Unafraid: Fear and Change*
How do you feel about change? Do you like change? Dread it? What changes have come your way that have brought pain - or joy? Most everyone knows the saying, “The only constant is change,” suggesting that things are always changing. But change - especially significant change - is also an incredible source of fear and anxiety for some folks, maybe most of us at one time or another. Fear of change connects with our fear of failure, our fear of disappointing other people.
I’ve been thinking this week about significant changes I’ve experienced in my life, and how I reacted or how others around me reacted to that change. I think about changes in technology that have happened in my lifetime, in yours. I grew up with computers - even if they were Ataris! I first had a computer in my classroom in 3rd grade. But my mom, a retired nurse, never used a computer herself until she was in her 30s. Suddenly, it seemed, computers, which she’d mostly avoided, came to her workplace. She couldn’t dispense medication to patients unless she used a computer to do it. And she was terrified. She was so sure if she hit a wrong button, everything would break on the spot, irreparably. That didn’t happen, of course, but it wasn’t until I went away to college and she realized she could email me that she really pushed herself to get over her fear of the changing technology.
Or - I remember during my first appointment, I had been keeping a blog - they were kind of new and trendy at the time - and on my blog I was talking about this emerging social media thing, and facebook, and how social media might impact the church. And another pastor from across the country who I’d never met called me at my church office to tell me how dangerous social media and the internet were and that, as a pastor, I shouldn’t advocate for folks to use it. It was evil. He saw coming change in our world as a very bad thing indeed. I wonder, sometimes, what he thinks about it now? Did he become less afraid, or more convinced he was right?
I think about my work with youth - with our Conference Youth in particular. People often believe that young people love and embrace change. But I was the coordinator for the youth of our annual conference through our transition from North Central New York into the new and larger Upper New York Annual Conference. To go through that merger of conferences, we had to change a lot about our youth programming, and at one point, I had something of a mutiny on my hands, because the youth were so upset about having to change the way they did things. They weren’t any less attached to the way things were than adults were. It’s just that youth graduate after a few years, and institutional memory is shorter - eventually, no one remembers the way it used to be. It takes a lot longer for that to happen with adults. But it turns out the refrain about change is true across generations - when you’re trying to create change, even much needed change in an organization, you’re likely to hear the refrain: “But we never did it that way before!” (144) It’s a caricature of church life - that resistance to change. But it’s a caricature based on the real struggle the church and its people has when it comes to reaching new people, trying new things, existing in a new way for a changing world.
Our fear of change often is actually a confrontation with grief. I remember, vividly, still, what it was like when my mom drove away at the end of college orientation, and I was left at Ohio Wesleyan for my freshman year, and I felt devastated, and afraid, and like everything had changed - and it had! - and I just wanted to go home. I didn’t, but at first, staying at college was one of the hardest things I ever did. I felt like everyone else got over being homesick way sooner than I did, but truthfully, they were probably feeling the same way, at least some of them. Adam Hamilton recounts weeping the night before his daughter left for college. “Danielle gently said, ‘Dad, I’m not dying. I’m just moving to Kansas State.’” They laugh about it now, but Hamilton says, “I was grieving the ending of a part of my life I so very much enjoyed.” (148) Fear of change includes “grief over what we’re leaving behind.” “Change means a kind of ‘death’ to what [is] familiar, comfortable, known, and often loved. The fear of change … is often the result of anticipatory grief.” (148)
How many of you’ve seen the 90s film You’ve Got Mail with Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan? Meg Ryan’s character Kathleen Kelly gives a great monologue about grief and change in the film. She’s the owner of a small bookstore that ends up closing when Hank’s characters large chain bookstore Fox Books moves into town. Reflecting on what’s happened, she says, “People are always saying that change is a good thing. But all they're really saying is that something you didn't want to happen at all... has happened. My store is closing this week. I own a store, did I ever tell you that? It's a lovely store, and in a week it'll be something really depressing, like a Baby Gap. Soon, it'll be just a memory. In fact, someone, some foolish person, will probably think it's a tribute to this city, the way it keeps changing on you, the way you can never count on it, or something. I know because that's the sort of thing I'm always saying. But the truth is... I'm heartbroken. I feel as if a part of me has died, and my mother has died all over again, and no one can ever make it right.”
It is very normal to feel anxious about change. It would be more surprising if you weren’t anxious when a major change was ahead. The problem comes in when we let that fear or anxiety about change keep us stuck in one place, when we keep waiting for the perfect moment to embrace change, only that moment never comes, when we’re paralyzed from our anxiety or anticipatory grief or outright fear. (145)
That brings us to considering our gospel lesson for today. Jesus has gone to Jerusalem for a festival, although we’re not told which one. And while he’s there, he comes to a pool, a pool called Beth-zatha, which means “Sheep Pool.” Scholars think it might be so named as the place where washing took place after a sheep was sacrificed. It was a popular belief that when the waters of the pool were stirred, the first person who entered into the churning waters would experience healing. Some people attributed the stirring of the waters to the movement of water from one pool to another next to it. Others gave it a more spiritual origin, claiming that an angel, a messenger of God would periodically come and stir the waters. At any rate, people believed that the first one in would experience a miraculous healing. And so near the pool, all around, are many invalid persons: people who are blind, lame, paralyzed, the text tells us, all waiting for a chance at healing.
And when Jesus arrives, his eyes are drawn to one particular man. This man, we’re told, has been ill for 38 years. Has he been waiting at the pool the whole time for healing? We’re not sure how long he’s been there, but are told that Jesus knows he has been there “a long time.” Jesus asks him, without preamble, “Do you want to be made well?” My first reaction to Jesus’ question is something like, “Sorry Jesus, but that’s a really dumb question. He’s been like this for 38 years! He’s lying at the side of a pool where people go to get healed. Of course, he wants to be made well.”
But the man doesn’t seem offended by the question, and simply answers Jesus, “Sir, I have no one to put me into the pool when the water is stirred up; and while I am making my way, someone else steps down ahead of me.” So my second reaction is to feel empathy for this man’s isolation. He’s on his own. No one is with him, no one is helping him down into the water. Many of the others at the pool would be alone too. People who were ill or diseased in some way would often find themselves on the fringes of society, vulnerable. We might pity this man.
Then Jesus says to this man, “Stand up, take your mat, and walk.” And the man is at once made well, and he takes up his mat and begins to walk. And that’s where our passage for today ends. And it is then, after taking in the whole thing, that I begin having my third reaction. Ok. Maybe this man wasn’t lying there for the whole 38 years of his illness. But Jesus knows he’s been there for a long time. And in all that time, he couldn’t figure out some way to get to the pool first? He couldn’t work out a deal with one of the other people at the pool? You help me one day, and I’ll help you the next? He didn’t ask for help from anyone and everyone who went by? He had no one in his life that could assist him? Really? And now I imbue Jesus’ question to the man with a different tone: “Do you even want to be made well? Because it sure doesn’t seem like it, what with your lying here for years and years!” I see a man who was afraid to experience the healing change of the waters. He could get himself so close - but never quite take the final plunge, so to speak. He stays hovering on the edge of the water for decades. What kind of life is that? His life is unbearable as is, but his fear, or his anxiety, or his procrastination, or whatever it is that is really keeping him out of that pool is worse.
Jesus, though, doesn’t seem to actually use the tone my head supplies. Jesus says nothing about excuses or inaction or reluctance to change or any other words that I am tempted to put into his mouth. He asks, “Do you want to be made well?” When I reread the text through the lense of Jesus’ compassionate gaze, I hear Jesus asking about wellness as an alternative to the more straightforward healing people are seeking at this strange pool. I think what Jesus is offering to the man is something more than he would have received if he had made it into those pools. In the chapter just before this one in John, Jesus speaks with the woman at the well about living waters, the water of life that Jesus offers that truly quench your thirst. I think that’s what he’s offering this man. The word in Greek that we read as “made well” has a sense of completeness. Do you want to be made whole? Entirely well? Jesus can offer this man so much more, if he’s ready. The man doesn’t have to heal himself. He has to put his life into Jesus’ hands, and let God bring about the deep healing. After 38 years, this man’s life is changed forever.
Change is hard. But there are “new joys on the other side” of painful seasons of change. (149) Listen to these words of praise from Psalm 30: “O Lord my God, I cried to you for help, and you have healed me. Sing praises to the Lord, O you his faithful ones, and give thanks to his holy name ... Weeping may linger for the night, but joy comes with the morning … You have turned my mourning into dancing; you have taken off my sackcloth and clothed me with joy, so that my soul may praise you and not be silent. O Lord my God, I will give thanks to you forever.” (emphasis mine)
Change is so hard. It is so hard that sometimes we freeze in dread. It’s so hard that sometimes we’ll avoid it at all costs, and things and people we love are hurt in the process. It’s so hard, sometimes, that change feels like grief, like we’re experiencing a death. But there’s no way to repent, no way to turn back to God’s way from our sometimes wrong ways without change. There’s no way to experience resurrection without change. There’s no way to be made well without change. No life, without change. Thankfully, God is with us. Thankfully, though our weeping might last all night, joy comes in the morning, waiting for us on the other side of change. What changes have you waiting at the edge of the water, friends? How many years will you wait? Jesus has a question for you: Do you want to be made well? Let us say “Yes!” Amen.
* All quotations are from Adam Hamilton’s book Unafraid: Living with Courage and Hope in Uncertain Times. New York: Convergent Books, 2018.