We are living in a strange time right now, aren’t we? A time when we are surrounded by suspicion and fear…and also a time when we are pulling together to care for and protect each other. A time when we doubt what our eyes and ears tell us…and also a time when we put our faith in people we hope can protect and heal us. A time when when so many people are hoarding food and material goods…and also a time when we are being generous with our resources. A season of the church in which we are called to engage in the daily discipline of faith practice…and a season of the world in which we are mandated to engage in daily discipline the likes of which none of us have experienced. A digital age in which we bemoan the lack of connection, the lack of community, brought about by our emphasis on social media…and a time in which our social distancing encourages us to seek out new forms of digital connection and online community. A time in which we are blind to what is coming next, praying for someone, anyone, to tell us that we are on the right path forward through this crisis.
We haven’t done anything to bring COVID-19 on ourselves. Like the man who was born blind in the Gospel reading for today, this was not brought on us by sins we committed. It just happened. It is a circumstance of our lives. And here we are, living the life that has been set before us to live, making the best of what we have been given. Looking for any glimmer of hope we can see in the darkness, hoping to be able to see our way through to the other side of this pandemic.
For weeks now, we have been hearing different voices giving us different information. At the start, our minds – at least my mind – was telling me that this was on the other side of the world, nothing we would need to worry about here. Then scientific voices, the voices crying in the wilderness, telling us that we needed to start “social distancing,” go out less, stay home more – while other voices disagreed with them, telling us to go out to dinner, go shopping, spend money, prop up the economy. We heard voices telling us that we were only at risk if we traveled to China, to Iran, to Italy – while other voices disagreed with them, talking about the risk of community spread. We heard voices telling us that we were overreacting, that this isn’t that bad – while other voices disagreed with them, telling us that we didn’t know yet how bad it would get. It wasn’t surprising if people didn’t know who to trust, where to turn, what to believe.
That question of who to believe is raised in our Gospel reading for today, as well. This is a story with a large cast of characters – Jesus, the man born blind, his parents, the Pharisees, the disciples, and even the man’s neighbors. Two people in this whole story are truth-tellers: Jesus and the blind man. The Pharisees deny the truth; the parents of the man born blind try to hide the truth; and the neighbors doubt the truth. The disciples serve as a catalyst to get us thinking about the nature of blindness (in the man’s case), or disease (in our current context), or anything else that sets us apart – either from others or from how we were before.
I am struck by the fact that the man born blind did not ask to be healed of his blindness. Surely he was aware of it; surely he was aware of this difference between him and his parents, his community. How could he not have been? His blindness singled him out. The belief at the time, as the disciples point out, was that his blindness was a punishment from God, that either he or his parents had committed some sin that led to his inability to see. This question is familiar to us. We often wonder, we are often afraid to ask, but we so often assume the answer to the question: is it our fault? Did we do something to deserve it? But Jesus reassures the disciples and us; no, we did nothing to cause this. The man born blind did nothing to deserve his blindness; it is not a punishment. It is a circumstance of his life.
And like any other circumstance of life, the man born blind has learned to adapt. He has found his way in the world, begging at the city walls. He accepts that this is his circumstance, and does not ask Jesus for healing. Maybe he doesn’t realize healing is possible; after all, this has never happened before. Maybe it just doesn’t occur to him that he needs healing! After all, his life is functioning just fine.
But Jesus heals him, using the same stuff that God used to create Adam, the dirt of the earth, and mixes it with his spit to create a mud plaster for his eyes, and then sends him to wash in the pool of Siloam, which means Sent. The Greek word for “sent” comes from the same root as apostle. Not only does Jesus give him sight, but Jesus calls him to follow.
It would have been easy for the man born blind to just go about his way, to say the easy thing when questioned, and to make a new life for himself, living quietly with his newly-found sight and perhaps picking up his father’s trade. But he doesn’t do that. When confronted by the forces of the world that doubt his story or pressure him to change it, he does not back down. He refuses to tell anything less than the truth.
He’s doubted first by the people in his neighborhood: “You aren’t that blind guy who used to sit and beg, are you? No, you must be someone else – someone who looks like him. But you can’t really be him, can you?” But John’s Gospel tells us, “He kept saying, ‘I am the man.’” He doesn’t tell them what they seem to want to hear – that he’s really someone else. He refuses to grant them the assurance that they can believe the evidence of their eyes, the assurance that the world is the way they have always known it to be. Instead, he insists on the truth.
And then the Pharisees get in on the act. They openly doubt his truthfulness in the matter, not only about how he was healed but also about whether he was healed at all – until they talk to his parents, who confirm that he was born blind, but refuse to speculate about how he was healed for fear of being kicked out of the synagogue. The Pharisees pressure the man to change his story, taunting him when he won’t do it. They refuse to hear the truth that the man born blind speaks about Jesus.
There are two remarkable things about this story. The first is the man’s unwillingness to compromise on his allegiance to the truth just to put others at ease. We don’t know what he was like before he was healed, but this allegiance to the truth seems to be born of his conviction that he was healed by God. Every time he tells the story, he references the man named Jesus. When he is asked who this man is, he identifies him as a prophet. He continues to stand firm in this conviction, even when he is mocked and reviled by the Pharisees, who deny that Jesus is a prophet, instead calling him sinful, unrighteous in the eyes of God. The association that the man born blind has with Jesus threatens to paint him with the same brush, but he still stands his ground.
The other remarkable thing about this story is the man’s unwavering faith. From the moment that he is healed, from the moment that he is called by Jesus to be an apostle, he believes that his sight was restored by a man who was sent by God, and he publicly professes this faith, even to the point of getting expelled from the synagogue. And when he sees Jesus again, he doesn’t just follow Jesus because Jesus healed him. When Jesus asks him if he believes in the Son of Man, his response is, “Who is he, sir? Tell me, so that I may believe in him.” This is no cult of personality he is ascribing to; this is faith in the one sent by God, even if that is someone else.
It’s not just physical sight that the man gains – not just the ability to see the way the sand eddies along in the wind, the way a face looks when it smiles, the shape and colors of a donkey or a palm tree or a pomegranate – although that is miracle enough. No, the real sight that the man is given, the true miracle that occurs, is the faith to believe in a God who heals him, even when the evidence of his ears – a sense he has relied on since birth – tells him otherwise. Even when the world tells him to doubt this faith and calls into question his integrity, and his faithfulness to the God of his childhood, the God of his forbears, the God who healed him.
We, too, have been washed in the pool of Siloam. In our baptisms, we were called to be apostles, marked with the cross of Christ and sealed by the Holy Spirit. We have been given the gift of sight – the miracle of faith in a God who heals us, even when all the evidence of the world tells us otherwise. Even when we are faced with a pandemic, and with the fear and anxiety that accompany us daily on our journey through our times. Even when we know that there is a chance our own physical health may suffer, we know that we are sent by God beyond ourselves.
The miracle of faith and healing is this: even in the face of fear, even in the face of social distancing, we find new ways to pull together. We find new ways to support each other. Intentional community in virtual spaces becomes an act of faith. Continuing to support our churches and the people whose lives and livelihoods are disrupted by social distancing and enforced closures becomes an act of faith. Supporting and caring for our neighbors, even while we protect ourselves and our loved ones, becomes an act of faith. When we live out our faith in this way, we show each other and the world that we, too, have been given the sight that faith grants us. We, too, believe in the Messiah who was sent to break our chains of sin and death. We believe that if we follow the God who baptized us and calls us forward into community, and sends us out into the world, we are indeed on the right path through the crisis.