I Once was Blind

John 9: 1-41 Lent 4 2020

That was quite a story that John the Evangelist told! What would you say if I asked you just what it’s about?  There was rather a lot to take in all at once. Well – it’s not really a story about a miraculous healing, although that’s how I first learned it. You may have noticed that the moment of healing is a very small part of the story. In fact, the moment of healing isn’t the critical point; it’s a sign that points to something beyond itself, and that is, what happens next when someone has an encounter with Jesus. This is a favourite ploy of John the Evangelist. His gospel is often called the ‘signs’ gospel.

This is a story about time; about before and after; then and now; years ago and today; always and then suddenly. Suppose for a moment, you were the man born blind. There was a moment, you say. There was a thing that happened. There was a man you met. He touched you with mud and light, and your world changed. Before, you were blind; afterwards, you could see. That’s your story. But what else happened then?

What did happen seems a little strange. The man born blind could see, but everyone else appeared to have become blind. His neighbours – the people he’d grown up with – didn’t recognize him. Those neighbours would have been meeting him all the time – perhaps from the time of his birth. They may even sometimes helped him across the street, or been in the synagogue with him.  Nor did people who had passed him every day in the street recognize him. And it probably was every day, because in those times, beggars had their particular places where they stopped all day and begged for alms.  In any case, a blind beggar would be even less likely to move around. He was probably led to his spot each morning and parked there, and collected again in the evening. When he came walking confidently down the street towards them, these people who had seen him every day didn’t know him.

This shouldn’t perhaps surprise us. You know how it is when you meet someone out of context. You know you should know this person, but it can take a while for the penny to drop. They’re out of uniform perhaps, or wearing quite different clothes and doing quite different things. And this is with perfectly ordinary people that we meet in supermarkets, or at church gatherings. It’s often an issue for teachers – or lay preachers! There are so many people whom we don’t take time to meet, in the sense of acknowledging their significance as fellow humans.

This is a warning to us I think. The community in our story failed to recognize the man after he had been healed. Is this because the only marker of his identity was his blindness – was that the only thing they could ever see in him?  How often do we see someone with a disability – any disability – and only see the disability, not the person. I once met a delightful American woman called Connie in the St Johns Nelson congregation. She and her husband came over from Alaska every year from November until April. Connie had multiple sclerosis, and when I met her she was getting herself about in a motorized chair. She was exceedingly independent, and often could be seen motoring around by herself – which suited her husband because Connie was inclined to enter into conversation with anyone she came across, and it could take a long time to get home. (I suspect many couples have an issue with this one!) But when Connie was with her husband, she got very fed up with the number of people who then expected Ames to answer for her. People would say, over Connie’s head, how is your wife today, or, what would your wife like? It’s a very easy trap to fall into – seeing a problem, not a person.

The same sort of thing can happen with people who beg in our streets, or who busk in exactly the same place every day. How often do we really look at these people – enough to be able to recognize them in another place, or to know them again if their circumstances had suddenly changed?

So – the neighbours didn’t know the man born blind. And when he kept on saying, but it’s me – it really is me, of course they wanted to know what happened? And then, how could he possibly explain what happened? There was a man, he said, and he touched my eyes with mud, and I can see. That’s all I know. Some things, some miracles, can never be explained. When something happens that changes the way we look at and experience life, we can tell people how it happened to us, and what we believe about it. But, in the end, it’s our experience, and nobody else can experience it in the same way. If we put this story into our own personal context, then it could be about the time before and the time after, then and now, who we were for years and years and who we are today. The moment of change – of conversion to use a technical term – that moment itself isn’t as important as the difference it made to the way we live and act now.

There’s more than physical blindness in this story. Almost everyone else fails the man born blind because of their own disabilities. His own family backs off – they more or less tell the authorities, he’s a grown man, he can speak for himself. He’s not our responsibility any more and what he believes about this strange event is entirely his own belief and nothing to do with us. Well, maybe we can understand an older couple not wanting to sacrifice their home, work and community standing for their son. But surely they could have been happy for him – held a party for him, like another father who appears in the gospel texts. But no, their fear blinds them to the opportunity for joy, and they abandon their son to the authorities.

The authorities also fail to see and understand. The Pharisees don’t want to hear or believe the man’s story because it doesn’t fit with the story they want to tell. They most certainly don’t want Jesus to be the hero of the story. In their story, Jesus was a sinner. They want an explanation that leaves them in control.  They are the ones who dispense God’s grace, and they are the ones who define sin, and they are the ones who hold all the power that goes with these privileges.  This isn’t a scenario that belongs in the past. We still fight over the privileges of monitoring God’s grace and defining what sin is and who the sinners are.

We also continue to struggle with those moments of blinding insight, both our experiences and the experiences of others. When we listen to the stories people tell us, we need to remember always that these are not our stories. If we focus on the embarrassment we can feel when someone tries to tell us about their particular ecstatic moment, then we’re in danger of becoming so obsessive about our own discomfort that our ability to hear and rejoice is ruined. It’s no wonder, really, that we are also inclined to keep our own stories to ourselves, because we know how others will receive them.

It may help us if we focus on realities that we can describe. The man born blind can’t describe his conversion experience to anyone’s satisfaction, but he can tell the difference it makes. ‘All I know” he says, ‘is that I was blind, and now I can see.’ He’s talking about things others can see and hear for themselves. We can do that. We can say, once I saw the world like that, now I see it like this. Once I believed that, and now I believe this, and this is how it has changed my living. Hang onto the facts.

In these days, there’s a tendency to want everything to happen fast and faster. We saw it here after the earthquakes. Put the city back quickly. Tell us the plans now. Show us the concepts and let’s see the building begin. We see it again now. How soon will this pandemic pass. When can we get back to normal life. If we’re not careful, we’ll get so obsessive about the slowness of everything and the apparent failures to respond to need – our need, that we’ll be blind to the action of God’s grace in our midst. All the acts of kindness to neighbours and strangers; the tireless work of the medical workers; the extra work put in by shopkeepers in the interests of their customers’ safety; the linesmen and the road-menders and builders who try to get work finished; the extra hours put in by police and government members and volunteers. Most of them will never find their way into the glare of the media lights, but if we watch and listen, we’ll hear the stories all around us, and some of them will be stories about before and after, then and now, how I was then, and how I am now. Never doubt that there will be some conversion stories out there.

Sometimes, too, conversion doesn’t happen all in a moment, and that’s another aspect of this story. There was the one moment when the blind man could see. But he didn’t move immediately into seeing who Jesus was. First, he was simply the man who was the agent of this great change; someone who was owed gratitude, but not someone to worship. Remember, he didn’t actually see Jesus at first – he heard him. His sight wasn’t restored until he had washed the mud out of his eyes. It wasn’t until Jesus sought him out and stood with him in his isolation and called him into faith that the man saw, truly saw, just who and what Jesus was.

We don’t need explanations of what happened. This story is calling us not to shield our eyes from the light of God in the world, but to open our eyes wide and step out in faith and tell our stories of then and now.