I was at Doylestown Hospital not long ago for some routine tests, nothing serious, and they have something in the waiting area that I’ve never seen anywhere else. It was a short story dispenser. So you push a button and it spits out something that looks like a shopping receipt, and it has a very short story printed on it.
So the story was OK, but I saved it because I love what it says down at the bottom of the paper. It says, “The power of stories—like healing—can change the world.”
That’s exactly what we Christians believe about story-telling and about healing. We believe in the power of stories. The Gospels themselves are mostly a collection of stories about Jesus, what he did and what he said. And they show us Jesus himself often preached by telling stories.
And so much of what he did was about healing. It was the kind of healing that transformed the lives of individuals, and his healing is still changing the world.
So right in line with that, in today’s Gospel we hear a story about a healing.
Jesus is in Jerusalem for a religious festival, and he goes to a place where people who were in need of healing would gather. It was a pool of water it was said that an angel would visit from time to time and stir the water. And when they saw the water moving like that, the first ones into the water would be healed.
And Jesus goes up to a man who’s been there for 38 years, waiting for healing, but he’s never healed because he can’t move fast enough. He can never get to the water before anyone else. He has no one to help him. And Jesus knows this, and he goes to the man, and he heals him.
“Stand up,” he says. “Take your mat and walk.” And the man does.
So one thing we see in all of these stories about healing is that God’s will for us is wholeness. God wants us to thrive—all of us—in the broadest possible way.
And this kind of healing is about more than physical well-being. At that time, people with disabilities were outcasts. They were forced to live on the margins. They couldn’t work. They couldn’t take their place in a family.
So when Jesus restored this man’s ability to walk, he also gave him back his place as a full member of society.
But there’s something else in this story that we need to talk about, and that’s the reference to “the Jews.”
The healing takes place on the Sabbath, which—if you read on to the very next verses after the place where we stopped this morning—this immediately brings him into conflict with “the Jews,” and sets them against him.
The Jews. Those words in this Gospel have been used to fuel anti-Semitism, leading to some of the most heinous crimes committed across the centuries by people who profess to follow Jesus.
People have taken them to mean that Jesus was in conflict with the whole Jewish people, that the entire Jewish people were responsible for his death, which of course is not true.
Jesus and his disciples were Jews themselves, and his followers continued to belong to synagogues after he died.
But as time went on, the situation changed. And eventually those who believed in the divinity of Christ were put out of the synagogues, and that was a painful experience for those who were expelled.
And that’s what seems to have happened to this community out of which the Fourth Gospel comes. It was the last Gospel to be written, maybe around the year 100. And their own experiences influenced their memories, not necessarily changed them but changed what they chose to emphasize when they told the Jesus story. [i] The same thing happens to us sometimes, so you probably understand how that could happen.
So in keeping with that emphasis on the power of stories—and the misuse of the Gospel comments about “the Jews”—I want to tell another story.
It’s about my mother-in-law, who was born in Germany in 1922 and came to this country in 1938, as a 16-year-old, traveling alone. She never considered herself to be a person of Jewish faith. Her immediate family was quite secularized. But going back, her family had been Jewish, and in Germany under Hitler that made you Jewish for sure.
So when Jewish children weren’t allowed to attend school any more, her parents sent her to a convent school in Switzerland. And eventually they sent her to this country, but her journey was fraught. There was a real danger that she wouldn’t make it, there were a couple of places when it was possible that she wouldn’t. But she did. She made it.
Millions of men, women and children, as we know, weren’t so fortunate.
She was taken in by relatives in Philadelphia who sponsored her, because without that sponsorship, she wouldn’t have been allowed into this country.
She grew up. She married. She raised a family. She built a business with her husband that my husband continued to work in until he retired.
She became a U.S. citizen, and she became probably the most patriotic American I’ve ever known. She took the time to educate herself about the candidates and issues in every election. She never missed voting in any election, because she really believed that democracy mattered.
Because she knew. She knew what could happen.
So her story feels especially important to me in this week after the murder of ten people in Buffalo by someone who posted online about how he took himself and his weapons to a ZIP code 200 miles from home in upstate New York, because there were more Black people there than there were in places that were closer to home.
He posted a lot online, actually. He was clearly influenced by something called “the great replacement theory,” which claims that white voters are being “replaced” by immigrants and people of color. As if white natives are somehow entitled to be here and other people aren’t.
I think it’s another example of the way the stories we tell have real power.
And remember that the stories of the Gospel—and of course Jesus himself was not a white man—and the stories of the Gospel, the stories he told, were about wanting everyone to thrive. Wanting everyone to have a place in society.
So I want to go back and talk a little more about the healing power of story-telling. About telling our stories, and about listening to other people’s stories.
So Padraig O’Tuama is a man who ran a center near Belfast that brought people together to talk and to share stories as one small way of healing some of the divisions in Northern Ireland.
And he talks about how a group of Catholics and Protestants from a village where there had been a murder came together to share their stories. And each one had an opportunity to tell about the most important moments in their own lives. And those stories were the things that defined them.
But they had much in common. They were stories about the birth of children, divorce, illness, all the joys and sorrows we know in life.
And they thought of themselves as two groups when they came in—Catholics and Protestants—but after all these personal stories had been told and heard, O’Tuama says one woman looked around and said, “Well, we’re one group now.”[ii]
So I’ve been thinking about all of that: about the healing power of stories and the healing power of faith. And I’ve been wondering what it would be like if we paid more attention to the real stories of the real people around us.
Because we need to be careful about the stories we tell, and we need to listen carefully to the stories that we hear.
What would it be like if we left here today intending not just to go out and love our neighbor, but with the intention of listening to our neighbor.
Because love would have to come out of that, wouldn’t it? And instead of us and them, there’d only be us. And we’d all be one, all of us. As Jesus intended.
Preached at St. James the Greater Episcopal Church in Bristol, PA.
[i] Raymond E. Brown, An Introduction to the New Testament. 345.
[ii] Padraig O’Tuama, In the Shelter: Finding a Home in the World. 112.