So, in this season of Lent, we are continuing to explore the stories of the Gospel of John and today, like last week, we have another long story. The first 41 verses of the 9th chapter tell the story of Jesus healing a man born blind and the effects that that healing had on a community.
And, again, we remember that the Gospel of John was written so that ‘we might come to believe’ and these stories were included with that purpose in mind.
A couple of weeks ago, we listened to the story of Nicodemus and how his faith slowly developed over time – how he met with Jesus for the first time in the cover of night to ask curious questions about Jesus’ identity. Then, we immersed ourselves into the encounter that the Samaritan woman had with Jesus at the well and we allowed for her witness to the presence of God in the world to change us. And, today, we will hear the story of the healing of the man born blind.
But, before we get to the story, I think it’s important to name that it can be difficult to listen to the healing stories of scripture. Many of us can be attracted to this healing Jesus in times of sickness or hardship in hopes that he might heal the physical ailment. But when suffering continues or death arrives, rather than a cure, we can lose faith as quickly as we gained it. These stories are difficult for us understand, difficult for us to apply to our lives – lives touched by disease, touched by pain, touched by death. And yet, these stories are included in the text because they speak to the powerful presence of Jesus in the world – and so we are invited to listen to the text again with open ears, with fresh eyes, and with renewed curiosity for what God has in store for us today.
So, let us turn to the Gospel of John and listen for God’s Word through the first 41 verses of the 9th chapter.
Let us pray: Startle us with your love, O God, that we may see.
John 9: 1-41
As he walked along, [Jesus] saw a man blind from birth. 2His disciples asked him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” 3Jesus answered, “Neither this man nor his parents sinned; he was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him. 4We must work the works of him who sent me while it is day; night is coming when no one can work. 5As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world.” 6When he had said this, he spat on the ground and made mud with the saliva and spread the mud on the man’s eyes, 7saying to him, “Go, wash in the pool of Siloam” (which means Sent). Then he went and washed and came back able to see.
8The neighbors and those who had seen him before as a beggar began to ask, “Is this not the man who used to sit and beg?” 9Some were saying, “It is he.” Others were saying, “No, but it is someone like him.” He kept saying, “I am the man.” 10But they kept asking him, “Then how were your eyes opened?” 11He answered, “The man called Jesus made mud, spread it on my eyes, and said to me, ‘Go to Siloam and wash.’ Then I went and washed and received my sight.” 12They said to him, “Where is he?” He said, “I do not know.”
13They brought to the Pharisees the man who had formerly been blind.14Now it was a sabbath day when Jesus made the mud and opened his eyes. 15Then the Pharisees also began to ask him how he had received his sight. He said to them, “He put mud on my eyes. Then I washed, and now I see.” 16Some of the Pharisees said, “This man is not from God, for he does not observe the sabbath.” But others said, “How can a man who is a sinner perform such signs?” And they were divided. 17So they said again to the blind man, “What do you say about him? It was your eyes he opened.” He said, “He is a prophet.” 18The Jews did not believe that he had been blind and had received his sight until they called the parents of the man who had received his sight 19and asked them, “Is this your son, who you say was born blind? How then does he now see?” 20His parents answered, “We know that this is our son, and that he was born blind;21but we do not know how it is that now he sees, nor do we know who opened his eyes. Ask him; he is of age. He will speak for himself.” 22His parents said this because they were afraid of the Jews; for the Jews had already agreed that anyone who confessed Jesus to be the Messiah would be put out of the synagogue. 23Therefore his parents said, “He is of age; ask him.” 24So for the second time they called the man who had been blind, and they said to him, “Give glory to God! We know that this man is a sinner.” 25He answered, “I do not know whether he is a sinner. One thing I do know, that though I was blind, now I see.” 26They said to him, “What did he do to you? How did he open your eyes?” 27He answered them, “I have told you already, and you would not listen. Why do you want to hear it again? Do you also want to become his disciples?” 28Then they reviled him, saying, “You are his disciple, but we are disciples of Moses. 29We know that God has spoken to Moses, but as for this man, we do not know where he comes from.” 30The man answered, “Here is an astonishing thing! You do not know where he comes from, and yet he opened my eyes. 31We know that God does not listen to sinners, but he does listen to one who worships him and obeys his will. 32Never since the world began has it been heard that anyone opened the eyes of a person born blind. 33If this man were not from God, he could do nothing.” 34They answered him, “You were born entirely in sins, and are you trying to teach us?” And they drove him out.
35Jesus heard that they had driven him out, and when he found him, he said, “Do you believe in the Son of Man?” 36He answered, “And who is he, sir? Tell me, so that I may believe in him.” 37Jesus said to him, “You have seen him, and the one speaking with you is he.” 38He said, “Lord, I believe.” And he worshiped him.
39Jesus said, “I came into this world for judgment so that those who do not see may see, and those who do see may become blind.” 40Some of the Pharisees near him heard this and said to him, “Surely we are not blind, are we?” 41Jesus said to them, “If you were blind, you would not have sin. But now that you say, ‘We see,’ your sin remains.
This is the Word of God for the People of God. Thanks be to God.
Now, before we get into the text, I want to focus in on something – and, I want to do this because I think it will help us understand the various planes on which the conversation of the text take place. I ask you to look at your Bibles, turning to the 3rd verse and I want to explore the punctuation. You see, the punctuation included in our NRSV comes from the interpreters who completed this translation in 1989. In fact, punctuation in any translation of the New Testament was inserted by the interpreter, because the original Greek text has little-to-no punctuation included. And, there wasn’t any punctuation in the original Hebrew of the Old Testament either – but, that’s getting a little too far down the Bible nerd track. Now, to be sure, the research put into the translation before you was extensive and exhaustive and each letter and punctuation mark is in there because the interpreter made the best judgment possible with the resources available – but, I want to push back just a touch and see if it changes anything in your minds about the meaning of this story.
Let’s take a look at Jesus’ response to the disciples’ question in verses 3 through 5 – feel free to open your Bibles and take a look for yourselves. What happens to his response if you insert a period after the word “blind” and replace the period at the very end of that verse to a comma?
With that slight change, the text transforms from: “Neither this man nor his parents sinned; he was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him. We must work the works of him who sent me while it is day; night is coming when no one can work.” and so on to: “Neither this man nor his parents sinned; he was born blind. So that God’s works might be revealed in him, we must work the works of [the one] who sent me while it is day; night is coming when no one can work. As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world.” Does anything change in the text for you with that slight shift of punctuation? I don’t know about you – but, it certainly does for me. Because for me, my attention is drawn away from the literal congenital disorder healed by Jesus – drawn away from the physical healing, drawn away from believing that God causes disease and deformity so that God can then show God’s own power selectively – and instead my attention is drawn toward the impact of Jesus’ presence in the world – toward the healing that is possible through Jesus’ offer of redemption. Though we do our best to get ourselves bogged down in the weeds – figuring out who the original sinner was to cause this man’s blindness – with this shift of punctuation, Jesus puts an end to the debate and refocuses our attention on the possibilities of redemption, of the opportunities of life abundant.
So, let’s break that down. Going back to the historical purpose of this text — that it written to help us come to belief — we have to be able to read it in such a way that it applies to our lives. If this text was exclusively about Jesus physically healing a man’s disease or deformity, the power of the text would not resonate with us to this day. It barely resonated with the neighbors and Pharisees in the story! But, we’ll get to them later. You see, Jesus was not simply a magician or witch doctor who was able to cure the diseases of those he encountered. If his ministry were about that, I would strongly recommend Jesus go visit my dear friend who was just diagnosed with stage 4 metastatic pancreatic cancer and make that go away. But, the healings that Jesus perform, the diseases cured, the deformities made clean – it is not the absence of the ailment that attracts our attention – rather, it is Christ offering abundant life and humanity’s free acceptance of God’s redemption that is the healing that commands our attention and speaks to us even today. And, should we reinterpret the punctuation just a touch, we can see that we need not worry about how the man became blind – but rather, accept that he was blind and because of Jesus, he can now see. The man – the community, us – the man was living a life blind to the abundance available to him and through Jesus, he now sees.
But, the community – the neighbors of the man they’ve known his whole life and the religious leaders, the Pharisees – they had a hard time figuring it out. And, if we’re honest, the neighbors and the Pharisees didn’t react dramatically different from how we might react too – when something out of the ordinary happens, we jump into investigation mode and focus energy on finding out why and how it happened. So, the Pharisees, focused on upholding the religious law, first look at the situation with a legalistic eye and zero in on whether the law was broken. Some thought it had been and others weren’t so sure. So, they debated that point for a little while. Then, they returned to the topic at hand and they asked for the parents of the man born blind to come in for questioning. The parents deflect the question and send the Pharisees back to the man himself for more information. Going back to the man, they ask him for his story again but the man doesn’t change his description of the events that occurred. At this point, folks are getting frustrated that they are no closer to understanding what has happened and the discussion gets heated. The man born blind asks a somewhat needling question – do you also want to be a disciple of Jesus? – and from there the conversation devolves to the point where the Pharisees simply dismiss the man born blind, claiming he is a sinner and doesn’t know what he’s talking about. And somehow, the point is glossed over – the man who was once blind, now can see. The man who walked in darkness, now walks in light.
Our Gospel reading this morning offers a deeply spiritual experience of the presence of Jesus in the world. This is not a story about a man born blind so that God could work through him. This is a story of a man who was blind AND now he sees. It is a story about healing. It is a story about mud and spit and unidentifiable miracle. It is a story about community and the ways we treat each other – the ways we entrench ourselves in judgment of one another. It is a story about sins and it is a story about redemption. It is a story about the light of the world, entering into time and space to enact the love God has for the world among us. Church, Jesus was not a magician who came just to correct one man’s vision. Rather, this story reveals to us that Jesus offers healing to all of us so that we can no longer walk in darkness.
Can you picture for yourself – can you imagine the possibilities? Can you believe the miracles available to you and those around you should Jesus find you along the street? And, with the gift of redemption offered so freely to us all, can you imagine what might happen if we actually submit ourselves to the disgustingly messy and dirty experience of Jesus redeeming our lives? It is hard to confess our sins – it is hard to confess our faults. It is hard to say “I don’t know” or “I’m sorry” – it feels messy and muddy, it feels vulnerable and raw. But, Jesus’ mercy comes with gentleness and with ease. And when accepted, well that’s when it seems that the whole world is changed, not just the individual – it is made new, it is made free, it is made good. Light overcomes the darkness. Love overcomes hate. Healing mends the brokenness. Justice prevails over power. Reconciliation binds the breach. Peace reigns supreme. Oh, that we might not get bogged down in the weeds – but declare, “I was blind and now I see.” Amen.