Joe Garagiola died not too long ago. Many people here remember him as a sports broadcaster, and a few of us ‘more seasoned’ types remember him as a Major League catcher.
One night his team was up against the Saint Louis Cardinals. Joe’s pitcher that evening was a very young man who was pitching his first Major League game. There’s runners on second and third, the score is tied at six all, and it’s the top of the ninth inning. As if that’s not enough pressure on the young pitcher, the batter stepping up to the plate is Stan Musial, one of the greatest hitters of all time. The pitcher is terrified as Joe settles into his crouch behind home plate and signals for a fast ball. The pitcher immediately shakes his head to tell Joe he’s not going to throw a fast ball. Garagiola signals for a curve ball, and the pitcher again shakes his head, no. Finally, Joe signals for a slider, and is refused yet again.
Angry and confused, Joe calls a time out and goes to the mound. “Hey, man, what’s going on? I signaled for a fastball, a curve ball, and a slider. That’s all you got! What do you want to do?” The young man answers, “Frankly, Joe, I just want to hold onto the ball as long as I can.”
I believe we’ve all experienced those moments where it seems we are being asked to do the impossible, something that will take us far out of our comfort zone. Sometimes, somehow, we are able to get past that feeling and do our best to accomplish the task at hand. Sometimes we give in to that feeling, telling ourselves there are others who are better at this task than I am, or, I think I’d be too uncomfortable doing that. It’s not uncommon for those suffering a chronic illness or injury to see their lives as being forever diminished, to see themselves reduced to their limitations. This is especially common for those suffering with mental illnesses, such as depression. Sometimes, people living with depression for a length of time become so accustomed to the effects of the illness that it becomes normal. We become so used to being cut off from our emotions, from other people, that our isolation, no matter how painful, strangely becomes a comfort to us.
Something very similar happens when we become hooked on alcohol, or drugs, or sex, or whatever it is that makes us numb enough to get by, even for a little while, until the effects wear off and we are left alone again, with the pain again. Waiting again, for that next time.
In today’s Gospel, Jesus comes across a man who, we are told, is an invalid. We’re not told what his affliction is, but he has been suffering with it for 38 years. That’s almost a full lifetime back then. His parents, or someone, has been bringing him to the pool for healing since shortly after his infancy, and he has been here ever since. Is he a man of faith? Absolutely! He is convinced, in fact he has bet his life, on the belief that his only cure is to be the first one in the water when the water starts moving. But he is unable to walk on his own, and he is surrounded by others who are more mobile, and who are able to get in the pool first. When Jesus asks him, “Do you want to be made well”, the man give Jesus reasons why he can’t be made well. He doesn’t answer the question
Now, let’s think about this for a moment. Here is this place of healing, Bethesda, which literally means “house of grace”, or “house of mercy”. The legend is that, at apparently random, uncertain times, an angel would come down and “trouble” the water. It was only when the water was moving, or troubled, that a cure could be obtained, and you had to be the first one in the water. The site contained a grand temple-like structure, with five porticoes or porches, in addition to the two pools. This site was actually uncovered in the late 1950’s, and is near the Fortress Antonia in Jerusalem.
So, we have this grand healing spa, near the Sheep’s Gate at the Temple in Jerusalem. It is striking to me that this opulent “house of mercy and healing”, probably run or supported by the religious/political rulers, is set up to be inaccessible to those who need it most. This aspect of the story has a familiar ring.
Last Sunday, some fellow parishioners and I attended a forum on homelessness and affordable housing. While the ideas and intentions of the politicians are admirable, and this community should rightfully feel proud of your elected officials, the truth is that, right now, affordable and low-income housing is not a high priority of the leadership of state government.
In Friday’s paper, there was an article about a new, 705 foot, 59 story tower of condos, apartments and shops, being built at Downtown Crossing. I wonder how many of the apartments will be set aside for low-income housing?
In March, a study was released by the Boston Redevelopment Authority showing that nearly half of Boston residents make less than $35,000 a year. When adjusted for inflation, these worker’s incomes have not risen in 30 years.
Same-sex marriages are now the law of the land, and are increasingly occurring in the military. At the same time, States are passing so-called religious liberty laws to re-impose discrimination and restrictions on same-sex couples and trans-gendered individuals.
People are trapped by systems of fear and insecurity. Trapped by systems of belief, as is the invalid in today’s Gospel, who can only understand healing as coming from a dip in the pool, or the addict who sees healing thru self-medication, or the queer or trans-gendered living with such isolating fear that the suicide rate is rising rapidly within this community, or the homeless and poor who have come to accept their lives of deprivation and inhumanity as normal.
Looking at today’s election campaigns, I’m amazed and terrified by how many people believe in some fantasy, some nostalgic, way back when, when things worked for the little guy, businesses were fair, and all people got along, happy and well, with no government interference. Yes, the great, good old days. The problem is, it’s a lie. There never was such a time. That “Great” America never existed, and never can. It’s just another trap.
Yes, it is very easy for us to become trapped in our lives and by the systems we created. Often, we accept those traps as normal, so when, in those quiet moments, when we do hear Jesus ask if we want to be healed, we respond with, “but you don’t understand what my life is like, the pressures I’m under.” Or we say, “Yes, that stuff we hear on Sunday is inspirational, but it doesn’t really have anything to do with our real lives, does it?”
Jesus is asking, do you want to get well, and we answer with all our excuses. We don’t answer the question.
Listen with your heart. Listen with your soul. When Jesus asks, “Do you want to experience life in all its abundance? Do you want to live the full, interconnected, liberated life I always planned for you?” When Jesus asks, “Do you want to be made well?” The answer is “Yes!”