2-11-18 “I See What You Did There!”
This is a story that is just chock-full of marvelous images, amazing insights, and, if we really think about it, and are willing to admit it to ourselves, it frightens us.
This reading is all about sight, and seeing as a metaphor for believing or trusting. In fact, words for blindness, sight, seeing, and so forth appear 24 times in this 41-verse story. But "seeing" isn't just a metaphor. The man in the story really can't see.
And when he gains sight for the first time, his life is transformed. And we hear that and we feel good about it because “transformed” is slightly different from “changed,” and we don't like “change.”
And it’s interesting to compare this man to the man in our earlier story, who had been unable to walk for 38 years. One study writer, commenting on the conversation between Jesus and that man, suggests that the man was so used to his condition and to just being near the pool but not in it, that maybe he had just accepted his situation and wasn’t really trying to be healed. Jesus asks him, “Do you want to be healed?”
And how we interpret that question depends on which word we emphasize:
“Do you want to be healed?” - suggests there might be other options beside healing available to him, doesn’t it?
“Do you want to be healed?” - as though Jesus is making an offer to the first person who steps up (maybe not “steps” up, but you know what I mean) to heal that person.
Or, the way one study writer suggests it, “Do you want to be healed?” As in, you’ve been lying here next to this water for 38 years, that’s nearly 14,000 days. Surely you could have fallen into the water at least once in 14,000 days - do you even want to be healed?”
This man, unlike the man born blind in our second story, claims to have been seeking healing for decades to no avail. Healing means change for him.
Maybe, just maybe, he’s unwilling to do the work that he knows that change will create for him.
Maybe he’s so used to living the way he’s living, that the idea of changing it after all these years scares him more than the disability he lives with. Kind of choosing the “devil we know over the devil we don’t know.”
And if you have ever struggled with diet or exercise, like I have, or with trying to quit smoking or drinking, or anything like that then you know what he’s talking about. Quitting, changing diets and habits, especially fighting addictions, those are difficult things to do - maintaining the status quo seems invariably easier, even when we know the consequences of the status quo might be death or disability.
Transformation is disruptive. Change is disruptive. Always. And disruption rears its ugly head in three particular ways in this story.
First, after the man born blind receives his sight, even some of his own friends and neighbors don’t recognize him, even as he protests that he is who he says he is! Isn’t that odd, that people who knew him well as a blind man couldn’t recognize him once he’d recovered his sight? As he gains the ability to see them they lose the ability to see him. Or maybe it’s not as odd as we think.
How often do we define or label those around us in terms of their perceived shortcomings, challenges, or deficits? That woman is unemployed, we may say, or this man is divorced. She’s a single mom; he’s a high school dropout. He’s a failure; she’s an alcoholic.
She has cancer. He’s depressed. She’s gay. He’s undocumented.
As theologian David Lose suggests, “…we don’t just do this to others. We do it to ourselves, too, allowing past setbacks, disappointments, or failures to shape how we see ourselves. We seem to have such a penchant for defining others -- and ourselves -- in terms of problems rather than possibilities that we aren’t sure what to do when the situation changes. And so the friends of the man born blind have defined him -- and their relationships with him -- so fully in terms of his disability that they can’t recognize him when he regains his sight.”
When we look at ourselves in the mirror, literally or metaphorically, we tend to define ourselves not in terms of our relationship with God - as beloved Children of God - but rather in terms of our possessions or power, or our perceived disabilities, faults, or shortcomings.
It’s as though something or somebody is trying to steal our true identity from us. But sometimes the identity thief isn’t something sinister or evil, but rather those much closer to us, and sometimes we ourselves steal, or trade away, our identity as God’s beloved children. Why?
Well Lose suggests its, “because sometimes it’s easier to live with our defined, even if deformed, sense of ourselves and others than to risk the new identity and abundant life that Jesus offers us. Just as Jesus sought out the man who sees and confirmed him in his healing, new identity, and abundant life, so also will he seek us out, rebuking all those who steal or limit our identity (even when we do it to ourselves!) and invite us to rich and abundant life.”
So that’s the first way disruption shows up in this story.
Second, when word of the man’s transformation reaches the religious authorities they don’t believe him, so they call his parents, and even the man’s own family distance themselves from him. Now, scholars believe that this part of the passage reflects what may have been going on in John’s community when he wrote this;
that is, that folks who followed Jesus may have been expelled from the synagogue. In this sense, his parents may be representative of family members of John’s exiled Jewish community who kept silent to protect themselves. Regardless of that, however, it offers a metaphor of how systems react to change.
- Have you ever felt yourself isolated or abandoned?
- How do you think this passage addressed those feelings for John's community?
- How might they address our feelings when we feel left out or alone?
Whether we’re talking about a community, a congregation, or a family, when a system organizes itself around a specific problem it has a difficult time moving toward health. Even unhappy and unhealthy systems tend to prefer a known problem to an unknown solution and have a hard time letting go of the very things that are limiting them. A “problem child” leaves the home and another child begins acting up. A “disruptive member” moves away from a congregation and two others become disruptive. The very systems we live in, when organized around problems, create new problems when the old ones are alleviated because that’s what they’ve become used to solving; we might say “that’s how they’ve always done it.”
And so the man’s parents, fearful of the consequences of their son’s sight, play it safe by distancing themselves from their son.
The third disruption, the man who sees (notice how easy it was to label him and this whole story “the man born blind;” that is, in terms of his deficit) is eventually kicked out of the community. Sometimes a move toward healthy change is disruptive to those safely embedded in the status quo, so the move toward healthy change and new identity is often sabotaged.
Can you think of some examples of when that might happen or when it happened in a community or group you’re part of?
- A member of singles group gets married and is no longer “comfortable” for the single friends
- A co-worker gets promoted to a new department and is excluded from social events with her former co-workers
- Or in a kinds of self-seclusion, a church member, unhappy with change or lack of change - disengages from the community altogether.
The ways in which we have adopted alternative identities or labels for ourselves and others rather than the identity we’re given in Jesus may serve us poorly, but at least they’re familiar. With blinders on we’ve learned to cope with our limitations even as we resent them.
And so out of fear, we often resist, if not flat out reject, those who invite us to a new identity and new possibility. In this story, the cost of acknowledging that this man was cured by Jesus -- that is, acknowledging that Jesus was sent by God -- was simply too great to those in authority.
So what do they do? They deny that it even happened and, when that fails, they drive out the man who stands as living evidence to his own testimony.
This passage also challenges our often simplistic understandings of sin. When the disciples voice a common view of the day -- that disability or hardship is the result of sin -- Jesus disagrees. Similarly, when the Pharisees assume that knowledge of and compliance with the law automatically grants righteousness, Jesus counters by saying that precisely because they deny their sin and claim to "see" they are in fact sinning.
If they were able to admit their blindness, they would not be sinning and would receive sight. In John's Gospel, "sin" at its most basic is not recognizing Jesus as God's messiah, the person through whom God is at work to save the world.
Q: How do we hear “sin” typically defined?
- Violating God’s law
- Separation from God
- Anything we disagree with? Are afraid of?
Q: How might this story broaden our understanding of both sin and grace?
The turning point of the story may be when the man born blind receives his sight. It may also be, however, when he confesses his faith as a result of his new found sight. Many Christians since -- including John Newton, the slave-trader turned abolitionist and composer of "Amazing Grace" have been inspired by the man's confession, "One thing I do know, that though I was blind, now I see!"
Q: Where have you felt blind in our lives?
- In how we view others?
- In how we think about faith in general and our faith in particular?
- How we used to think about something and then our view changed?
Where have you experienced a sense of new sight, of new life, a new chance to be the person Jesus calls you to be?
One of the hallmarks of John’s Gospel is that when Jesus arrives on the scene and in our lives, everything changes. Think about that in terms of the stories we've heard so far. Limitation and scarcity thinking fall by the wayside with the one who can transform water into wine. There is no longer any need for sacrifice because the lamb of God who takes away sin is here.
Divisions (and their corresponding ethnic definitions) between Samaritans and Jews fade away in the presence of the one who offers living water. And the one who can heal even a man born blind is the One who offers not just life, but life in all of its abundance.
When Jesus comes into our life, things change.
That sounds good. Until we realize that change is always disruptive. And then we wonder whether the change, the transformation -- even when it promises new life -- is worth it. Transformation is hard, but it’s also life giving. For what Jesus wants for us isn’t just survival, mere subsistence, getting by, or any of the others ways we formulated and excused living half-lives.
No, what Jesus wants for us is life, full and rich and abundant life. The kind of life that comes from knowing that we have infinite worth in God’s eyes and are and always will be God’s beloved child.
So my hope is that by engaging in this kind of experience and conversation, maybe this week you’ll keep thinking about this encounter between the man who regains his sight and Jesus, and how it can inform and transform our lives of faith in the world.
You are more than the labels that others apply to you and more than the labels you apply to yourself. You are more than the sum of your fears and more than the things you possess. Jesus invites us to see and be the people God created us to be - beloved children of the God who loves you more than you can know.
Because the good news of the gospel, the promise that we share in making this invitation is simply this:
Jesus still comes to those in need to grant sight, faith, and life to all those who ask. Amen.