Pool of Bethesda

John 5:1-9

It's so clean here. And I am so dirty. How could I be clean—a man like me, who can't even raise his legs out of the dust? There is a woman who comes and washes me once a day, and brings a plate of food. My cousin's wife. She hates me, I can see it on her face. But she does what she has to do. She puts the food down by my mat, and she turns me over and washes me, while I turn my head away. At least I can still turn my head away.

And then she goes, and I lie here, looking up at the clean stone pillars all around me and the wooden roof-beams up above and the rows and rows of mats, all around me, all the stinking, useless cripples like myself. And beyond them, off to the right out of the corner of my eye, there's the water of the Pool, flashing in the sun. The pool where the angel comes, or so they say; and when the water stirs it means the angel is there, and if you can leap into the pool the moment the angel stirs it—if you can be the first one in, or maybe even the second—it will heal anything that's wrong with you. Anything. That's what they say.
There is no angel. It's all a mean lie, made up to torture cripples like me. Leap into the pool, cripple! Be healed! No, no, there is an angel, it's no lie. I've heard the shouts of joy, I've lifted up my head and tried to see through the crazy crowd to where the cripples are dancing, and I've seen. I think. But oh God in heaven, I will never be one of them. I never will.
The first time I tried I was seventeen. I'd been here for a month. I was a strong man then, I had the arms of a mason, I didn't need any help. Which was good, because I didn't have any help. My parents had got my cousin to carry me up here on his mule to the miracle pool and promise his wife would help out till I was healed, and that was it. That was the last penny they were going to spend on their no-good son who just had to get into a fight the night before he started his new job and get himself crippled. They'd given me my chance. That was what I got.
Well, I didn't need them. I was the strongest man I knew.
I heard the shout go up and in a flash I was on my belly on the stones and crawling. "Ey"—that was all I heard, like someone didn't even mean to shout out, like he shut his mouth as fast as he could hoping he could still slip in the water before anyone noticed. Everyone noticed. I was crawling fast on my two strong arms, dragging my useless legs behind me, I was making good time. There was yelling and screaming all around, and feet, legs and feet slapping the stones hard, and feet hitting my sides and my arms, my whole body jerking sideways when someone tripped over my legs, feet bruising my arms, coming down on my fingers, the sharp edge of a sandal cutting a line of blood along my cheek, and then a splash, and another one and another and a high scream of joy, a woman's voice shouting "He's healed, oh praise God, he's healed, oh praise the Lord in Heaven..." And I lay there with my cheek bleeding and looked up at them, at all the feet and legs in front of me, the strong legs and the undamaged feet of those who had tried to carry their cripples to the water. And I understood.

I understood that I will never be healed.
I will lie here, and watch the cracks in the roof beams widen. I will eat what my cousin's wife gives me; I will hold my hand out to those who pass through so that sometimes I can have a second meal in the day. I will lie here and watch the others lying on their mats and their families gathered around them, feeding them, praying for them, I will watch them gathered up in strong arms when the angel comes. I will lie here and watch the water out of the corner of my eye, blue-green and flashing in the sun like the sea, as far away as the sea. I will lie here just exactly like I have done for the last thirty-eight years. This is what I get to see of the famous Pool of Bethesda, the pool of miracles. This is what I get.
I get what Joseph Bar-Salome gave me.
He was drunk. Looking for a fight. He was mad because he'd gotten laughed at, he was mad because I got the job and not him. He wanted to bash someone's face in to make himself feel better. Anybody's, really, but mine if he could get it. And there I was in the street, walking home. Not wanting any trouble, seventeen, my whole life in front of me.
Thirty-eight years.
He walks up to me and stands there with his feet apart and sneers at me, and I can smell the wine on his breath, and I don't want any trouble, I'm almost home, I've got this whole life ahead of me, and he sticks his face in my face and he starts to say things. About my family. About my mother. Lies before God in Heaven. He whispers these things in my face with his stinking breath, and let me tell you there comes a time you forget about not wanting any trouble.
So I swung. I swung first. That was what he wanted. I let him have it in the jaw, and then he let me have it too.
I dunno how it happened. I thought I could take him but he was stronger than he looked. He caught me off balance some way. And the hill my town's built on is high, and it fell off real steep from that road. Lot of rocks where I come from. He caught me off balance and I just went. I remember the one moment of falling, nothing but air around me, nothing to grab onto, I might as well not be able to move. Like now. Not a thing in the world I could do.
It's like I've been falling ever since.
I hit the rock with my back, hard. I heard the crack, and my arms and legs jerked around me like a spider's legs in a fire—and then gone. I couldn't feel my legs. I couldn't feel anything, from the waist down.
Ever again.
And Joseph, that son of a bitch, Joseph with the wine on his breath and his lip bleeding where I hit him, he just stands there at the edge of the street looking down at me. Just stands there, and then walks away.
I took it to the judge. But what'd you expect? I swung first. I attacked him. Self-defense and all that. Even my parents didn't listen.
And I swore that minute that when I was well I would come back and kill Joseph Bar-Salome.
When I was well. I actually thought that. When I was well.
I spent the first month imagining what I would do to him. What I could've done to him if he hadn't caught me like that, if I'd been paying attention. I saw myself kicking his belly in, throwing him down on the rock. And then making plans for when I'd go back—how I'd catch him alone, out in the fields maybe, how I'd bring a knife with me. Between the ribs. In the neck. Or maybe a rock. Bash his head in with a rock, over and over again.
That was the first month. Then the water stirred, and I understood what life had in store for me. And I lay there with all my bruises from all those feet, and tried and tried to imagine how I would kill him, and tried and tried to believe there would be a time I could stand there in front of him with a knife, stand on my own two feet. No one here stands on their own two feet. They have the feet of their friends and their families to stand on. And I have no-one.
It's been so, so long. After a while I didn't even want to kill him anymore. I just wanted to stand there in front of him, stand there and look him in the eye and let him see I was not destroyed. I just wanted not to be destroyed. But how long can you want—what is want in the face of year after year? I wanted to kill him, I wanted to spit in his face. I wanted to stand before him. Then I just wanted to stand. To feel God's earth beneath my feet. I wanted something, anything, to change. And then I wanted to die. I spent two years praying to God to die.
But how long can you lie there and pray for what you can't have? How long can you can you lie there and want it, want it so bad, when you know the score? God will not give me healing. God will not give me death. God will give me the cracks in the roof-beams above me, the flash of the pool I cannot reach, the hard angry face of my cousin's wife. God will give me the feet trampling and the far-off shouts of joy. God will send no-one to carry me. That is what thirty-eight years have taught me.

Sometimes I lay my hand on my heart, and feel it still beating. And I am surprised.