Year A, Lent 4
When I was living in Princeton, I would occasionally take the train into New York City to see friends. This was a labor of love because I feared that city. I felt like I could take a wrong turn and never be found. Whenever I visited, I would ask my friend to meet me in one particular spot in Penn Station because I didn’t want to go near the subway where people have been lost for hours, if not days. As I boarded the train, someone I recognized boarded with his guide dog. He was blind. I had met him earlier when he was visiting the seminary. We ended up talking until we neared New York.
Then the unthinkable happened. The train stopped in Penn Station in New Jersey (I know, it’s very confusing, that’s why I am convinced that city is out to get me.) The conductor announced that there was something wrong with the train and he had no idea how long it would take to fix it. He advised us to find another way into the city. For me, finding an alternate way was like asking me to turn water into wine. It would have required a miracle. I turned to my new friend and asked, “What other way is there?” He must have sensed my fear and anxiety because he told me that he would show me the way.
There are a lot of amazing miracle stories in the Bible and we all know that Jesus was a miracle worker. However, the Gospel of John depicts miracles in a different way than the other gospels. For John, miracles were signs. They were signs pointing the way to the truth about who Jesus really was. They were opportunities for people to witness the glory of God. Our rather lengthy Gospel story depicts a man who is blind from birth. Unlike the story in the Gospel of Mark where Jesus also healed a blind man, this healing is not the result of a request. The man never approached Jesus. Jesus healed him after a conversation with his disciples about the cause of his blindness. He created some mud with his own holy spittle, spread the mud on the man’s eyes and told the man to go wash in the pool of Siloam.
The man followed his directions and went from being completely blind to having his vision restored 100%. There is no indication that he had trouble adjusting. There were no blurry images or vertigo. While his physical sight was restored almost immediately, he gained spiritual insight gradually through the course of the narrative. When he was first asked about the person who healed him, he referred to “the man called Jesus.” The next time he was questioned he referred to Jesus as a prophet, which means that he identified him as a man sent by God.
However, the major turning point came when he saw Jesus for the first time. It was then that he finally understood who Jesus truly was. Now you might think, well of course he believed, Jesus just cured him of a lifetime of blindness. That would be helpful for most of us on our faith journey. However, we must remember that he did not receive his sight until he removed the mud from his own eyes. Even before he was able to see (and before he really understood who Jesus was) he had enough faith and courage to find his way to the pool and wash the mud away.
While this man was able to believe despite living a life in darkness, others in the story had more trouble. The Pharisees, who represented the religious establishment more than they represented the Jewish people, seemed almost obsessed with proving this man and Jesus wrong. First, they hid in the rather murky water of religious laws and rules. It was the Sabbath and you are not allowed to heal on the Sabbath so obviously Jesus was not a man of God. When the man maintained that Jesus was a prophet (and thus a man of God), the Pharisees tried to convince others that he was not actually blind from birth. When this theory was proven false by the man’s rather frightened parents, the Pharisees tried to manipulate the man with guilt and lofty religious language. The man responded to this new challenge with the clarity of someone who has experienced the truth of Jesus Christ. “One thing that I do know, that though I was blind, now I see.” For the man who had been cured of his blindness, it was just that simple.
Yet the Pharisees tried to complicate the matter by asking again how it happened. When they realized that this man could not be convinced by religious law, guilt, lofty religious language or even theology, they removed him from their community. They kicked him out of the synagogue. He was no longer welcome to worship there. It was then that Jesus sought him out. It was then when Jesus revealed not only his glory, but also his love and compassion.
In my trek through the New York public transportation system, my friend used one hand to hold the leash of his dog and one hand to stay connected with me. I would read the signs and he would tell me if that was the right train. When we finally reached the city, we were dropped a couple blocks from Penn Station. When I asked him how I could get there, he offered to take me the rest of the way. He led me through the streets of New York, me telling him what signs I saw, and him telling me which direction to turn. He did not merely lead me to Penn Station, he took me to the exact place where my friend was waiting. She looked a little perplexed as I walked up holding the hand of a blind man. I introduced them and explained how I came to know him. We said goodbye and he disappeared into the crowd. As I hugged my friend with relief she looked at me and said, “You do realize that you followed a blind man.” That was true, but at least I had read the signs.
Some people are able to read, understand and follow the signs. Some people can read and understand, but lack the courage to follow. Others can read them but not make sense of them. Then there are some people who are so blinded by the map that is in their head, they don’t even look for the signs. The Pharisees were not bad people. Most of them were very good people who had dedicated their life to their religion. But somewhere along the way they stopped being open to new signs because they already had all of the answers. Even when the signs were right in their face, they found way to get around them.
Jesus gave the blind man sight, but in many ways (much like my friend) he already had sight. He had insight and a heart open to invisible and visible signs. We might not all have that insight naturally. Some of us might be a little stubborn or maybe we are new on this journey and the signs all look a little alike. Perhaps like me, you occasionally lack the courage to take risks and try new things. Yet at some point, I think we will all find that Jesus has given us all the signs we need, even the courage and the miracle cure. He gave it to us when he died for us, when he was resurrected. He continues to give them to us in the waters of Baptism and in the Eucharist. It is up to us to wash the mud out of our own eyes.