By Dan Crain
ATLANTA – I’ve always been intrigued by John 5. It’s the story in which Jesus questions an invalid who had waited 38 years to be healed at the pool of Bethesda.
When the healing waters stirred, it was believed that the first person in the pool would undergo miraculous healing.
I imagine the thoughts that spun through the invalid’s mind when a Jewish rabbi came up to him and asked, “Do you want to get well?”
The man probably wondered, “A question? From a Jewish rabbi?” Why is this well-known rabbi named Jesus even speaking with me?
Rabbis were known for always asking questions. In fact, they often answered questions with more questions.
Why did Jesus have to pose this question to the invalid? Didn’t he see the paralysis, frustration and pain the man had endured for 38 years? His clothes were probably ragged and dirty. No doubt that had body odor. Didn’t Jesus know that all this poor guy wanted was to be healed?
Yet Jesus always starts with trying to understand people – who they are, “where they’re at” to use a popular idiom, and I don’t necessarily mean a physical location like the healing pool at Bethesda.
What would it look like if we started trying to understand “where people are” before we rush to offer to help them?
We see it all the time when we encounter the invalids in our midst. They don’t have to be invalid in terms of economic circumstances. They don’t have to be physically impaired to be paralyzed, blind or lame in some way. Perhaps they’re stunted mentally, spiritually or economically – or a combination of all three. They may be “in the place they’re in” because they’ve made bad decisions. Or perhaps they’re trapped by circumstances over which they have no control. Jesus knows. We don’t.
Whatever people’s afflictions, some Christians often presume to know best. We know how to fix them, and sometimes with the snap of a finger. We don’t bother to ask questions, or get to know them in a relationship. We know what’s best.
People make assumptions all the time about low-income neighborhoods and the people who live there. I know I have. I’ve assumed I know about the homeless guy panhandling on the street corner. I’ve been so knowledgeable, I’ve been so smug, that I don’t need to ask questions. I’ve struggled hard to overcome that impulse to assume. I’ve struggled to love the person through Jesus’ eyes
What if Christians’ first impulse to help began with asking questions instead of making assumptions? This impulse to act would come with a catch: Sometimes the worst thing you can do is hurl questions. Asking questions can come across as nosy and intrusive. It takes years to earn someone’s respect in order to ask questions. I have made that mistake many times, asking questions before I earned trust and gained respect.
Jesus respected the man at the well – he respected him enough to ask questions.
Questions are good when the timing is right, and you’re with the right people – and part of what we need to do is to have the right physical posture, to be genuinely concerned and willing to listen with your heart.
Oscar Morayu, a pastor from Nairobi Chapel in Kenya, told me that the worst question an American Christian can ask a Kenyan is, “How can I help you?” Because that question assumes that something is wrong, that the person can’t do anything about it, but you know you can. Morayu informs me that when Westerners visit Kenya (and the people do want us to come), he recommends that we hang out and just listen.
I believe that we need to learn the art of questioning. Don’t ask questions to try to fix people or to be known as “the answer person.” Just be someone who tries to understand what’s going on beneath the surface. Assume a posture of humility, compassion and empathy as you listen, and listen closely.
That’s the approach Jesus took with a man who had waited 38 years to be healed at the pool of Bethesda. It’s the same place from where Jesus invites us when we try and help each other in any context.
Consider signing up for Dignity Serves, a six-week course that helps you rethink the way we serve others in our community. It teaches you to see problems differently and respond in a way that empowers those you serve rather than just meeting their immediate needs.