Tuesday, March 26, 2013

tuesday: bethesda

We start out before dawn. My Lord and the others hope to arrive at Bethesda before the time of morning prayers. We are quiet as we walk, shadows chased by light. The fireflies are out, mystical companions. My friend Junia tries to catch them. My Lord smiles at her. He stretches out a hand from his garment. Immediately the flies light on his arm and hand.
"Take one," he says to Junia, and she does.

On our way, we find a sheep caught in a thicket, half-dead. I begin to weep a little.
"I heard this sheep last night," I say. The teacher is walking near me.
"It was lost. Its bells rang after dark while we were sitting by the fire."
Some among us began to tend to it, for it was bleeding and weak.
My Lord spoke to us, teaching us in sayings about the sheep.

"How many of us would go after a lost sheep when 99 sheep are safe behind the fold? But I say to you we must always search out the lost sheep. Even if one sheep is lost in 100, that sheep is the most precious to its owner."
We understand him and are happy for this.
The sheep is struggling and some among us think we should kill it so that it might not die and cause us to be unclean. Our Lord goes to the sheep and putting his hand on its neck, restores it to life. Those who have joined us recently react with amazement as the sheep lifts itself and begins to run in the grass.
Our Lord appears unhappy with their wonder and motions us forward.
"Come, we are late," he says.

He has begun to be impatient. It has been this way since we arrived in Jerusalem. I cannot always make him out, or know what he is thinking. I watch him now as we walk, studying his face when I can. Without looking at me, he reaches for my hand and holds it, then lets it go.
"Do not worry," he says. And then strides on ahead. I run to catch up to him.
We walk in silence.
"You are frightened too," I say to him quietly after a while. He does not respond, but leaves me then, moving to some others.

We are late indeed. Even as we go, slivers of sunlight chase the moon out of the sky behind us. Eventually, we have to stop so the men can pray. I stand behind a large rock out of sight. There I pray with them, all the words engraved on my heart. Closing my eyes, I can hear my voice blending in with theirs. Opening my eyes, Junia and another of her women look at me nervously. Several others are scorning me. Junia watches them, then turns to me and smiles with affection. I am awash with gratitude. I squeeze her hand in passing, say nothing to the women and move on, just as my Lord did with me.

The sun is round and beating down as we draw near the place of the pools. Someone has gone ahead to say we will be there and even before we have come round the hill, some in need of cures are waiting for us. My Lord is not happy to see them. His agitation grows more bold and he thinks we do not see it.
"You must be in the water," he says to one of them sharply, and keeps walking. A few steps later, he stops. A man lies on the ground, lame in one of his legs. His arm is outstretched to the teacher. But the teacher does not touch him.
"Who carried you away from the pool?," my Lord asks the man.
The man is immediately shamed.
"I paid my friend to do it. I wanted to be first."
"Soon you will see that the first shall be last and the last shall be first."
To our amazement, he then moves on, without healing the man.
Thaddeus, whose heart is the most tender, picks the man up and carries him.
When we have walked some time in silence, our Lord sees Thaddeus and the man and ceases walking. He appears sad. He then moves through our crowd to them. Taking the man gently from Thaddeus', he continues walking, carrying the man himself. They are in the midst of the crowd and soon we take no notice. Not long after, however, the man cries out. He is standing now behind our Lord, with his legs restored. He is shouting in amazement and gratitude, praising God and dancing.
Again, the teacher says nothing, appears almost sullen, and urges us on.
The man runs into the hills, leaping like the sheep.

I draw near to my Lord and walk alongside him. He is not in a good temperament, he is brooding and tired. He limps a little from the sores on his feet. The same sores I felt under my hand as he rode on the horse when we first arrived.
The chill in the air has started to lift but the ground is wet and hard.
"Let us stop and rest, so I can tend your feet," I say to him.
He halts in his path, sagging a little. Impatience is there again.
He starts to say something, then doesn't. He is lost in his own thoughts, his face lined with sadness. He stares into the hills, at the last traces of night sky, flushed with pink and blue. His lips utter something I cannot hear.


He appears to forget me and walks on. I do not know how to be with him sometimes. I too become distant and silent. We walk apart a long ways. I use the time to go within myself and experience peace. It is hard to find. The morning has brought birds singing and sparkling dew. Each is beautiful when observed by itself but now they just make noise in my ears and give me cold wet feet. I want to push this out, rest in peace. I cannot.

Soon there are voices. A few steps later, we have come over the hill and the pools are in view. They are overburdened with people. There are lepers and many who are sick or afflicted and those who are unclean. It is more than one man can do in one day.

But it is not just this. On a nearby ridge are some priests and in another direction, some soldiers are there, waiting also. We all cry out in seeing them.
We do not understand. It is not the sabbath for another few days. Why have they assembled? We stand staring, no one speaking.
"Is it because we are not preparing for the feast? Is that it?," James breaks the silence.
"No, it is because of those we ate with last night," says Bartholomew. "You said they were forgiven their sins. Word spreads quickly."
"Yes." It is Peter. "I heard a priest say, who does he think he is? Who can forgive sins but God?"
Even in our gathering there are those new ones who are shocked to hear these things. They look at the teacher in wonder and awe.
"My Lord, what shall we do?" It is Philip who says it, trying hard to sound calm.
My Lord is silent. Many behind him murmur in fear. Some begin to leave the party and make their way back in haste into the valley.

Studying his face, I have new understanding. I realise now why he had hesitated at every stage. Why he has been brooding throughout our journey. And yet he has said nothing.
One of us says, "They want to trick you; catch you making errors. You cannot heal so many without breaking the laws. They will watch you like a hawk."
Thomas steps forward.
"Lord, you came here to teach, not to heal. There is no harm in teaching."
Junia speaks up, her tiny voice like a bird.
"They have no doubt heard about the lame man," she says bravely.
We all adjust to this realization. There can be no question that news like that travels faster than any other kind.
"He came to heal," says Judas. "We knew this when we set out."
We look at him. Something in his voice. A clutch comes in my heart and makes me cold. I remember the time last night by the fire, the letter drawn in ash, the sadness of the Lord. Others are thinking the same thing. Some begin to look on him with accusing.
Judas is angered, turns to the teacher.
"I didn't tell them, Lord."
The teacher nods.

For a while, we do not move. Instead our eyes travel from the pool to the soldiers to the priests. The wind that has been following us since we came to Jerusalem tosses up dust in a small column before us. The tall grasses that slope gently downward to the pool undulate and wave like the palms of our arrival.

Without saying a word, he steps forward and motions to us to follow. One by one we fall in behind. Hesitant. Faltering. Going with him.

The waters of the pools of Bethesda are coral pink from their journey through the earth. The source is moving and bubbles forth from its hidden place in the wall. The stirring is a gentle stream eddying over rocks. I sit in one of the five porticos which divide the two pools, right near the source. My feet are in the women's pool, but I have one hand dribbling in the water at its source.

The women in the pool are tired and poor; some are old; almost all are peasants. They chatter with each other, even as they pray and do their ablutions.
"He won't have time for us," says one very old woman, hobbling slowly up the stair near my leg. I lean forward to assist her with my hand.

A little while later, I am helping a small girl into the pool. Her body is perilously thin and she cannot walk. I lay her gently in the waters and she continues to cling to me. I sink into the pool myself, sitting on the step up to my neck and holding her closely there. She lays her head in my neck and appears to sleep, her body finally comforted. I look up to my Lord and he sees me, even in that minute, even from so far away. He leaves where he is and starts to come. The girl stirs, starts to cry and I soothe her, tell her he will soon help her.

Then there is the sound of commotion, a clamouring of voices. I look up to see my Lord being dragged at the elbows away. I lift the girl into the arms of a woman and rush to see what has happened, my garments wet, my body cold. I shout to the others, who leave where they are. Two priests have the teacher by his arms and escort him away toward the field nearby. The soldiers follow them and intercede. Junia folds another cloak around me, even as I pass. I stare into the field by the north end of the pool, hurrying forward and trying to make out what is happening. They are talking and arguing while my Lord is silent. I hear water dripping to the stone beneath me, almost as loud as the pounding of my heart.

Eventually, the priests let go of him and he walks slowly back toward us. I sigh with all of me. I feel again the gnawing fear which will not let me rest.

Someone runs toward us, explaining: they have let him go, but he must heal no more. Our faces watch him as he draws among us. To my surprise, for the first time today, he seems content. Only now does he seem himself. No longer fretful or in moods, but smiling and peaceful.
"You were right," he says to me as he comes alongside. "To bring us here." I am not so sure but smile. His peace making mine.

The figures of the priests and the soldiers on horses have faded into dimming lines behind the hills. We all turn round to face the pools again. It hardly seems possible but now there are even more there than before. They call out, cry out his name.

Thomas and some of the others implore him. "My Lord, please, no. They will return. You will be taken." The teacher listens, cupping the face of a lame man in his hand, to gaze in his eyes.
"Yes, I will be taken."

He says this to Thomas.
He lifts his eyes to the others in the pool, waiting.
Immediately, his name is called out in supplication. Many voices at once. Their plea is like that of the wanderers, calling out to the God of all Israel. He moves now toward the women's side, towards the small girl even now very still in the arms of her elders.
I breathe in deeply and hurry behind him.

We carry her together, out of the arms of her womenfolk and into the waters. Her small thin arm is around my Lord's neck, my body cradling her feet. We lower her, lowering ourselves as well.
The sun of creation bears down on us all, drenching the world in wind-smitten light.

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