Sunday, 5 May 2013

Easter 6: A true Sabbath

Easter 6 13

The three readings we heard from the Bible today might seem to have very little to do with each other. The first was an encounter between St Paul and Lydia, a dealer in purple cloth, a Jewish woman living in Philippi who becomes his first convert there. The second was a glorious picture of the new heaven and the new earth from the book of Revelation. The third was the miraculous healing of a paralysed man by the pool of Bethzatha in Jerusalem. Each one is full of possibilities to preach from, but they don’t sound as if they have any obvious connection to each other.

But there are two things which feature in all three readings if you look closely enough. The first is water. Paul meets Lydia by a river, where he and his companions “supposed there would be a place of prayer” according to the reading. It was common to find synagogues by rivers because worshippers had to ritually wash before prayer. The Gospel story too has a watery setting, beside a healing pool in Jerusalem. And the heavenly city in the book of Revelation has a river running right through it, of course, coming out from the throne of God and watering the land. So all three readings feature water.

The other thing that connects these readings is the Sabbath. Paul meets Lydia on the Sabbath day, and the healing of the paralysed man happens on the Sabbath too. We are told this right at the end of the reading, and I’ll come back to it later. But where’s the Sabbath in the Revelation reading? It’s not obvious so don’t think you missed something. It seems to me, though, that the images John uses here reflect what a person of the time might have thought of as the perfect Sabbath, the eternal Sabbath for which all other Sabbaths were meant to be a preparation.

The idea of the Sabbath was rooted in the Jewish Creation myth from the book of Genesis. God makes the world in six days, it says, and on the seventh he rests, not because he’s tired, but because it’s finished. It’s perfect. It’s complete. There’s nothing left to do but enjoy it. And God looked at everything he had made, says the Bible, and behold, it was very good.

It didn’t stay that way, of course, but just for a moment there, right at the beginning, the Jewish Scriptures taught that everything had been exactly as it should be. In a way the rest of the story of the Bible is the story of how they tried to reclaim that original perfection.  Perhaps it is the story of all human history – every culture has its dreams of a golden age, back in the past or far in the future . The ancient Israelites had a word for this longed-for state - Shalom – which meant peace or wholeness or completion. It wasn’t just the absence of conflict, but a state in which everything was right, in balance and harmony, reconciled and healed.

In Jewish thought to this day every Sabbath is meant to give a glimpse of that perfect peace, that Shalom. It is supposed to be a time of rejoicing, a time when people can stop their anxious striving, their worry, their busyness and just enjoy what is – their family and friends, their world with its gifts, and most of all the God who has given it all to them.
The new heaven and the new earth of the book of Revelation seem to me to echo this vision too. The final triumph of God, it says, is a world at peace, a place where there will be “no more night”, where people live in the close relationship with God he had always intended, a place of healing and joy and abundant life.

It is no accident that water is at the heart of John’s image of the perfect Sabbath. There can be no life at all without it. Everyone in the hot dry climate of the Middle East knew that. But water was also something which was mysterious. It welled up from the ground or fell from the sky and they had no idea why or how. It was pure gift. No wonder it became so important in religious ritual, and still is in the sacrament of baptism. We can’t live without it, but it can never be fully under our own control.

So, water and the Sabbath are the two things which I think connect these three readings. But so what? Why does it matter?

Let’s go back to the Gospel story, to the man lying by that healing pool at Bethzatha. People evidently came from far and wide to try to bathe in it, but they only thought it worked when the water was stirred up – perhaps it was a thermal spring where water periodically bubbled to the surface – and that meant that this man never made it into the pool in time because of the very disability that had brought him there. Presumably he is one of those described in our translation as paralysed, but actually the word John uses doesn’t quite say that. He doesn’t use the normal Greek word for paralysed– paraluticos – it uses the word “xeros” which literally means “dried up.” This man is dried up, withered by his illness according to John. No wonder he longs to get into this healing water. And there it is, right beside him. But it might as well be a million miles away. And as he lies there thirsty for its healing powers we sense that his hope is drying up too. After 38 years of illness that’s hardly surprising. Who could sustain their hope that long? Every failed attempt at finding healing makes the desert of despair inside him grow a little larger. Jesus asks if he wants to be made well, and of course he does, but perhaps they both know he is close to the moment when he will stop caring, stop trying.

The irony is that in the end he is healed without getting wet at all. It’s not the water in the pool which heals him; it is Jesus who makes him whole. In the chapter before this Jesus has met with another thirsty person, a Samaritan woman coming to draw water at her local well in the heat of the day. He has told her that he has living water to give her, water that is like a spring gushing up to eternal life. This “dried up” man discovers the truth of that for himself as he finally rises to his feet, and to a whole new life.

“Now that day was a Sabbath”, ends this reading. Indeed it was, in the truest sense of all for his man. It was the day on which he found the Shalom of God – the wholeness he had thirsted for, the new creation he really needed. If every Sabbath was meant to be a day of rejoicing, surely this Sabbath should have been the best of all, not just for him, but for all who witnessed his healing too. Who could fail to be glad for him?

But that’s not how it worked out. There is a sting in the tail of this story. The reason John tells us that this was the Sabbath wasn’t to signal the outbreak of joy in this community, but to warn us that a world of trouble was about to erupt. Jesus had told this man to take up his mat and carry it home, and he had done so. But carrying things was regarded as work according to Jewish Law, and work was forbidden on the Sabbath day. The religious authorities are incensed, both with him and with Jesus.  Never mind the miracle of his healing. Never mind all the good things he can now look forward to. Never mind giving thanks to God for this great gift of life he has been given. All they can see is that this man has broken the rules; it would be better for him, they think, still to be lying paralysed on the ground than that. It is the start in John’s Gospel of the opposition which will eventually lead to Jesus’ crucifixion.

How can it be that such a moment of joy turns so sour so quickly? It might seem incomprehensible to us that anyone would nit-pick like this when this man has just been given his life back, but it is surprisingly easy for us to look good news in the face and fail to recognise it. We often prefer to focus on rules and traditions rather than seeing the real lives of real people. It is simpler and neater. We don’t have the bother of thinking things through, or the challenge of having to change our minds. We may have the best of intentions, as the Jewish authorities in this story probably did, but we lose sight of what is actually in front of us.

Often it is only when real life situations, close to home, challenge the rulebook we’ve inherited or developed that we start to see things differently. What seemed obvious to us in the abstract becomes far more complicated when it affects us or someone we know. We might pontificate about “strivers and skivers” but when someone close to us is struggling to find a job and having to rely on benefits, we suddenly see why that language is so damaging. When divorce touches us or our own families we realise that our often rather smug pronouncements on the secrets of happy family life can harm rather than helping. And carefully worked out theologies condemning homosexuality often crumble to dust when it is our son or daughter, brother or sister who comes out as gay. This is about real people, people we care about.

“In the beginning, was the Word.” says John earlier. But what sort of word? Again and again, in stories like this one, we discover that it’s not the kind of word you find in a book of rules; it’s the Word made flesh in the person of Jesus, a real person meeting with real people, in real and often messy encounters that challenge and sometimes offend those around him. He honours love where he finds it. He meets need where he finds it, and as a result people are healed and blessed and changed. And he calls us to do the same, so that every day can be a Sabbath day, when God’s Shalom - his perfect peace - breaks into the world, bringing the  water of life to all who are dried up and thirsting for it.


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