Just Pick Up Your Mat

I hope you enjoy this #FifthFriday #FlashFiction based on John 5:1-15.

Zeb wasn’t particularly mystical. If he hadn’t seen it with his own two eyes, he wouldn’t believe it himself. But people had been truly healed at Bethesda pool—people he’d seen suffer for years. That’s why Zeb stashed his wheelchair at the bottom of the steps every morning and dragged his body up the steps and across the colonnade. Every morning, he staked out a space as close to the water as possible, but every morning, others arrived before him.

This morning, only one person blocked his path to the water. It wouldn’t matter. If the waters moved, someone else—someone with two working legs or a friend—would reach the water before he could. Maybe this daily labor was his penance. Maybe he didn’t deserve to be healed.

The warm sun convinced Zeb a short nap wouldn’t hurt anything, and he was almost asleep when someone spoke to him. He looked up, blinking, at the man standing over him.

The man squatted. Now they could speak eye-to-eye. “Do you want to get well?”

Did he want to get well? What
sort of fool question was that?

Did he want to get well? What sort of fool question was that? Of course he wanted to get well…didn’t he? Some part of his heart pushed the idea aside. His recklessness and arrogance had made him this way and stolen his bride thirty-eight years ago. Did he really want to get well?

Short of breath, Zeb grasped at the obvious. “Sir, I have no one to help me into the pool when the water is stirred. While I am trying to get in, someone else goes down ahead of me.” It wasn’t an answer to the man’s question, but it was the best Zeb could do in the moment. Maybe this guy would hang out and help him win the race into the water.

The man’s next words startled Zeb into obedience. He said, “Get up! Pick up your mat and walk.” Zeb obeyed without thinking. When the man straightened up, Zeb stood up too. Then Zeb bent over, rolled up his mat, and walked away. When he reached the bottom of the steps, he saw his wheelchair tucked behind a bush. Only then did his knees go weak. He was walking! He turned around, trotted back to the top of the steps, and scanned the crowd for the One who had healed him. The man was gone.

08-28 Greece (133)
Greek colonnade (c) Carole Sparks

Zeb leaned on a column, puzzling over his next move. What should he do first? Where should he go? Who should he tell? Well, the “who” question was easy. Across the thirty-eight years of his disability, he had pushed away everyone who cared and everyone who offered to help. There was no one left who would celebrate with him.

Perhaps the best thing to do was offer thanks to God. Zeb made his way to the temple. He didn’t realize it was the Sabbath.

Before he took two steps on the main street, a Pharisee tapped him on the shoulder. The short man’s frown extended to his hairline like a mask he couldn’t remove. His stubby finger jabbed at Zeb’s mat under his arm. “It. is. the. Sabbath!” the man barked, his finger punctuating each word, “The. law. forbids. you. to. carry. your. mat!”

“Umm…” for the second time in an hour, Zeb wasn’t sure what to say. “The man who made me well said to me, ‘Pick up your mat and walk.’ So I did.”

Even thinking about the
man who healed him brought
a smile to Zeb’s face.

Two other Pharisees had descended on this exchange. One asked, “Who was this guy? Who told you to pick it up and walk?” But Zeb had no idea who the man was. Still, even thinking about him brought a smile back to Zeb’s face. He turned to a shopkeeper along the street and asked the man to hold his mat until evening. The Pharisees shoulders slumped as they looked around for someone else to correct.

An hour later, Zeb was standing (because who would sit after thirty-eight years of not standing?!?) in the temple courtyard when he heard the same voice he’d heard by the pool. He wandered toward the crowd around the man and asked someone at the back, “Who is this guy?”

“Where have you been?” the guy snorted. “This is Jesus. Some people say He may be the Messiah!”

Zeb shuffled to the front of the crowd and found himself face to face with Jesus. Then Jesus looked him directly in the eye and said, “See, you are well again. Stop sinning or something worse may happen to you.” Zeb blinked slowly as Jesus returned to his teaching.

Zeb turned his eyes toward
Jesus again…He really was
the Messiah!

What could be worse than thirty-eight years of pain, shame, loss, and struggle? Eternity apart from God, that’s what. The Sabbath school answer popped back into his head despite the fifty-year span since he had learned it. It wasn’t wrong. Zeb turned his eyes toward Jesus again, the Teacher’s words muted by the volume of Zeb’s own thoughts. He really was the Messiah! It was completely clear now. Zeb’s feet danced a little shuffle, responding to the fresh light in his eyes. Jesus looked back toward him, and a smile stretched His lips as if they shared an inside secret.


There’s a lot of my own imagination built around the story John gives us in his gospel. Maybe you picture it differently. That’s okay. Here’s my take-away based on the true parts of the story:

Jesus asks a seemingly easy question that’s actually very difficult. That’s how he often worked. I once heard someone say, “You answer with your heart before your mouth.” It’s true, isn’t it? And Jesus was the master of asking just the right question…usually the one you don’t want to answer. Remember the woman at the well (John 4)? She tried to avoid the difficult question by distracting Jesus, but it didn’t work. This time, the guy is so focused on his one way to be healed that he misses Jesus’ point.

Sometimes, we think Jesus needs to fix our circumstances or help us achieve a personal goal that will make our lives better. Like this disabled man, we focus entirely on the foreseeable outcome, even if it has frustrated us again and again. Jesus’ question wasn’t, “Do you want to get in the pool?” It was “Do you want to be healed?” What question is Jesus asking you? Are you mishearing Him because you’re so focused on your existing plan? He has a way for you to get what you really need, even when you don’t know what that is. But it’ll take a little obedience.

Jesus has a way for you to get what you really need, even when you don’t know what that is. A little #BiblicalFiction for some #FifthFridayFun via @Carole_Sparks on #NotAboutMe. (click to tweet)

What do you think about this fresh take on a familiar story? Is there a moment you want to remember? Something you want to apply to your own life? I’d love to hear from you in the comments below.

This is not my first time in this passage. For more on Jesus’ side of the story, check out God’s Priority: His Kingdom from way back in 2012.

Antioch: First Church of…Well, Everything (part 2 – Acts 13-15)

The multi-ethnic church in Antioch was the first to do many things we find more-or-less normal for churches now. Click back to last week’s post about the first four ways they defined what “church” should be, then read on for three more ways they set the pattern. Continue reading

Antioch: First Church of… well, Everything (part 1 – Acts 11)

Let’s dig back into Acts this week with the first of two posts about the church at Antioch. We will connect the dots between different parts of Acts and see how this church paved the way for our modern definition of church.

When the apostles appointed seven deacons to serve in the Jerusalem church, one of them was from Antioch: Nicholas (Acts 6:5). Nicholas was the only deacon for whom Luke felt it necessary to name his city of origin and note his spiritual history. Nicholas was a convert to Judaism who became a Christ-follower. Why did Luke mention all this? I think it’s because, by the time Luke wrote his history of the early church, he knew both the city of Antioch and the Gentiles who inhabited it were significant. It’s a bit of foreshadowing. Continue reading

Let God Shatter Your 2020 Expectations

The new year is so pretty and clean, sitting here on the first weekend of the year. I have significant expectations for this year, partially because I will soon turn 47, and since 47 is my favorite number (for no particular reason), I have long thought this year would be big for me. But God is doing something a little weird in my heart right now. Let’s see if I can break it down. Continue reading

Letting Go of Legalism

During a family reunion many years ago, my husband’s family found themselves at a karaoke bar in Branson, Missouri. This was before I became an official part of the family. Toward the end of the evening, all the brothers, sisters, in-laws, cousins, etc. came together onstage and sang “We Are Family.” My mother-in-law still recalls it as one of the most special moments of her life.

Except one aunt and uncle weren’t there. They stayed back at the hotel because alcohol was served in that establishment.  Just before this aunt passed away, she told my mother-in-law how much she regretted that decision…how much she wished she had been part of the family ensemble on stage that night. Continue reading

The Christmas List

Gracie held her pencil above the last remaining blank page in her planner. “Ah-ha!” She lowered the pencil to the paper, then picked it up again. “No-o.” Who knew you could get writer’s block for a Christmas list?!? There were decisions to be made and gifts to be bought. Now was the time!

This was her moment: the quiet
half-hour before the chaos…
the calm before the storm.

She checked the breakfast casserole again. Still forty minutes to go. Everything else was ready. Her family was on their way. They would eat brunch, then hit the Black Friday sales. This was her moment: the quiet half-hour before the chaos…the calm before the storm. Tomorrow wouldn’t be any better. In fact, every day between this one and Christmas would be loaded with extra things.

Gracie pulled a box of Christmas decorations out of the hall closet. She needed to be productive, and If she couldn’t write the Christmas gift list, she would get started on the decorations. The nativity set lay on top.

She picked up the Mary. I bet Mary had a list of what she needed after the baby was born—things she had packed before they left Nazareth. Maybe she catalogued the donkey’s saddle bags as they trudged toward Jerusalem.

She grabbed Joseph in the other hand. Did Joseph have a list? Probably a list of places to check for lodging…doors to knock on so they wouldn’t have to sleep outside. Maybe he searched his memory for additional options as they trudged toward Jerusalem.

Gracie set both pieces near the center of the mantle. She bent down and collected the three shepherds. It’s always three, to balance the wise men. She thought about the shepherds’ journey into Jerusalem and sat down hard on the ottoman. They didn’t trudge toward Jerusalem. They were excited all the way into town!

Gracie pulled her phone from her back pocket. Ignoring the social media notifications, she opened her Bible app to Luke 2.

When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let’s go to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has told us about.”

So they hurried off and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby, who was lying in the manger.  –Luke 2:15-16

There was only one thing
on their list: see Jesus.

The shepherds “hurried off,” not because they were in a hurry—not busy-ness, Gracie thought, but because they wanted to get there as quickly as they could to see the amazing thing God had done…the Messiah He had finally sent to earth. There was only one thing on their list: see Jesus.

Mary and Joseph both had incredible responsibilities that first Christmas. It’s understandable that, in their exhaustion and the burden of their roles, they trudged toward Bethlehem. We are not them. All the work has been done.

She decided to put one thing at
the top of her Christmas list, one
thing that was easy to overlook.

Gracie still had to make a list of all the Christmas gifts to buy. She still had to get the casserole out of the oven and host her family’s annual post-Thanksgiving brunch. But she decided to put one thing at the top of her Christmas list, one thing that was easy to overlook, easy to let slip to the bottom of the list. Gracie wanted to see Jesus this Christmas.

She stood up and looked around. Then, she set the shepherds on a table across the room from the mantle. Each morning, she planned to move them a little closer to the mantle, and in those moments, she would contemplate the Messiah who came to earth for all of us. She would see Jesus.

What’s at the top of your Christmas list this year? Here’s a little #flashfiction fun to set the mood. Because my #ChristmasList is #NotAboutMe, via @Carole_Sparks. (click to tweet)

Do you have a plan to see Jesus this holiday season? It’s easy to get distracted by all the responsibilities and obligations (both real and imagined) of the season. In the comments below, please share how you keep your focus through the holidays.