On Sunday, Sara and I met with the M&M pod (medical and medium security) in one of the little conference rooms in the Skagit County Jail. Four women came—two trustees in bright orange uniforms, and two women with medical problems. One had broken her back and neck in a car accident. The other, a native woman, was six weeks into a high-risk pregnancy—at thirty years old, she has had five miscarriages, all drug-use and domestic violence related.
We began by reading the story of the crippled man at the pool of Bethesda. We asked the women, “What stands out to you in the story?”
“The man had a lot of faith,” one of the trustees said. “He waited and waited until God answered him.”
This has been a common answer when we’ve looked at this text in the past. The women immediately assume that the man had great faith, and therefore was rewarded by God. “I see that the man had perseverance,” I said, wanting to give weight to the woman’s idea. “But did he really show evidence of great faith?”
We talked about how the man didn’t have much choice but to lie beside the pool. It was the hospital of the day, Sara observed. But it doesn’t look like a place of much hope. There doesn’t seem to be enough. All those sick people, and the angel only comes once in a while, for one person.
“Do we experience this ‘lack of enough’ in the world today?” The women agree. There aren’t enough treatment beds for addiction programs, so lots of people sit in jail, waiting. There aren’t enough social services. There isn’t enough money to pay bills. There isn’t enough hope or strength to keep going.
We look at the text again. “Does the man answer Jesus with great faith?” I ask. The women are quiet, reflecting. “He seems to offer an excuse,” Sara says. “’Someone always gets into the pool in front of me.’ He doesn’t even say that he wants to be well, when Jesus asks him.”
“Why do you think Jesus even asks him, ‘do you want to be well?’” I propose.
We talk about the role of our desires, of readiness. The woman who has suffered the miscarriages begins to speak. She’s on the verge of tears. “I feel like God’s always been waiting for me. Like God is ready, but I’m not ready.” She relates a story of praying with a friend who was sick. “I was there, commanding the pain to leave, and I was snapping my fingers, just like you guys do . . . and suddenly the presence of God was in the room, and we were lying on the floor all night with our hands in the air, just saying ‘thank you, God!’”
She continues, “But it’s so much easier just to do what I’ve been doing since I was thirteen . . . sell drugs, sell my body, steal things from stores. Instead of doing what I should be doing, I go back to what I’ve always done. ‘It will be so much easier just to do it this way,’ I tell myself. ‘I’ll save so much more money if I just do this.’ And God is standing there asking me, ‘I’m here. What are you waiting for?’” “What I love about this story is that Jesus heals the man both from his sickness, and his excuses,” Sara says. We talk about how Jesus is enough . . . it doesn’t matter that someone else was always ahead of the man, or that there wasn’t enough angel-power to heal everyone. Jesus doesn’t wait for the angel. He just heals the man.
The trustee says again, “The man had a lot of faith. He just kept staying there until it happened. . .”
“True,” Sara says. “But Jesus pulled ‘someday’ into ‘now.’ Is there anything we’d like to see happen now, instead of waiting for ‘someday’? Something we’d like to ask Jesus for?”
The women name the things that are on their hearts: more hope, more strength, physical healing, protection for the baby. We take turns praying for each woman. The session stretches on in a beautiful way. It turns out there is a fight in one of the men’s pods. We can’t be released from the conference room until it’s dealt with, so we have extra time. We keep praying.
Suddenly a Scripture drops into my mind as we’re praying for the woman with the broken neck. “I feel like God wants you to know that he neither slumbers nor sleeps.”
“Okay,” she says, trying to deflect attention from herself. But Sara presses further. “Do you have trouble sleeping?”
“Actually I stay awake all night and sleep during the day. I can avoid all the drama that way. I have my ear plugs and my eye-shade, and I sleep all day. Then I stay up at night, when it’s calmer and I have some time to myself.”
“I guess God is saying that he’s awake, too—he’s with you through the night. He’s near you,” I say. We turn to Psalm 121 and read: I will lift my eyes to the mountains; from where shall my help come? My help comes from the Lord. He will not allow your foot to slip; he who keeps you will not slumber . . .”
The woman deflects again, awkward from the focus on herself. There are tears in her eyes. “I’m worried about Wendy’s baby,” she says. “That’s why I’m crying.”
We pray for the other women, and end with a song. The guard comes in to retrieve Wendy; she’s being released on bail. We laugh about verse 8: He will guard your going out and your coming in from this time forth and forever . . .The women thank us for coming, and we thank them for their transparency and humility in sharing their stories. May God keep us all.
To read more testimonies from Tierra Nueva, visit our website, www.tierra-nueva.org.
Tierra Nueva is caught up in a vision of a shepherding ministry that seeks after lost sheep until they are found through Skagit County Jail Ministry, migrant chaplaincy, and Tierra Nueva Honduras; cares for, defends, and protects through the Family Support Center; gathers, feeds and heals through our faith communities, bilingual jail services and healing services; and equips and sends out through the People's Seminary events and courses. For more information, please call 360-755-5299.
Tierra Nueva ▪ PO Box 161, Burlington, WA 98233 ▪ 360-755-5299 ▪ www.tierra-nueva.org