August 15, 2021
It was not at all like Jesus when he questioned a crippled man with words that sounded downright insensitive, disrespectful, shocking, and disturbing. He had just arrived in Jerusalem to attend one of the major Jewish festivals. I am sure he was tired. People were everywhere and up close to each other. The marketplace was filled with loud braying donkeys, stinking camels, sweaty merchants, and gawking visitors pushing and pulling each other in efforts to squeeze through the crowd. Pressed by the uncomfortable hubbub, Jesus was looking for a place where he could stand or sit away from the press of other people against him and so much noise that he could not focus his thoughts.
I am so much like Jesus! (Please understand that I so seldom can make that statement that I am not going to bypass this opportunity to say those words. I quickly tire of being squashed by a crowd, an obnoxious cacophony of loud noises, and an odorous assault of a blend of sweat, food, spices, and perfume. At least in that way, I seem to be so much like Jesus!)
Finally, Jesus made his way to a quieter place not far from the Sheep Gate where five porticos had been constructed around an inviting pool of water called the Pool of Bethzatha. An ancient rumor had it that the water in this pool had mysterious powers for healing when people could get into the water while it was churning and splashing. Of course, that legendary rumor of mystical healing attracted emotionally disturbed and physically contorted people who wanted to see and touch the water hoping they might even by chance see the water begin to bubble in the pool with its promise of healing. People with no sight, people with paralysis, individuals with broken or deformed limbs, people who could not walk, individuals whose sources of pain were not obvious though the result of their pains was etched deeply into the expressions on their faces—people with all kinds of maladies—gathered at the Pool of Bethzatha longing to be healed. This popular sight in the old city of Jerusalem must have looked somewhat like a modern emergency room in a hospital on Saturday night filled with people with pains, hurt, bleeding, aching, nauseated, and fractured—people needing help.
This is where Jesus asked the not-at-all-like-him, out-of-character-for-him question. As Jesus stood among the porticos and looked around, his body beginning to relax ever so slightly, he saw a man he seemed to know; a man who had been at this pool every time Jesus had visited there. As the eyes of the two men met, Jesus, asked, “Do you want to get well?”
Honestly, that did not sound like Jesus; it almost seemed cruel. Why, this was like Jesus asking, “Are you still here or, in some strange way, do you enjoy being sick? Do you really not want to get well?”
Immediately the man lying on a pallet on the ground, looked startled as he began to explain his situation. “I have been lying here for 38 years,” the man said, “and the same thing happens again and again.” Complaining that he was imprisoned by history, the man said to Jesus, “I don’t have anyone to help me get into the water. Every time the water starts churning with its promise of healing, others get to the pool before I do.”
I have often wondered why Jesus did not ask the man if he had ever requested someone to help him into the water. But that was not the point of this interchange, and I don’t want to appear insensitive.
Jesus saw bondage—a man in bondage—bondage to the past that had spawned a discouraging cynicism that framed the cell of the man’s bondage in the future. “Maybe one day it will happen,” the crippled man said, “Perhaps soon I will get into the water if I can. But for now, this is the way it is. I remain on the ground where I have been for nearly four decades.”
“Do you want to get well?” Jesus’ eyes were now asking the question articulated from his mouth. Implicit in the question was an observation, “You live in bondage created by regrets from the past and aspirations for the future. The time for healing is now. The issue here is not singularly about what you want—you can live forever wanting to be healed and it never happen. You can hope for healing in the future without healing ever occurring. Healing requires you to quit living in the past and in the future and to demonstrate your will—what you will do—in the present.” Jesus said, “Man, you have been here 38 years. It’s not about yesterday or tomorrow, what has happened in the past or what might happen in the days ahead. It’s about now, today. What is your will? Stand up! Pick up your mat. Try it. You can walk if you will. Walk!” And the man walked into the water.
Spiritually speaking, whether the issue is healing, speaking, making a decision, taking an action, demonstrating love, or creating distance, the difference between want and will is the difference between health and sickness, healing or hurting, peace or war, hunger or satisfaction, change or the status quo, love or disappointment, and life or death. Wants sound good but, for all practical purposes, mean little. Will is essential, necessary for positive change. Wants are often voiced through whines, will is expressed with confident resolution. Wants are accompanied by complaints about past failures and a fear that the future will be no different. Will learns from the past and alters the future.
I appreciate a person’s wants; I admire a person’s will.
Forty years ago, I was working with the United States congress and charitable organizations, on a strategy for feeding people around the world. After congressional hearings on world hunger, the bipartisan conclusion was that annually the world produces enough food for every person on earth to have sufficient nourishment on a daily basis. Congress discovered that what we lack in feeding the world is the will to make that possibility a reality. We want to eliminate hunger, but we don’t have the will to make it happen. I know of no one who does not want all people on the planet to have enough to eat. But too few people refuse to exercise the will needed to make that happen. “Do you will to get well, to make the change needed?” Jesus was asking.
Think about it.
What have we wanted to happen in our church? Can’t we do more than just want to work more passionately on the fellowship of diverse races? For how long have we been talking about a better system of public education for young people in Louisiana and better salaries for employees that keep ULM going in our own towns? We want that, we want all of that, we say.
On Monday of this past week, the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change announced a “code red for humanity.” Assessments compiled by 234 authors working with 14,000 studies from around the globe described how humans have altered the environment at an unprecedented pace and detailed how catastrophic impacts lie ahead unless greenhouse gas emissions or cut dramatically. Some serious climate problems are already beyond correction. What we want regarding correction for our world will make no difference for good. Only will—human will, a will to change that goes to work for a better environment is the only thing that will help as we make the changes we need.
Like the man at the pool in Jerusalem, it is time for us to move away from complaining about past wants related to mistakes and failures and to quit wanting things to be different sometime in the future. In the present moment it is time for us to replace wants with will—a will to see our wants become wills that are transformed into realities. Do we will will to get well?
Neither institutions—including churches and schools—nor relationships—including lovers in search of intimacy and durability—nor individuals—including those trying to make a decision or take a certain difficult action—will be helped by wants. Only strong, positive wills, can make positive changes occur—improvement, maturity, closeness, transformation, intimacy, creation of a new day—only as a result of action—action taken as the result of a strong will.
Just so you will know, there is never going to be a good time for changes for the better. Never will all people understand the priority that we value. Forever there will be rationalizations and excuses as to why wants cannot be fulfilled. But that is not the case with a strong personal or social will.
With an exercise of will comes a rush of physical adrenaline, mental certitude, emotional strength, and spiritual inspiration that never will be realized in fluctuations between “I wish it could have happened in the past” or “I still hope it will be better in the future.” It is by an exercise of the will in the present moment that a person takes up her mat and walks, shoulders his burden and proceeds, embraces her lover and makes a life, negotiates peace with his concerns and takes action. Will is what provides the motivation, energy, and sustenance that allow us to walk into a realization of our wants and dreams. Do you will to be healed or do you prefer to stay sick and keep complaining about it?
No, none of us get all we want. But how we exercise our wills, to what we devote our wills, demonstrates what matters most to us.
Do you want to be healed?
Do you want to tell and show someone you love them?
Do you want to make a commitment?
Do you want to change a situation?
Do you want to see a better society?
If so, exercise your will; now! As Jesus, in so many words, said to the man at the pool of Bethzatha, he says to us, “You have been here for all these years for goodness’ sake, fluctuating between regrets from the past and hopes for the future. Today, now, exercise your will. Either be healed or stay sick and sad. Today, exercise your will. Either act in love or admit that love is not that important to you. Either make a commitment or say you are incapable of making a commitment. Either change the educational system or get comfortable with an uneducated workforce and uncultured society. Either make peace or accept conflict for the rest of your life.
That what-appeared-to-be a suspect question, a cruel and insensitive question, from Jesus with which we began turns out to have been a positive inquiry in every sense of the word. It was a question born of love meant to cause a person—and us—to engage reality fully and then volitionally take responsibility for change. The question from Jesus was a mandate for us to accomplish the fullness of life that is possible if we have the will to make it real. He understood as we must understand that which, regardless of its goodness and worth, will never be no matter how much we say we want it if we do not demonstrate the will to have it.
Do you will to be healed, to be whole, to be happy again, to say what you think, to make a spiritual step forward, and to affect positive change? Do you just want it? Or, do you will it enough to act?
Mystical waters are always stirring around us, healing is within reach, getting something good done is a step away, a long-held desire to demonstrate love is in your power. The question of our will is waiting for an answer.