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You might recognize the name Elizabeth Gilbert as the author of the bestselling novel Eat, Pray, Love.  Along with her fiction writing, Gilbert also writes and speaks about creativity – how it works and how it sometimes doesn’t work.  She tells stories about her own experiences with writer’s block and the fear of failure that can stop creativity dead in its tracks.

Blind/Sighted

John 9:1-41
Jennifer Browne
UUMC

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It would be easy to get derailed here, thrown off the track of the real point of the story. It would be easy to be diverted - blindsided even – by the whole question of timing.

The Fourth Gospel was written towards the end of the first century, when the division between Jews who regarded Jesus as Messiah and Jews who didn’t had come to a head. The synagogue leaders, who were in the second group, were saying “you don’t belong here” to the people in the first group – which included the author of the Fourth Gospel. The Gospel of John was written in the midst of all that conflict and division.

But all of that was long after Jesus walked among us; decades after he preached and prayed and taught and healed. The man who was given sight by Jesus would’ve lived long before this story was actually written down, long before anyone was being “thrown out of the community.”

It would be easy to get side-tracked onto questions of historical accuracy and the Biblical writers motivations and intentions.

 

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To which, if we are listening, we might hear the blind man say, “But...I was blind, and now I see!”

....

It would be easy to get derailed here, thrown off the track of the real point of the story. It would be easy to be diverted - blindsided even – into thinking that this is a story about a physical healing.

After all, it’s a pretty dramatic story, isn’t it? And there are more physical details than we’re used to, maybe more than we want to know. Jesus spits on the ground, enough to turn the dust into mud. And then he mixes the mud in his hands and coats the man’s eyes with the mixture. Sounds messy to me. Messy and dirty and not very pleasant. Sterilized eye drops would be my choice, I think.

Jesus spreads the mud on the man’s eyes and then tells him to wash off in a specific pool of water: “Go and wash in the pool of Siloam,” which, the Gospel writer tells us, means “Sent.” Everything is very detailed, very specific. In the same way that the magician directs your gaze to one hand, the hand that’s waving around with significant-looking gestures, so that you become blind to the other hand, the one that really counts.

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It’s easy to think that it’s the mud that heals this man, or the special water from the pool of Siloam, but the man himself is clear: he opened my eyes, Jesus did it. Or at least he eventually says that. At first, he, too, is distracted by the mud and the water. At first he, too, thinks that what has happened is only physical.

The neighbors, so accustomed to seeing this man as a blind beggar, don’t even recognize him anymore. “Is this not the man who used to sit and beg?” “Yes! It is he.” “No, it can’t be. I’ll admit, the resemblance is strong, but not exactly the same.”

 

“It’s me! I’m the same man who used to sit here, right here, with my bowl. Don’t you recognize me?”

“If you are the same man, then how were your eyes opened?” “That man, Jesus – he did it.”

The neighbors take him to the religious authorities, the Pharisees. They ask more questions.

 

• “Who did this?” “That man, Jesus – he must be a prophet.”
The Pharisees can’t see how this could be right. They question his parents.

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• “Is this your son?” “Yes.” “How did this happen?” “We have no idea. Ask him yourself.”

A second time, they interrogate him. • “How did this happen?”

Now the man can see what’s right in front of everyone’s eyes but no one else can see.

 

“I’ve already told you. That man, Jesus – he must be from God.”

“Out! Out! How dare you try to teach us anything! You do not belong here

any longer!”

The man’s sight grows stronger with each step; he sees progressively more and more – not just what is physically in front of him, but the spiritual landscape as well. What he can see at the end of the story is due to his spiritual sight, a true vision that allows him to see who Jesus really is...and causes conflict with those who can’t see.

It would be easy to get diverted by the physical details of this healing story and to miss the spiritual healing that is the more radical transformation.

 

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But if we are actually paying attention, we might hear the blind man say, “I was blind, and now I see. What do you see?”

....

It would be easy to get derailed here, thrown off the track of the real point of the story. It would be easy to be diverted - blindsided even – into thinking that this story is actually a philosophical argument, a study of the age-old question of cause- and-effect.

“Who sinned,” the disciples ask Jesus, “this man or his parents?” The disciples are asking a question of causality. They want to make sense of why bad things happen, in order to give themselves a sense of control. It’s part of human nature to want to know “why.” It’s a question as old as the Book of Job.

We are far more subtle than the disciples. “What happened?” we ask. “What happened to make her an alcoholic, or him unemployed?” When what we really mean is “Whose fault was it?” We also want to know why bad things happen, hoping that if we understand why, we can prevent those things from happening to us.

What happens next can really blindside us. The New Revised Standard Version reads like this:

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Jesus answered, “Neither this man nor his parents sinned; he was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him. 4 We must work the works of him who sent me while it is day; night is coming when no one can work.”

Ouch. This is even messier than all that mud and spit. Is Jesus saying that God creates disabilities as a way of showing off? That our suffering is merely a platform for God’s miracles and pyrotechnics?

Here’s where a little academic diversion can help us out. Dr. Craig Dykstra of Luther Seminary in Minneapolis says that the NRSV – the version used for academic study and worship and known for its careful translation -- plays a little fast and loose here. It adds a phrase to the original Greek language in order to try to make sense of things. “Neither this man nor his parents sinned.” Jesus says. And then the translation adds “He was born blind,” where the original says nothing. The sentence as it originally stood, Dykstra says, is “Neither this man nor his parents sinned but, in order that God’s works might be revealed in him, we must work the works of him who sent me while it is day.”

What a neat ending to this story. If we had been distracted into thinking that this was a story meant to help us deal with the question of why bad things happen, then this ending would be more than satisfactory: we don’t know why, but now we must work the works of the one who sent Jesus. This is the conclusion of hundreds of

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thousands of mainline Protestant sermons around the world, some of which I have preached myself.

To which we might hear the blind man say, louder than before, “I was blind, and now I see! Are you blind, too?”

....

It is easy to get derailed in this story, thrown off track, diverted, blind-sided, even. There’s so much to distract us.

Which is exactly what happened to the Pharisees. “Surely we are not blind...are we?” they ask Jesus defensively, at the end. But indeed, as the blind man’s eyes – physical and spiritual – are opened, the Pharisees’ are more and more closed. Relentlessly they pursue an answer to the question “Who did this? How did he open your eyes?”

But what they are really pursuing is not the answer they hear. And as the man grows more certain that his eyes were opened by one who was sent by God, the religious leaders grow more and more resistant to that idea. Finally, having failed to find the answer they are seeking, they throw the messenger out and are left in darkness, together.

Why is it that some people can see the light of God, and others can’t?

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I don’t know. I do know that light has that effect: it can illuminate but it can also blind. When you walk from a dark space to a bright one, you are temporarily unable to see. When you glance into oncoming headlights, or a bright flashbulb goes off, the light doesn’t reveal anything, it blinds you.

It is also true that, if you want things to stay as they are, there is no need for vision. The Pharisees say want an answer to their question “who did this?” But what they really want is for everything to stay the same.

 

They want God to work the way they believe God has always worked – not on the Sabbath.

They want to be in charge the way they have always been in charge.

They want the beggar to stay in his place.

They want the rules from yesterday to be the rules tomorrow.

They are looking for confirmation that the way they see things is the way

things really are and the way things always will be.

Now we can hear the blind man’s voice loud and clear: unless you know you are blind, you will never see. Jesus is the Light of God for the world – light that blinds some, but opens the eyes of others.

Now do you see?

 

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References

Mary Austin. Narrative Lectionary: Mud, Mess and Illumination (John 9:1-41). Posted on February 25, 2014 at revgalblogpals.org. http://revgalblogpals.org/2014/02/25/narrative- lectionary-mud-mess-and-illumination-john-91-41/

Beth Scibienski. “Here's Mud in Your Eye” A Thousand Words of Inspiration. Posted February 25, 2014 at bethscib.com. http://www.bethscib.com/1/post/2014/02/heres-mud-in-your-eye.html

Rolf Jacobson, Craig R. Koester, and Kathryn Schifferdecker. “Light of the World.” Narrative Lectionary Podcast #118. Posted February 23, 2014. http://www.workingpreacher.org/narrative_podcast.aspx?podcast_id=482