In Pieter Aertsen’s painting of the healing at the Pool of Bethesda (c.1575), the bright angel is seen stirring the waters. In a foreshadowing not lost on people with disabilities, the man is pictured in a chair with wheels, waiting at the bottom of stairs that lead to the pool where he might be healed. Those facts are significant for two reasons: First, there is no mention of stairs in the John 5 account of this event; second, Aertsen’s painting predates the European use of the wheelchair by nearly 50 years. What is consistent with the period is a 16th Century-style chamber pot that appears beneath the man—something not generally seen in public—furthering the indignity of his situation. In the book, Whole Community, I have used this painting to ponder another overlooked question concerning this man: Where was he supposed to go? Following is an excerpt.
In the story of the pool of Bethesda in the Gospel of John (John 5), we hear of a man who waited for more than thirty years to be healed. The story indicates that the angel who stirred the waters did so on an unpredictable basis. It makes sense that someone would wait for a long time for a miracle, but thirty years? A lifetime? Why in world would the man have stayed that long? Why would anyone? We are never told, of course, but we would have to consider one disturbingly simple possibility that would be consistent with the culture of the day. The man had nowhere else to go.
Having a disability, illness or other anomaly at the time meant being set apart from society. Lepers were separated and instructed to shout “unclean” so that others would not encounter them. We logically assume that this was for the purpose of limiting the spread of the disease, and that was certainly a result. But that is an unlikely assumption. Two thousand years ago, people knew little about the bacterial transmission of leprosy (now Hansen’s Disease), but they knew a lot about cultural and religious separation, about clean and unclean. This is the central issue.
Creating barriers between the general population and others who, for a variety of reasons, don’t measure up seems to be a familiar theme running through scripture. Jesus was routinely in the business of confronting or simply ignoring those barriers. Jesus healed, to be sure, but when he did, those whom he healed were put back into the mainstream of society. In the Gospel of Luke, we are presented the story of ten lepers whom Jesus cured of their leprosy. Of those ten, only one returned to offer thanks. Jesus asks the natural question, “Where are the nine?” We tend to read this story as a lesson in praise and gratitude, but something else is at work. Indeed, “Where are the nine?” While it would have been good, right and proper for those nine to return to Jesus and offer their heartfelt thanks, they are obviously somewhere else, doing other things. The healing has put them back together with the community. Beyond healing, they have something far more precious—the gift of wholeness. More than healing, faith communities today are being called to seek and to promote wholeness.