March 19th, 2023
Rev. Rebecca Migliore
When I was little I remember making mud pies. I liked the feel of the dirt and water mixture, the way it squished between your fingers, the way you had to add dirt, and then water, to get just the right consistency, the way it took the baking of the sun to dry your pie out so it wouldn’t fall apart if you picked it up. Something so simple, dirt and water—common elements, things that anyone, any child, could construct.
So here we have Jesus, walking along, no coordinates given, and there appears a man blind from birth. (Notice, like the Samaritan woman at the well, we are not told this man’s name). And the disciples want to discuss the age-old question, “Who sinned, that God would punish that man in that way?” Jesus side-steps the issue instead focusing on how interaction with this person (dare I say all people) can be a chance to see the grace of God in real time.
But the question the disciple’s speech is not just a foil for Jesus’ own words. Many people in that time, and maybe in our own, wrongly view any difference in ability as a sign from God. And so, as Biblical scholar Richard Rohrbaugh says, “there was an ancient custom of spitting in the presence of the blind to protest oneself from the “evil eye.” A Jewish friend of mine will still say “Poo, poo, poo” anytime a blessing in one’s life is mentioned, to protect against the evil one getting any ideas about evening the score (Phyllis Meranus).
So this man was used to being spit at. It must have been a familiar sound. A common measure of how much he was not of the community, not of the people, not wanted. Pooh—go away. Pooh—you aren’t welcome here. Pooh—you are not of God’s realm. It was a physical attack, not just the sound, but the feeling of spittle, hitting your feet, your torso, your face. It was the exclamation point of disgust, the constant rhythm of a wilderness we can only imagine.
And to that Jesus says, “I am the light of the world.” I am the one who will help everyone see. And he spat on the ground (I can only imagine our man thinking “Even this one, the one they talk about as being a healer, a preacher, one of God, even he spits at me.”). And then, Jesus knelt and scooped up the earth he had spit upon, and made mud with the saliva. Now, as a storyteller, I often imagine the scene in my mind, I think through every detail. And the thing that popped into my mind at this moment was, “How much spit does Jesus have?”
If I spit on the ground, there wouldn’t be much “mud” to collect. Did Jesus have to spit more than once? Was he just very proficient in spitting and making enough moisture to create mud? Because it says he made mud (and this will become our second talking point). As he was making this mud, I wonder, what was our man was doing at this point? He knew Jesus, or someone had spit, and now there was quiet, or this smooshing sound, and then all of a sudden, someone touched him! Someone was smearing earth, wet earth, on his face, over his eyes!
Was this the latest way to abase him? Was it not enough to spit, now he was being dirtied as well. But I imagine that even before any words came out of Jesus’ mouth, the man felt that this was not a clod of dirt thrown at him, it wasn’t the smear of anger, rubbing his nose in something, this touch was gentle, touching his eyes, the way he touched people, trying to feel the contours, to know the person in a different sense.
And then Jesus said, “Go, wash in the pool at Siloam…” and he went. (I can only imagine what he was thinking, “What in the world is this about? Why has this Jesus put mud on my eyes and sent me to the cleansing pool?) But he went and he washed (as instructed) and he could see.
And I thought, here is Jesus, using common elements, earth and water, dust and spit, to bring this man into the community, to show this man the love and grace of God.
How like the Samaritan woman’s story of last week—where Jesus steps into whatever wilderness separates us from each other, or from God, and uses the most basic elements, water, earth, touch, love, to change our perception, to change our selves, to change our world.
What is interesting is that this story is far from over. It is unlike the story of the woman at the well, who then goes back to her community and is able to tell people about this encounter she has with Jesus. Unlike the story of the Samaritan community who listens to her, and then comes to Jesus themselves, and invites him to stay so that they might hear for themselves, this community is divided by this miracle, by this moment of God’s grace. It creates division among neighbors who now argue whether this is the same man they knew. It creates division among the Pharisees about whether Jesus is from God or not. It creates division between the man and his parents, as they don’t want to get caught up in this melee about their son.
As part of all this was the question, did Jesus break the Sabbath laws by doing this? For we are told that it happened on the Sabbath. And this gets back to the smooshing together of dirt and saliva to make mud. For it you have ever made a mud pie, or ever worked with clay, you know that you have to work the material until it is the right consistency. In other words, you have to knead it, almost the way you would knead flour to make bread. And herein lies the problem. In ancient times, there were very strict rules about what you could and couldn’t do on the Sabbath, and kneading, making bread, was forbidden. It was work. And Sabbath was supposed to be a time when you didn’t work, because you were supposed to be focused on God.
Time and time again, Jesus has this argument with the religious leaders of his day. For he healed when he was presented with someone who needed healing, even if they didn’t ask. He healed on every day of the week. He showed the grace of God, the love of God, the presence of God, each and every day—and that included on the Sabbath.
That is why Jesus says, early on in our story, this is “so that God’s works might be revealed... 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.”
Jesus is almost playing with the crowd, with the Pharisees, with us. What is work? He questions. What is Sabbath? He will argue with the Pharisees. Aren’t we always supposed to be doing God’s works? And wouldn’t the day set aside for the Lord be the ultimate time to do those works? Jesus doesn’t even use maybe the best underlining argument which is that what Jesus did mimics the creation story itself, God’s own actions, where it says, “God took earth from the ground and formed man from the dust and God’s breath, and the man became a living being” (Gen. 2:7). How could acting like God be wrong, at any time?
And like the creation story of us being fashioned by God, breathed on by God, made into a living being, this man, who is silent in our first scene, and who states very obvious, factual statements in the second scene (until the end where he declares Jesus a prophet), by our third scene is arguing himself with the religious authorities. And at the end, after he is driven out of the community, he is the one who responds to Jesus, asking to know who the Son of Man is, and when Jesus says, “I am he,” immediately says, “Lord, I believe.”
Again, like the Samaritan woman, it is the ones who are on the periphery of the community, the ones who have this open conversation with Jesus, who seem to get to the truth. Our woman says, “Is this the Messiah?” Our man says, “Lord, One of God, yes, I believe.”
The change in the man is as noteworthy as the change in the woman last week. Jesus with his living water, with his dirt and spit, with his bread and wine, offers us fellowship with him. Offers us the miracle of common elements being able to be so life-giving. Offers us the example of how we too could live our lives “working the works of God.” These people were not the A-team of their time. They were outliers, outcasts, the least of the least. So, none of us has any excuse.
These works were performed with things at hand, things that make up our everyday life. But the magic, the miracle, was the love and the friendship and the interaction and the time spent together. Again, none of us has any excuse. And I hear, echoing in my brain, the gospel of Matthew as well. For Jesus says “I am the light of the world” (Jesus is prone to making “I am” statements in the gospel of John). But we remember Jesus’ words in Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount where he says, “You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hid. No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.”
I wonder, is the gospel of John prodding us to try to look at our lives. Are these encounters that Jesus has with ordinary, flawed people supposed to poke at us? Are we finding Jesus at the well? Are we hearing the nudging to “Go and wash in the pool of Siloam”? Are we willing to be changed by our brush with Jesus? Are we willing to step out of our comfortable spaces? Are we willing to speak up? Are we willing to stand with Jesus even if it means leaving everything we know? Are we willing to be the ones who follow in the footsteps? Are we willing to offer others: living water, or earth and spit, or bread and grape, or close conversation, or touch, or love? Are we willing to do the works of God, dare I say, seeking justice, and loving mercy and walking humbly? Or put another way, Are we willing to see Jesus, to care for Jesus, in the least of our brothers and sisters as Matthew 25 insists we do?
I called this sermon Beyond Sight. Because sometimes we are all Missouri people, the “Show Me” state. We want to to see, and hear, we want to touch and smell, we want to taste. We like to have things proved to us, in the flesh, so to speak. And often we come to God, come to the church, with this attitude as well. We think, especially those of us who have sat in pews for a while, that we kind of know what is going on. We have gotten comfortable with the way we think God speaks, and the way that we answer.
But this passage pokes hole in any comfort we might feel. This passage asks us to go beyond any of that.
Those final words of the Pharisees “Surely, we are not blind, are we?” should strike a jarring unease in each of us. For the reality is that we don’t, maybe we can’t, see as another sees. I, as a white, middle-class woman, can never see what it is like to be black in this world, or to be poor in this world, or to be a man in this world. Each of us has our blind spots.
It is only in deep conversation that we can hear the experience of the other. It is only in offering common kindness, in offering the things at hand, that we are brought together. It is only in daily doing the work of God with what we have been given, that we fulfill our responsibility, our life-long task, our mission. It is only in recognizing that we are each beloved children of God that we truly see beyond sight.
May it be so, Amen and Amen.