“Now there is in Jerusalem by the Sheep Gate a pool, in Hebrew called Bethzatha, which has five porticoes. In these lay a multitude of invalids, blind, lame, paralyzed. One man was there, who had been ill for thirty-eight years. When Jesus saw him and knew that he had been lying there a long time, he said to him, ‘Do you want to be healed?’ The sick man answered him, ‘Sir, I have no man to put me into the pool when the water is troubled, and while I am going another steps down before me.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Rise, take up your pallet, and walk.’ And at once the man was healed, and he took up his pallet and walked.” (John 5:2-9)
The Pool of Bethesda is located in the Old City of Jerusalem, next to the Church of St. Anne2 and about 50 metres inside the Lions’ Gate.3 This gate was once known as the ‘Sheep Gate’, because the sheep and goats that were to be sacrificed in the Temple entered the city through its doors. According to popular legend, the south basin of the pool was used to wash the animals before taking them to the nearby Temple for sacrifice. However, this is unlikely as the pool was used as a water supply and was also very deep (42 ½ feet).
The Pool of Bethesda had two basins that were separated by a wall. The southern basin had broad steps with landings, indicating that it was a mikveh – a bath used for ritual immersion by the Jewish people. The northern basin provided a reservoir that flowed south through the dam between the two pools. It continually replenished and repurified the southern basinwith fresh water.5
The pool described in John’s Gospel had five porches, and archaeological evidence confirms that this was the case. There was a porch on each side of the rectangular pool, and the fifth lay on the other side of the wall that separated the two basins. Many invalids lay near the pool’s edge, taking shelter from the hot sun as they waited their chance to be healed.
The name, Beth hesda means ‘House of Mercy’, and it was said that the first person to step into the pool after the waters were stirred up would be cured of his ailment. But the man who Jesus healed that day had had no one to put him in the water. He had lain there – waiting and hoping – for 38 years.
Were people healed because the water had supernatural powers? Or was water simply the means that God used to heal the sick and infirm? Jesus answered this question with three simple commands: “Rise, take up your pallet, and walk.” (Jn 5:8) Jesus did not need water in order to heal the paralytic man; He simply needed the man to have faith. While it is true that God can – and sometimes does – choose things such as water to work miracles, it is faith in the power of God and obedience to His commands that brings about healing.
Today, the compound that contains the pools and the Church of St. Anne is owned by the French government and administered by the White Fathers of Africa. Cardinal Lavigerie (1825-1892), the founder of the White Fathers, established a seminary here for the clergy of the Greek-Catholic (Melkite) rite. One of the fathers walked with us down to the bottom of the ruins to show us the cisterns where they still store their water today. In a land where water is scarce, it is amazing to think that these cisterns have been in constant use for thousands of years.
– Sharon van der Sloot
1 “Bethesda Pool,” Jerusalem 101; available from http://www.generationword.com/jerusalem101/51-bethesda-pool.html; Internet; accessed 25 March 2014.
2 Also known as St. Stephen’s Gate.
3 The Church of St. Anne was built over a crypt venerated as the birthplace of the Blessed Virgin Mary and the home of St. Anne and St. Joachim.
4 “Bethesda Pool,” Jerusalem 101.
5 Cf. “The Bethesda Pool, Site of One of Jesus’ Miracles,” Bible History Daily; available from http://www.biblicalarchaeology.org/daily/biblical-sites-places/jerusalem/the-bethesda-pool-site-of-one-of-jesus’-miracles/; Internet; accessed 26 March 2014.