If you had the chance to step outside your door today and find Christ — to really stand in his presence — would you take it?
If we call ourselves Christian, would we not go to great lengths, undergo great trials, to stand before Christ? How much more, then, should we seek him if he’s standing just down the street? On the corner where we get our coffee? In the back alley? Digging in the trash behind our favorite restaurant?
The difficult truth is, Christ is there. But, how often do we really stop and see him?
This question of recognizing the divine spark, found in all our neighbors, is central to our Gospel reading today.
In this reading from John, Jesus has come to Jerusalem at festival time. As he approaches the Sheep Gate — believed to be literally named for a gate through which they’d lead sacrificial sheep on their way to the Temple — Jesus passes the healing pool of Beth-zatha, also known as Bethesda.
There is a detail about this pool that is left out in many translations of the Scripture — including our selection from the New Revised Standard Version. The fourth verse of John 5 is omitted in these versions.
Earlier versions of John 5 include this fourth verse: “For an angel went down at a certain season into the pool, and troubled the water: whosoever then first after the troubling of the water stepped in was made whole of whatsoever disease he had.”
This angel is predominantly thought to be the Archangel Raphael, whose name means “God heals.” Raphael appears by name only in the Book of Tobit — one of the seven books included as deuterocanonical texts by Catholics and Orthodox, from the Septuagint, but apocryphal — outside canon — by Protestant sources. In Tobit, Raphael protects Tobias from an evil spirit on his wedding night, and later heals Tobias’ father, Tobit, of his blindness.
The Protestant non-canonical view of Tobit, and later translations after King James that relied on earlier Hebrew texts, which did not include reference to Raphael, led later versions to omit, or to include in brackets, the fourth verse and its reference to Raphael stirring the waters at Bethesda.
But, whether we read this passage with or without Raphael, from a Protestant or Catholic vantage point, it is clear the “blind, lame and paralyzed” came there in the faith that “God heals.”
It is there Jesus finds the man who has been ill for thirty-eight years, and “When Jesus saw him lying there and knew that he had been there a long time, he said to him, ‘Do you want to be made well?’”
And then, the man reveals the sad but persistent state of society and human nature, as true today as it was on that day in first century Jerusalem.
“The sick man answered him, ‘Sir, I have no one to put me into the pool when the water is stirred up; and while I am making my way, someone else steps down ahead of me.’”
To sum that up, the man has been languishing there by the pool for “a long time,” because everyone who saw him, before Jesus, ignored his presence. They stepped over him. They stepped around him. They ignored him. They saw to themselves, and turned a blind eye to his need in their midst.
But, Jesus sees him. Christ sees us. And He stops on his way, to extend love and healing to the man in need. Jesus stops to lavish special attention on the one who’s been most ignored by society.
It is sadly ironic that the name Beth-zatha, or Bethesda, translates to mean “house of mercy” or “grace.” And in the house of mercy and grace, that poor man could find no mercy and grace in the ways of the world. It was only Christ who could see past the ways of the world, to extend to him the mercy and grace offered to us all.
It is equally sad and ironic that today, in some of the most uniformly Christian segments of our society, people continue to go unseen and unloved. The homeless. Hungry children. Forgotten elders. Working mothers going without health care.
We know these people are there, just around the corner, just down the street, in our society. But, just as with the man who was stepped over and ignored at the Pool of Bethesda, we all-too-often fail to stop and see these children of God.
And, just as those who passed the man who couldn’t reach the healing waters, we also often fail to stop and see that those in need cannot reach the healing, that, for so many reasons, seems just out of reach.
Not many of us today would go to a pool for healing — spiritual or physical. But, we do come regularly to the altar, to the chalice and paten, seeking the power of the Real Presence of Christ in His Body and Blood at the Eucharist.
We need to ask ourselves: Are we stepping over, around and away from those in need on the way to the altar rail? Who is left out, left behind and forgotten, outside the comfort of our sanctuaries?
Going back to our Gospel reading, if we wanted to find Jesus in that scene, we wouldn’t find him among those rushing into the healing water, or among those rushing to the festival at the Temple. No. Jesus was kneeling beside the man who’s been excluded from Temple and pool. And, as we come to kneel at the altar rail, we should consider: Is Christ kneeling outside, beside those we’ve scorned and forgotten?
This is not a new question.
St. John Chrysostom sought to answer it 16 centuries back. A quote attributed to him offers an answer: “If you cannot find Christ in the beggar at the church door, you will not find Him in the chalice.”
For St. Teresa of Calcutta, finding Christ in the Eucharist was inextricable from finding Him among the poor.
“If we recognize [Christ] under the appearance of bread,” she explained, “we will have no difficulty recognizing Him in the disguise of the suffering poor.”
For Mother Teresa, if she wanted to see Christ, she had no further to look than the nearest poor person — and she surrounded herself constantly with the poor. In them, she never failed to find “Jesus in his most distressing disguise.”
This is the relationship to which Christ calls us. As Jesus tells us in Matthew 25:40, “’Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’”
Christ calls us to Him. He calls us to the spiritual healing that’s to be had in finding Him, out there, kneeling next to those in need.
We’re called there, to find Christ in the hearts of those in need. And finding Him there, we will find ourselves transformed by the gift of his presence.
Lord Christ, help us to see you in your children in need. Open our hearts in compassion and love. Strengthen and embolden our hands to reach out to and serve you in all we meet. And, we implore you, St. Raphael, the Archangel, arrow and medicine of Divine Love, wound our hearts, we implore you, with the burning love of God and let this wound never heal, so that even in daily life we might always remain upon the path of love and overcome all things through love. We ask all this through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with God the Father and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.