We don’t have to look far in our lives to know that God cares about healing. Everything that has life has the capacity to grow, adjust, and repair itself. This happens within individuals and within communities across species. Trees in a forest share nourishment with other trees that are struggling. Plants have immune systems that fight off diseases and pests. In our own bodies, cells grow—replacing everything within us every seven years, scientists say—our cuts heal, bones knit themselves together again, our entire life-supporting system running mostly outside our awareness. But it keeps us safe, preserves our lives, and gives us a chance to really enjoy and flourish in this life.
But as we all know so well, struggle comes into every life—bodily, mentally, and spiritually. Physically we get older and as we do, we may notice a decline in our strength and stamina. We may face illness or—in my case—broken bones. Mentally we may struggle with things like anxiety, depression, resentment, or distrust. Spiritually we can lose hope, we can feel isolated, alone, and far from God.
But our God is a God who heals, who wants no less for us than peace and joy, a life fully in tune with him each day, enjoying a divine intimacy that sustains us, keeps us company, and helps us live with more love and light. Ancient Jewish lore says that as soon as Adam and Eve were expelled from the Garden of Eden, God gave the angel Raziel a book full of the secret mysteries of life, including all the medicinal herbs that can cure every illness. God instructed the angel to give the book to Adam, and from Adam it passed to Noah, Abraham, Jacob, Levi, Moses, and Joshua, until it reached Solomon. It was said that much of the great wisdom King Solomon brought to the world was originally contained in the book of secrets God supplied for the healing of his children at the beginning of time.
When upsets and challenges come in our own lives, it seems to be our human nature to first resist it, whatever it is, to fight it—body, mind, and soul—to worry and fret about it, to tell our friends how horrible it is, to ask people “out there” for their advice about what to do “in here.” If it’s a medical situation, we go talk to our doctors and other professionals. If it’s a relationship issue, we might go to a counselor or watch videos or call our friends. All of those responses might be helpful for a time and help us feel more in control, like we can deal with what we’re facing. But along the way, we may be forgetting to turn toward our best support of all, the One who understands the whole story of our lives and knows exactly what we need in order to be whole, well before we know we need it.
We don’t often think of God as a problem-solver for practical things in the here-and-now. God needs hands for that, we think, and besides, God helps those who help themselves, right? The problem with that thinking is that approach is that it can leave us feeling like it’s all up to us in a time when we sorely need God’s comfort and guidance. Incidentally, I looked up the phrase, God helps those who help themselves, and discovered that although it’s often attributed to Benjamin Franklin, it may have originated much earlier, in the 1600s, when the Welsh-poet George Herbert wrote, “Help thyself, and God will help thee.”
The children of Israel in the wilderness weren’t much interested in helping themselves—they were more carrying on and raging and blaming Moses for their latest crisis. Our Old Testament story tells us that soon after God led the people safely across the Red Sea, they found themselves struggling with a new threat. Now they were in a place where the water was bitter and unfit to drink. They complain loudly to Moses—can’t you just imagine the look on his face? He must have been so tired of that. At his wit’s end, Moses went to God. “What am I going to do?” he asked. “The people can’t drink this water because it’s bitter, and without water, they will die.”
God showed Moses a piece of wood that he could put into the water so it would become sweet and drinkable. And Moses went back to the people, did as God showed him, and all was well. By providing Moses with just the right idea for healing, God solved the problem, made the water drinkable, once again meeting the needs of the children of Israel. God told them, “If you will listen carefully to the voice of the Lord your God, and do what is right in his sight, and give heed to his commandments and keep his statutes, I will not bring upon you any of the diseases that I brought upon the Egyptians; for I am the Lord who heals you.” This is who God still is, with us today, no matter how much we grumble, fret, or stew—no matter how long it takes us to remember to turn God’s direction.
Our New Testament story offers what I think is one of Jesus’ most important healing miracles, because it gives us a new way to see the things we struggle with in our own lives. On a Sabbath day, Jesus and his disciples are walking along, and Jesus sees a man begging at the temple gate. He was blind from birth, a fact which would have been well known to the people of the town, because they saw him begging for food there each day.
The disciples ask Jesus a simple but important question: “Who sinned to cause this suffering to come upon this man? Was it he, himself, or his parents who caused this?”
Many beliefs are wrapped up in their question. First we can hear that they believed the man’s suffering happened because of someone’s sin. It didn’t happen by chance, without a cause. Someone did something wrong, and now this bad thing happened. But who’s fault is it?
We might not think in our own circumstances that it was sin that caused our accident, illness, or difficult situation, although we might. But often when something bad happens, we ask, “Whose fault is it?” and may be tempted to blame ourselves. Worse, we can feel we’ve fallen out of God’s favor somehow, no longer blessed, and that can be a sad and scary place to be, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually. I am certain that’s never the way God sees it—or sees us. God is a God who heals.
Another belief behind the disciples’ question had to do with the transmigration of souls, a form of reincarnation that is mentioned in the writings of the Essenes—the early desert Fathers who wrote the Dead Sea Scrolls—as well as the Kabbalah, the Jewish mystical tradition. The disciples might have wanted to know whether the man caused his own blindness in this life by something terrible he did in the last. And their question about the parents’ sin followed the idea that the suffering of the Jewish people in exile happened because of the transgressions of their forefathers, who had hardened their hearts toward God. Even today, modern people that we are, we have a little bit of that idea in our thinking. If only Adam and Eve hadn’t eaten that apple, we think, we might still be in paradise. If only.
When Jesus answers their question, instead of choosing one of the options they gave him, Jesus turns the whole question on its head and gives a remarkable and surprising answer. “Neither this man nor his parents sinned,” Jesus told them. “He was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him.” What a remarkable statement. That is a totally different way to look at any struggle that comes our way. Instead of, How horrible, what did I do to deserve this? We can think, God is preparing to do something here in my life—I’m going to pay attention and watch God work.
Next Jesus spat on the ground, mixed it into mud, and spread that on the man’s eyes. He then told him to go to the pool of Siloam and wash. He did that, the scripture says simply, “and came back able to see.”
The pool of Siloam is significant here; it was the very first reservoir ever built near the city of Jerusalem, just outside the city walls and northwest of an area referred to as the “Garden of the King.” Jesus would have known this pool well, and at the place it appears in our story, it’s possible it had a symbolic as well as a practical meaning. What if we think of this moment—Jesus sending the blind man to the oldest pool in Jerusalem—in light of what we heard in the Old Testament story? In Exodus, God made the water sweet again by showing Moses to put wood in the water.
Here in our New Testament story, Jesus sends the blind man—blind since birth—to the pool of Siloam to wash. It is not too much of a stretch to say that the religion of their day had become bitter, a breeding ground for people of ambition and wealth and cunning. Pharisees and Sadducees enjoyed the power they possessed and seemed more than anything else interested in holding on to their prestiged positions. Perhaps Jesus sent the blind man to the pool of Siloam in hopes of making their religion sweet again. Maybe after seeing this miracle, peoples’ hearts would be filled with wonder at the agency and the healing love of God.
It’s fascinating—and so true to our world today—learning how twisted and knotted up this story gets as people begin commenting and having opinions and trying to decide what they think happened. The townspeople get quite excited and take the man to the Pharisees, who begin to question him. He tells the story of how Jesus put mud on his eyes and told him to wash in the pool. And the Pharisees are in an uproar, arguing among themselves, doubting, struggling, splitting hairs, questioning, trying to find evidence that Jesus is just a man, a sinner, a heretic. They think that proving that will keep their own power secure.
They bring in the man’s parents and ask them questions. His mom and dad confirm he’s been blind since birth and say they don’t know what opened his eyes. They were afraid of the Pharisees because they knew that anyone who said Jesus was the Messiah would be expelled from the synagogue. So they simply answer, “Ask him—he is of age. He will speak for himself.”
Again, the Pharisees bring the man before them. They admonish him to tell the truth, to “give glory to God.” They are totally clueless that that is precisely what the man has been doing all along. They tell him they know Jesus is a sinner. He says, “I do not know whether he is a sinner. One thing I do know, that though I was blind, now I see.”
Such bitter, bitter waters these Pharisees were stirring. Rather than exploring with wonder and excitement the possibility that God had done a miraculous thing in their midst—that God is in fact, and is in fact still, the Lord who heals–they latched on to every little detail of the story, picking it apart, trying to prove it wrong, one way or another. Their reaction was made even more bitter by their pride, ambition, jealousy, and fear, all flaws that God could heal easily if their hearts could have only been soft enough to hear Him.
Truly Jesus’ answer to the disciples had come to life right in front of them. “He was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him.” And God’s works certainly were that day. Over and over again, the man told his story to the surprised townspeople and the frustrated and frenzied Pharisees. He was personal, living evidence of God caring about the needs of his children and acting in a healing and life-changing way. And most of the people in the story totally missed that, simply because they weren’t looking for God—they had other, more human agendas.
What God did then and God does now. Wherever in our lives the water has turned bitter—in our health, finances, relationships, our hope—we can see that as an invitation to turn toward the One who loves and heals us, who wants us to enjoy—truly enjoy—the beauty and peace and wholeness given to us each day. We can ask God what to do about whatever we’re struggling with and step by step, grace by grace, always in Love, the way will begin to open and things will start to change. If we pay attention and trust, soon we’ll see we’re walking with God—right here, in this messy, loud, and confusing world–toward a brighter and sweeter day. And that’s what real healing is.
- OT Exodus 15: 22-26
- NT John 9: 1-25
- Levy, Rabbi Yitzchak. The Shiloach Pool. http://www.zomet.org.il/eng/?CategoryID=160&ArticleID=8737
- Savedow, Steve, ed. The Book of the Angel Rezial. Weiser Books (San Francisco, CA: 2000).