Paralyzed by Fear

Photo by Christopher Cotrell from (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

John 5:1-18

The man on the mat…

Can you imagine this man?  He has been ill for 38 years.  A lifetime.  He doesn’t know anything other than sickness, lying there on his mat, begging for alms.

… meets Jesus

Then, one day Jesus passes by… and SEES him.  Really séés him, knows about him.

So Jesus stops by this man.  But you know Jesus…  There’s no: “Hello, how are you?” No introductions.  Just, immediately, the question:

“Do you want to be made well?”

Now just imagine if you were this man, lying there for almost four decades.  Helpless…  And a stranger comes up to you and asks if you want to be made well.  As if it’s somehow your fault that you’re lying there.  As if you’re gaining something.  Like it’s in your interest to be lying there.

Please note:  I am not saying that Jesus was victim blaming!  Throughout the gospels it is clear that Jesus has deep compassion with people’s suffering.

But Jesus sees past our circumstances, past the physical limitations, to the emotional and spiritual limitations that keep us lying on our mats, helpless.

Because, did you hear what the man answered?  Jesus asks:

“Do you want to be made well?”

And he says:

I have no one to put me into the pool and while I am making my way,  someone else steps down ahead of me.”

38 years!  And when someone asks if he wants to be made well, he doesn’t say yes. He makes excuses.  Explains how unfair life is.

There are many things that can keep us on our mats, prevent us from saying “yes” when Jesus asks if we want to be made well.  But today I want to zoom in on one reason, one thing that might have kept that man on that mat: fear.

Because even when the illness is painful and debilitating… it is known.  His circumstances have become familiar.  “Safe”.  So that he is too scared to trust, to dare, to risk belief, to venture into an unknown future.

And I’m zooming into this possible fear that kept him on his mat, because I suspect that is where many of us are stuck:  in fear.

Our fear

Let’s face it, we live in a culture of fear.  We are scared… Of economic downturn… Crime…

In 2000 we were convinced the Y2K bug was going to kill us.  In 2001 Anthrax.  2003 SARS flu.  2005 Bird flu.  2008 economic recession.  2009 Swine flu. In 2012 it was the Mayan Calendar that predicted our end.  In 2014 it was Ebola.  2016 the Zika Virus  And in 2020… Covid-19, a member of Corona virus group.

All of these things are symptoms of one thing:  fear.

Jesus heals

At Beth-zatha (Bethesda, Bethsaida) Jesus sees a man paralyzed by fear.  And Jesus heals him, sets him free:

“Stand up, take your mat and walk.” 9 At once the man was made well,  and he took up his mat and began to walk.


But, suddenly there is a twist… the whole story takes a new direction with the words:

Now that day was a sabbath.

And suddenly the whole community’s fear is exposed.

This man is healed – and the community’s immediate reaction is to reprimand him.  “You are breaking the rules!”

The rules are there for a reason.  There is a reason why people cling to the rules with so much passion… The reason is:  Fear.

The rules give the illusion of control. If I stick to the rules, then there is some semblance of predictability to life.  Then everything has a place.  Then even God can be predicted.

Again:  fear

When we are scared, we cannot trust in God’s love, God’s goodness –  so we have to rely on our own actions, our ability to obey God’s laws.

When people are scared, because they can’t control the big things, they start controlling the small things, the things they do actually have control over. 

Apparently, shops have been selling out of toilet paper all over the world since Covid-19 started spreading.  Why?  Because people try to control something.  If they have enough toilet paper, they feel in control…  and then they feel safe.

Or we try to control those around us – “You can’t carry your mat on a Sabbath!” – and we lose our compassion, our humanity.

The people in today’s reading can’t see that this man – who has been lying there, on the edge of society, invisible, for a whole lifetime! – they can’t see that he has been healed, that he is now free

When we are scared, we lose our ability to love.  Because love – and compassion, caring for our neighbour – is always a risk.

Fear can’t love. 

Fear paralyzes us, keeps us stuck on our mats with no-one to help us get to the healing waters.

Scott Bader-Saye wrote a beautiful book entitled “Following Jesus in a culture of fear”, in which he says:

When our moral lives are shaped by fear, and safety is worshiped as the highest good, we are tempted to make health and security the primary justifications for right action. We thus lead timid lives, fearing the risks of bold gestures. Instead of being courageous, we are content to be safe. Instead of being hopeful, we make virtues of cynicism and irony, which in turn keep us a safe distance from risky commitments. We are more likely to tell our children to “be careful” than to “be good.” The extravagant vision that would change the world gets traded in for the passive axiom “do no harm.” Our moral lives atrophy on this new diet of self-protection.

Again:  Jesus meets the man

But then Jesus meets the man again.  And how beautifully poignant is it that Jesus finds him in the temple.  Once he is healed, he goes to the temple.  Even though he is judged.  Even though the community’s fear tries to exclude him.  He goes to the temple.

Where he meets Jesus.

Now, in John, Jesus’ miracles are signs.  They always follow a very specific pattern:  the actual miracle is a short, concise narrative.  Then there is a conversation about it, followed by an explanation of what it means.

The point of the  miracle is always something else – what it says about Jesus, the relationship that is established.

When the man in today’s reading is healed, he doesn’t know who Jesus is.  Now he meets Jesus.  That is the point.

Jesus says

Do not sin any more, so that nothing worse happens to you.

In the Gospel of John, sin always means unbelief.  Jesus is saying:  You’ve now met me.  This knowledge has set you free.  Live in faith. Do not get stuck again.

The community meets Jesus

But remember, the community is still stuck in their fear.  So now they attack Jesus:

16 Therefore the Jews started persecuting Jesus, because he was doing such things on the sabbath.

But also for them, this miracle-sign was pointing to something else.  Jesus says:

“My Father is still working,  and I also am working.”

And that is the point.  That is what all this is about.

“My Father is still working, and I also am working.”

Jesus does two things:  He identifies himself with the father, he claims godly authority.  And he reminds them – and us – that God has a plan.  That God’s plan is continuing. We have not been given over to the things that scare us.  We are still in God’s caring, protective hands.

Choose a response

After Jesus reminded them of this reality, our reading today ended with the words:

18 For this reason the Jews were seeking all the more to kill him,

Jesus reveals himself to them… and they respond with more fear, which leads to more hate and more violence. 

This is where we are faced with a choice.  We know the truth of Jesus’ words:

“My Father is still working,  and I also am working.”

We can choose to respond in fear, staying paralyzed on our mats.  Or we can choose to respond in faith, to take the brave risk of standing up, taking our mats and walking.

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