Reading – John 9:1-38
St Michael’s and St Barnabas, 4th March 2012
It started out like any other day. I was out on the streets of Jerusalem begging. Oh, don’t be shocked by this. There really isn’t other way for a blind man to earn a living, and there are plenty of us out there, hoping for some small act of charity to come our way. You’ll find us all the time in doorways, pushed up against the edges of the narrow streets, being kicked and cursed by the merchants with their carts. It’s just how it is, after all.
I had of course heard of a Rabbi called Jesus. All kinds of stories were circulating about him. Some said He was demon-possessed and a Samaritan. Some said He was the Son of God. I had no way of knowing. I had never met the man, and I could hardly imagine He would notice me, crouched down in the market, among the rubbish and the dogs.
But the commotion and the bustle that Sabbath told me He was coming that way. There was a buzz and a chatter, all kinds of opinion being exchanged loudly and sometimes rather heatedly. The noise grew louder and louder until I reckoned Jesus was close by. Almost within touching distance. Or perhaps I should say spitting distance. That’s the way people often let me know how close they are.
And then Jesus stopped. I may have been blind, but I could always tell when someone was looking at me. My first reaction was to crawl away under the nearest cart. Especially when I heard the disciples say: Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?Boy, as if I hadn’t heard that question a thousand times before! I don’t know what it is about these religious types, but whenever they get near me, they seem to treat me as a theological problem, rather than a human being. If I had a shekel for every time they speculated as to whether it was my sin or my parents’ that led to my disability, I would be very rich by now. But still blind.
I was already geared for the usual discussions over my head. I imagined some learned debate about the evils of the world, and then, when the point was made, for the crowd to move on. But this Rabbi said something completely different: Neither this man nor his parents sinned but this happened so that the work of God might be displayed in his life. Now my ears pricked up at this point. This was a completely new approach to my problem. He said some other things as well, that I didn’t really understand. Something about “doing the work of Him who sent me”, something about being the light of the world. I was too busy trying to make sense of those words. Here was someone who didn’t treat me as a sinner, who believed God was actually interested in me. Nobody had ever said that to me before.
And then He spat. Not at me, but on the ground. I couldn’t work out at first what He was doing. Then He touched me, and I could feel this warm, sticky mud on my eyes. And there was such love and gentleness in His voice: Go, wash in the Pool of Siloam. I honestly didn’t know what this person Jesus was doing, but I felt I could trust Him. And if He said go, who was I to argue?
So I slipped away from the crowd as fast as I could. I didn’t want to be gawped at, as if I was an exhibit in some kind of freak show. Fortunately it seemed that most people wanted to stay with Jesus, and I could lose the rest in the narrow streets. It wasn’t that hard to find my way down the slopes of the Tyropoean valley until I reached the pool, just inside the city gate.
As usual it was a busy, bustling place, so nobody was really watching as I dipped my hands into the cool, refreshing water. I cupped them to my face, and washed away the mud. What was I expecting? I don’t really know. But as I lowered my hands, I was suddenly aware of light flooding into my vision. I blinked for a moment, trying to get used to the fact I could see. And I really could. I could see the men standing around me. I could make out the details of their faces, the texture of their clothes, the roughness of their hands, the dust on their sandals. My life had suddenly entered a new dimension I had never thought possible before. This Jesus, whoever He was, had healed me.
I thought that would be the end of the story. I didn’t have to go back out onto the streets, so I went home to tell everyone the good news. My parents were out at the time, but I went and found as many of the neighbours as I could. After all, I had known most of them since I was a little boy. I knew how they spoke, I knew the touch of their hands, I even knew how they smelt. But now I wanted to see them as well. I wanted to watch the joy light up on their faces when they saw what had happened. I even imagined they might throw a party, and how I looked forward to joining in!
But their reaction was weird. Very soon a little knot of them had gathered round me. And while I was the centre of attention, they weren’t exactly talking with me, but rather about me. They gave me funny sideways glances and they began to ask each other: Isn’t this the same man who used to sit and beg? I felt like waving my arms and shouting to them, “Yes, hello, of course, it’s me” but I stopped myself just in time. It wouldn’t have done any good. I just watched. I saw for the first time the expressions when people get angry and confused. I saw the doubt in the eyes of those who thought I was an impostor, a confidence-trickster. I saw the hope in those who wanted to believe, but couldn’t quite work out what happened.
I did tell them of course: the man they call Jesus made some mud and put it on my eyes. He told me to go to Siloam and wash. So I went and washed, and then I could see. As far I was concerned, the facts spoke for themselves. But not for my neighbours. The doubters turned to me and demanded to know where this Jesus was. And of course I couldn’t say. But why did Jesus have to answer to them anyway?
We clearly weren’t getting anywhere. What I thought would be a celebration was fast turning into an exercise in suspicion and cynicism. I was about to ask where we went from here, when an elderly man who lived across the street said, “We need to take him to the Pharisees”. And on that point everyone agreed.
So next I went to the teachers of the law. Again, I told my story. Again, a complete lack of belief. I think I mentioned earlier all this had happened on a Sabbath. It was no big deal to me, then. When you’re in the gutter, one day is as good or as bad as any other. But the Pharisees had other ideas. Apparently they knew all about this Jesus, and most of them had already made their minds up about Him. One of them spoke up and said in a solemn, dreary voice: This man is not from God, for he does not keep the Sabbath. There was a general murmur of approval until someone asked the very question I had been thinking: How can a sinner do such miraculous signs? And so once more I found myself surrounded by a knot of people not so much talking with me, as about me. I felt like a piece of evidence in a trial.
In the end I think they remembered I was still there. One of the Pharisees looked me straight in the eye and asked me who I thought Jesus was. And for the first time in my life I looked straight back and said: He is a prophet. Maybe I was seeing too well, because the argument flared up again as to whether I really was the same person who had been born blind.
That’s when they brought my parents in. I hadn’t had a chance to speak to them since my encounter with Jesus. As my mother was escorted into the room, she caught sight of me. I could see for a brief moment the joy and the happiness flicker across her face. But then she and my father realised exactly where they were – before the middle of the most powerful religious authorities in the country. And their expression soon turned into one of utter terror. One wrong word, and they would be banished from the synagogue, made an example of, reviled as followers of Jesus.
Then the teachers of the law pointed at me and said: Is this your son? Is this the one you say was born blind? How is it that now he can see? Very slowly, my parents’ gaze shifted from them to me. There was a pause. I could tell they were both so nervous. Then very hesitantly and very quietly they said: We know he is our son and we know he was born blind. But how he can see now, or who opened his eyes, we don’t know. Ask him. He is of age; he will speak for himself. And with that they led them away again. I think my mother tried to turn and look at me one more time. But no-one gave her the opportunity.
So in the end it was just me with the best brains in the land. Me, a poor beggar with nothing but a story of being healed. I expected they thought it was going to be a push-over. They had already decided this Jesus was a sinner, a rebel, a heretic. But I wasn’t going to take that lying down. I still remembered the warmth of His voice. I still remembered the gentleness of His touch. I knew I had been in the presence of someone extraordinarily special, someone who didn’t deserve to be written off in this way. I won’t go into all the details of the argument that took place. Suffice to say, it ended when I said: If this man were not from God, he could do nothing.
At which point I felt the full force of their anger as two burly men grabbed me by the shoulders and quite literally threw me outside. I just heard their parting shot: You were steeped in sin at birth; how dare you lecture us! For a moment, I wanted to go back inside and ask them if they had a monopoly on goodness and truth, but I bit my tongue. For the reality suddenly hit me, I was my own. I wasn’t sure I had anywhere to go. Would my parents welcome me back? What about the reaction of the neighbours? And how from now on would I earn a living?
I began to wander the streets, trying to make sense of all that happened. It had been a long, confusing day and I couldn’t tell what tomorrow would bring. All I knew was that I wouldn’t be going back out on the street to beg. So what then?
I must have been pretty lost in my thoughts, because I didn’t notice someone come up to me until He placed His hand on my shoulder. I looked up, but I already knew who He was. Having been blind, I could always recognise someone by their touch, and no-one had such a warm and gentle touch as Jesus. And there Jesus was, looking straight at me, looking into the very depths of my soul. And as He looked at me, I began to understand who Jesus really was. Jesus must have been reading my thoughts, because when He spoke, the first thing He asked was: Do you believe in the Son of Man?
I think I knew the answer already, but I just wanted to make sure. “Who is he, sir? Tell me so that I may believe in him”. And of course Jesus told me, with the most loving smile I have ever seen on anyone’s face (and I have by now seen quite a few faces). Then I knelt before Him. Not crouching as a blind beggar in the market-place, but worshipping as a disciple before my Saviour. There was nothing more to be said than: Lord, I believe. Whatever else my life would involve, it would from now on be based on following and serving this Jesus, whatever the cost.
As you might imagine, this Sabbath day changed my world completely. And as I’ve looked back over all that has happened, I’ve often thought about what it means to be blind. I’m so aware that so many of my friends are still on the street, they are still blind, they are still begging, although we do try and help them as much as we can. But I ask myself: is being blind a greater disability than not seeing who Jesus is? Isn’t it worse to be blinded by suspicion like my neighbours or fear like my parents or anger like the Pharisees? I reckon they’re really the ones still stumbling around in darkness.
That’s why day by day I’m still praying for them, praying they will stop resisting the light which Jesus wants to shine in their hearts. But that’s enough of my story this morning. What about yours? Have you found the light of Christ in your life or are you still resisting Him? Yes, I know from my own experience that you may lose everything from letting Jesus into your heart. The moment Jesus healed me I lost my friends, my home, my security. But I can tell you that all’s nothing compared to knowing Jesus as my Lord. And I can only hope, dear friends, that is as true for you as it is for me.