As he walked along, he saw a man blind from birth.
His disciples asked him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents,
that he was born blind?”
Jesus answered, “Neither this man nor his parents sinned;
he was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him.
We must work the works of him who sent me while it is day; night is coming when no one can work.
As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world.”
When he had said this, he spat on the ground
and made mud with the saliva
and spread the mud on the man’s eyes,
saying to him, “Go, wash in the pool of Siloam” (which means Sent).
Then he went and washed and came back able to see.
The 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?”
Some were saying, “It is he.”
Others were saying, “No, but it is someone like him.” He kept saying, “I am the man.”
But they kept asking him, “Then how were your eyes opened?”
He answered, “The man called Jesus made mud, spread it on my eyes,
and said to me, ‘Go to Siloam and wash’
and I went and washed and received my sight.”
They said to him, “Where is he?” He said, “I do not know.”
They brought to the Pharisees the man who had formerly been blind.
Now it was a sabbath day when Jesus made the mud and opened his eyes.
Then the Pharisees also began to ask him how he had received his sight. He said to them, “He put mud on my eyes and I washed, and now I see.”
Some 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.
Text is an arrangement of the NRSV with minor revisions to facilitate storytelling.
So 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.”
The 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 and asked them, “Is this your son, who you say was born blind?
How then does he now see?”
His parents answered, “We know that this is our son, and that he was born blind;
but 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.”
His 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. Therefore his parents said, “He is of age; ask him.”
So 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.”
He answered, “I do not know whether he is a sinner. One thing I do know: I was blind, and now I see.”
They said to him, “What did he do to you? How did he open your eyes?”
He 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?”
Then they reviled him, saying, “You are his disciple, but we are disciples of Moses.
We know that God has spoken to Moses, but as for this man, we do not know where he comes from.”
The man answered, “Here is an astonishing thing! You do not know where he comes from,
and yet he opened my eyes.
Text is an arrangement of the NRSV with minor revisions to facilitate storytelling.
We know that God does not listen to sinners,
but he does listen to one who worships him and obeys his will.
Never since the world began has it been heard
that anyone opened the eyes of a person born blind.
If this man were not from God, he could do nothing.”
They answered him, “You were born entirely in sins, and are you trying to teach us?”
And they drove him out.
Jesus heard that they had driven him out, and when he found him, he said, “Do you believe in the Son of Man?”
He answered, “And who is he, sir, that I may believe in him?”
Jesus said to him, “You have seen him,
and the one speaking with you is he.”
He said, “Lord, I believe.” And he worshiped him.
Have you ever noticed that, in the bible, exile seems not to be an uncommon experience? Many of our favorite characters—Adam and Eve, Abraham and Sarah, Jacob and Joseph, David and Jonah, the entire nation of Israel more than once, and even the holy family, endure seasons of exile.
In each instance, life as they knew it was going along just fine—until something changed. For Abraham and Sarah, it was a persistent voice calling him to leave everything behind. Under Moses, the people of God are driven into the wilderness to freedom but also hardship; later, they are driven into captivity by conquerers and left wondering if they will ever again see their home. Each time, the people of God had to set aside what they thought they knew, so that they could survive in a world that was suddenly very unfamiliar. Each time, they had to learn a new way to be community, to worship God, to love one another.
Jesus himself was clearly familiar with what it meant to be an exile. As a child of the Jewish diaspora, he grew up hearing the story of his people, of their banishment from and later return to their own land, the very land in which he had been born, a land which was both their birthright, and also a place of displacement at the hands of a foreign occupier. The people of Israel were both at home and at exile in the land that God had given to Moses.
And then there were those who were in exile from the exiles. The outsiders, the blind, the lame, scores of sick and broken people, set aside for the sake of the health of the community, present but not accounted as persons in their own right, left to beg on the streets, left at the mercy of the people who passed them by. These exiles lived daily the stigma of knowing that they would always be defined by what they were not. They carried their reason for their exile like a scarlet letter on their bodies.
Of course, it wasn’t personal. In Jesus’ day, they didn’t know that blindness could be caused by something as simple as an infection, let alone have the tools to treat it. They didn’t have the miracle of modern medicine that today spares countless vulnerable people from preventable illness. And so they made difficult choices. Better safe than sorry, was the general principle. They imposed restrictions on the sick and the impaired, enacting their own version of extreme and often permanent social distancing in order to contain illness and minimize its potential spread.
Certainly we know more now. It is easy to judge the people of Jesus’ day as cruel or heartless when you have ready access to antibiotics and anti-viral medication. But perhaps in this moment we find ourselves in a special place, one where we might find it within ourselves to maintain a modicum of compassion for a community of people who, for all the love they had for one another, were terrified of getting sick or dying before their time, and who decided that perhaps it was safer to separate themselves from those who were.
From that perspective, Jesus is truly reckless in this story. I will admit to you for myself that, given the moment we are living in, it is a bit terrifying to hear Jesus break numerous CDC protocols as he spits in the dirt, rubs his spittle it in his hands, and then touches the face of another person who has been cast out because he is sick. I suspect his own disciples may have been a bit anxious themselves. Of course, he had also been fraternizing with unclean Gentiles, and with a lot children, and conducting mass healings, so perhaps they were accustomed to it by that point.
But the same could not be said of the Pharisees. You remember them. A few weeks ago, Baron reminded us in one of his sermons that the Pharisees weren’t the “big bad wolf” that modern Christianity often makes them out to be. No, they were the ultimate insiders. The keepers of tradition. The Pharisees were an important community of religious leaders who took the bible extremely seriously, and dedicated their lives to helping their community obey the law of Moses. During the political and social turmoil of Jesus’ lifetime and beyond, the Pharisees provided a promise of safety and a measure of control by teaching that the way to please God was to keep your head down and follow the rules for the good of the community.
And then there was Jesus. He wasn’t a revolutionary, exactly, but he kept saying things that sounded, well, revolutionary. He kept talking about a kingdom that was not of this world, one so unlike anything that anyone had ever seen before, or heard of, and so some people started wondering what exactly he might be planning.
Jesus seems to have had a habit of making the Pharisees nervous. He kept touching sick people and healing them, often on the Sabbath day as he was teaching the crowds. He kept pushing the limits of the purity laws by meeting with foreigners like the Samaritans, who many Jews considered to be mortal enemies. He kept saying really strange things about being borne again, and calling himself the bread of heaven. He was a problem: they knew it, and he knew it too.
And so it shouldn’t be surprising at all that, by the time he kneels down before the blind man and rubs mud in his eyes, the Pharisees have got their eye on him. This isn’t the first time he has broken Sabbath law—back in John 5, Jesus heals a man who cannot walk by the pool of Bethsaida. In fact, in John 5:16, the scripture tells us that “because Jesus was doing these things on the Sabbath, the Jewish leaders began to persecute him.” In Chapter 7, we are told that the authorities have been looking for a way to kill him. He has been accused of being possessed by a demon, of being a Samaritan, of blaspheming the name of God.
And into the midst of this heated moment is thrown one, poor, man who was born blind.
Have you ever been minding your own business, going about your day, when suddenly you are thrust into the midst of something beyond anything you could ever have imagined? Something that changes everything?
It’s as though the blind man won a lottery that he didn’t know he had bought the ticket for. Suddenly, he has been given the one thing that had exiled him from his community. But there is only one problem: his community is not very happy about how it happened.
The author of John is a masterful storyteller, and so this episode is full of juicy details revealing what can only be described as a comical level of confusion as the people in the blind man’s life seek to make sense of what has happened: as soon as the blind man receives his sight, neighbors who had walked past him for years in the market place suddenly “see” him for the first time, but they cannot agree on whether it really is him or not. But whoever he is, he must be trouble, because there he was doing something on the Sabbath day. When the religious authorities question him, they are so confused by what has happened that they begin to suspect him of the hard to imagine sin of faking his blindness all along. And his poor parents—they are so overwhelmed by the whole incident that they practically beg the authorities to leave them out of it.
In the center of it all is the blind man who never asked to be healed. Notice something: the more that people push him, the more his neighbors and religious leaders question and discount him, the more he is left to fend for himself, the more confident he becomes. Over the course of this story, he transforms from someone who claims to not know anything, to proclaiming Jesus a prophet, and finally to confessing him as the Messiah, saying “I believe.”
It is almost as though he is being born again right before our eyes—this man, who once was valued as less than nothing, who barely existed in the eyes of the community, begins to see himself as a person worthy of living. And not just any person: he becomes a disciple of Jesus. A child of God. He can tell the world what God has done in him, and the world may finally listen.
It would seem that this ordeal opens his eyes—literally, spiritually—to the truth that should have been clear all along: that he is a beloved child of God, such that, by the end, when he has exhausted the patience of the religious authorities, who deny the miracle and condemn him as made in sin and unworthy of community, it is too late. He is a brand new person. Their words no longer have power over him, because he has found a new life in Christ.
Later, in John 10, Jesus goes on to explain to the Pharisees and those who witnessed the miracle that he is the Good Shepherd, and that he has come to seek and save the lost. He has come to give the outcast children of God something more than living in exile—he has come to restore them in the eyes of God. And by the time Jesus says this, we know that it is true, because we have seen it in that blind man. We may not know his name, but the faith of the blind man—this man who has experienced the darkest valley and has come out on the other side, who once was blind and now he sees—how can we not wonder at the faith of this child of God? His story has inspired countless Christians with his determination to name the gift that God has given him, with his persistent wonder at the goodness of God, with his stubborn refusal to be defined by his illness.
So often in this life, we are told that if something isn’t going as we want it to, we need to make a change. But sometimes, change happens to you. Sometimes, everything seems fine until suddenly it isn’t, and everything you thought you knew becomes a question mark. We know this. Right now, many of the things we take for granted—the ways we are accustomed to being church, the ways we are used to showing our love and our care for or friends, our family, our neighbors, the vulnerable—are being tested. And it can feel like we are at sea. Adrift. Cast off. Even in exile.
But the Good Shepherd knows his sheep. Like the blind man, you have heard his voice, and he is speaking to you even now, even in exile. How we are church is being tested, but we are not broken. Everything looks different right now, but we are still the church. We can still be the church when we are apart. Because we still have each other. The Lord is our Shepherd. We shall not want.