A little over a week ago, I was privileged to resume teaching a Ladies' Bible study at church, continuing a series in the book of John that we began last year. It seems like most of my life, I've heard John recommended as a good beginning book to learn about the Savior, and always wondered why. The stated purpose of the book (found in John 20.31) is "But these are written, that ye might believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God; and that believing ye might have life through his name." Wanting these women to truly encounter Jesus, we've been slowly working our way through the book, studying others' encounters with the Lord, and thus meeting Him more intimately ourselves.
We had already discussed 5 different individuals or groups of people who had met the Savior:
- Mary, mother of Jesus, at the wedding in Cana where we learned that no concern is too small to bring before the Lord. He listens and He will respond.
- The servants at the wedding in Cana who showed us that if we want to see the miracles He performs, we must be in the position of a servant, busy serving our Master.
- Nicodemus, who sought out the Lord during the night, where we learned that Jesus understands us, meets us right where we are and then takes us to where He wants us to be. We were challenged that concern over what others think (our good or bad reputations) can distance us from the Savior. We also learned some effective strategies for sharing the Gospel message with others.
- The Samaritan women at the well, where we realized that God chooses, even delights, to use us, broken and cracked though we may be. It is through the holes and imperfect seams that His living water overflows, spilling out on others.
- The Capernaum official who sought healing for his child, where we learned that Jesus not only sees our surface problems, but also peers intently into our hearts and knows, as well as longs to hea,l what is truly troubling us.
That brings us to our 6th encounter with Jesus - the lame man at the Pools of Bethesda, which is found in John 5.1-15.
After this there was a feast of the Jews; and Jesus went up to Jerusalem. Now there is at Jerusalem by the sheep market a pool, which is called in the Hebrew tongue Bethesda, having five porches. In these lay a great multitude of impotent folk, of blind, halt, withered, waiting for the moving of the water. 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.And a certain man was there, which had an infirmity thirty and eight years. When Jesus saw him lie, and knew that he had been now a long time in that case, he saith unto him, "Wilt thou be made whole?"The impotent man answered him, "Sir, I have no man, when the water is troubled, to put me into the pool: but while I am coming, another steppeth down before me."Jesus saith unto him, Rise, take up thy bed, and walk.And immediately the man was made whole, and took up his bed, and walked: and on the same day was the sabbath. The Jews therefore said unto him that was cured, "It is the sabbath day: it is not lawful for thee to carry thy bed."He answered them, "He that made me whole, the same said unto me, Take up thy bed, and walk."Then asked they him, "What man is that which said unto thee, Take up thy bed, and walk?"And he that was healed wist not who it was: for Jesus had conveyed himself away, a multitude being in that place. Afterward Jesus findeth him in the temple, and said unto him, "Behold, thou art made whole: sin no more, lest a worse thing come unto thee." The man departed, and told the Jews that it was Jesus, which had made him whole.(KJV)
This encounter takes place in Jerusalem. That means that Jesus, shortly after healing the nobleman's son, began a journey to the Holy City, a journey of approximately 120 km, because of a Jewish celebration. Once there, he visited the Pools of Bethesda, located near one of the gates and also not far from the Temple. At the Pools of Bethesda, He found a huge crowd of sick and handicapped people, laying around on the terraces, waiting for their chance at a miracle. According to tradition, every so often an angel would descend, stir up the water and the first person to immerse in the moving water would be healed of whatever was ailing them.
This resulted in an interesting discussion among the ladies, for mixing the Christian faith with traditional religions and cultural practices presents a huge struggle for believers in Niger. We hypothesized that maybe what happened at these pools was of a spiritual nature, but not necessarily from the Lord... yet because of the proximity of the temple, some elements of the Jewish faith were also mixed in. This is dangerous; it can lead us away from a pure faith in the Savior, can prevent us from first seeking and then seeing Him, and tempts us to become dependant on something other than the Lord. Some of the women admitted to struggling with this, but it was so encouraging to hear one of the woman testify of how God has strengthened her and provided for her so that she has not had to resort to traditional practices and as a result, all glory for the things He has done and is doing in her life goes to Him unquestionably. Even her Muslim family members remark about this.
Next we discussed the two key players in this story: Jesus and the lame man. In Nigerien culture, it seems almost impossible to confront an individual with the Gospel message. People here tend to make their decisions in groups, as a group. While we read instances of "groups" coming to know the Lord (i.e. all who heard believed, families being baptized, etc.), we also see clearly from this example that Jesus fixed His gaze on one person and asked him individually, "Do you (singular) want..." Thus, to truly encounter Jesus, at some point in time we must meet Him on our own, as an individual.
I think the next point is the most touching: Jesus asks the lame man if he wants to be made whole and the man responds, "Sir, I have no one..." I wonder how many times, how many people... feel as though they have no one... no one cares, no hope, no potential for change in their circumstances... Since God created us for relationship, that is a terrible place to be. This man had been lame for 38 years and by his own testimony, he saw no hope of a change, ever... for there was no one to help him, no one to carry him. Created for relationship, we need others and want to depend on them, but the only one who can ever and always be there, who is 100% dependable, is the Savior. All others will as some point, in some way, betray us or let us down. While it seems so sad that this man felt so alone, I also think that this was a wonderful gift of God. Once we recognize our aloneness and the emptiness of the traditions, practices and culture surrounding us, it frees us to see the one who can heal, can liberate and can end our loneliness if we will only completely depend upon Him.
Jesus doesn't berate the man for this lack of faith. Instead, He simply asks the man to obey. Jesus says, "Stand up, take your mat and walk." For a moment, the ladies (giggling) tried to put themselves in that man's position. For 38 years he had laid lame, unable to walk. Only one of the women said that her initial response would have been to obey without questioning. All the rest of us, myself included, admitted that we'd have been more likely to shake our heads and start off with a list of excuses, "But sir, you don't understand. These legs haven't supported the weight of anything for 38 years..." Yet we don't read of any hesitation or questions on the part of this man. He simply obeyed, and as he is enjoying his new ability, Jesus melts away into the crowd and the man walks right into a confrontation with the Pharisees.
Instead of being amazed and thankful for a miracle, the Pharisees only see a violation of the standard established to help keep them from falling into sin. There is nothing wrong with holding to a standard of behavior. Yet this point is particularly convicting for me, because it is easy to feel good about holding to the letter of the law rather than abiding by the spirit of the law. How often do I miss the miraculous because I'm trying to adhere to a set of rules, or because I'm criticizing (certainly in my heart if not aloud) one who hasn't kept man's standards and rules? The Pharisees, sadly, completely missed the point.
The last bit of discussion we had regarding this story had to do with the fact that when the Pharisees asked the man who had healed him, he couldn't give an answer. It appeared that he had encountered Jesus - and he had, sort of. But he still didn't really know who Jesus was... he didn't even know His name. As we discussed this, we came to the conclusion that questions which require us to really examine our faith are a good thing. Questioning and doubts, honestly taken back to the Lord, can reveal Him all the more clearly to us.
It truly was a joy, after 4 months, to meet again with these dear women and study through a passage of Scripture together. Please remember to pray for us when we do this. Most of the women are illiterate and do not speak/understand French and my Zarma is limited. In the past, I've prepared and led as we worked our way through a passage, teaching in French which was then translated into Zarma. This time, the lady who was doing the translating translated into Hausa (she wasn't comfortable with the Zarma, although she understands it) for most of the women. The guard at the church translated the Hausa into Gourmantche for another lady. The women would then discuss or answer questions in Zarma, which wasthen be translated back into French for me. It seemed convoluted and my head was literally spinning by the time we were done, not to mention that I wonder how much of what we were saying to each other was actually truly being communicated. I'm so thankful that God is the one who touches hearts and minds to understand, because under those circumstances, if it depended on my ability, it would be completely hopeless.
Photo: Pools of Bethesda
Illustration by Hart Classics