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Last year I met a youngish woman named—well, let’s call her Naomi. Naomi arrived at the church office one afternoon and politely asked for help charging her cell phone. She was in the process of making a long list of phone calls, looking for a place to live.
After years on the waiting list, Naomi had finally received a Section 8 housing voucher. Good news—or so it seemed. Because having a voucher can help you pay the rent … but only if you can find a vacancy with a landlord willing to rent to you in the first place. In California, unlike many other states, it’s legal for landlords to simply refuse to take Section 8 vouchers. But if you don’t use the voucher within a certain period of time, it expires. At the time I met her, Naomi had three weeks to find a place to live, or else be sent to square one to start all over again. There are 26,000 people on Sonoma County’s Section 8 waiting list. There are only 3,000 rental properties known to take Section 8 vouchers. And each year only about 300 of those actually turn over. The odds didn’t look good.
I don’t know what ended up happening for Naomi. I was able to help her by paying for a couple of nights in a motel, and offer her a list of agencies that might give her some more help navigating the process. But you can’t force an opening to appear out of thin air.
Sometimes the system just isn’t enough.
When Jesus came to the pool of Beth-zatha he met a man who had been on the waiting list for thirty-eight years. Thirty-eight years waiting, much like Naomi, for that one precious and scarce chance. Imagine waiting for the healing mineral waters to bubble and swirl, waiting day in and day out for your chance at healing. Then, one day, suddenly, there it is—but with so many others pushing and jostling to get in, you hardly stand a chance. And then the waters go still and the opportunity closes, and you’re back at square one once more.
So often the systems we set up to try to help people in need are colossally overburdened. In some cases they’re woefully inadequate to begin with. In other cases a spike in needs overwhelms a system that used to function. In any case, there are plenty of pools of Beth-zatha today. Think of our patchwork healthcare system, where all of us at some point find ourselves trying to navigate a complex and confusing bureaucracy at best, and where people without insurance—and even some people with insurance—often choose between taking their medicine and paying their utility bills. Or think of our immigration system, where the waitlist to immigrate legally even for people who qualify can be decades long, and where people who come seeking asylum are routinely detained for two years or more before they receive a hearing.
In today’s gospel we hear of Jesus going up to Jerusalem at the time of a great festival. And when he gets there, he goes, not to the Temple, as least not on this visit. Not to mingle with the celebrating crowds. But to this pool where forgotten people are warehoused. This is where Jesus shows up. And whether it’s an ER waiting room, or an overcrowded homeless shelter, or an immigration detention center, this is where Jesus is showing up today.
How do we show up with Jesus? What can we do when people are suffering and the need seems overwhelming and beyond our control?
It would be nice to respond as Jesus does in this story by offering a miraculous healing: Rise up, take your mat and walk! Now miracles can be prayed for, and they even happen occasionally, but most of us can’t promise them with the kind of confidence Jesus can offer. We can certainly offer tangible help sometimes. Every Sunday morning this church feeds a hot breakfast to folks who are hungry. We give away blankets and clothes. We give groceries away at our food pantry in Monte Rio. We shouldn’t kid ourselves into thinking this kind of direct assistance will fix the systemic causes behind why people are poor or hungry or sick, but that doesn’t get us off the hook of doing it. Direct human kindness is a basic spiritual practice, and every tangible act of love to another human being is a visible sign of God’s love in the world.
And, of course, direct assistance isn’t enough. As Desmond Tutu is said to have said, “There comes a point where we have to stop just pulling people out of the river. We have to go upstream and find out why they’re falling in.” When our society’s systems are failing people, there are times when the church can actually work to build better ones. There’s a long and noble tradition of this. Over the centuries the church has often been the first to start hospitals, orphanages, schools, and all sorts of institutions that eventually became an expected part of civil society but had their origins among people of faith. Today too people of faith are organizing to build housing, to start job training programs, to build rehab centers, to step up and fill gaps and create systems that help others get up off their mats and walk.
And then there are times when the need is too great even for our pooled resources as a church, where only collective action at the societal level can really move the needle. No matter how much housing churches build, we’re not going to solve the housing crisis on our own. No matter how much we recycle and cut our carbon footprint, we can’t fight climate change without national governments and international cooperation. And so the church also has a role in advocacy, working together with friends and neighbors of every faith and no faith to use our voices, votes, and dollars to call our society to care for all its members more justly. We have to do it with humility. A passion for justice doesn’t always equate into expertise on exactly what policies will create it. But for Christians the bottom line is always God’s fierce love for all, and in particular for those who are poor, who are sick, or who are suffering.
We work at those three levels, always. Direct, loving service to our neighbors in tangible ways. Building systems and institutions through the church to amplify our ability to care. And lifting up our voices as people of faith in the public square to press our governments and collective institutions in the direction of justice and peace.
And in all of it, we remember that it’s not up to us to make God’s reign happen. God is working, always and everywhere. God’s love is on the move. It’s up to us to watch for it, to see where the Spirit is at work, and then it’s our privilege to join in.
 Laura Hagar Rush, “Big Changes Coming to Section 8 Housing Process,” Cloverdale Reveille (May 15, 2019), http://www.sonomawest.com/cloverdale_reveille/news/big-changes-coming-to-section-housing-process/article_c217b636-7754-11e9-98e5-83d95935d892.html.
 Zuzana Cepla, “Fact Sheet: U.S. Asylum Process,” National Immigration Forum (January 10, 2019): https://immigrationforum.org/article/fact-sheet-u-s-asylum-process/; Dianne Solis, “Why Don’t Mexicans Just Apply for Citizenship?”, Dallas Morning News (August 28, 2018), https://www.dallasnews.com/news/immigration/2018/08/29/dont-mexicans-just-apply-citizenship.
 “Said to have said,” because although this quote is attributed to him in many places on the Internet, I haven’t been able to find a verifiable source.