Thornton Wilder’s short play “The Angel That Troubled the Waters,” is based on a tradition described in the Bible in John 5. In the city of Jerusalem was a pool of water known as the Pool of Bethesda. According to the tradition, from time to time an angel came down to stir up the water, and the first person into the pool after each such disturbance would be cured of whatever disease he or she had. Naturally, then, people who were blind, lame, and paralyzed stayed near the pool day and night.
In Wilder’s play a group of invalids sit at the water’s edge as a physician walks into their midst and waits for an angel to stir the water. The invalids surrounding the pool scream at him to leave, but the physician explains that he struggles with severe depression and needs to be healed as much as any blind or lame person there that day. As they are talking, an angel suddenly appears. The doctor, in good physical health, lunges for the water. The angel, however, refuses to touch the water, preventing the physician from being healed. The physician sees his reluctance and pleads with him:
Surely, surely, the angels are wise. Surely, O prince, you are not deceived by my apparent wholeness. Your eyes can see the nets in which my wings are caught. . . .
To which the angel replies:
Without your wound where would your power be? It is your very remorse that makes your low voice tremble into the hearts of men. The very angels themselves cannot persuade the wretched and blundering children on earth as can one human being broken on the wheels of living. In love’s service only the wounded soldiers can serve. Draw back.
Heartbroken, the physician steps back and watches the angel stir the water. Within seconds mangled bodies scrape and claw their way to the edge of the pool. A lucky invalid, the first to touch the water with his finger, screams for joy as he jumps up completely restored. As he runs around the pool showing everyone that he’s been healed, the physician turns to walk away. Out of the corner of his eye, the newly healed man sees the physician leaving the pool. Moved by the doctor’s misfortune, he runs up to him and says:
Come with me . . . an hour only, to my home. My son is lost in dark thoughts. I—I do not understand him, and only you have ever lifted his mood. Only an hour . . . my daughter, since her child has died, sits in the shadow. She will not listen to us.
And the play ends.
There’s a reason why, in love’s service, only wounded soldiers can serve. They’re the only ones who can understand what another broken person is feeling. Those who have been depressed, like that physician in Wilder’s play, have tasted the despair, lethargy, and emptiness that depression brings. Those who have been divorced know the feelings of self-doubt and anxiety that follow in its wake. Those who have struggled with an addiction know how feelings of powerlessness and shame battle inside one’s gut like two boxers in the ring. There’s a reason why we’ve gone through what we have: our wounds give us power to feel another person’s pain.
What is driving you to the Pool of Bethesda this week?
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