Winning the Lottery

Sermon from a very busy Sunday morning, we had a baptism, communion, and celebrated our graduates with a luncheon. The text for the sermon came from John 5:1-9. May this week be a wonderful one for you.

Winning the Lottery

I know a guy in Houston, very nice guy, well-educated, smart. He spends about $12 a week on lottery tickets. He knows the lottery is a losing bet. You’re almost ten times more likely to be killed by a snack machine than win the Powerball.  If he had put that $12 in the bank every week he’d probably have $100,000 there for all the money he’s spent on lottery tickets over the last 20 years. But he’d rather spend that $12 a week on dreaming about being rich than acknowledge that he already is.

This guy sitting on the porch by the pool of Bethsaida is in a pretty similar position. He has no hope of being made well, and he knows it. As the story goes, every once in a while an angel would trouble the waters of the pool, and the first person to get to the pool after it had been stirred, would be healed of whatever disease they had. In other words, it was a race. And invalids do not win races. As long as there was anyone there who was even slightly better off than he was, he would remain ill. It’s a cruel system. It’s mercy attracts the weak, but it favors the strong.[1] It gives hope to the hopeless, but denies them healing.

And yet he sits there, knowing that that the pool holds no real hope for him, but preferring false hope to the insecurity of trying to find something new to put his trust in. It’s a little baffling, really, that he chooses to remain where his dreams are so close, but so clearly out of reach.

But there he is, looking at the water, dreaming about the health he will never experience. Little does he know that the source of all hope, the one who would give us living waters in abundance is standing right next to him.

Jesus asks the question, “Do you want to be made well?”

It is a troubling question. It’s troubling because it suggests that we might rather have a familiar illness than a new wholeness.[2] As I mentioned earlier, I went to hear the Neal Presa, the moderator of the PCUSA speak in San Antonio this past week. One of the things he talked about was the New Form of Government that we adopted last year. It was designed to acknowledge the societal changes that are affecting the church, and give presbyteries the freedom to take bold new steps to face those challenges. But when the new rules passed, nearly every single presbytery, all but one, immediately voted to use the old rules as their bylaws. Perhaps we should not be so surprised that when Jesus asks, “Do you want to be made well?” he does not say yes.

Instead he replies with the reasons he can’t be made well. He is not as fast as the other people who lie by the pool. He has no friends to carry him to the waters. All he can see are his limits, what holds him back. How true this is for us, we focus our attention on what we think is possible, but then out of nowhere God blesses us in unexpected ways, and shows us how much further God can go beyond the  limits of our own understanding.

This is what Jesus does for the man by the pool. He does not see the limitations that the man sees. He is about his Father’s work, and he has no regard for what is possible or impossible according to the minds of men. He simply says “Stand up, take your mat and walk.” And the man is healed.

Other times when Jesus heals someone, such as the woman who touches the hem of his robe, or the blind man at Jericho, Jesus says, “Your faith has made you well.” But no such utterance occurs here. What’s striking about this story is how little initiative the man takes. Unlike other people who get healed in the Gospel, he doesn’t seek out Jesus, or even ask to be healed. On the contrary, its not even clear that he wanted to be healed.

But that’s what is so great about this story, and about our God. New life is given to us even before we know how to ask, or long after we have given up looking for it. God stirs the waters of our hearts when we cannot believe that we could be made well.

There’s an old joke about a man who wanted to win the lottery. He was a righteous man; he did all the right things, and he prayed every night that he would win the lottery. And every time the lottery drawing came up someone else would win. Finally he’s praying one night, “Lord, please let me win the lottery,” when he hears a voice from the heavens. “I know you want to win the lottery, but you have to meet me part way here. You have to buy a ticket!”

This is the kind of story that’s told at business conferences and inspirational  speeches. It coincides with the phrase “The Lord helps those who help themselves,“ which of course is not in the Bible but seems to be taken as Scripture by most of society.

The truth is that the Lord helps even those who do not help themselves. God’s grace is not a transaction. You do not have to buy a ticket. It is a gift. We do not have to earn it, we can’t earn it, because it is such a bountiful gift and we are such broken people that we will never deserve it. Sometimes we may not even want it, but here it is. God’s gift. Wholeness, newness, freedom, life. It is a gift we may be afraid to accept, but it is ours. What this story tells us is that it doesn’t start with us, it starts with Him.

This is something that we will proclaim again this morning as we baptize the newest member of our congregation. We will tell her long before she can understand, long before she can try to earn it, you have been claimed by God. God’s blessing and grace are given to you before you can ask, before you can even know how to ask. You have already won the lottery. You have been given grace, forgiveness, healing from the familiar illnesses of false hope, complacent hopelessness, and limited faith. You have been given new life, a second or third or hundredth chance, a path that does not lead to destruction but leads to still waters.

You just have to stand up, take up your mat, and walk.

[1] Duke, Paul. “John 5:1-15” Review and Expositor 85 (1988), p. 539.

[2] Ibid, 541.


About Drew

I'm the pastor of First Presbyterian Church in Pitman, NJ. I love camping, rhetorical criticism, and classic movies. I'm passionate about God's love, and the messy, beautiful ways it shows itself in our communities every day.
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