Thirty-eight years is a remarkably long time to wait for healing. St John Chrysostom comments that this perseverance of the paralytic should serve as an example to those who give in too easily when their prayers are not immediately answered. Despite his circumstances, and difficulty of entering the water in time, the man still has hope.
Thirty-eight years is also the time the Israelites sojourned in the desert after the rebellion at Kadesh, before they went through the waters of the Jordan into the Promised Land.
For many of the Fathers of the Church, this passage also alludes to baptism. At Bethesda the sick waited for the opportunity for bodily healing to take place whenever the waters were disturbed (they believed it was because of an angel), but water can heal the disease of the soul too. The waters of Baptism heal the soul and are much more abundant than the waters at this pool. In Baptism it is not an angel that descends but the Holy Spirit that descends to hover over the waters for the new creation. Jesus also later tells the man to make sure he sins no more. We do not know the sin of this man but it is clear his sins had been forgiven through the healing of Christ. In Baptism all our sins (both original and personal) are forgiven.
After waiting thirty-eight years the Israelites entered the Promised Land through the waters of the Jordan, it was not the end of their journey, but the beginning of a new phase in which they enjoyed the benefits of living in God’s Land that He promised, but also had to strive to live God’s ways obediently and with gratitude. The paralytic man healed by Jesus now began a new life striving to be free from sin. Though healed through Baptism, we still have work to do and must struggle not to sin again. The healed man was told to “arise”, “take up your bed” and “walk”. We too are bidden to not just remain where we are but to rise up with joy, to have mastery over our flesh and walk the way of the Cross that our Lord and Saviour has walked before us. And, oh yes, we are to strive to sin no more!