Today we reflected on the ministry Jesus carried out in the city of Jerusalem by visiting the pools of Bethesda where Jesus healed the paralytic as recorded in the fifth chapter of John's Gospel. For years critical scholars had questioned the historical accuracy of John's account which he described taking place by pools "surrounded by five porticoes," claiming no such architecture had ever been found. When archaeologists began excavating the ruins at this site, they not only found the five porticoes surrounded the pools of Bethesda, they also found a pagan healing shrine next to them, accounting for the crowds of people gathered there seeking healing.
As we looked at the remains of the massive pools, the pagan healing shrine, and the subsequent layers of ruined churches, we were struck by the pattern we have seen here and elsewhere: Jesus seemed to regularly venture into areas that would have been considered questionable by the religious establishment in order to connect with People of Peace. It caused us to reflect on how insular our lives can be and how rarely we connect with people who are far from God.
We also began to reflect on the final days Jesus spent with his disciples in Jerusalem, beginning with the final Passover meal he shared with them in an upper room of a large home in the southwest part of the city. We visited the site of the Upper Room which is built on the foundations of a first-century house where the very first public building for Christian worship was built in the second century after Christ. The weather turned uncharacteristically chilly and we got some sprinkles of rain, so it was nice to gather in the warm confines of this room where we sang "Spirit of the Living God" a midst the comings and goings of other pilgrims.
From the southwest part of the city we made our way down into the Kidron Valley just as Jesus and the disciples did after dinner that night on their way to the Garden of Gethsemane. There was a large grove of olive trees on the lower slopes of the aptly named Mount of Olives and a particular area was named Gethsemane after the olive oil that was pressed there. There is still a small but ancient grove of olive trees there next to a large rock where tradition tells us Jesus poured out his heart to the Father in anguish over his impending suffering and death. Today a beautiful church sits on that site and mimics the feel of the olive grove at night.
The purple colored windows and low lighting give the church an evening feeling even at mid-day. The domes in the ceilings are covered with the mosaics of a starry night sky. Mosaics of olive branches extend from the columns on which those domes rest, mimicking .the olive grove which once stood here. The large Rock of Agony makes up the base of the altar in the church. In spite of the construction that was being conducted inside, this is one of the most beautiful and moving churches we have visited. Outside near the grove of ancient olive trees we reflected on what it took for Jesus to submit himself to the Father's will even in the face of unspeakable suffering.
Making our way back into the Old City we stopped near Damascus Gate to pick up delicious falafels and Arabic pastries for lunch back at the Lutheran Guesthouse. There was a small Palestinian demonstration starting outside the gate which escalated to stone throwing and a strong reaction from the Israeli police, but by that time we were long gone from the area. After lunch Mike did some teaching on Jesus' Last Supper with the disciples and then we spent the rest of the afternoon resting or shopping in the markets of the Old City. Our spiritual adventure is quickly moving toward its dramatic conclusion as we focus on Jesus' arrest, trials, crucifixion, and resurrection in these last two days. Please pray for us to finish strong!