this: “Will I ever stop drinking or drugging? Will I ever not be afraid, or angry, or sad? Can my relationships be sound and loving again? Can I be less anxious? Where can I find purpose and meaning or hope?” The words “God save me” are an ancient plea for wellbeing.
We can’t dictate what happens to us in life; we can’t magically protect ourselves or those we love from harm. But if we can nourish our capacity to choose what is life-giving over what is death-dealing, and remember that we are created in the image of God, then we can practice how we interpret and respond to both opportunity and adversity. However tired or wounded we may be, we can be well. Wellbeing is a habit—of the heart, and mind, and body.
Jesus was once in Jerusalem, John tells us, and he happens by the pool of Bethesda. On occasion the waters there would begin to bubble and stir, troubled by an angel or some underground volcanic activity or both, not unlike what happens periodically at Old Faithful in Yellowstone National Park… and legend had it that the first person in the pool after it had stirred to life would be healed. So structures were built around the spring over the centuries to shelter pilgrims, and generations of people gathered there, waiting for the water and some movement and some luck.
And there was a man there who had been out of luck for 38 years, waiting to be healed, unable to get himself to the pool fast enough to be first. And I don’t know whether to feel sorry for him or frustrated or both. 38 years… are you kidding me? “Get up and start walking,” demands my most adolescent voice, the part of me least comfortable with weakness in myself or anyone else.
But instead of judging him, Jesus asks the man a question. “Do you want to be made well?” “I see you,” says the living God, in other words. “I see you. Not what you can’t do. Not what you don’t have. Not how you haven’t measured up, but who you are and what you can be.”
“Do you want to be whole?” Jesus asks him, and the man first answers with his own childish plea. “I can’t win. I have no one to help me. Someone always beats me to the finish. I can’t do it,” he says, in a voice that every one of us can recognize as our own, at least at some point in our struggle.
When my daughter was two, she and I spent a lot of time on a playground near our house. We would swing and dig in the sandbox and chase each other on a little path. And at some point on every visit, she would begin to circle around the slide, and then scramble up the steps alone. “All by self, Daddy,” she would tell me, and I knew I was supposed to stay on the ground below. Step by step, singing the whole way up, she would get herself all the way to the top. Once there, she’d sit down, get settled, look around, and then yell out, “Too big!” For months. And I would say, “You can do it,” and she would respond, “Too big!” For months. And eventually I’d go up and give her a hand.
I get it. Sometimes we need a witness to hear us say that the mountain is too high, that the healing pool I really want to get to is just out of my reach, that nobody knows the trouble I’ve seen. So maybe Jesus is honoring this man’s endurance and his ability to hang in there all those years. Average life expectancy for a male in the Roman empire was 35 years, so this individual has literally been sick for a lifetime, and some of what Jesus offers here is validation. He holds up a mirror to this man’s difficult experience—including his shame and exclusion from society—and Jesus says, “I see you and the fact that for 38 years you haven’t given up.”
But there’s got to be more, so Jesus goes on: “Now, do you want to be well? Because you can stand up and walk, if you want to. Get started. Critics might point out that the way you stand and walk is pitiful or comical, but your steps are your steps, and once you rise, no one can take that away from you. Your movement changes everything: for you, your family, even the community. If you want to be well, says the living God, then all the living water you need is welling up inside you.”
Do you see what is happening? Can you see yourself, the way this story of healing sees you and the man at the pool? We don’t have to be stuck or doomed to being always late to the party, and neither does Baltimore.
18 months ago, Caroline Stewart and I began to talk about the role a parish church in general and Redeemer in particular might play in the field of wellness. What are folks truly longing for? What is the role of Spirit in healing? What is the role of education, group work, silence… the arts, movement, faith… mutual respect, consistent nutrition, affordable housing? How can we de-stigmatize mental illness in individuals and address the trauma of poverty, of racism, of meanness or violence of any kind?
Early steps were to create a lay ministry of healing prayers, offered regularly at our weekly services. Then 166 people were trained in Mental Health First Aid. (We knew we were onto something…) And now we are creating The Center for Wellbeing.
The Center will offer educational programs, on a regular rotation of Sundays at Redeemer, as well as in the broader community. It will offer individual and group spiritual direction. (n.b. Group spiritual direction is a process in which a small group of people gather on a regular basis to assist one another in an ongoing awareness of God in their lives.) In time, it will offer ways to explore how music and movement and meditation sponsor health, consider the wellbeing of our environment, and provide articles and links to websites that bolster our wholeness.
Beginning a new chapter in her life, Caroline will be the executive director of The Center, no longer a member of the parish clergy, but in the community offering education, spiritual direction, and overall management of The Center.
Do you want to be well? The Spirit is moving in you, asking you to get up, leading you toward some healing for yourself and for the whole. And that will change everything.