With cancer in his middle-aged body and the prospect of lifespan shortened, Doug Brewer joined a pilgrimage to the Holy Land in 2014 while health permitted.
Near the start of the Via Dolorosa — the traditional “way of suffering” where Jesus carried his cross through Jerusalem — Doug and fellow pilgrims visited ruins of Bethzatha (Bethesda) Pool. A man who had been sick for 38 years once lay beside that pool until Jesus asked, “Do you want to be made well?” (John 5:6).
Bethzatha Pool was known in ancient times as a place of healing. Some New Testament manuscripts say that “an angel of the Lord went down at certain seasons into the pool, and stirred the water; whoever stepped in first after the stirring of the water was made well.”
The man sick for 38 years must have been paralyzed. “I have no one to put me into the pool when the water is stirred up,” he said to Jesus. “While I am making my way, someone else steps down ahead of me.”
Having others step ahead of them sometimes happens to people with illness or physical challenges. “I have no one to put me into the pool” is another way of saying my community ignores me.
In some faith communities, those with chronic illness feel judged as lacking faith or willpower, or even as having sin in their lives.
The man at Bethzatha Pool did not have a sustaining community. No one helped him into the water, and religious watchdogs were quick to bark when, miraculously and wonderfully, he was able to rise and carry his mat — but in violation of strict Sabbath rules.
Someone in our pilgrim band at Bethzatha Pool asked Doug if he wanted prayer for healing. Soon we surrounded him with warm hands and heartfelt petition to God. No one presumed personal powers to cure; all of us entrusted Doug’s health to a loving Creator.
Two years later I inquired about Doug’s well-being. Turns out he was at death’s door in the interval, but survived. “By God’s grace and many prayers, I’m back to normal and feeling really good,” he wrote. “My cancer level has been at 0 for the past several months, so I’m not on any chemo at the moment.”
Praise God! A loving family and community walked with Doug through his own Via Dolorosa. Faith, divine power and modern medicine converged to restore Doug.
We do well to view all healing as a gift from God, without needing to distinguish between miraculous and natural recovery. We also do well to be clear that sometimes, even with faith abundant and excellent medical care, we or people we love remain ill or die.
The Jewish author of Sirach (considered canonical by the early church) gives counsel still good for us today: “When you are ill . . . pray to the Lord, and he will heal you. . . . Then give the physician his place, for the Lord created him. . . . There may come a time when recovery lies in the hands of physicians, for they too pray to the Lord that he grant them success in diagnosis and in healing” (Sirach 38:9-14).
Thanks to Doug Brewer for reviewing this column and giving me permission to publish. For a fascinating article on prayer and healing from an unlikely source, see “Mind Over Matter,” National Geographic, December 2016.
J. Nelson Kraybill is a pastor at Prairie Street Mennonite Church in Elkhart, Ind., and president of Mennonite World Conference. See more of his peace reflections at peace-pilgrim.com.