Sight for Sore Eyes
First & Franklin Presbyterian Church
Baltimore, MD 21201
March 22, 2020
1As Jesus walked along, he 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.”
For the person born blind in John’s gospel, sensory deprivation wasn’t something new. It wasn’t a novelty. Or something he had to adapt to. It didn’t “disrupt” his life. It was his life, the only life he’d ever known. For us, living from day to day in the midst of a pandemic, with social distancing quickly becoming the new normal, it may feel like a disruption. That’s the way it’s described. It feels like a form of sensory deprivation, on a grand scale, at a national and global scale.
But it’s not something we experience globally, is it? I got a text from a neighbor, a therapist by profession. I’d invited him for a run, and we’ve got something scheduled for Monday afternoon. But this wasn’t just scheduling for some fitness activities. “The lack of social interaction with others,” he said, “is starting to get to me.”
On Friday, I called a member of this little family of faith. She lives alone, in an apartment but she’s afraid to go collect her mail. Given that she is one of those with underlying health conditions, she would wait until late that night, maybe 10 or so, to go down to get her mail, so as to avoid possible contact with the virus.
A woman in Italy, her nation under national quarantine, suddenly feels a yearning she hadn’t expected to feel at this time in life. She’s a widow. But lately, she says, she wants to kiss a man. Just feels that desire again. Not any man, she says, but a man she likes and who likes her. And not being able to fulfill that human yearning. . . .
At the park on Friday afternoon, throwing frisbee, two little man-cubs, my Gabriel and his friend EK, started covering each other, bumping into one another as they grappled for advantage to catch the frisbee — I yelled across the field, “Six feet guys, no covering! Remember, social distance!”
The two man-cubs looked at me, crestfallen, confused. Like little pups who didn’t understand this new rule, this strange intruder. Sensory deprivation . . . which feels for us like disruption, and seemingly with the power to reduce us to a state of unfamiliar blindness.
So perhaps we read this text this morning with more empathy than we would have just two or three weeks ago.
For us, it’s new. But the blind person has lived with this kind of social distance for his whole life. Socially ostracized, economically marginalized. People treated his disability as perhaps contagious, or worthy of contempt, as evidence of his moral corruption. It would not be uncommon to spit on the blind or the poor, to heap insults on the condition, to harbor suspicions.
That’s maybe why the disciples ask the question they ask: “Who sinned, this person or his parents?” — some character flaw produced this condition.
Like everyone else, the disciples talk about him, not to him. They ask Jesus for an analysis of this defect, whether it came about because of his sins or his parents’ sins.
For us, the idea that sin leads to sickness seems like an odd epidemiological diagnosis. But, for this culture, it was conventional wisdom. Maybe, for us, sin doesn’t lead to sickness, but poor diet, lack of exercise — these lead to sickness. We look at someone who is sick, and maybe ask, “What form of poor hygiene-practice led to the sickness?” Racial ideas lurk not very far beneath some of these notions; we see it today with an uptick in racist attacks on people of Asian descent in America. This is not new: sufferers of HIV AIDS were met by similar forms of social ostracism, attacks, and fear.
So much for our modern superiority to ancient cultures. Jesus dismisses moral reasoning of this kind. It’s not about sin, either his or his parents. No, Jesus says, this is different. It’s not what it appears to be.
Notice the irony: you claim to see and understand, but your seeing and understanding blind you to the most important thing.
What, we ask, is that important thing? Jesus explains: “He was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him.”
If the first idea was problematic for us, sin leading to disease, then the second idea — born blind so that God could be revealed through him — has its own set of problems, doesn’t it? Why would God afflict someone with a form of suffering as Exhibit A for the works of God? I’ll take your works, pass on the blindness.
Part of our problem is a textual one, specifically with verse 3: “he was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him.”
The phrase, “he was born blind” isn’t in the Greek but translators add it to correct an incomplete sentence. Biblical scholar, Frances Taylor Gench, suggests a better translation: “Neither this man nor his parents sinned, but in order that the works of God might be revealed in him, we must work the works of him who sent me.”[i]
“As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world.” This has always been Jesus’ identity, but his work — Christ’s work is to shine light into the darkness. Or reveal the way darkness may reveal God’s light.
Jesus’ movements drag our eyes away from staring directly at the light, like the beam of flashlight drags our eyes towards its focus. In this case, our eyes see Jesus spit into the ground, stir the dust and saliva together, and spread this mud and spit on the man’s eyes.
There’s a theological question here, as in the echo of the Genesis story, in which God creates human beings out of the dust of the earth. There’s also the suggestion that Jesus transforms spit and mud of social stigma into a sign of God’s reversal of our darkness.
That’s the theological level. But the human experience is striking. Quite apart from physical healing, his apparent change creates confusion for people who claimed to know all about him. In this swirl, the person born blind shows not only that he can see, but that he is discerning. He questions. He testifies. He speaks courageously.
We hear his voice frequently. But curiously, Jesus has not been heard from since verse 7 and will not be heard from again until verse 35. It’s the longest absence of Jesus in the gospel of John, the longest stretch of scripture in which someone other than Jesus speaks. Which tells us something —the person born blind is anything but sensory deprived. He knows what he knows, and he claims it without apology: “I was blind but now I see.”
He knows what he knows: “The man called Jesus made mud and spread it on my eyes” — they ask him, “Where is he?” And he answers, “I don’t know” – active discernment. When asked later, “Who is he, what is he?” He says, “Jesus is a prophet.”
About whether Jesus is a sinner, he says: “I don’t know if he is or not. I do know that I was blind but now I see. You keep asking me. Do you want to be his disciples, too?” And they drove him out.
Another form of social distancing . . . and perhaps he never felt more alive. In the end, being driven out, he will see Jesus face-to-face, the light of the world. And he worships him.
Such an inconspicuous verb, but if we knew the psalmist, we would know that the act of worship enlists every sense, everything — waves of ocean, trees of the field, wind and fire, stars, and clouds, rain and hail, drum and and trumpet, everything praising God.
So, in a sense, what we have is sensory deprivation or, by God’s grace, sensory saturation. Driven out and yet, at another level, maybe we’re more alive than we’ve been in a long time. Maybe I’m feeling a bit more sensory saturation than I initially thought I would in this season of social distancing. Maybe I’m paying attention to things that make me human, make us all human.
A close friend celebrated his birthday on Tuesday. Grandchildren are in the picture and so is social distancing. He has to think about that, make allowances as well as make difficult decisions. And even though he’s healthy, he says this is the first time he’s ever thought seriously that this might be his last birthday. When you think like that, everything common glows with unfamiliar light.
He gives thanks for a good meal. For family. For friendships. For an afternoon walk in a city park, with cherry blossoms.
Yes, he’s says, there’s the news. And he listens. But only to stay reasonably informed. If you’re not careful, so-called knowledge can turn into a cul-de-sac of fear, isolation, and misunderstanding.
But if you allow that you may not know all things, social distance can contain a happy irony.
John McLucas sang The Star-Spangled Banner from his window in Bolton Hill, sang it out loud for everyone to hear on Friday afternoon. I didn’t hear it, but I heard talk about it, both before he sang and after he sang.
Maybe just as important, John inspired me. Not to sing on the street. Although, I’m not opposed to doing that. But over the phone. I called Coila, who lives in the Westminster Tower, and I sang for her . . . our hymn, What Wondrous Love is This. I said to Coila, I don’t have John McLucas’ voice, but we have the same spirit. She said that’s alright. So I sang to her, over the phone.
I don’t know how it happened . . . maybe I was mute with worry, until I opened my mouth with a song. I’m glad you didn’t hear me sing. But I am glad that she did. And I am glad for me, too.
I’ve noticed something else, when people ask, “How are you holding up?” — it’s not always a throw-away question. More frequently, it’s a real question, yearning for mutual connection.
It’s your friend saying that social isolation is beginning to weigh on him.
It’s talk with other parents at the park, sharing the kinds of questions their kids are asking, and how we’ve never known it like this before.
It’s the woman I told you about a moment ago, the widower. This desire for intimate human companionship came out of her in a conversation she had with well-known Italian poet. Suffering from his own demons of fear and uncertainty, he published his phone number and said, “I’m happy to visit with anyone who calls between and 9 and 12 during the day.”
So she called him, perfect strangers to one another. Or maybe not, in a sensory deprived world, prisoners in their homes and apartments. They talked together, about this longing for intimacy in a time when intimacy seems to be all but excluded, as excluded as light is to the eyes of the blind.
And, then before they ended the call, he says to her, “When this is all over, and you find your man, and you get that kiss, would you call me back and tell me all about it?”
“Yes,” she says, “you know I will.”[ii]
Sensory saturation . . . sight for sore eyes. . . .
[i] Frances Taylor Gench, Encountering with Jesus: Studies in the Gospel of John, 64.
[ii] Chico Harlan and Stefano Petrelli, “Locked Down” in The Washington Post (19 March 2020) accessed on March 22, 2020 at https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/europe/italy-coronavirus-poet-franco-arminio-phone-calls/2020/03/19/e6c6ae02-687f-11ea-b199-3a9799c54512_story.html?fbclid=IwAR1d1sWNbvAS8ZT7WG3aZD4T7QvmUh1bWvG8i1YXfoTyXX-PQae3Tlzw7zM