In the Gospel story we just heard, we have the story of a man blind from birth, a beggar, whom Jesus cures by using an ancient and rather mysterious type of cure – one I’m not sure I’d want used on me. It’s a very basic, very earthy cure.
With his bare hands Jesus scoops up some dust, some dirt. He spits into that handful of dirt until it’s wet enough to form a muddy paste. He then smears it on the man’s eyes (his eyelids I hope) and rubs it in.
There are some texts that say “he anointed the man with mud.” Anointed is a word we usually use with oil, not mud. To anoint means to smear on, usually in a sacred rite. It’s a holy thing that Jesus is doing for this man.
And then Jesus sends him off to the pool of Siloam to wash the mud off his eyes. John could have simply written that Jesus tells the beggar to go and wash. But telling us the specific location, the pool of Siloam, suggests, among other things, that they will go their separate ways. And specific details make for good story-telling.
The story behind this particular historic pool is that hundreds of years before the time of Jesus, the city of Jerusalem needed a reliable water supply. An enemy laying siege to the city could cut off the supply. However, the tunnel that was dug to bring in this water that ended up in the pool of Siloam was so secure that they knew there would always be enough water. The implication in the Old Testament is that the site was sent by God. In fact, the name “Siloam” means “sent.” Jesus, sent by God, sends the healed beggar to – a pool sent by God -- to a public pool where he will be seen by many.
Let’s think about the healing itself. Squeeze your eyes shut and pretend that what you now see is what you’ve always seen. Maybe you’re aware of absolute blackness, maybe shades of black and grey. Some people see weird flashes of light. You know things through your other senses – through what you hear and smell and touch. You know the shape of your right hand because you’ve felt it with your left hand. But you’ve never imagined its color, let alone the concept of color. You’ve never seen dirty fingernails. Or clean ones either.
Now imagine this blind beggar, with the water of the pool of Siloam having dissolved the mud, slowly opening his eyes. Muddy water trickles down his cheeks. First he sees light. Then some colors begin to emerge. Some shapes – everything unclear, partly because he doesn’t quite know how to interpret what his eyes are seeing.
I have a brother who is 100% colorblind. He sees the world the way we see a black and white movie, which explains why his socks never matched until he got married. Now Yvonne picks out his socks and sees that his clothes don’t clash. It explains why in kindergarten he never learned his colors – all he saw were different shades of grey -- and black. It explains why the school psychologist thought he was clinically depressed. All of his drawings were done with a single crayon, usually a black one.
Some years ago he was able to get a pair of contacts that simulated the rods and cones in our eyes that allow us to perceive color. I guess the mistake was in wearing them on the way home from the eye doctor’s office. Maybe he should have waited until he was safely in the house. At any rate, he drove away from the optometrist’s office, fascinated by what he was seeing--colors, for the first time in his life. He looked everywhere at once. And sideswiped a parked car. . . possibly the first police report ever that listed “color contacts” as the cause of an accident.
OK--back to the no-longer-blind beggar. He has more to think about than just the world he can suddenly see. Throughout his life he has been the subject of theological speculation, that high-falutin’ phrase for questions about “where is God in all this?” His parents’ neighbors and friends have always asked questions like “Whose fault is it that he was born blind? What did you (his parents) do wrong? Or was he the one who sinned?” The neighbors are positive that his blindness was caused by somebody having done something wrong.
There are times these days when we agree with that kind of diagnosis. “Of course you have a cold. You didn’t wash your hands. You borrowed a pencil from that kid with a cold. You chewed on the pencil and that opportunistic cold virus crawled into your mouth and ended up in your sinuses and down in your chest. No wonder you’re coughing and wheezing. It’s your own fault.”
But a child being born blind is far different from one who got a cold from chewing on someone else’s pencil. However, even Jesus’ disciples ask the same questions the neighbors ask. Did this man sin? Or did his parents sin? Neither one, Jesus answers. It’s not a question of anybody sinning.
The exciting part of the story – the man’s blindness being cured – takes all of two verses in John’s Gospel. But the theological speculation about the blindness takes up 39 verses! Two verses to completely change a man’s life, to reveal the love and power and grace of God in Jesus Christ. And 39 verses to argue about what happened. . . .
I love this story of the blind man and his messy miracle cure, no matter how short the telling of it is. And, if I put myself back in the Pharisees’ place and time, I can sympathize with them and their curiosity. They need to ask many questions. They need to observe. They need to define the event. In order to explain it, they need to understand it. They want to know everything.
Pharisees were well-versed in the laws of God – all 700 + of them. They believed that it was very important to follow exactly, precisely, the letter of the law of God. One of the laws in their world view was that infirmities – being blind, being lame – were caused by sin. So -- whose sin? They demand to know! If they can figure out exactly what caused the blindness and how it was cured, they’ll know how to deal with that kind of situation the next time it arises. They can even formulate a law so that it won’t happen to anyone else.
Thus the questions begin. Is this not the man who used to sit and beg? Some say yes. Some say no, it’s not him, but it’s somebody who sure looks a lot like him. And all the while the poor guy keeps saying – Hey, it’s me! It’s me! I’m that once-blind man.
The Pharisees aren’t satisfied with the answers they get from the neighbors. And they’re not so sure the man was really born blind in the first place. They turn to his parents. Is this your son, who you say was born blind? Really? So how come he can see? They don’t get too far with the parents, who are very nervous about being questioned. The parents are afraid of what the religious authorities will do to them if they tell the truth about the situation. They’ve heard that anyone who says that Jesus is the Messiah gets thrown out of the synagogue. The synagogue! That’s the center of their lives! They’d be outcasts! So they throw the ball back into the Pharisees’ court. They tell the Pharisees to check out the story with their son. If you really want to know, ask him! He’s an adult. Just check with him.
So back the Pharisees go to this man to whom Jesus has given sight and they ask him. What did he do to you? How did he open your eyes? How does our hero know? Not only does he not answer the Pharisees, but he starts to question them. Why do you want to hear the story again? Do you want to become his disciples?
All that talk – all that arguing. Where’s the rejoicing? This guy can see for the first time in his life! Maybe better than the Pharisees can!
Nevertheless the Pharisees aren’t bad guys. Just as we might want to do, they want to check out the details of the healing of this man. They’re puzzled because it doesn’t fit the normal criteria the Pharisees use to judge by. In frustration, they dismiss the man.
And Jesus goes looking for him. He doesn’t want his healing of the man to have created a painful situation for him. When he finally finds him, he asks him (we’re moving from a physical healing to a spiritual revelation here), “Do you believe in the Son of Man?”
“Who is he, sir? Tell me, that I may believe in him.” Jesus says, “You have seen him – the one speaking to you is he. I am the Son of Man.” And the beggar answers, “Yes, Lord, I believe”
What a gift--far greater than his eyesight! He has met the Messiah firsthand.
The born-blind beggar is a great example for us of a good story teller, a good sharer of the gospel. He tells his story simply. “One thing I know: I once was blind, but now I see.” He doesn’t have any special religious education. “Amazing Grace” hasn’t even been written yet. He doesn’t use a bunch of religious jargon. He just knows that his muddy darkness is now overflowing with sunlight.
At different times in our lives, we ourselves might be able to say: “One thing I know. . .
Our family has several stories like that, stories in which God directly inserts himself into our lives.” One I like to share we call “Grab the branch, stupid.”
My younger sister Ellen, (the most stubborn of us six pretty stubborn siblings), was down at the river with her 11-year-old son Robert (who is now 40) – with Robert and a friend of his. They were playing, horsing around in the still water until Robert’s friend got out into the slow-moving current and was being carried downstream. The water was deep out there, and the boy couldn’t swim. So Robert went after him, grabbed him, and held his head up out of the water. He could hold his friend up, but he couldn’t get him to the bank. So Ellen plunged in and reached them, and kept both of them from going under. However, that left her with no hands to swim with. Down the river they went. Ellen didn’t know what to do next, so she decided to pray. And immediately she heard a loud voice that said, “Grab the branch, stupid!” She looked up. Overhead was a branch hanging low over the water. They grabbed it and managed to pull themselves to safety.
Who hollered at them? Who was wise enough to call Ellen stupid? After all, she’s stubborn, not stupid -- but it did get her attention. There was nobody else there. Nobody. Well – nobody but God. That is one thing she knows. It was rather like being blind and suddenly having Jesus open her eyes.
These miracles Jesus gives us are made of pretty ordinary stuff, aren’t they? Mud, spit and a convenient branch. Thanks be to God for ordinary things.