We left Lazarus’ inn at Bethany before sunrise, and took the road to Jerusalem. We crossed the Cedron Stream until we came close to the walls surrounding the temple. At that time, through one of the gates of the north called the Sheep Gate, passed herds of sheep for the Passover sacrifice….
Peter: Hey, what’s that noise? They bellow a lot, more than sheep!
Philip: It’s coming from there, from the pool…
Peter: Let’s go find out what’s going on there…
Very close to the Sheep Gate was the pond of Bethesda, meaning House of Mercy. It had two large swimming pools surrounded by white columns and five entrance doors.
Praying Woman: Oh, most Almighty God, please make a miracle! Make a miracle! Lord of the heavens, send forth your angel! Send him soon, Lord!
Peter: Hey, James, what’s with that woman? Is she crazy?… Look, look how she dilates her eyes, look…
James: Don’t be stupid, Peter, Can’t you see, she’s blind?
Philip: Too many sick people around here! The ten plagues of Egypt have all gathered together here!
A Sick Woman: Hey, you stinking one, spit on the other side, ’cuz your filth turns me off!
A Sick Man: I will spit where I please, you, crippled by the devil!
Another Sick Woman: Have pity on me, holy God, have pity on me, holy Lord, have pity!
Peter: Hey, Jesus, James, Philip… let’s go inside, c’mon!
While crossing through one of the gates, we saw the pool of Bethesda. It was surrounded by dozens of sick men and women. The crippled, the blind and the lame were milling around the curb of the pool. The air reeked intensely of urine, pus and sweat. And the flies, inebriated perhaps by all that dirt, formed a black cloud over the sick…
James: What the hell is going on here? All the sick are looking into the pool… waiting for what?
Jesus: Hey, guys, come here… tell me, why are there so many…..? Oh heck, he doesn’t even care. Look, countryman, could you tell me what……? Uff….!
Philip: It’s impossible, Jesus. We won’t find out, with this great commotion.
Peter: No one can even stand the stench. Let’s get out of here! There’s too much shoving around, and we might end up being pushed into the water…!
Then we went back to the gate. The old woman followed us there, her eyes turned towards heaven, as she called for a mysterious angel.
Praying Woman: Oh, most Almighty God, please make a miracle! And make it soon!
Philip: Guys, why don’t we ask this woman?
James: I told you she’s blind, Philip. She doesn’t know what’s happening before her.
Philip: She may not see, but she hears, and smells. She should be able to know everything through her sense of smell.
Praying Woman: Miracle, I want a miracle! Holy God, holy strong God, please make a miracle! Make it move, even a little! Make it move, make it move!
Philip: Hey, old woman, will you stop for a while!…. Please tell me, who’s to move around here?
Praying Woman: Who’re you? You’ve interrupted my praying!
Philip: Tell me, old woman, what miracle are you praying for?
Praying Woman: Come over, m’son, and let me touch your face… You’re not from here, are you?
Peter: No, and neither this group…. We’re not from this place…
Praying Woman: Of course, that’s why you ask… that’s why you don’t know… I’m referring to the great miracle of the angel of God! They say he’s coming down…
Praying Woman: I told you, the angel.
Peter: What’s he coming down for, old woman?
Praying Woman: What else! To stir the water in the pool! Then whoever throws themselves into the blessed water gets cured and cleansed of any disease forever and ever amen.
Jesus: So, why do you stay here by the gate instead of immersing yourself in the water and have your eyes cured?
Praying Woman: Oh, my boy, you don’t know how people shove each other just to get into the pool! They bite each other, pull each other’s hair, scrambling like mad just to get into the pool first. And poor me, since I can’t see anything, I just content myself sitting still here, and calling the angel, that he may hear my plea.
Philip: But you’ll never get cured this way…
Praying Woman: That’s true… But at least I keep my little business… Look, whenever anyone gets cured, and since I am the one who prays and prays here, we have agreed that I should be given a little tip for the effort, do you understand?
Jesus: And they have given you a lot of tips, old woman…?
Praying Woman: Somehow I receive something, m’son, but… God and the angel forgive me, but I think this dirty water doesn’t cure. On the contrary, whoever plunges into it catches all the diseases. It’s so filthy, one spits into the water, while another swallows what she spits… As for me, countrymen, I’d rather believe than question it… Miracle, miracle, miracle! Oh, most Almighty God, make a miracle! Lord of the heavens, send forth your angel soon, and soon!… If you’ll excuse me, I must continue praying so that God will listen to me… Touch the water, move the water, Lord!
We went inside the pool again. The sick were fighting their way in, looking jealously at each other…. Sometimes, one would plunge himself into the pool, imagining that the water had stirred, only to surface once again, drenched and sad, for not having been cured….
Philip: What’dya think, fellow? Do you buy the story of the angel touching the water?
James: Why don’t you prove it, Philip? Why don’t you join in the uproar and get yourself soaked?
Peter: These people are crazy, believing the story of the angel…
James: If you make up a story about an archangel or a whole battalion of seraphims in heaven, they would believe it too. Hell, they’re so gullible, they’d easily believe you… what a bunch of stupid fools!
Jesus: No James, the people aren’t stupid. The people suffer, which is different. When one is in suffering, one grabs even a burning nail…. or an angel’s plume…
Sick Woman: Hey, you, swine, I was here first, stay back!
A Sick Man: Dammit, you wretch, you do nothing but scream! May your two legs be crippled forever!
Sick Woman: Look who’s cursing, why, you drag yourself around like a serpent!
Sick Man: Go to hell, you bitch!
A little way from this swarm of sick people, we saw an old man lying on a stretcher. His skin hung from his bones, his hair was white as flour, and his small eyes, resembling those of a mouse, moved continually from one side to another. As we passed by him, he grabbed Peter’s tunic and stopped him…
Peter: Hey, what d’ya want, old man?
Sippho: Nothing, I just see you going around and I’m wondering what the hell you’re looking for. You’re not sick people….
James: We will be soon, if we stay here much longer…
Sippho: You don’t like this, do you? Neither do I, dammit! Here, everyone thinks only of himself!
Philip: If you don’t like it here, then why do you come?
Sippho: You’re a funny guy! Why, I’ve got to think of myself too! There’s no other choice!
Peter: Oh, look how they kick the hunchback…
Sippho: You know, guys, when they announce the coming of the angel, it’s the end of it! People shove each other, bite and kick each other…. What can we do? If there’s only one bone for several dogs, then we’ve got to fight for it, to see who’ll eat it… This little angel is our only hope. I, for one, don’t believe in doctors anymore. They’re a bunch of ignoramuses…
Jesus: For how long have you been sick, old man?
Sippho: Make a guess and you’ll be surprised.
Jesus: I don’t know… maybe ten years?
Sippho: Add ten more to it, and another ten, and you’re still short by a few years. For thirty-eight years I’ve been like this, paralyzed. I’ve grown old waiting for that day when I could be healed. I’ve lost all my teeth already, but my hope has always been there… I’ve never lost it.
Jesus: So, your faith is as great as that of our father, Abraham.
Sippho: Son, there’s no other choice but to hope… even if one gets disillusioned with everything, with the angel, for example, who makes us fight one another. Here, no one helps anyone, there’s no charity here. If you’re not careful, they break your head so there will be one less in the line…
Sick Woman: Wretch! Get away from here or I’ll split your head open!
Sick Man: And I’ll break your bones for being a meddler! Here, take this, this will teach you a lesson….!
Sippho: That woman is very quarrelsome… and the man always takes her challenge… Huh! We spend the day grumbling against those up there, because they squeeze our necks. Know what? We’re all starved to death here, but we keep on doing the same thing… One gets disillusioned, you know. Here, there’s no mercy. I’m an old man and I have seen a lot of things happen before my eyes.
Jesus: But when you were young, did you do the same thing, like did you push people too?
Sippho: Of course, I couldn’t do otherwise. But I’m old now. Do you think one of those young men will help me to the water? …Never. Since I can only leap like a frog, I never get to be the first in the line… Since this angel won’t come to me, I really don’t know what to do…
Jesus: Do you want me to help you get close to the water?
Sippho: No, my son. Look, if you want to help me, then get me out of here. I don’t think I’ll ever get to see that angel. Angels are early birds and now it’s very late… I better leave and take something for my stomach. The smell in the air simply whets my appetite….
Then Jesus went toward the old man and held him by his arms…
Sippho: Careful, young man, for my bones might break into pieces!
Jesus: Don’t worry old man. You may go away now. C’mon, stand up…
Sippho: What did you say, m’son?
Jesus: I said, you stand… no, no, stand by yourself…. Let’s go…
The old man cast a strange look at Jesus. Then, he stretched his legs and he discovered that he could stand… Meanwhile, the sick continued quarreling and shouting at each other by the pool… The old man looked at Jesus again, then seized his small bed, and without saying a word, left – running…
Sippho: Old woman, old woman, I’ve been cured! I’m cured!
Praying Woman: What do you say? …Let’s see… let me touch your legs… you’re not Sippho, the cripple from the fruit vendors’ barrio?
Sippho: I’m the one, old woman, I’m the one!
Praying Woman: The angel has come down! The angel of the Lord has come down to earth, Oh Holy God! It’s a miracle, it’s a miracle!
Sippho: Tomorrow, you’ll receive your tip, that’s a promise!
Praying Woman: Wait, Sippho, don’t go away. Tell me… How did the angel look? Did you see him?
Sippho: Of course I did! He was a very strange angel. He was bearded and had brown skin. I’ll tell you about this tomorrow! I’m coming back tomorrow, old woman, to bring you two dinars! Or even four! I’m cured! I’m cured..!
After this, we immediately left the pool of Bethesda and disappeared among the multitude milling in the narrow streets of Jerusalem. Sippho, that sick and poor old man who, for thirty-eight years had been waiting by the pool, spread the news through the entire city that an angel had cured him. The whole Jerusalem knew that some¬thing strange had happened that morning by the gate of the sheep.
The Sheep Gate was located along the walls north of Jerusalem. The sheep to be sacrificed in the temple entered through this gate. Beside this gate was a pool. It was called by two names: Bethesda (House of Mercy) or Bezatha (The Pit). It had five doors for entrance and was divided into two by a row of columns. The ruins of this pool were found near a church dedicated to Saint Ann, Mary’s mother. At present, there is hardly any water in the place.
In Jesus’ time, Jerusalem was a city suffering from an acute water shortage. Water was bought and sold. In the city, there were two big pools or ponds: Siloam, outside the great walls, and Bethesda (“of the sheep” in Greek). It was in the Pool of Bethesda, which was situated very near the temple, where the sick gathered. Many of them were prevented from entering the temple precisely because of their illnesses. In this pool, they hoped to find God’s mercy, which was denied to them by the religious laws, thus bringing them away from God’s presence. It was a well frequented place for healing. Seventy years after Christ, votive offerings could still be found in the pool’s excavations. Bethesda could therefore compare to those Christian sanctuaries or those of other religions where the sick went in search of miracles that would cure their illnesses. Along these places sprang false stories, and good businesses thrived as a consequence of people’s gullibility.
Poverty, necessity and desperation over illness can likewise nurture egoism. When a person is forced to survive more than to live, it is sometimes difficult to be generous with other people. There is a mechanism that is very common in human relations. The powerful oppress the poor, who in turn – (since this is the only form of treatment known to them) – oppress those below them: a weaker companion, a wife, the children… A chain of servitude is thus created. One is made to believe that he or she is not a “somebody” if they have no one under them to oppress and to take advantage of. The unjust structure of society only underlines and multiplies this model of relationship between the oppressor and the oppressed, the master and the slave. The oppressed majority of our society keep in their hearts a remnant of this oppression inflicted on them by the real exploiters. The road to people’s complete liberation and that of the society cannot merely set this aside. But this is not to forget that the same oppressed people whose hearts are filled with more or less egoism, are the very ones whom God privileges with his love. God prefers the poor not because they are good, but simply and plainly because they are poor.
The episode of the Pool of Bethesda is mentioned only in the gospel of John. Through his own style, the evangelist is able to point out the special importance of some details. The sick around the pool cannot enter the temple.
Jesus approaches these neglected people who are waiting in vain for “miracles.” The paralytic who, for thirty-eight years, (forty years, in biblical language would mean an entire life) was almost on the brink of death, was cured by Jesus so that he could walk with his own feet and decide his future. The miracle that Jesus made on Sippho is a sign that before God, those who are rejected by the official religion, the “last,” shall be the first.