Stop. Caution. One Way. No Parking. Dead End. Children at Play. “Trust in God but Wash Your Hands”. “All Services and Events Canceled Until 3/31/2020”. Signs are all around us, everywhere we go. They give us information about what lies beyond, what we should do, what we shouldn’t do. Regardless of what a sign physically says it always points to something beyond itself.
The healing miracle in our Gospel reading this morning is another type of sign. Immediately after nearly being stoned by the Jewish authorities in the Temple, Jesus happens upon a man who has been blind for his entire life, a man whose name is never revealed. This man has been socially isolated, likely from birth due to his blindness, pushed to the margins of his society. He was given no choice in the matter and was likely considered less than human by those around him, relegated to begging at the gates of the city for any scrap of compassion he received from his community. It’s a form of social distancing that we, even in the days of COVID-19, will never understand personally.
Jesus establishes for the disciples that the man’s blindness is not in any way the result of sin that either he or his parents committed. In fact, Jesus proclaims that the man’s blindness is meant to be the catalyst by which God’s work can be revealed through him.
The man never asks for healing, in fact the man never says anything at all during the healing, yet he hears Jesus’ conversation with the disciples and allows Jesus to spread mud over his eyes and immediately follows Jesus’ instructions to wash in the pool of Siloam and his sight is miraculously restored through the pool’s cleansing waters. Only then after returning does the man take an active role in the story.
The restoration of physical sight to the man born blind is a sign that reveals even greater things as the story progresses and the man shares his story with his community. He first encounters his own neighbors, who have undoubtedly seen this man regularly throughout his life. Yet they don’t recognize him. The only thing that has changed is that he was granted sight, so why did his neighbors not recognize him immediately? Was the only identifying characteristic they had for him the fact that he was blind from birth?
Even endowed with physical sight the man’s neighbors are the first of a long line of people beset by the inability to see that which has transpired in the man’s life. And so, to gain a better understanding of how this man now sees, the man who had been born blind shares his witness for the very first time. His witness starts off tentatively, having not really had the chance to process, to gain insight into the day’s events and so he provides the facts he knows: “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.”
When his neighbors press him for further detail on Jesus’ whereabouts, the man admits he does not know, after all he only regained his sight after departing Jesus’ presence and never saw Jesus for himself.
The interrogation of the man with restored sight is taken up a level when his neighbors take him to the Pharisees, the Jewish religious leaders. The Pharisees are taken aback that someone would work on the Sabbath day which was against Jewish Law and so they too question the Man about how his sight was restored. The man repeats his testimony but this time when pressed for further detail the man reflects and gains further insight into his healer’s identity and names Jesus a prophet. Yet though the man’s own insight increases, the Pharisees, like the man’s neighbors do not see the truth of the man’s story.
And so, the Jews, whom the gospel writer actually means the Pharisees who were the Jewish religious authorities, rather than the entire Jewish community, have convinced themselves that this man was never blind to begin with, go to the Man’s parents in order to have their suspicions confirmed. In this third scene of interrogation the man’s parents first state what they know: that this man is indeed their son and that their son was indeed born blind. Like their son before them they follow their statement up with what they do not know, in this case how their son’s sight was restored.
Out of fear of the Jewish authorities the man’s parents pass the buck, telling the Pharisees to go ask their Son what happened, protecting themselves from whatever consequences their son’s witness might incur. And so the Man’s parents are unable to see their Son’s life changing moment as anything other than a cause for fear.
Heeding the family’s words the Pharisees go back to interrogate the man further. Yet, unlike the encounters before it, this particular interrogation takes a detour of form, and becomes a turning point in the story. Rather than asking how the man’s sight was restored they declare that Jesus, the source of both sight and insight for the man, as a sinner. As a result, the man’s sight is opened further, his insight deepened, and with a bravery that rivals Jesus’ own in the face of the Jewish Authorities tells his story, his truth, once more. This time, however, he begins by saying that he does not know whether Jesus is a sinner, thereby throwing the Pharisees’ accusations back at them, and then states his truth in it’s simplest form saying that the one thing he does know is that though he was blind, now he sees. The man takes his testimony a step further, inquiring rather boldly whether or not the reason for the Pharisees’ repetitive questioning is at its roots a desire to also become a disciple of Jesus, who could not possibly be a sinner since Jesus is in relationship with God.
The man’s bold declaration of faith in the who one made him able to see, both literally and spiritually, enrages the Pharisees who do exactly what the man’s parent’s fear they would declare him born entirely in sin and so they expel him from the synagogue and by extension the only community he’s ever known. The question of the Man’s sin is named time and time again throughout this story. Sin in the Gospel of John is brokenness, or the fracturing of relationship with God and community. The sin of the Pharisees in addition to their own wilful blindness is using that lack of insight to formally sever the relationship between this man and the community he is part of, whose signs of brokenness were made evident in their responses to the man’s granted sight. Yet God, come down to Earth in flesh and bone through Jesus, has no plans to fracture relationship with the man at all, even if those in power in his society do, releasing him from his societally imposed social quarantine.
Upon hearing of the man’s exile Jesus, who has time and time again sought out the outcast, finds the man again. And like many people before him, Jesus also asks the man a question, yet unlike the rest, Jesus’ question is about the man’s insight rather than his physical sight. Jesus’ question is a sign of change, and the man responds with a statement of belief and an eagerness to know more, fervently desiring to deepen his own faith. Jesus teaches and the man believes and the grace of God through Jesus reconciles the man’s relationship with community as Jesus welcomes the man into his community of believers.
The restoration of the man’s physical sight ceases to matter as the focus of the story shifts, and instead the man’s development of faith becomes the deeper meaning behind the sign of healing.
The insight of a man born with no physical sight of his own is juxtaposed with that of the Pharisees, religious leaders who were believed to have the the keenest spiritual insight of anyone and in his final words in our Gospel reading this morning Jesus lifts up this man born blind as an example of faith and discipleship, where one is eager to continue to grow and spring forth with new and renewed insight. The man’s understanding, his insight first through hearing and then through sight fosters a relationship between Jesus and this new believer, and in the chapter that follows opens up that same relationship to all who believe.
As we continue to walk through this season of Lent we too have the opportunity to delve more deeply on our own spiritual journeys and to reimagine what our community looks like when we can temporarily no longer be physically present together. In fact, the word Lent comes from an Old English word meaning “Spring” and so through our own reflection and our own creativity we too are able to nourish our faith so that it too springs forth with signs of new life. That by looking at those signs we might gain insight into our own relationships with the Triune God and with one another. The signs are there, as is God’s presence, and just as the man’s journey toward deeper spiritual sight begins in cleansing waters our journeys also are rooted in water when we are baptized.
Gaining spiritual sight is a process, it doesn’t happen automatically or immediately, yet in this season of Lent renewed faith and stronger communal relationships are capable of springing up out of the water with stories to tell, communities to share those reflections with, and a relationship with God whose grace made those relationships possible in the first place, no matter the distance. To echo the words in an article from the Christian Century: “I do not believe that God sends suffering as a test or an undercover exercise leading to spiritual maturity. But I do believe God uses our suffering. Entering the darkness of this world shapes and forms the church in profound ways we’re not able to fully articulate.”