The Angel of the Waters fountain sits in Bethesda Terrace in Manhattan’s Central Park. Designed by Emma Stebbins, it was built to celebrate the Croton Aqueduct, completed in 1842.
The limited fresh water on Manhattan Island was inadequate for the growing population. Worse still, the local water supply had become polluted and spread disease. The Croton Aqueduct brought safe water to New York City, and had a dramatic effect on public health.
Stebbins’s Angel of the Waters alludes to John 5:4—probably a later addition to the biblical text, and one which explains that the sick visited Bethesda because ‘an angel of the Lord went down at certain seasons into the pool, and stirred up the water; whoever stepped in first after the stirring of the water was made well from whatever disease that person had’. Stebbins’s Angel therefore invokes the idea of the angel of Bethesda as an agent of healing in order to celebrate the health benefits of clean water for the city.
The aqueduct is no longer in use, but the Bethesda fountain can continue to represent Central Park as a place of respite, and a green lung in the high-rise city that surrounds it. It is a public space in New York City, just as the pool of Bethesda was in Jerusalem. It speaks to Jesus’s ministry as indiscriminate in the way it reached out to all types and conditions of people
The fountain, Bethesda Terrace where it sits, and Central Park around it, can be viewed as a modern incarnation of the sacred, public space of Bethesda; a place where Jesus’s ministry again can be enacted. This symbolism has been taken up in popular culture. As a public place for Jesus’s ministry, it appears in the film Godspell! (1973) as the site where John the Baptist baptizes disciples. As a place of healing, it is the setting for the final scene in Tony Kushner’s play about the 1980s AIDS epidemic Angels in America (1993).
Jesus’s healing of the infirm man in John 5 is described several times as making the man whole (vv.11, 14, 15); perhaps, under the gaze of Stebbins’s angel, the New Yorker or visitor can find wholeness in Central Park.
5After this there was a feast of the Jews, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem.
2 Now there is in Jerusalem by the Sheep Gate a pool, in Hebrew called Beth-zaʹtha, which has five porticoes. 3In these lay a multitude of invalids, blind, lame, paralyzed. 5One man was there, who had been ill for thirty-eight years. 6When Jesus saw him and knew that he had been lying there a long time, he said to him, “Do you want to be healed?” 7The 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.” 8Jesus said to him, “Rise, take up your pallet, and walk.” 9And at once the man was healed, and he took up his pallet and walked.
So the Jews said to the man who was cured, “It is the sabbath, it is not lawful for you to carry your pallet.” 11But he answered them, “The man who healed me said to me, ‘Take up your pallet, and walk.’ ” 12They asked him, “Who is the man who said to you, ‘Take up your pallet, and walk’?” 13Now the man who had been healed did not know who it was, for Jesus had withdrawn, as there was a crowd in the place. 14Afterward, Jesus found him in the temple, and said to him, “See, you are well! Sin no more, that nothing worse befall you.” 15The man went away and told the Jews that it was Jesus who had healed him. 16And this was why the Jews persecuted Jesus, because he did this on the sabbath. 17But Jesus answered them, “My Father is working still, and I am working.” 18This was why the Jews sought all the more to kill him, because he not only broke the sabbath but also called God his own Father, making himself equal with God.