Now in Jerusalem next t the Sheep Gate there is a pool called Bethesda in Hebrew, which has five porticos and under these were crowds of sick people, blind, lame, paralysed. One man hthere had an illness which had lasted thirty-eight years, and when Jesus saw him lying there and knew he had been in that condition for a long time, he said, ‘Do you want to be well again?’ (John 5:2-6, New Jerusalem Bible*)
On 28 January 2013, at 2 p.m. local time, I was in perfectly good physical condition (or at least as good condition as a 50-something exercise-phobe such as I can be). I was going about my business, returning to my workplace to collect some papers I had forgotten. It was one of those ‘January Thaw’ days here in Western New York, where it is warm enough to rain, and there is no snow or ice on the ground. I got out of the car, headed toward the building, and misjudged the height of the curb. I tripped, landed directly on my right kneecap, and by 3 p.m., I had been picked up off the pavement, was on my way via ambluance to Erie County Medical Center’s emergency department. By 8 p.m, the medical staff confirmed that I fractured and completely separated my patella. I had all the pre-op x-rays and blood work, was strapped up and fed an alarming amount of pain medication, taught how to use crutches (which I didn’t quite manage), and was sent home (transported by a friend, and prescribed even more pain medication) to await surgery two days later.
For the next six weeks, I was essentially housebound, and pretty much to life on the sofa-bed on the ground floor of the house. I never mastered the crutches, and so I got from the bed to the bathroom on a walker (even that, I’m not sure I did right). The injury wasn’t life threatening, but it was life-changing. After 14 weeks of intense outpatient physical therapy, plus a second surgery to remove the repair hardware, I am mobile and independent. There is still pain, there is still limitation, the joint still fatigues easily, and there is still some weakness in a small portion of the quadriceps, but I have made a reasonably good recovery.
While I was pretty well bedridden, I tried to read. I tried to keep up some kind of spiritual practice by praying the Daily Offices and reading the appointed Scriptures each day. But it didn’t work very well. Partly, I was, as a good (ordained) friend said, in need of a ‘sabbatical from church’ (few clerics really give that need a sympathetic hearing; I was fortunate that he could). Partly, oxycodone has a way of imposing its will on what your brain is capable of doing. So, I read very little, watched a lot of television (The Weather Channel could be on for hours, but I couldn’t tell you what the forecast was), and did some of what I refer to as ‘idiot knitting’.
But over 20 years of fairly serious adult-onset churchiness, including two years at an Episcopal seminary, five years earning a doctorate in systematic theology, teaching a range of religious topics at most levels of higher education in both the US and UK–well, some Bible does rub off on you.
And the piece that kept coming back to me, in my narcotic haze, was the one with which I started this essay. Jesus asks the man, ‘Do you want to be well?’
At some level, the man’s appropriate (although not scriptural) response was probably ‘WTF do you think? I come here every day, but there’s always something getting between me and what (I say) I desire.’
We don’t know much about this man, except he’s been sick for at least 38 years (maybe longer, maybe he didn’t start coming to Bethesda as soon as he became ill). We don’t know if he comes every day (and if so, how does he get there?), or if he just camps out near the pool (and if so, how does he survive–who brings him food, how does he attend to other basic human needs that are better left undescribed?). We don’t know what he might have tried before coming to the pool, and we don’t know if he’s doing anything else while he’s hoping for a cure at the water.
What we do know is the question Jesus asks–and I believe Jesus is asking it seriously. ‘Do you want to be well again?’ And if so, why the hell are you still coming here (or staying here) for 38 years, when what you are doing is clearly not working?
And that ‘do you want to be well again?’ question became my motivator. Both for my physical recovery from a traumatic orthopedic injury, and for my spiritual recovery from difficult experiences at fairly high levels in the Chuch of England.
For my physical recovery, it was obvious what wasn’t going to work–for a while, bed rest (you cannot put weight on that kind of injury for at least six weeks after the repair surgery) was needed. However, I was also going to have to change my attitude toward physical exercise. I still do not love my daily ride-to-nowhere on the stationary bike, but it is like medicine: it keeps me walking, and I do like to be ambulatory, so I do it. I had to take a different approach to my body than I had before: I am the only woman I know who has undertaken an exercise program to incease her thigh measurement (it is alarming how much atrophy can happen in a fairly short period of time). I had to do things in places and with people outside my normal range if I was going to get better. I had not had open surgery since I was 8, and that was the last night I spent in a hospital (both for an appendectomy). My last experience with physical therapy was to have acupuncture to help with some residuals from Bell’s Palsy–not an active program of exercise. Everyone I encountered in the process of getting better–from the guys at my workplace who picked me up off wet pavement, to the ambulance crew, hospital staff, surgeon, and (most of all) my physical therapists, were great. My family, always good, were good in different ways. I am thankful for their ability to respond and adapt.
I am changed from the damage. I walk more slowly, the weakness in the right knee makes some oddball things happen. I have to dress a bit differently because the area over the scar doesn’t like ‘swooshy’ fabrics (tights or leggings need to be between a skirt or trousers to protect it). But I’ve lost some excess weight, I’m trimmer and fitter than I’ve been probably in 20 years. I have to accommodate the damage, but the damaged part is stronger, and everything around my broken knee–the muscles, blood vessels, connective tissues–are tougher than they were before. Maybe not as flexible, but more protective.
Much of that holds true in terms my attempt to return to spiritual wellness, too. I am not going to get well if I keep going to the same places, with the same people, and doing the same stuff I’ve done for the last few decades. I need to find different exercises, with different purposes, amongst different people. Doing things the same way again will not work–damaged caused by conventional religious participation is not going to be repaired by simply swapping denominations, congregations, contexts. It really means, for a while, a radical re-thinking of what works and does not.
If I return (it is still an ‘if’), I will be changed. I will have to accommodate the damage, and if a particular way of being Christian doesn’t work for me, the things that surround the most damaged parts of my soul will protect me. I will not accept spiritual authority that damages me. I will not take up what is excess, what isn’t needed or what hinders me from moving forward.
Yes, I want to be well again. But that may mean doing things very differently.
If the man returns to the pool ever again, what role will he take? Will he help sick people get to the churning waters? Or will he tell them it doesn’t really help?
*One tiny correction: My copy of the NJB has ‘Sheep Pool’, and almost every other translation says ‘Sheep Gate’ (which makes more sense).