There were three men in the Tuesday night Bible study in the maximum-security unit. A new guy had been invited by one of the other men. All of the men have previously served prison time. One will be released in a few months. The others may be looking at substantial time.
We discussed how the patterns of institutional living carry on even after release. Some guys continue the same breakfast schedule even years after their release.
A New York Times article (You Just Got Out of Prison. Now What?) tells about Roby and Carlos.
Roby started reciting the weekly prison menu, to see if he could still do it. When he got to Thursday — peanut butter and jelly, four slices of bread, Kool-Aid — Carlos, without turning to look at him, chimed in with ‘‘sugar-free gum.’’
Roby went on. (Roby tends to do most of the talking.) The trick, he said, is to save those packets of peanut butter and spread it on your pancakes, the next time there are pancakes. It sounds gross, but it’s not. ‘‘The only way I eat my pancakes now is with peanut butter — because that’s the way I ate them in there,’’ Roby explained.
Carlos understood. He still put peanut butter on his pancakes, too. ‘‘It does have a different flavor,’’ he said.
‘‘Yeah! And you can put it in your oatmeal!’’
‘‘Oatmeal is real good with peanut butter,’’ Carlos said.
‘‘I still do that, too!’’ Roby blurted.
He continued with the menu. After Sunday — eggs, ham, hash browns — he looked at Carlos and said, ‘‘You put it all together?’’ to make sure Carlos knew to heap the whole thing between two slices of toast and squeeze jelly over it. Carlos knew. ‘‘That’s a pretty fat sandwich, right?’’ Roby said.
‘‘Yeah,’’ Carlos said emphatically.
Roby still puts jelly on his egg sandwiches, too, he explained. Strawberry, grape — he doesn’t care. ‘‘People look at me like I’m crazy!’’
‘‘People don’t even know,’’ Carlos said. They were laughing at themselves now. Carlos had done almost 11 years; Roby, close to 12. Now they were free men, sitting outside a prison, waxing nostalgic about prison food.
We then read our passage for the study:
John 5:1-14 (NKJV)
5 After this there was a feast of the Jews, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem. 2 Now there is in Jerusalem by the Sheep Gate a pool, which is called in Hebrew, Bethesda,[a] having five porches. 3 In these lay a great multitude of sick people, blind, lame, paralyzed, waiting for the moving of the water. 4 For an angel went down at a certain time into the pool and stirred up the water; then whoever stepped in first, after the stirring of the water, was made well of whatever disease he had.[b] 5 Now a certain man was there who had an infirmity thirty-eight years. 6 When Jesus saw him lying there, and knew that he already had been in that condition a long time, He said to him, “Do you want to be made well?”
7 The sick man answered Him, “Sir, I have no man to put me into the pool when the water is stirred up; but while I am coming, another steps down before me.”
8 Jesus said to him, “Rise, take up your bed and walk.” 9 And immediately the man was made well, took up his bed, and walked.
And that day was the Sabbath. 10 The Jews therefore said to him who was cured, “It is the Sabbath; it is not lawful for you to carry your bed.”
11 He answered them, “He who made me well said to me, ‘Take up your bed and walk.’”
12 Then they asked him, “Who is the Man who said to you, ‘Take up your bed and walk’?” 13 But the one who was healed did not know who it was, for Jesus had withdrawn, a multitude being in that place. 14 Afterward Jesus found him in the temple, and said to him, “See, you have been made well. Sin no more, lest a worse thing come upon you.”
In many ways the men could relate to the story. The sick man was like someone who had served a 38 year sentence. Every time the water was stirred but he missed out, it was like going before the parole board and getting denied, but then watching someone else get released.
They noticed that Jesus didn’t heal the man without his permission.
How do we answer when Jesus asks, “Do you want to be made well?”
Do we deny that anything is wrong? Do we consider ourselves doing better than others around us?
The sick man is alone and without resources: “I have no man to put me into the pool”
Being alone and without resources is a situation the incarcerated can relate to.
After the man explains his circumstances Jesus does something unusual. He doesn’t tell the man he is healed. Instead Jesus treats him like someone who not only is healed, but is capable as well.
“Rise, take up your bed and walk.”
Even more surprising, the man doesn’t try to argue the point. He owns his new identity.
And immediately the man was made well, took up his bed, and walked.
Haters Gonna Hate
But the man is hassled in his recovery. Even being healed by Jesus isn’t good enough. After release these men had experienced the pressure to go back to the way they were. It was assumed that they would go back to the same places, the same patterns of using, the same destructive behaviors.
Afterward Jesus found him in the temple
There was some discussion about this. Was the man in the temple when he was being hassled? Was the church a place of criticism and shame? Or was the man at the temple to try and regain his bearings?
The men were quick to notice that Jesus said, “Sin no more, lest a worse thing come upon you.”
The men understood this to be like when you get a second chance – getting sent to treatment rather than prison – but if you mess that up you may end up with an even harsher sentence.
In recovery “it takes what it takes” for someone to break the cycle of denial about their addiction. Sometimes the “worse thing” is what is needed to convince a man of his need for healing.
I reminded them that the very first thing that Jesus says when he sees the man again is:
“See, you have been made well.”
Jesus affirms his healing.
After being hassled by the world we need to be reassured of our identity, of who we are, and whose we are.
“Sin no more” can only come from our identity in Christ.