Moshe grunted as he rolled the rest of the way onto his already aching side. His breathing labored, he let his head collapse onto a wad of rags which he had brought for a pillow. A sudden sharp pain between his shoulder blades caused him to turn a little further so that his chest almost touched the splintering reed mat beneath him. With his chin propped upon a bony arm, Moshe peered from under the low hanging frayed edge of a filthy square of cloth. Hung from a frame of lashed sticks, the cloth served as a makeshift tent – a shady covering for which he was grateful. The heat of a late afternoon sun bore down upon the porch beside the pool where he lay.
He licked his cracking lips, reminded of his terrible thirst by gentle ripples upon the surface of the water. No longer hearing splashing, he hoped whoever had been in the pool had left. Perhaps he was even alone. On another day, long ago, such a thought would have caused a flash of wild hope to race through his soul and tickle his heart. Musing about the possibility made his pulse quicken. No, he thought. Not this time. He knew better.
When his breathing calmed, he listened more intently. A scrape. A distant moan. A low cough, not far away. All signs that it would do him no good to scoot out to the water’s edge.
He swallowed. Glancing sideways at the gourd lying empty, just out of his reach, he muttered a curse beneath his breath. If only he hadn’t slipped off his elbow that morning. He had knocked over his water before, but never that early in the day. Squeezing his eyelids tightly closed in an effort to shut out the vision of water, he sighed. It would be several hours before his son would return for him – Shimon never made it back to the pool until after sundown on the Sabbath. And if his son still felt upset, it might be longer than that.
Their argument had been quite heated. Shimon had insisted that Moshe come to synagogue. He resisted – he had to be near the pool. He begged his son to stay with him. Shimon stated quite rudely that he would still continue to bring Moshe to the pool, but he would never again participate in what he called “a foolish superstition”.
One year previous, after they moved to Jerusalem from their home in Joppa, Shimon had brought Moshe to the pool every morning. Two weeks passed without any success. Then on a day when there were not many people on the porches, the water bubbled. With Shimon’s quick assistance, Moshe made it into the pool first. But nothing happened. Realizing that the bubbling stopped right before his toes broke the surface, he knew he had barely missed the proper moment. His legs remained lifeless. Moshe left the pool in the same manner in which he entered it – on crutches, his son steadying him. Tears streamed down his cheeks.
Since that day, Moshe had come to the Pool of The House of Mercy as often as he could. But Shimon never participated – he would wander off to the markets or to the Synagogue, or back to his small shop where he sold candles. Moshe didn’t understand why his son would not try again. Just once more, Moshe had often begged. The answer was always “No”.
Tired of the anger he had felt towards his inattentive son all morning long, Moshe tried to relax on his back. With his eyes shut and his mouth dry, his mind wandered to thoughts of other waters. He could picture himself standing on the edge of short cliffs overhanging the sea – the wind in his hair and briny air in his nostrils. Below, he could see indigo swirled with evening sky, sometimes clear and yet sometimes impenetrable, and waves sparkling like crystals, tiny flecks of light shimmering like the stars of a cool, fall night. On that cliff, he was a young man. And he was standing. No crutch. No leaning upon a son’s arm for support.
Thirty-eight years. The price for greed had been steep. Oh, how he wished he could go back to that time and place. He would choose better. A different choice would mean everything. Sailing in a boat – his boat – would be possible again.
The noise of an approaching crowd lifted him out of his wishful daydream. He arched backwards trying to see who had come, but on account of the shady covering blocking his view, he could only see the sandaled feet of those closest to his resting spot. He listened. Most of the people talked in low voices, and some even whispered. Unable to pick out more than a stray word or two, he could not discern what the conversation was about, but was intrigued by the tone of the whispers which reached him. Although he could not tell for sure, they sounded disdainful.
Moshe’s shoulders cramped. He rolled to his side once again and pushed his body into a better position to observe the chatting arrivals. Now he could see their legs. He tentatively reached forward. Unwilling to let them see into the safety of his makeshift tent, he pulled his hand back from the cloth without lifting it. Still, curiosity drove him downward until his cheek pressed against the reed mat beneath him. The lower vantage point offered a partial view of a man at the edge of the group – sandals, well-worn and dusty from travel, and a course woolen robe, clean yet humble. The man’s feet shifted, toes pointing in Moshe’s direction.
Catching his breath, Moshe twisted onto his back when footsteps approached. The stranger’s feet now very near, Moshe watched as the covering lifted. He immediately raised his arm high to protect his eyes from the sunlight which streamed into the tent. Squinting in the bright rays, Moshe could not clearly see the man’s face. He wondered who it could be. Murmuring rose into the air from behind the intrusive man, adding to the concern Moshe had felt about previous whisperings. Half expecting some kind verbal censure, a voice of perfect calmness took him by surprise.
“Wilt thou be made whole?” the man asked.
Has this man come to help me into the water? Did Shimon send him? Yes. Shimon must have sent him. But why the question? Shimon would have told him.
“Sir,” Moshe began. “I have no man, when the water is troubled, to put me into the pool: but while I am coming, another steppeth down before me.”
He strained to lift himself higher, still not able to see the stranger’s face. As if sensing Moshe’s thoughts and desires, the man stepped to the left, effectively blocking the direct light. When Moshe’s eyes adjusted he gaped.
Eyes like the depths of the blue sea, alive and almost sparkling bright, captivating and powerful, mild yet full of majesty – the man’s eyes reminded Moshe of pure water and clear sky. He gulped. Was this the Rabbi others had called Master? Moshe did not know the man’s name, and yet in his gaze, Moshe felt nothing but tenderness.
“Wilt thou be made whole?” the man asked again.
Moshe trembled. “Yes, Master.”
“Moshe: Rise, take up thy bed, and walk.”
Story inspired by Carl Bloch’s painting “Healing at Bethesda” and John 5:1-16