Lent 4, Year A
March 22, 2020
1 Samuel 16.1-13; Psalm 23; John 9.1-41
Today is World Water Day. No doubt you have it marked on your calendar, circled in blue. So, normally, I would begin with water—after all, there are two waters in the healing miracle from John’s gospel: the pool of Siloam, which means “the one who is sent,” and Jesus’ own spit. These waters are significant. In the first case, the pool of Siloam was situated near Jerusalem and, during Jesus’ time, the waters were used for ceremonies at the Feast of Tabernacles. These are holy waters. In the second case, echoing God’s work at creation, Jesus uses his own saliva to form mud from the dirt that he then places on the blind man’s eyes. These are waters of new life. . . But, this is not the sermon for today.
Given where we are, the challenges we are encountering, I would like to encourage us all to consider the waters in which we wash our hands, for healing. Think about where it comes from, how it feels, what kind of security it might bring (or not, depending). In the weeks ahead, let us meditate upon Psalm 23 (verse 2-3), ‘God leads me beside still waters, [and] restores my soul.’ May these contemplations be life giving. But, for today, I believe John’s gospel has something else to teach us.
The story of the man born blind gaining his sight follows Jesus’ earlier statement in chapter 8, “I am the light of the world.” As we often see in John’s gospel, themes of day and night, sight and blindness, are not subtle. This narrative in particular centers on the interplay of physical sight and spiritual perception. Jesus performs a significant sign, the miracle of giving sight, of flooding a man’s eyes and ocular passageways with light. Yet the bulk of the story follows the man as he endures three interrogations, each escalating the tension, and moving the primary characters in very divergent directions. One toward (full, complete) sight, others toward blindness.
For the man born blind, at first all he can say is what he experienced. In response to his neighbors he says (I’m paraphrasing) ‘This guy named Jesus put mud on my eyes and I did what he told me to do. Now I can see. (I don’t know where he went or anything else about him.)’ Even still, some of his neighbors didn’t believe he was the same person, so they took him to the religious leaders. They start asking him again how it was he received his sight. ‘This guy Jesus put mud on my eyes, I washed, and now I can see.’ The Pharisees are not fully convinced—what righteous person does this sort of thing on the Sabbath? At this point, their question to the man pivots from what happened, to who is Jesus. The man boldly answers, ‘a prophet.’
Disbelieving what the man says, they call for his parents, who can really only say that, yes, he is their son who was born blind, and, no, they have no idea how he got his sight. And so the story culminates in this final interaction between the man born blind and the religious leaders. They shift from their ambiguous position, where some were annoyed that the healing took place on the Sabbath and other were incredulous at the healing itself, to denouncing Jesus as the sinner. As the religious leaders grow increasingly stubborn in their position, the man born blind progresses from stating ‘this man Jesus healed me’ to proclaiming ‘he must be from God’.
While the text leans heavily on language of sight and blindness, day and night, it is the question of sin which frames the whole story. We start with the disciples asking, ‘who sinned,’ and end with Jesus telling the religious leaders, ‘If you were blind, you would not have sin. But now that you say, “We see”, your sin remains.’ Jesus’ response follows the prophetic tradition of laying responsibility for having the ability to recognize God’s work squarely on those who lead the people. Simultaneously he turns over the common assumption that, where there is a lack of wholeness, sin has manifested itself in that person. The disciples assume that something (sin) caused the man’s blindness. It is a linear logic from A to B. Yet Jesus responds “Neither this man nor his parents sinned.” The religious leaders assert that not only must the man born blind be a sinner, but so too is Jesus for having broken the Sabbath. Furthermore, they are both most definitely sinners because now the man born blind is ascribing to Jesus the stature of a prophet, a man from God. This act of healing demonstrates a power and authority outside the realm of what is or can be ‘known’ according to the religious establishment.
In the healing of the man born blind, God’s work is revealed, illumined. God’s work—which always moves toward humanizing, wholeness, and justice—breaks open (unbinds, even) the common order of the world.
This fourth week of Lent, the story of Jesus making mud with his spit and putting it on a person’s eyes sounds very different than it used to. Who knew our Lenten practice would include the solitude of social distancing? As we continue to hunker down, as we practice different forms of caring for one another from a distance, and have to learn new rhythms to our days, I am struck by how the coronavirus/COVID-19 continues, rapidly, to (re)shape how we view the world around us. Our society is quick to ask questions focused on safety, security, risks of exposure, and, where did this come from? We enact new liturgies and rituals around sanitation. Suddenly every surface is suspicious, every stray cough must be interrogated.
Viruses are invisible, and we only know they exist when symptoms emerge. We are seeing that this particular strain of coronavirus impacts some worse than others. Those with the highest risk of death tend to be those already compromised in their health by age, weaker immune systems, or existing sensitivities to respiratory illnesses. In other words, folks who are already on the margins of ‘health’ and ‘wholeness’. And then there are the people we as a society rely upon who risk a higher frequency of exposure either because they continue to help us all meet our daily needs or because they care for the sick and the elderly. Here I’m thinking of our grocers, gas attendants, the remaining restaurant owners; along with medical practitioners, healthcare workers, nursing assistants, and family members. Personally, I don’t know when I will be able to see my aunt again, and all I can do is pray for her and all others in her assisted living community.
This whole thing came on suddenly. We, as a society, did not realize that our bodies—or some bodies—had been infiltrated until there was a sudden influx of cases. Now we are in this time that feels like order has devolved into chaos. But we crave order. I need my communal body to be okay just as much as I need my own body to remain unaffected. As one author states, “Well-behaved, structurally whole bodies are a promise of physical and cultural cohesion as well.” (M. Wallace, When God was a Bird, 64) When bodies break down, it can serve as a dangerous sign that something is at work that is out of our control, that threatens not only individual bodies but the dominant sense of social stability. We expect communal bodies, like individual bodies, to maintain boundaries, to have relatively clear parameters. Socially, culturally, we don’t know what to do with leakages, when what ‘should’ be kept inside suddenly breaks through even invisible barriers.
When illness strikes, it is normal to echo the disciples’ logic as we ask, ‘what did I do to deserve [this]? (this mal-formation of the body). Yet, contrary to causal logic—if A then B, if sin then blindness—what is perhaps most confusing about this particular pandemic is that some are not that affected while others suffer irreparable harm. If I may be so bold as to suggest a comparison, COVID-19 is manifesting in our society akin to harmful forms of our current socio-economic systems and structures. In some ways, COVID-19 is indiscriminate, it will transgress any boundary, rich or poor, north or south, east or west. Once it has entered, though, it seems to capitalize on weaknesses in the respiratory and immune systems. Those already on the margins (of health and wholeness), and those who serve them, us, bear a burden in ways I cannot imagine.
Perhaps another way to think of this could be to say that this ‘transgression’ that is the coronavirus, exposes certain weaknesses of our current system. Vulnerabilities are brought to light that perhaps we had not had to think about before. (For example, who takes care of the small business owners, minimum wage earners with limited sick time, and gig economy workers?) It begs the question, Does sin manifest itself upon the ones who already bear the weight of their marginal locations?
In the words of the disciples, ‘Who sinned?’ Jesus says, neither. Not the one born blind, nor those directly responsible for him. In this healing miracle, God’s justice is revealed as it breaks apart the common logic of causalities. When Jesus says that he is the light of the world, he is also saying that the work of God exposes injustice. As followers of Jesus, we too can help shine a light on injustices, and inequalities, recognizing where undue burdens are placed on those already marginalized. We have an opportunity to move towards greater sight, to walk in light, or to continue in modes of blindness. We can participate in the revelation of God’s work which moves us into deeper communion with God, and our fellow humans, and our fellow nonhuman creatures, toward justice.
What is normal for the blind man is blindness. What is normal for those who hold power, is to continue holding power. In this time of disruption, may we be sourced by the waters of new life, so that we might see a new way of compassion, humility, service, and justice. May the Spirit of God illumine our hearts and guide our steps. Amen.