Our scripture reading seems pretty straightforward. There’s a man who has been blind since birth. Jesus spits in the dirt and makes mud, the man goes and washes it off, and suddenly he can see. The end. That’s a nice little story but if that’s all that we see when we look at this text then we’re missing quite a bit. Try as we might to classify this text as a mere “healing miracle”, it defies that classification and even poses questions that move our focus from the healing itself to those standing on the margins of it.
Consider the disciples, for instance, who immediately see the blind man in terms of sinfulness. “Who sinned,” they ask, “the man or his parents that he was born blind?” They ask this question because this is how they have been taught to see. They had grown up surrounded by people and institutions that emphasized sinfulness and divine punishment. They see the man born blind begging at the gate and, according to their religious and familial and cultural understanding, apply to him a narrative of culpability and blame. He was first and foremost a sinner, someone who had been forsaken by God and punished for his sins. Who sinned, the man or his parents that he was born blind? Neither, Jesus says. While you see merely a sinner, I see the glory of God. The disciples were blind to this possibility, and it’s obvious that Jesus does not see as the disciples see.
Nor does he see as the Pharisees see. The religious leaders of the day relied on a system of rules and regulations that required atonement and sacrifice for those who broke them. Theirs was an institution built upon accusation and judgment, and when Jesus heals the blind man on the Sabbath they are more than happy to condemn it. Jesus could have easily waited until the proper day, but instead he breaks the law. He sees something that they don’t see, namely that there are things more important than the rules, like relationship, fellowship, and compassion. The Pharisees were blind to this, and to see it they would have had to acknowledge their misunderstanding of God and their misreading of scripture. Unable to do this, they choose to kick the man out of the village. Jesus finds him, though, and after a few questions the man gives a rudimentary statement of faith and worships God.
The great irony of this text is that it’s the blind man who sees clearly and the disciples and Pharisees who remain blind. “Blindness” in scripture obviously doesn’t always mean blindness in the physical sense.
I’m reminded of the story of an elder who gathered together all the men of the village who were born blind and showed them an elephant. They all reached out and touched the elephant in order to learn what it was like. When the blind men had all felt the elephant, the elder asked each of them to describe it to him. One answered, “The elephant is thick and strong, like a tree.” A second replied, “No, the elephant is long and probing, like a serpent.” A third said at once, “No! The elephant is thin, like a rope!” One after another the men described what they had felt, and none of them gave the same description. Then they began to argue with each other, shouting, ‘Yes it is!’ ‘No, it is not!’ ‘An elephant is not that!’ ‘Yes, it’s like that!’ and so on, till they began blindly striking at each other. The moral of the story is that generally when we argue and disagree with each other it’s because we are blind to the experiences and perceptions of those with whom we disagree, and in our insistence on being correct we miss the truth of another point of view. When we ignore or dismiss the validity of another person’s perception, we may as well be blind. Once again, blindness doesn’t always mean blindness.
Incidentally, there’s also an alternate version of that story in which an elder rounds up all of the blind elephants in the village and asks them to feel people and then describe them. The elephants do so, and end up unanimously agreeing that people are flat and squishy. Maybe elephants are just more perceptive and agreeable than we are.
Like the parable of the blind men and the elephant, the story of the man born blind is meant to teach us about the things that we do not see. How else are we to understand the fact that the disciples themselves are blind to the possibility of God’s glory, or that it’s the Pharisees, the institutional keepers of religion, the curators of God’s law, who are blind to what God is really doing in their midst? This is a story that is meant to shine a light upon us – us, the disciples of Jesus Christ; us, the keepers of religion. This text begs questions that we should not shy away from asking. Are there ways in which we are blind to possibilities of God’s glory or to what God is doing in our community and world?
Theologian Richard Lischer wrote that the church “has always been pretty good at investigating irregularities but not so good at acknowledging the power of God that cannot be contained by a religious premises.” Barbara Brown Taylor wrote that we are “the consummate insiders—fully initiated, law-abiding, pledge-paying, creed-saying members of the congregation of the faithful.” What happens inside these walls we’re pretty good at. The problem is that God isn’t confined to a church and oftentimes we are blind to what God is doing out there in the community, especially when it doesn’t fit our preconceived notions of who God is or how God works.
The perhaps unsettling reality of this text is that when Jesus healed the blind man, he did it in one of the most unorthodox methods imaginable. He spit on him? Are you kidding? I get nervous anytime my boys are chewing gum in the living room. He made mud out of it? And smushed it in his eyes? Really? Here he is surrounded by a bunch of Pharisees, who were constantly concerned with cleanliness and purity, and he makes mud out of dirt and spit and wipes it in the guy’s face? That was probably the most horrifying thing those Pharisees had ever seen. And he did it on the Sabbath? How many lines is Jesus trying to cross here?
Then, just to rub it in (literally and figuratively), Jesus does what would have been the most upsetting thing. He tells the man to go wash in the pool of Siloam. The pool at Siloam was formed centuries earlier when aqueducts were built to divert the waters of the nearby Gihon Spring into the city. They did this so they wouldn’t have to go all the way out to the spring when they wanted water, but they also did it because the waters of the spring were considered to be remarkably pure. If you were a religious temple type person, those were the waters you wanted to use for baptisms and other religious rituals in which water was a prominent symbol.
They diverted the water into the city and there, in front of the temple, was the pool at Siloam. As you can probably guess, they wouldn’t let just anyone go down there and start sticking their face in the pool. When Jesus meets the man born blind here, we are told earlier in John’s gospel that it’s during the Festival of Booths, which was a high holy time for the Jewish people. There would have been a steady stream of Pharisees and religious leaders making their way down to the pure waters of the pool, where they would fill a gold pitcher and carry it back into the temple. This wasn’t just spring water now; it was religious water. It was holy, inside-the-temple water. That’s where Jesus tells the blind beggar to go and wash. And to top it all off, as John tells us, the name Siloam in fact means sent outward. The Pharisees and religious leaders had taken that which by name was meant to be shared outward and instead spent their time and money diverting it and ensuring that it stayed inside – inside the city, and inside the temple. That’s not how it was meant to be, is it?
Over the past several years there has been a growing awareness that for a long time, our churches have done much the same thing. We’ve at times taken that which was meant to be shared outward – the good news of Jesus Christ, the love of Jesus Christ, the compassion and mercy of God – and tried to confine it to a building. We’ve said to the communities around our churches, “If you want to experience God, you have to come in here where we are.” But that’s not how it’s meant to be. God doesn’t live inside a building. God is at work right now out there in the world, and it’s our job to participate in it. One of the foundational principles of Christian life is that while we come here to worship God, we come so that we may be sent outward, Silo-am, into the world as bearers and sharers of God’s good news, and God’s mercy, and God’s love. Do we lose sight of that? How often do we fail to see what God is doing out there because we’re only looking in here? Jesus gave the blind man simple instructions: go to Siloam – the sent place – and wash. What if that can happen to us as well?
Slowly, I think that our eyes are being opened. More and more we are trying to connect in meaningful ways with the community rather than simply sit back and wait for the community to come to us. More and more we are engaging in things like the book club or the Easter Eggstravaganza that take place out in the community. But even more important than the programs or events that we share will be your willingness and faithfulness to share the good news, the compassion, the love of Christ wherever you may be. At school, at work, wherever you are, you are a disciple of Jesus Christ sent into the world that the world might know him. Jesus said, “Just as the Father has sent me, so I now send you.” It’s not easy, of course. You might get dirty. You might get muddy. You might see a glob of spit or two. But you’ll also see the grace of God in unexpected places. It’s the seeing of it that’s the most difficult part.
In her book entitled Tinker at Pilgrim Creek, Annie Dillard describes a number of patients who were born blind, but received operations that restored their sight. “A disheartening number of [these patients] refuse to use their new vision,” she wrote, “continuing to go over objects with their tongues and lapsing into apathy and despair. [One said that] she is never happier or more at ease than when, by closing her eyelids, she relapses into her former state of total blindness. Part of the reason for this”, Dillard writes”, is that “It oppresses them to realize… the tremendous size of the world, which they had previously conceived of as something touchingly manageable.” Sometimes our blindness is comfortable, and in the confines of this small space, we feel at home.
“Some do learn to see,” Dillard says, “especially the young ones. But it changes their lives… One twenty-two year-old girl was dazzled by the world’s brightness and kept her eyes shut for two weeks. When at the end of that time she opened her eyes again, she did not recognize any objects, but the more she directed her gaze upon everything about her, the more it could be seen how an expression of gratifitude and astonishment overspread her features; and then she repeatedly exclaimed, ‘Oh God! Oh God! How beautiful!”
Thanks be to God. Amen.
 Christian Century, March 3, 1999.