Wade in the Water
TEXT: John 5:1-9; 2 Kings 5:1-15a
Welcome to the season of stewardship. Last year our theme was "If you want to walk on the water, you've got to get out of the boat." And, by golly, we did both over this past year. Our finance committee almost didn't know what to do with itself as it looked at each other and said, "We can cover all our expenses!" We walked on water! If you are still in the boat, you're getting lonely, because there's a bunch of folks that are now out walking on water.
All of that means that the main challenge for me in moving from the old theme of walking on water to the new one of wading in the water is to convince you that the change doesn't mean we're now sinking! Last year's challenge was the first faith step...to get out of the comfort and safety in the boat and take a risk...not a risk for the sake of adventure, but for the sake of the Gospel.
This year, I am also challenging you to take a risk, but this one is a further step than walking on water. Walking on water is an exhilarating miracle with just us and Jesus holding our hand. This year we push the envelope a bit more to ask that we actually get into the waters of the world...that we get our feet wet in service to the Kingdom of God in this world. Last year we learned that when we step out in faith, God is there to hold us up, even when it seems to be against all odds. Now that we've learned to trust God's sustaining power, this is the year we learn that God wanted us out of the boat for a reason...that we have a mission...we have a calling...we have places to go, people to see, a world to transform.
The spiritual that we learned this morning and that we will sing throughout this stewardship season is "Wade in the Water," and it comes from the passage in the Gospel of John that we read this morning. There was a pool in Jerusalem that people believed had healing powers. Every so often God would send an angel to stir up...or trouble...the waters. The first person in the pool after God troubled the waters would be healed. Whether you want to call this superstition or miracle is up to you. Clearly something happened to somebody at some point or you wouldn't have mobs of people waiting around the pool all the time. When Jesus sees the man who can't get into the water because he is paralyzed, Jesus doesn't deride him for superstition. He doesn't send all the rest of the people home or tell them they are wasting their time. Instead, Jesus has pity on the man and heals him where he is.
But, Anne, why make a point about getting in the water and pick a story where the guy doesn't have to even get a toe wet. Well, I worried about that for some time myself. Then it came time to actually sit down and write this sermon and I actually opened up my Bible rather than just remembering the story. When I did, I realized that I had forgotten that this story is in John. I've mentioned this before, but it bears repeating.
John is not a surface book. More than any of the other Gospels, it speaks in symbols and metaphors and has layer on top of layer of meaning. Not all the Gospels have as many layers as John does. When you read the Gospel of Mark and understand the words, you have pretty much understood the point of the Gospel. When you read through the Gospel of John and understand the story, you have only the faintest glimmer of what John is trying to say. John is deep, philosophical, and many-layered.
Chapter 5 tells us the story of the pool of water that heals people. The waters become "troubled" because the pool is fed by an underground spring that every now and again bubbles up to the surface. In the desert climate of the middle east, this type of water is known as "living water." It is water that moves, water that comes from a spring and is renewed. Springs, rivers, and streams are living water. Well, guess what...chapter 4 of John is the story of Jesus talking with the Samaritan woman at the well...the story where he talks about water and being thirsty and where he describes himself as the source of all living water.
So, when you get to chapter five and the man by the pool, you have at least two levels. On one level you can say that our theme has nothing to do with the story. The man never goes near a drop of water and is healed by Jesus instead. But on a second level, he does indeed go in the water. He is immersed in the living water that Jesus has to offer, and as that water washes over him, he is healed.
Either way you look at it, we have a spectacular healing miracle in John. That sort of atmosphere is what Naaman was looking for in the story from 2 Kings that we read. He has heard that there is an amazing prophet in Israel who can perform healings. If you read the story of Elisha, you'll see that it's true. Elisha performs all sorts of miracles, including raising the dead. Naaman feels like he's pretty important and is ready to be a part of one of these great scenes. Here, too, he discovers that he is supposed to get in the water. But in this story it is not a legendary miracle pool...it is the shallow, muddy, Jordan River...and Naaman almost decides to remain a leper rather than be healed in such an inglorious fashion.
These two stories together show us what wading in the water is about. When we actually get our feet wet in the waters of Christian life, it could mean anything. It might be an exciting step into a miracle pool. It might be an ordinary step into a stream we consider a bit polluted. It might be a spiritual step into the waters of Jesus himself. But in all of it, we are called to wade in the water. To just do it. To get our feet wet in the service of God.
What that means for each one of us as individuals varies, but I can tell you that for every one of us it will mean some sort of movement...a stepping out...a leap of faith...growing in a new way...leaving the comfort zone. There are times when, like the prophet Jeremiah, I complain to God about the message I am called to bring to people. Like Jeremiah, there are times when I would simply like to tell people what they want to hear...what they need to feel comfortable and settled and happy. But, unfortunately, that's not my job. My job is to allow God to use me to make disciples. That's the calling of all churches everywhere. And it is my individual calling as a pastor also. In a spiritual sense, becoming a disciple will bring you peace and comfort and joy like you've never known. But if you think it means an outwardly peaceful and comfortable life, I invite you to go back and read the Gospels one more time. Look at the lives of the disciples of Jesus...that is our calling.
That's my disclaimer for my ministry here. I see my job as doing whatever it takes to convince you to take seriously the call to discipleship. A disciple is merely a learner...that's what the root word means...a disciple is one who learns. So a disciple of Jesus Christ is merely someone who commits themselves to study and learn the ways of Jesus... not for the sake of intellectual knowledge, but for the purpose of actually living that way ourselves.
There is a wonderful book by Dallas Willard called The Divine Conspiracy. Willard said it shouldn't be any harder to determine whether you are a disciple of Jesus Christ than it is to determine if you are taking ballet lessons. Either you are or you aren't. Whether you are a good dancer or a poor one is a more subjective judgment, but it shouldn't be hard to determine whether you are actually trying to learn. It is the same with Christian discipleship. Either you are seriously trying to learn how to live like Jesus taught or you're not. Discipleship is not a question of passing a test, it is a question of enrolling in a class.
That's where our foundations in Methodism are. When John Wesley began the Methodist movement, it wasn't a new church. It was a reform movement in the Church of England, that was essentially saying the same thing to the people of the Church of England -- that Christianity is not another leisure activity. It's about the way that you live your life. He gathered small groups of people who were willing to commit themselves to seriously trying to live the Christian life. That's where we came from. We can't let that message get lost.
To become a disciple is to wade in the water...to get your feet wet...to actually try to put into practice what you have been learning. It might be a spiritual step of doing real Bible reading and study on your own or with a group. It might be giving your prayer life a jump start or even deciding to be in a church every Sunday. It might be a step of service...deciding to start up or become a part of a ministry in the church or community. It might be going on our mission trip to build a church in northern Maine next summer or to help build a Habitat house this fall. It might be to become a Stephen Minister and learn how to care for those going through a rough time, or it might be to bring a meal for two and sit down and share in food and conversation with someone who's lonely. It might be making phone calls or writing notes. It might be exploring a more formal type of ministry in the church, going back to school; or it might mean pulling back from constant activity and finding a way to make Sabbath a part of your life.
This discipleship thing is a process. It doesn't just happen once and you're done. The offer is there as soon as you draw your first breath, and it remains until you draw your last. And even once you have made a decision to become a disciple, that is still the very beginning. The types of waters you will be called to wade in will differ at different times and stages in your life. The one thing that remains constant is that when you wade in the waters that God has stirred up...the waters that God has troubled...there will be healing in them.
It seems like that should make it easy, but our Scripture shows us that it is not. Like the people gathered around the Pool of Bethzatha, sometimes we are not watching closely enough and we miss an opportunity to get in the pool. Like the paralyzed man, sometimes we are not able to move on our own and we need either the help of friends or the direct intervention from God to get us to take up our mat and walk. Or sometimes like Naaman, the waters we are asked to wade in seem beneath us...the work seems too common or ordinary and we would almost rather keep our diseases than be healed in that way.
Because it is not easy, God calls some of us to be divine agitators...holy pains in the you-know-what...the ones who go out and trouble the waters of congregations to provide opportunities for God to heal those who dare to step in.
Welcome to the season of stewardship. In the Kingdom of God, there is no resting on the laurels of previous accomplishments. Peter may have walked on water with Jesus, but when he was called to wade in the waters of the Cross, he denied his Lord and ran like a scared jack rabbit. The waters are troubled and Jesus is here waiting to heal. Will you dare to wade in the water?
(c) 2000, Anne Robertson