The two conversations between Jesus and Nicodemus and Jesus and the Samaritan woman at the well are followed by two accounts of healings. And just as Nicodemus and the Samaritan woman are placed in contrast with each other, these two healings will also show a contrast so that we can see Jesus’ power to heal is not determined by any kind of restrictions.
The first healing takes place in Galilee, the second in Jerusalem.
The first is the story of the royal official’s son:
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. (Jn 4:43-54)
This story begins with a bit of a transition and introduction. After spending two days with the people in the Samaritan town of Sychar, Jesus travels on to Galilee, his home. And though, upon his arrival, he receives a kind of a hometown hero’s welcome because he made good in Jerusalem, we will quickly see that for these folks he will always be Jesus, Mary and Joseph’s son, the carpenter, and nothing more. They watched him grow up, he played with their children, he ate at their tables. And so, while they knew him, they could never really see beyond that. So his familiarity will always keep them from accepting his claim to be the Son of God, because he will always be little Jesus, the son of Mary and Joseph.
He and his disciples come to Cana, a town in the hills along the western shore of the Sea of Galilee. It becomes Jesus’ base of operations while he is in Galilee. He will travel from there to towns all around the lake, but he will always seem to return here. It was in Cana that he turned the water into wine, and that is significant to this story, because John tells us that was the first of Jesus’ miraculous signs and this healing will be the second.
And let’s go back for a moment to the way John uses the word “signs.” There will be seven “signs” in John’s Gospel, though John himself tells us that Jesus did many more that he didn’t include within his Gospel, but he intentionally included these so that when you read them you will come to believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God and that by believing you will have eternal life in him.
And so, these “signs” are intended to point you to God, if you are looking for him. If not, they will simply be sensational events that will amaze and astound you, but you will go away unmoved by what you have seen. Signs point us in the direction we are already looking to go.
So John introduces us to a man whom he describes as a certain royal official. It is likely that he was a member of Herod’s royal court and a person of some power and influence. He comes to Cana from Capernaum, another Galilean town about twenty miles away. We are told that his son had been sick for some time and was close to death. No doubt, he had exhausted all of his other resources, and he comes to Jesus hoping beyond hope that what he has heard about him is true. He comes not so much out of faith as out of desperation.
Have you ever been there? A sick child getting sicker, concern turns to panic turns to desperation. You will do whatever it takes, go wherever you need to go, spend whatever money it will cost to see your child get well again. If so, then you know what this man felt when he sought out Jesus. When he meets Jesus, he begs him to come with him to heal his son.
At his first request, Jesus sighs and remarks that the only way people will ever believe is if they see a miracle. And I think that for many of us he’s right. We kind of want to believe, but we want something more to confirm our faith – “If only you would do this for me, Jesus, I would really be able to believe in you.” “Show me a sign, answer my prayer, and then – well nothing will keep me from following you.” It may be that he says this to the crowd who are gathered around hoping to see him give an encore performance to his miracles in Jerusalem.
The man will not be put off – “Please come before my child dies!” And then Jesus gives an unexpected response: “You may go. Your son will live.” If I had been the man, I would have insisted Jesus come with me back to Capernaum and do something – lay his hands on my son, says some words over him – do something. And Jesus on occasion does just that. But Jesus, this time, says go, he will live.
And to my amazement, he does just that. He turns around without a word and heads for home. John writes, “He took Jesus at his word.” This is the true definition of faith – without seeing the result he believes what Jesus has said.
Now at the same time the man heads for home, his servants are heading to Cana to meet him. It had been afternoon, and the man stops overnight along the way and continues on the next morning. The official and his servants meet along the way, and the servants have exciting news: “Your son is well.”
He asks when this happened, and they reply “The fever left him yesterday at the seventh hour.” In Jewish reckoning of time that is 1:00 in the afternoon. And the father realized that this was the exact time at which Jesus had said, “Your son will live.” Can you imagine the chill that went down his spine? Yes, he had taken Jesus at his word, but to have this absolute confirmation that his promise was fulfilled? And notice that it wasn’t that he began to get better. It wasn’t an optimistic forecast – an interesting prognosis vindicated by later events. His fever didn’t gradually clear up. At the exact moment Jesus said “Your son will live” the boy was well.
And then we see the intended result of the miraculous sign: So he and all his household believed. Though this is the only imaginable response to healing, we will quickly learn that this is not always the result.
The next healing is separated by some time and distance. But it stands in stark contrast to this first healing.
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. The day on which this took place was a Sabbath, and so the Jews said to the man who had been healed, “It is the Sabbath; the law forbids you to carry your mat.” But he replied, “The man who made me well said to me, ‘Pick up your mat and walk.’” So they asked him, “Who is this fellow who told you to pick it up and walk?” The man who was healed had no idea who it was, for Jesus had slipped away into the crowd that was there. Later Jesus found him at the temple and said to him, “See, you are well again. Stop sinning or something worse may happen to you.” The man went away and told the Jews that it was Jesus who had made him well. (Jn 5:1-15)
This man, in contrast to the father, did not come looking for Jesus – apparently had no idea who he was. He has been lame or paralyzed for 38 years. It is an unfortunate English word that the NIV uses here: “invalid” – a term that in other contexts means worthless or unqualified.
He lays at the Bethesda pool in Jerusalem – a small enclosure of water that had developed a mysterious superstition surrounding it. It apparently bubbled up from time to time – perhaps a release of air or gas from the subterranean spring beneath it that fed it. And the legend had grown that whoever was able to enter the waters first while they were bubbling would be healed.
This man had laid there most of his life, waiting for his chance, but every time the waters stirred someone would enter it first and he would miss his opportunity.
Jesus sees the man and approaches him. He asks him one very simple question, “Do you want to get well?” Now what kind of a question is that, “Do you want to get well?” Of course he does – he’s been laying there for 38 years waiting to be healed. Really? 38 years and he hasn’t managed to roll himself in at the right time, hasn’t asked a friend to push him when the waters bubbled. Maybe Jesus asked the right question. You can almost hear the self-pity and hopelessness in his voice, “I have no one to help me into the pool…”
Maybe the truth is, he sees himself as invalid, a failure, deserving of nothing better than this miserable existence. But it’s one he knows – in spite of how miserable he might be, to be healed would mean things would change. He would have to lose out on sympathy and excuses, he would have to take on responsibility and care for himself. That comfortable equilibrium that, though miserable, is at least predictable. If he were to be healed, who knows what his life would look like.
That’s the dilemma so many people face who live dysfunctional lives in alcoholism or drug addiction. They know they need to get better, but they almost invariably will sabotage their own efforts to get help and get well. And so many of us who struggle with sin, know we need to change, but are unwilling to give up the very things that make us miserable.
So perhaps Jesus’ question to the man isn’t so strange, and maybe it is a question he would ask us: “Do you really want to get well?”
Jesus bypasses the man’s self-pity and bestows on him a gift of grace. He says, “Get up! Pick up your mat and walk!” And John writes, “At once the man was cured.”
See the contrast with the previous story of healing. The father came to Jesus with a request, and in faith he goes home believing that his son will be healed. This man, makes no request, seems to have no idea who Jesus is, and when he is healed seems untouched by the gift he has been given.
As a side note, contrast that with modern day healing and healers who, when healing doesn’t occur, blame it on the individual for not having enough faith. This healing of the lame man authenticates and confirms that Jesus’ ability to heal is not contingent on the man’s faith, but on the power of God. Jesus is going to heal who, when, and how he has chosen. Faith always elicits his amazement, but healing was always at his initiative, not because faith had earned it.
John follows this healing with an account of the controversy it stirred up. He adds the little side note, The day on which this took place was a Sabbath.
Think how many times Jesus healed on the Sabbath. It’s not just an accidental oversight or coincidence. Jesus intended to make the point that the work and power of God is not restricted by their arbitrary rules. God had created the Sabbath as a blessing for man, not as a straightjacket to restrict him from living.
The authorities see this man who has been healed, carrying his mat, and immediately challenge him for breaking the Sabbath. And what does the man do? He blames the one who healed him – “It’s not my fault! It’s the one who healed me!” They ask him who it was and he doesn’t even know Jesus’ name.
Later, after the commotion has died down, Jesus seeks out the man and says, “See, you are well again. Stop sinning or something worse may happen to you.” Jesus isn’t saying that sickness or disease is always a result of sin, but this man’s sin was perpetuating his disability and though he is healed of his paralysis, his sin, if left unchecked will bring about worse things in his life.
Sin is merely the symptom of a deeper problem – a broken relationship with God. And until we come to God in humility to seek forgiveness and spiritual healing, our lives will never be fully whole and healthy.
Perhaps the most ironic part of the story is what happens next. The man, on meeting Jesus and learning who healed him, immediately goes back to the authorities to inform them who it was who was really at fault for his Sabbath breaking.
It’s hard to believe that someone would blame Jesus for his problems, reject his healing and long for his old life where he could re-immerse himself in self-pity and misery.
Unless you think back to the Israelites when Moses brought them out of Egypt and after a few days of freedom, They were terrified and cried out to the LORD. They said to Moses, “Was it because there were no graves in Egypt that you brought us to the desert to die? What have you done to us by bringing us out of Egypt? Didn’t we say to you in Egypt, ‘Leave us alone; let us serve the Egyptians’? It would have been better for us to serve the Egyptians than to die in the desert!” (Ex 14:10-12)
Or a few days later: In the desert the whole community grumbled against Moses and Aaron. The Israelites said to them, “If only we had died by the LORD'S hand in Egypt! There we sat around pots of meat and ate all the food we wanted, but you have brought us out into this desert to starve this entire assembly to death.” (Ex 16:2-3)
So maybe it’s not that hard to believe that people resent it when you go messing with their lives to give them healing.
Jesus will later tell his disciples, “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance.” (Lk 5:31-32)
The question is not whether you and I need healing from our sin, but will we acknowledge that we are sick and come to Jesus to receive it. He offers it freely; his grace is powerful. But your life will change and those things that you have relied on to give your life stability and security may be the very things that need to go. Don’t settle for a life of self-pity and slavery, but let Jesus give you healing and life that is full.