In my late 30s, I was a high school principal for a few years. And when I was interviewing for the job, it was clear that some of the faculty of the school wanted a “tough guy” kind of principal. They told me that the next year’s senior class was horrible but that even worse were the incoming ninth graders. There were a lot of kids who’d need keeping in line.
And I remember responding like: Alright, how about we all meet these 14 year olds we’re talking about first and get to know their names and create a good community together, and then we can see what kind of problems we need to solve?
And some of them liked this answer, and some of them – maybe especially some of the veterans who were older than me – sort of eye rolled and made it clear they were thinking, you’ll see, young guy, you’ll see.
Well, fast forward a year or so, and one of those ninth graders – who had been making and getting in all kinds of trouble again and again, serious trouble, well one of his parents died. And he wasn’t in school, but I was informed about this, knowing this would have an impact on him and on his friends too.
Another person who heard this news was a school social worker named Mike I had come to admire. And what Mike did that day is he pulled together some of the boys he worked with in that grade, all friends with the kid who’s lost his parent. And Mike invited me to the group he was leading that day, to watch and to participate.
So I sat in a circle in the basement of the school that afternoon with my colleague Mike and five or 10 teenage boys, who were to a person some of the more challenging kids in the school – kids with bad grades, kids with attendance and discipline problems, kids people met about and talked about a lot.
And I don’t remember Mike’s exact words, but he looked at the kids and said something like:
What are you feeling? Where does it hurt?
And the kids, my God, they were like:
I can’t believe my friend is going through this. Do you know how much he’s faced in his life already? What can I do to help?
And other kids were like:
I know this about so and so, but man, this reminds me of when my parent or uncle or sibling died.
And they shared about loss and trauma they were feeling.
And Mike just kept looking every kid in the eye and saying:
It’s OK. It’s good to feel this. Life’s hard sometimes, but you’re going to be alright. It’s OK.
And I just kept thanking them for letting me be there and letting me listen too and letting me understand them a little more.
It was one of my holiest moments in my work there, as I watched Mike making a safe community by helping it be a healing community.
We need more healing communities. That’s what we’re going to be talking about today: healing communities and the questions that make space for healing. We’ve got two more weeks until Easter. And we’re at the start of the 5th week of this spring season we’ve called Waters of Life.
And this talk on Jesus our healer, and on healing communities is I hope helpful to you in each of the communities you’re part of, this church community included. And there is more where this comes from in the daily readings and reflections that are in our guide you can access at reservoirchurch.org
Today we meet Jesus the healer, Jesus who asked questions, questions like:
What are you looking for? Where does it hurt? And do you want to be made well?
Let’s read today’s scripture, from the fifth chapter of John’s memoirs of the life of Jesus.
John 5:2-9 (New Revised Standard Version)
2 Now in Jerusalem by the Sheep Gate there is a pool, called in Hebrew Beth-zatha, which has five porticoes.
3 In these lay many invalids—blind, lame, and paralyzed.
5 One man was there who had been ill for thirty-eight years.
6 When Jesus saw him lying there and knew that he had been there a long time, he said to him, “Do you want to be made well?”
7 The sick man answered him, “Sir, I have no one to put me into the pool when the water is stirred up; and while I am making my way, someone else steps down ahead of me.”
8 Jesus said to him, “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.
There’s a lot going on in this story, but let’s start by noticing Jesus’ first words.
Do you want to be made well?
In the mouth of some people, these could maybe be pushy or judgy words. Like: hey, why are you still sitting here? What’s wrong with you? Don’t you want to get better?
But we’ll see with Jesus over his life, that he’s not like that at all. Rather, he asking questions because he’s really present – he notices people. And he’s compassionately curious about what they’re experiencing. And he’s interested in them finding their voice and being listened to. So he asks things, like in this case:
Do you want to be made well?
Jesus loved asking questions. My friend Carl who’s spoken at our church before says that
If you want to follow Jesus, one really practical way to do that is by asking more questions when you talk with people.
Earlier in John, Jesus was meeting with some potential students and rather than giving them a recruiting pitch or an introduction to who he was and what he was about, he simply asked:
What are you looking for?
I experienced someone asking me this recently. I was meeting with a new spiritual director I was going to work with. This is like a pastor to a pastor. We sat down together in a quiet, mostly empty room, and after a moment or two of silence, he took a breath, looked at me carefully and just asked,
So, what are you looking for?
And that question unlocked things I didn’t even know I needed to say. And over the course of an hour, he listened and asked another question here and there, and then listened some more. At one point, I think he said:
My job is to be the keeper of the questions.
And in his kindness and attention and listening, I felt like I was sitting with Jesus. And the safety and trust in that brought the truth out of me. And that helped bring me peace. It was healing for me.
Now when we talk about healing, we’re really talking about a lot of things. This is true when we read and think about Jesus as a healer too.
There are many stories of people walking away from their encounters with Jesus physically more healthy and well than before. He was known as a faith healer in his time, for sure. Skeptical as people in the developed world have been about these stories over the past two, three hundred years, accounts of faith healings – both ancient and modern – are not every day, but also not rare. We’re learning a lot now about how pain and sickness and mind and spirit interact. So just as there are lots of reasons people hurt and get sick, there are lots of ways people get well too.
I think Jesus did cure many. Still, though, even in this scene there are many profoundly disabled people whose conditions are not changed, and each of the few times in the gospel of John a person does have greater health after their encounter with Jesus, John indicates that Jesus thinks what’s happening in their mind and relationships with God and community are at least as important as their physical cure. Jesus would often tell people too that it wasn’t him, that it was their faith that healed them.
I mean think of the power of this man’s experience. He’s been languishing for decades, for whatever reason a shell of what he was when he was young. And Jesus asks him:
Do you want to be made well?
And he can’t even answer. There’s too much hurt, too much stuck. He can only say:
I can’t, Jesus, I can’t. No one is here for me.
To which Jesus responds:
This is your day. You can do it.
And he doesn’t just walk, he finds his power back, his agency. His I can’t becomes, with the help of God, I can.
It might help us when we talk about stories like this to distinguish between two words – curing and healing.
Curing is more specific. Curing is restoration of physical health or a removal of physical pain. On rare occasions in the gospels, Jesus cures someone of their physical maladies. That continues to be the case through faith healers and traditional medicines throughout the world. People are cured in ways and for reasons that modern medicine can only partly understand. Most of us, we mostly go to physicians and pharmacies for cures for our pains and diseases. Mostly, they are pretty good at what they do. Thank God for modern medicine. We live in the best time in human history for curing our diseases.
Healing, though, is a broader word. Sometimes healing is cure: the pain goes away, all is restored. And sometimes healing involves other changes of conditions or changes of resistance. Something we weren’t looking for gets better or grows. Or we find new peace with the way things fall apart.
When I talk about Jesus’ power to heal, and our capacity with the help of God to participate in healing communities, I mean healing in this broader sense. This sense of wellness and wholeness that is deeper or wider than the kind of diagnosis or help we might get in a hospital.
One of our modern teachers in this type of healing is the civil rights icon and the minister and the theologian, Ruby Sales. Ruby Sales was a child participant in the marches and prayer meetings of the Southern freedom movement of the 50s and the 60s. She was raised on the faith of an Almighty God whose power never fails, who makes a way where there is no way, who always comes through.
But there were times when that God as she understood God didn’t seem to come through in power, and she found herself walking away from faith for a while or at least from that kind of faith. Until she started to see the presence and the power of God differently. She was at the hairdresser’s one day, and the hairdresser’s daughter came in, looking a mess, just coming in after being out all night, high on drugs still. And Ruby Sales noticed a sore on her body too, and just found herself asking her friend’s daughter:
Where does it hurt? Where does it hurt, child?
And a story started coming out, a story not of the night before but of the years before, a story of pain and hurt and abuse, some of which her own mother had never heard. And this opened up space to be known and to be touched and to start to heal because when the truth about you is held with care and grace and kindness, it is true that the truth will set you free.
And Ruby Sales saw that God was with this daughter of her friend and that God had always been with her –even if the power of God and the way God moves and works and heals isn’t so controlling or always so obvious as she had once thought. And that was a part of Ruby Sales’ return to faith as well, asking:
Where does it hurt?
And seeing God there with healing in the all that pain.
We’ll meet Ruby Sales more in this weeks’ guide. There are quotes from her to accompany the scriptures this week. And Ruby Sales’ voice will show up in our service next Sunday again too.
What are you looking for? Where does it hurt? And would you like to be made well?
I wished I used those questions more when I was a principal. I wish I was more like Ruby Sales, more like my friend Mike, more of a healer. One of the first students I met as a principal was a young man who came to see me in my office in August, before my first school year in that city even began. He came with an older friend of his. They had both been born in another country, and they had both immigrated as children to this same city. And the young man seeing me desperately wanted to compete in athletics that fall. He was good at this sport, he said. And his friend looked at me and said:
Mr. Watson, this is really true. He isn’t just good. He’s great. He’s really special.
But the problem was this young man’s grades were bad, really bad. I pulled up his transcript and I wasn’t sure I’d seen one quite like it. Failure, after failure, after failure. Really high rates of absence. And I explained to him, with these grades, you’re not allowed to play.
And his friend said:
But Mr. Watson, it’s not his fault.
And he told me some of the tragedy of this young man’s life, the losses and traumas he’d known already, the ways he was to some degree alone in the world while still a child.
And I listened with great interest and care and compassion, but said still:
There is nothing I can do. The rules are the rules. Let’s work on your grades, and you can play next year.
And he left my office with his friend, crestfallen. It would be a while before we’d speak again.
In what I said, I was right. I was under authorities bigger than me in this, and there was no way he could play that season. But it was in what I didn’t say that I failed him. Not just then, but again later. I remember a time when this same guy showed up high, like really really high, at a big school event, and I suspended him, again following the rules for what happened.
I wish I knew better, I wish I had thought to look him in the eye and say:
Young man, tell me, what are you looking for? And please tell me, where does it hurt? Where does it hurt?
Would you like to be well?
I knew these questions, part of me did. But I was too insecure as a young principal to relate with this kind of presence and power and freedom and the time. I was too focused on the angry voices that wanted me to achieve order, too focused on fixing and curing to be the healer I was called to be.
Mercifully, when God wants us to learn something we’re not ready to learn, it sometimes comes back around for us. Spirit of God is a patient, persistent teacher.
Years later I’d spend time with my friend Mike again outside the school, in a running club for folks in recovery.
Most of the people I ran with were in recovery from drug or alcohol abuse and addiction. And that would come up and they’d ask me about my story sometimes, and I didn’t have a good answer at first. Because the truth was I had never been addicted to alcohol or drugs, but I had my own hurts and stresses, and I was craving a healing community to run with. I was craving spaces where we could be really honest with our hurts and weaknesses and be accepted and encouraged just as we are.
So I made a few friends in this club, and in a group I was co-leading in this church at the time too that had something of a recovery group feel to it. And this time, I knew not to try to fix or cure, but just to ask my friends:
What’s your story? Where does it hurt?
And to share some about my story too.
These were places where we could talk about where it hurts, where it was safe to tell our stories and speak out truth, where people listened without trying to fix us, and where that kindness and connection would sometimes give someone the courage to dare to try to be well.
Don’t get me wrong, even in healing communities, not everyone gets well. Mistakes happen, sometimes pains are too great, hurts are too deep. Life can be hard. I’ve seen a few tragic outcomes, even in healing communities. But I’ve seen some pretty beautiful stories too.
My friend Mike himself comes from a lot of pain, from a tough, hard start in life. But he’s a wounded healer, living more and more joy in every season of life, and helping other people get free.
Me too in my own way. I’ve had a lot of pain in me. But every year, I’m living more and more free. And it’s so good. It’s so good. And it’s all because of the kindness of God and the kindness of friends showing up for me, asking me:
Where does it hurt?
And giving me the courage to do the work it takes to be well.
Friends, we need healing communities. Because there is an ocean of pain and hurt out there, there is for some of us an ocean of pain and hurt in here too.
And these lives of ours are like a garden. So much crap grows out of unhealed hurt. Inside pretty much every bad person is a kid that’s still hurting. But these same lives, when we’re healing, so much good can grow.
We all heard about the whole Chris Rock, Will Smith joke and slap event at the Oscars. All kinds of hot takes on that. I don’t have one. Powerful Black writers and thinkers like Roxanne Gay and Kareem Abdul Jabaar have had more and better to say than I ever will. I do know from them, from Black friends and colleagues too that there was an ocean of hurt bound up behind all that happened there and what it stood for too.
But you know what Jada Pinkett Smith, Will Smith’s partner, did this week. A single one sentence statement out on her instagram. She just wrote,
“This is a season for healing and I’m here for it.”
What if that’s true, what if this is a season for healing, and we can be here for it.
What if it’s time to look at our own lives and ask:
Where does it hurt? What am I looking for? Am I ready to be well?
And to hold those questions before a loving God, maybe before a loving friend or two as well, and see where they take us.
And maybe it’s time to offer this too in our families, amongst our friends, in this community of Reservoir – to when we see someone struggling, to not avoid or ignore it, to not try to fix or criticize, but to in our own way ask:
Where does it hurt, my friend? What are you looking for?
And to pray for someone and walk with them as they ask:
Do I want to be made well?
And find their way forward.
We’ll close right now as we’ve been doing each week in Lent, with a little foretaste of the daily prayer practice in our guide. We’ll put on a bit of the music Matt has written for us. And I’ll ask us these three questions of Jesus to let sit in our hearts as we pray.