Monthly Archives: November 2011

A Hopeless Cause

          Some time later, Jesus went up to Jerusalem for a feast of the Jews.  Now there is in Jerusalem near the Sheep Gate a pool, which in Aramaic is called Bethesda and which is surrounded by five covered colonnades.  Here a great number of disabled people used to lie–the blind, the lame, the paralyzed.  One who was there had been an invalid for thirty-eight years.  When Jesus saw him lying there and learned that he had been in this condition for a long time, he asked him, “Do you want to get well?”
           “Sir,” the invalid replied, “I have no one to help me into the pool when the water is stirred. While I am trying to get in, someone else goes down ahead of me.”
Then Jesus said to him, “Get up! Pick up your mat and walk.”  At once the man was cured; he picked up his mat and walked.
John 5:1-9a (NIV)

If you ever wanted to see a hopeless cause, all you had to do was to go down to the Pool of Bethesda.  There were probably a lot of sick people there all the time, but this guy seems like he was probably the most hopeless case of them all.

The Pool of Bethesda, right in the shadow of the Temple itself, was a double pool, with five covered areas, one around each edge, and one down the center.  The story was told that from time to time an angel of the Lord came down from heaven and stirred up the waters, and the people who got in while the waters were moving were instantly healed of whatever ailed them.  Naturally the pool attracted sick folks from all over the place, each of them waiting for days, or maybe weeks, intently watching the waters for the smallest ripple.  And then, when the waters were stirred up, there was probably a mad rush from all corners as people climbed over each other, knocked each other over, and elbowed their way into the water in the hopes of receiving a miraculous cure.

But this man, unable to walk for 38 long years, lay on his mat by the pool day after day after hopeless day, waiting for the water to move, and hoping that when it did, someone would be willing to help him into the water.  He probably talked with those who had come from far away, hearing their stories, listening to their hopes for a cure, maybe even asking them if they would be kind enough to help him into the water when they went in.  And then came the stirring of the pool, and every kind thought of these strangers was forgotten in their own helter-skelter rush to get into the water before the healing power was gone.

We don’t have any idea how long this man had been brought to the pool, or who he got to take him.  But we do know that he had nobody who cared enough about him to sit with him, nobody who was willing to share the lonely hours of waiting and watching, nobody who cared enough to help him get into the water at the right time.  He was all alone.  And each time that the water was stirred, his hope drained away a little more.  Honestly, I think that the only thing that kept him coming back was the realization that if he wasn’t there he would have NO chance of being healed.  At least if he was waiting by the pool, there was a slim chance that he might eventually find someone who wouldn’t forget about him in the midst of seeking their own healing.

And then, one day, Jesus came along.  Jesus somehow found out that this man had been lame for 38 years.  A hopeless case by anyone’s reckoning.  But Jesus approached the man and asked him a single question:  “Do you want to get well?”  It seems like such a silly question!  Of COURSE he wanted to get well!  That’s why he had spent years sitting by this miserable pool, sitting there with all of these other disabled people, waiting, hoping, and ultimately ending each day in total disappointment.

But the man didn’t say, that; he just gave the reason why he hadn’t been healed:  “I have no one to help me into the pool when the water is stirred. While I am trying to get in, someone else goes down ahead of me.”  A sad, hopeless story indeed.

But Jesus isn’t into hopeless.  And He isn’t into useless sympathy, either.  He was into hope, and joy, and action!  This man had been waiting for years for a messenger of the Lord to disturb the waters so that he could find healing.  And now, even though He didn’t realize it at the time, the Lord had showed up to do the job in person!

I can picture Jesus smiling encouragement as He spoke, not words of healing like we might expect, but words of encouragement:  “Get up! Pick up your mat and walk.”  And that’s all that it took.  Immediately the man was cured, and he knew it.  He felt the strength flood into his arms and legs; he felt the energy flow through his atrophied muscles, and with a joyous whoop, he jumped to his feet, rolled up his mat, threw it over his shoulder, and he WALKED!

The Pool of Bethesda wasn’t a bad thing.  By all accounts, at least some people had received healing from its angel-stirred waters.  But this man, and very likely lots of the others who were sitting by the water waiting for their own personal miracle, had somehow stopped seeking God Himself for the wholeness that he needed in his life, and had turned instead to something else.  His whole focus had turned inward; it had turned to his physical ailment and his need for a cure.  And so for long years he had tried in his own strength and his own cleverness to get into the water to be healed.  But the healing had always remained just out of his reach; tantalizingly close, but infinitely far away.

That’s when God showed up.  As long as we are willing to do things in our own strength, I think that God is willing to let us try.  It is only when we reach the end our resources, when we finally admit that we are helpless; that there is no way we can do what we are trying to accomplish on our own, only when we turn to Him and say, “I guess I can’t do it,” that He can release His power into our situation and flood our lives with miracles.


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A Different Approach

          After the two days he left for Galilee.  (Now Jesus himself had pointed out that a prophet has no honor in his own country.)  When he arrived in Galilee, the Galileans welcomed him. They had seen all that he had done in Jerusalem at the Passover Feast, for they also had been there.
Once more he visited Cana in Galilee, where he had turned the water into wine. And there was a certain royal official whose son lay sick at Capernaum.  When this man heard that Jesus had arrived in Galilee from Judea, he went to him and begged him to come and heal his son, who was close to death.
“Unless you people see miraculous signs and wonders,” Jesus told him, “you will never believe.”
The royal official said, “Sir, come down before my child dies.”
Jesus replied, “You may go. Your son will live.”
The man took Jesus at his word and departed.  While he was still on the way, his servants met him with the news that his boy was living.  When he inquired as to the time when his son got better, they said to him, “The fever left him yesterday at the seventh hour.”
Then the father realized that this was the exact time at which Jesus had said to him, “Your son will live.” So he and all his household believed.
This was the second miraculous sign that Jesus performed, having come from Judea to Galilee.
John 4:43-54 (NIV)

As with every gospel writer, John doesn’t put everything that Jesus ever did in His gospel (cf. John 20:30-31), nor everything that ever happened to Him.  But the one line, “(Now Jesus himself had pointed out that a prophet has no honor in his own country),” really makes me scratch my head.  There is no story here of Jesus being dishonored; just a statement that the Galileans welcomed Him, because they had seen the miracles that He had done in Jerusalem.  But if you read just a little bit between the lines, you really do get the idea that Jesus wasn’t really accepted in His home region of Galilee for who He was; He was just hounded by the people to do some miracles.

So when this royal official showed up to beg Jesus to come and heal his son who was close to death, Jesus came across as kind of exasperated.  “Unless you people (plural, addressed to all those standing around) see signs and wonders, you will never believe.”  I imagine that it would have been desperately frustrating for Jesus to have people just come to Him when they wanted something, but then, once they are healed, once they have seen the miracle, not wanting anything to do with what He said; not wanting to actually live the kingdom life that He was teaching them about.  And now, here was one more person who wanted Him to drop everything and go do a miracle for him.

In the end, it was Jesus’ compassion that carried the day.  After all, this man wasn’t just wanting to see a miracle so he could tell people about it.  He wasn’t looking for a thrill at Jesus’ expense.  He was simply desperate.  He probably didn’t even know about the kingdom of God yet.  He was simply reaching out in his absolute powerlessness, grasping at this one straw in his desperation to save his son’s life.  His heartfelt plea touched the feeling heart of the Son of God.  I can almost see Jesus’ face soften, a slight smile playing around the corners of His mouth, as the volume of His voice lowered to an intimate level that was only heard by the man and the few disciples who were standing closest:  “You may go.  Your son will live.”

The man had intended to bring Jesus back with him to Capernaum; back to where his son lay dying.  And I’m sure that he was willing to go to any lengths to make that happen.  But when Jesus looked him square in the eye and told him in that soft, intimate voice that his son would live, that was enough for him.  Immediately, his one thought was to get back home and see that his son really was going to live after all.

Some time the next morning he met his servants on the road.  They were coming to tell him that his son had suddenly gotten better; not just a slight improvement, but all the way well.  One instant he was fading, and the next he was out of bed and ready to go.  And the miraculous change had happened the previous day, precisely at the time that Jesus had told the ruler that his son would live.  At this point, the final sentence, “So he and all his household believed,’ is kind of anticlimactic.  Of course they did! 

There is a point here that is vital to understand.  Even in Jesus’ day there were two kinds of people who sought Him out for a miracle.  On the one hand were those people who asked Him for a miracle because they wanted to see a miracle.  Jesus never gave in to them.  But on the other hand were those who begged for a miracle because they were helpless in the situation in which they found themselves.  They had nowhere else to turn except to Jesus.  They weren’t ordering Him to do something for them; they were simply pleading with Him to help them when there was no one else to help.  And when someone came to Jesus that way, He always helped.  And He still does today.

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A Ripe Harvest

          Just then his disciples returned and were surprised to find him talking with a woman. But no one asked, “What do you want?” or “Why are you talking with her?”
Then, leaving her water jar, the woman went back to the town and said to the people, “Come, see a man who told me everything I ever did. Could this be the Christ?”
They came out of the town and made their way toward him.
Meanwhile his disciples urged him, “Rabbi, eat something.”
      But he said to them, “I have food to eat that you know nothing about.”
      Then his disciples said to each other, “Could someone have brought him food?”
      “My food,” said Jesus, “is to do the will of him who sent me and to finish his work.  Do you not say, ‘Four months more and then the harvest’? I tell you, open your eyes and look at the fields! They are ripe for harvest.  Even now the reaper draws his wages, even now he harvests the crop for eternal life, so that the sower and the reaper may be glad together.  Thus the saying ‘One sows and another reaps’ is true.  I sent you to reap what you have not worked for. Others have done the hard work, and you have reaped the benefits of their labor.”
Many of the Samaritans from that town believed in him because of the woman’s testimony, “He told me everything I ever did.”  So when the Samaritans came to him, they urged him to stay with them, and he stayed two days.  And because of his words many more became believers.
They said to the woman, “We no longer believe just because of what you said; now we have heard for ourselves, and we know that this man really is the Savior of the world.”
John 4:27-42 (NIV)

The conversation with the Samaritan woman ends just as sharply and unexpectedly as it had started, but in the short time that had passed at the well, the woman had changed.  She had come on a mission to get water for herself, maybe for her family.  But now, as she headed back into town, her original mission, her focus on herself and her needs, was totally forgotten – so much so that she even left her water jar sitting on the ground at the well!  She was now focused on telling the news about Jesus to all of the rest of the town.

The woman’s message was short, simple, and extremely clear:  “Come see a man who told me everything I ever did.  Could this be the Christ?”  In other words, “I believe I’ve met the Messiah!  You should come and meet Him too!”  This woman had never had a class on personal evangelism; she had never been challenged to write down her testimony on one page; she had never been given a list of common objections to Christianity with conveniently indexed answers for her to memorize.  All she did was to share her own experience with Jesus, and it was powerful & effective:  the whole town came out to see this amazing man.

Meanwhile, back at the well, Jesus is giving His disciples a lesson of their own about evangelism.  These followers of Jesus had just come from the town of Sychar, where they had apparently bought the food that they are now urging Him to eat.  But it is pretty apparent that the whole time they were in town, none of them shared with a single person about Jesus, or about life in the Kingdom of God.  Some of that may have been due to the fact that they were in a Samaritan town, and they figured that the Samaritans weren’t eligible for the Kingdom.  But more than likely, they just didn’t think about it.  They went to buy food, so they bought food, and they really didn’t look at the people who they bought it from as people in need of salvation.

But while they were away, Jesus had been planting seeds, watering them, fertilizing them, and watching them develop into a full-blown plant of faith.  A plant that was, right at that very moment, reproducing itself in the lives of people all over Sychar; people who were, right at that very moment, on their way to be harvested!

The next few minutes stretched out into the next few days, and dozens, maybe hundreds, of these despised Samaritans came to saving knowledge of Jesus.  And it all started because Jesus refused to see the woman at the well as simply a woman at the well.  He saw in her a lost soul who desperately needed the salvation that He had come to make possible.  And maybe He could see that she would become a powerful witness to Him, if only given a chance.

How many of us go about our day to day lives, meeting and talking to people in the grocery store, at the gas station, on the bus, and see only people?  How many of us talk to people every day without ever once telling them about Jesus, and how He changed our lives?  How many of us are so focused on what we are doing in our day to day lives that we overlook what God wants us to be doing in the harvest field?  Jesus’ statement, “I tell you, open your eyes and look at the fields! They are ripe for harvest!” is for us, too!

All of the people that we see in every place we go are not just “people.”  They are eternal souls who will spend all of eternity either with God or separated from Him; either experiencing eternal blessedness and joy, or eternal pain and suffering.  Even if we can put that reality out of our minds, God never does!  I can’t get away from the message of 2 Peter 3:9 (NIV):  The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. He is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance.  God is actually holding back the return of Jesus, because HE wants more people to be saved.  If seeking and saving what was lost was Jesus’ core mission (cf. Luke 19:10), and if that mission is so important to God that He is delaying the end of the world so that it can happen, it seems like a terrible betrayal to spend our days interacting with the very people that Jesus died for so that they could have eternal life, and never telling them about it.

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15 The woman said to him, “Sir, give me this water so that I won’t get thirsty and have to keep coming here to draw water.”
He told her, “Go, call your husband and come back.”
                17 “I have no husband,” she replied.

          Jesus said to her, “You are right when you say you have no husband.  18 The fact is, you have had five husbands, and the man you now have is not your husband. What you have just said is quite true.”
19 “Sir,” the woman said, “I can see that you are a prophet.  20
Our fathers worshiped on this mountain, but you Jews claim that the place where we must worship is in Jerusalem.”
                21 Jesus declared, “Believe me, woman, a time is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem.  22 You Samaritans worship what you do not know; we worship what we do know, for salvation is from the Jews.  23 Yet a time is coming and has now come when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for they are the kind of worshipers the Father seeks.  24
God is spirit, and his worshipers must worship in spirit and in truth.”
The woman said, “I know that Messiah” (called Christ) “is coming. When he comes, he will explain everything to us.”
Then Jesus declared, “I who speak to you am he.”
John 4:15-26 (NIV)

So, who exactly is Jesus?  As Jesus talked with the woman at the well, her opinion of Him underwent a strange progression.

At first, she just found Him kind of odd; a Jewish man who dared to ask a Samaritan woman for a drink of water.  This would be odd for two reasons:  first of all, no Jewish person would ever drink from a jug that had been touched by a Samaritan, because even touching it would immediately make them ceremonially unclean.  And secondly, no self-respecting Jewish man would ever strike up a conversation with an unrelated woman, whether they were a Samaritan or not.  But here He was, asking her for a drink!

But then He claimed that He would give living water to anyone who would ask Him for it.  Not understanding the spiritual symbolism, the woman must have figured that He was some kind of a magician, or a wonder worker – someone who was able to get living water without even having a bucket!  Water that would keep the drinker from ever getting thirsty again.  It would be a really convenient thing to have access to.  If she had that, she wouldn’t have to go to the well every day to draw water and carry the heavy jar back to the house.

But when He had sent her to fetch her husband, and she had to admit that she didn’t have one, Jesus told her startling truths about her personal life – she had actually had five husbands to date, and she was involved with another man who hadn’t married her yet.  Now she figured that this man must be prophet, someone who could know things without being told.  Someone who was in touch with God Himself.  And so she took the opportunity to ask this “prophet” something that had apparently been on her mind for a while:  “Our fathers worshiped on this mountain, but you Jews claim that the place where we must worship is in Jerusalem.”  The implied question was, “Which one is right?”

Jesus’ answer totally reset the paradigm for worship.  The key issue in worship is not WHERE, but HOW.  Jesus knew that in just a few short years, the temple at Jerusalem was going to be torn down all the way to bare dirt by the Romans, and the Jewish people would be without a place to worship.  But He also knew that, because God didn’t actually live in the temple, but was present everywhere all the time, His the true worshipers could worship Him whenever and wherever they wanted to.  They just had to worship Him in the right way:  in spirit and in truth.

To worship God in spirit implies that worship is not a matter of forms or rituals, but a matter of the heart.  You can be saying or singing all the “right” words, and even doing it in the “right” place, and with the “right” physical posture.  But if your heart is focused on something else, you aren’t really worshiping God.  On the other hand, if your heart is totally focused on God, even if your singing is off-key, or you stumble over the words, or you can’t kneel at the altar, your worship is genuine and will be received by God.

To worship God in truth means that you must worship God as He really is.  A lot of people today “pick and choose” characteristics of God that they want to focus on, and they also choose characteristics that they choose to ignore or disbelieve.  I have had people tell me, “I can’t believe in a God who would tell the Israelites to totally destroy everyone in Jericho, even women and children.”  But God DID do that.  And if you want to exclude that characteristic from the god that you worship, then you aren’t worshiping God in truth; you are worshiping a different god, one that you have made in the image that you want him to be.  If you really want to worship God, the real God, then you must worship Him with all of you, and you must worship Him as He has revealed Himself to be.

It seems like Jesus’ answer to the woman’s question went right over her head.  These were some massive concepts that Jesus was trying to communicate to her, and she just couldn’t seem to understand them.  And so she answered, “I know that Messiah is coming. When he comes, he will explain everything to us.”  When it’s hard to understand something, it’s always tempting to push the solution into the undefined future.  It takes the pressure off of us to work it through right now.

But Jesus’ answer forced her to take the final step in her strange progression of opinion as to Jesus’ identity:  “I who speak to you am he.  I am the Messiah.  I am the one you have been waiting for.  I have all of the answers, and if you will listen to Me, and receive what I am telling you, then I will be able to give you access to the very kingdom of God.”

Today a lot of people have opinions as to who Jesus was and is.  But all of the debate, all of the discussion, all of the “scholarly opinion” in the end, are utterly worthless.  Jesus Himself gave us the authoritative answer that must end all debate.  He is the Messiah, the Christ, the very Son of the living God, the Lord.

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Everybody Gets Wet

7 When a Samaritan woman came to draw water, Jesus said to her, “Will you give me a drink?”  8 (His disciples had gone into the town to buy food.)
The Samaritan woman said to him, “You are a Jew and I am a Samaritan woman. How can you ask me for a drink?” (For Jews do not associate with Samaritans.)
Jesus answered her, “If you knew the gift of God and who it is that asks you for a drink, you would have asked him and he would have given you living water.”
11 “Sir,” the woman said, “you have nothing to draw with and the well is deep. Where can you get this living water?  12
Are you greater than our father Jacob, who gave us the well and drank from it himself, as did also his sons and his flocks and herds?”
13 Jesus answered, “Everyone who drinks this water will be thirsty again, 14 but whoever drinks the water I give him will never thirst. Indeed, the water I give him will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life.”

John 4:7-14 (NIV)

Two things really jump out at me from this passage.

First is the way that Jesus takes a seemingly mundane question, “Will you give me a drink?”, and uses it to open a life-changing spiritual conversation.  Jesus was always on the clock.  He understood that His job was to seek and to save what was lost (Luke 19:10), and He was about that job 24/7.  It didn’t matter where He found those who had wandered off of God’s path, He purposefully engaged them, and did His best to get them back on track.

As Jesus was leaving Earth, He gave this unfinished job of seeking and saving what was lost to us (cf. Matthew 28:18-20, Luke 1:8-9).  He has sent the Holy Spirit into His disciples to empower them, and now each of us is to be His witness in our sin-darkened world.  And a very effective means of doing that is to talk to the people around us.  We don’t have to be “in your face,” confronting people in a belligerent and hostile fashion.  Instead, just like Him, we can engage those around us in purposeful conversation designed to give us an opportunity to share Jesus with them.  All it takes a lot of the time is a simple greeting to get things going, a little awareness of what the person is doing, or how they are responding, and a willingness to get into their personal space.

Sometimes just asking, “How are you?” like you mean it, and then actually listening to the answer is enough to get a conversation rolling that you can turn toward what God has done in your life.  Or you can be a little more clever.  One time I asked a grocery clerk, “Hey, did you hear the good news?”  His face brightened, and he asked, “No, what?”  And I answered, “God loves you and wants to have a relationship with you!”  If I remember correctly, it turned out that he was already a believer, but it opened up the door for several good conversations over the following weeks.

The second thing that strikes me about this encounter that between Jesus and the woman was how He described the living water that He was offering her:  “A spring of water welling up to eternal life.”  This is very similar to what He said later at the Feast of Tabernacles:  On the last and greatest day of the Feast, Jesus stood and said in a loud voice, “If anyone is thirsty, let him come to me and drink.  Whoever believes in me, as the Scripture has said, streams of living water will flow from within him.”  John goes on to explain:  By this he meant the Spirit, whom those who believed in him were later to receive. Up to that time the Spirit had not been given, since Jesus had not yet been glorified. (John 7:37-39 NIV)

The living water is a symbol for the Holy Spirit.  And the way that Jesus talks about the Holy Spirit in a believer’s life is much different than many people think about it.  Often we seem to look at ourselves as a jar or a cistern for the Holy Spirit.  We want to be filled up, but then, over the course of hours, or days, or weeks, He seems to drain away, and we feel empty and in need of being filled up again.  We try in vain to cap ourselves off, and seal our cracks so that we can hang onto Him for longer, but eventually we are empty again.

Jesus paints a different picture.  Instead of a cistern, He actually paints us as a spring, an artesian well, a rapidly flowing stream, more like a fountain than a cistern; a conduit through which the Holy Spirit flows powerfully out into the world.  Yes, we do leak, and we will never be able to “hold onto” a filling of the Holy Spirit any more than a sprinkler will be able to hold onto the water that flows into it.  We were designed to leak, because we were designed to have a never-ending flow of the Holy Spirit into and through our lives, Just like Jesus did.

These two insights are closely related.  If we picture ourselves as a cistern and the Holy Spirit as filling us for a time, but then gradually leaking out, we will tend to focus on ourselves, and what God is doing IN us.  If, on the other hand, we see ourselves as a channel of the Holy Spirit, the means by which He intends to change the world one life at a time, then we will tend to focus on others, on actively engaging them, and drawing them right into the kingdom, looking instead at what God is doing THROUGH us.

With Jesus as both our Savior and our role model, we must see ourselves as a channel of the Holy Spirit, and Him as a rushing river flowing through our lives and sweeping others along in His current.  We need to see ourselves as a sprinkler that purposefully allows the Holy Spirit to continually flow through us, so that everybody around us gets wet!

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