I was paralysed all my life. I lay around helplessly all day, and that dumbs down the mind from lack of brain stimulation. Then, in recent years, I was institutionalised. I shared the alcoves that surround the public pool with crowds of folk who were disabled in one way or another – the blind, the lame, the paraplegic. It is a way of life that soon gets to you. You see the same infirmed people day after day and start to feel at home with their weaknesses and their foibles. But in our setting you also became aware of their determination to survive. Some were real fighters.
Few institutions for the chronically disabled could be described as communities abounding in hope. Yet hope was the fundamental motivation that kept us all in that particular location. Of course, invalid beggars had other pitches throughout the city where alms could be collected on a daily basis. But the Pool of Bethesda was well known for an event that occurred randomly about once a year. The waters would bubble as if an underground spring had been momentarily activated. Folk religion kept alive the belief that a visiting angel was stirring up the spa waters, which was the signal for the lottery of health to begin. First into the water would win the medical jackpot.
You could only see a blur of bodies and hear the splashes. Having no digital photo-finishes in those days, we always reckoned that the one who went home cured that day had been the first in. So was it all a matter of superstition, mere mind over matter? It certainly seemed to work for the one lucky beggar (no disrespect intended) who took the plunge while the water gurgled its annual welcome tune.
That idea caused you to wake up each morning wondering: Could this be my lucky day? although I had never, so far, managed to shuffle over the edge ahead of the pack. I needed a carer, and none was ever on hand at that moment of limited opportunity!
I vividly remember reaching my thirty-eighth birthday. Some numbers have a special ring to them, like: ten commandments; Heinz fifty-seven varieties of food products; and Jubilee’s fiftieth year of amnesty for all slaves and debtors. My length of days, 38 years, now matched the entire period of time that our forefathers had wandered around the wilderness under Moses till the last of them died outside of the Land of Promise. So you can imagine that I had no appetite for birthday cake that anniversary!
But that was the year when the prophet of Nazareth honoured us with his presence while in town for the festival. Or, to be more precise, Jesus visited me personally. He walked up to my bedside and made eye contact. That in itself was unusual; none of the rabbis ever saw any of us as an individual with a name and a specific ailment. But this rabbi had obviously done his homework.
‘Good day!’ he greeted me. ‘You’ve been in this condition a long time, my friend, have you not? So, tell me honestly, do you really want to be fit and well?’
You might think that was a cynical question. That’s because you’ve never been long-term disabled and institutionally challenged. As I’ve said, the mind gets numb. You feel more vegetable than human. Your brain becomes incredibly sluggish and your emotions level off. So, a question like that usually requires a month’s advanced notice!
‘Eh . . . ummm. . . ,’ I burbled. ‘Well, I’ve no one to help me into the pool. That’s my problem. So, why wish?’ But, of course, that is why I stayed there.
He simply crouched down, took my hand, looked me steadily in the eye and said, ‘At the count of three, I’m asking you to rise from this funeral stretcher, fling it over you shoulder and start walking into your future of fitness!’
His dancing joyous eyes, his firm confident handshake, his calm authoritative voice inspired my whole inner being. I sprang to my feet and stood tall before him. Wow! everything looked so very different from up here. No way did I wish to live by that poolside one minute longer. So I stooped down, folded up my bedroll, hoisted it onto my shoulder and started to shuffle my feet.
Warmth flowed into my scrawny leg muscles. I put all my weight on my right foot and swung my left leg forward. ‘Left!’ I murmured aloud, ‘. . . and right . . .’ – as I rehearsed a mirrored version of my actions. ‘. . . Left . . . right . . . left, right; left, right’
‘God bless you all!’ I shouted, ‘I’m off to catch up on life.’
And guess whom I walked straight into? The religious kill-joys. Apparently I shouldn’t be in the Promised Land yet. I ought to be back in the desert sitting quietly all the rest of the day because it was the day of in-sti-tu-tion-al-ised in-act-iv-ity, was it not – the Sabbath? But I was adrenaline-high, drunk as a skunk on my healthy body’s own chemical stimulants. So, I chuckled and put on my Greek drama actor’s stage voice, ‘Shucks! Too bad, but the guy who healed me just now on God’s festival Sabbath, he told me to pick up my two-metre-by-one-metre world of the past 38 years and sashay my way through this glorious day of freedom! Better argue the toss with him, I guess, guys! Sorry, no can help!’
The do-gooders gasped in alarm: ‘Who is this defiant sinner who dared tell you to break Moses’ law?’
‘To tell you the truth,’ I replied, ‘I never asked him his name and he’s just slipped away as unobtrusively as he came. [I really had no idea as I had never seen him before in my life.] Some Joshua who carries on where Moses left off, maybe? Or even the Creator, perhaps, who stirred the waters of chaos for me and breathed life into this Adam just like in that first week before ever there had been any Sabbath?’
And off I skipped heading straight for the temple to give God praise. Oh how grateful I felt. And he figured that’s exactly what I would do, and soon found me. ‘Now, a word of caution, my man,’ he said so quietly. ‘Quit all habits of sinful thinking and every ungodly attitude, or else . . . something worse may overtake you.’ He sounded really serious, yet there were laughter lines all around his eyes.
‘Lord, with my healed left foot and my new right foot I shall kick every Canaanite squatter out my Promise Land! I intend to flex all my fit muscles and put them to good use, and bring you much joy.’ Was I excited, or what?
Later, when I saw the critics again, I called to them, ‘Yes, his name is Joshua – Yeshua of Nazareth. Hey, you guys need to get up-to-date. Remember, “Moses my servant is dead. Get ready to cross the Jordan River”!’
(Weston-super-Mare, 29th April 2004)