04 March 2008

Suffer Well

4th Week of Lent (T): Eze 47.1-9, 12; John 5.1-16
Fr. Philip N. Powell, OP
St Albert the Great Priory

Forgive this old English teacher his need for a moment of grammatical clarity. I promise, it serves our prayerful purpose this morning! Jesus asks the man who has been sick for 38 years, “Do you want to be well?” The man answers Jesus in a way that leads us to conclude that the man understands Jesus to be asking, “Do you want to be healed?” He tells Jesus that he can’t reach the pool “when the water is stirred up” because he has no one to help him. Jesus says, “Rise, take up your mat, and walk.” In other words, Jesus orders him to be well. How are we to understand this healing? What does it mean for us “to be well”? We all know the basic distinction btw Good and Well. “Good” is an adjective, nouns are good. “Well” is an adverb, verbs are done well. Fried chicken, pecan pie, afternoon naps are all good. However, we read well, run well, write well. But what does it mean “to be well,” that is, what does it mean for us to exist well?

We can start a good answer here by looking at why the now-healed man and our Lord think he is ill. Think back to the Man Born Blind. Why does he believe that he is blind? What do others think about the Blind Man and the Man sick for 38 years? They are blind and sick because of sin—an opinion our Lord Jesus shares. Now, we find this difficult to believe. Of course, sin can make us “soul-sick,” but physically ill, physically disabled? That’s stretching a useful analogy between healing the soul and healing the body, don’t you think? I don’t think so. As persons, whole creatures, we are body and soul together. Not a soul poured into a body, or a Ghost Haunting a Machine of Flesh and Blood. As the incarnated Son of God and Son of Man, Jesus understands the intimate relationship between flesh and soul, he says to the healed man later on in the temple: “Look, you are well; do not sin any more…” Think of this admonishment this way, “Look, you are absolved of your sin, you are well. Do not sin any more…”

I asked earlier: what does it mean “to be well”? What does it mean for us “to exist well”? To be and to exist are infinitive verbs: we exist, we be. And to be well is to exist always in the will of the Father for us. I don’t mean to suggest here that disease is somehow a punishment for sin. God does not give us cancer as a punishment for sin. He doesn’t cause us to fall and break a hip or crack our heads open because we disobey Him. The reckless world we live in, this mortal realm of dangerous obstacles and killing sicknesses exists as a consequence of just One Sin, the original sin. And because we live in this physical world as persons, we get sick, we have accidents, we harm one another. To be well (verb + adverb) is to live as creatures in the will of the Creator for us.

We all know about germs and viruses and cancers and other mean-spirited dis-eases that strike us down. Even the most righteous among us get sick! So, “to be well,” must mean more than just “living as persons without disease or injuries.” Being well is about how you will come to understand your dis-ease, your personal uneasiness while sick or injured. And how you choose to understand and live with your disease is called “suffering.” We suffer the infection, the cancer, the emotional imbalance. We suffer, we “allow” that the sickness is with us and we choose how to react to this fact in the world. This is why Jesus asks the sick man, “Do you want to be well?” Do you will to be in right relationship with God? Though the sick man never says outright, “Yes, I want to be well,” his answer to Jesus is an act of contrition, therefore our Lord orders him to wellness; that is, Jesus places him back into the good order of righteousness.

“Do you want to be well” means (in part) “How do you want to suffer your sickness?” If you suffer alone, in self-pity, or with some sense that your sickness is deserved, then you will suffer—“live with”—your malady as a just punishment. The Good News, however, is that we do not need to suffer our maladies as punishments! We are free to give our sickness to Christ, the one who died that we might live. And we are free to be well as we suffer, free to live as men and women—loved persons—to live as creatures already perfectly healed, if not wholly cured. Do you want to be well? Good! Be well.


  1. Father, how could you! On National Grammar Day, of all days!

    "Well" is often an adverb, and one can get a certain amount of mileage, as you have done, by playing with the notion of having it modify the verb "to be." But in the usual sense of "You are well," the word "well" is an adjective serving as the subjective completion. It modifies not "are" but "you." Merriam-Webster lists five adjectival senses of "well," the earliest dating back before the 12th century.

    Sorry to get all pedantic on you, but people are already confused enough about subjective completions. I can't count the number of times I hear "I feel badly" when someone is expressing regret. What, he's saying he's got neuropathy? No, his feeling is unimpaired--he actually feels bad.

    Aside from that, Father, I appreciate your reflections. Be well! :-)

  2. Sheepcat,

    Of course, you are right...though I doubt many know that they are using "well" as a adjective in a subjective completion, they use it commonly. Often rhetorical points are best made in a homily by go against the grain and reading texts or writing texts that give us a little slap...

    I'm discovered in over 20 something years of teaching that there is no way to talk about grammar w/o being pednatic...so, no worries!

    Fr. Philip, OP