A Sermon for the Fourth Sunday in Lent

By: Eleanor Wellford, Priest Associate

On the surface, the story that we just heard from John’s gospel is about a blind man who was healed by Jesus. Ironically it’s also about people who could see well enough but were blind to what was right in front of them.

I get that. How many times have I found myself standing in front of an open refrigerator door looking for something that I knew was in there? And how many times does my husband have to step in and pull out the item that I was looking for? It was there all along. I just didn’t see it.

Or how many times have I been on a walk, especially this time of year, and missed the beauty of nature in full bloom? It’s not that I choose to do that as much as I simply get distracted by my thoughts.

The man in this morning’s gospel had no choice about what he could see or not see. He was blind from birth. People would pass by him all the time, talking about him as if he weren’t there and speculating about the cause of his blindness. He was in the same place every day and every day they chose not to see him.

But Jesus saw him and felt compelled to heal him even though the blind man didn’t ask for that. Jesus just did it – and he happened to do it on the day of rest – the Sabbath. When the Pharisees heard about that, they didn’t like it one bit.

Jesus had become the bane of their existence. They didn’t understand who he was or what he was doing. And they certainly couldn’t understand how he could have opened the eyes of a man who was blind from birth.

Instead of marveling at the miracle, they summoned the poor beggar to the Temple. And when he got there, no one congratulated him or even cared enough to ask him what it was like to be able see for the first time or how confusing or scary it might be.

All the Pharisees cared about was interrogating that man so that they could get to the bottom of what happened and discover something that they could use against Jesus.

The man told them everything he could remember about the healing: the mud on his eyes and the water he used to rinse it off – but that was about it for details. Because his other senses had compensated for his lack of sight, he didn’t actually have to see Jesus to know who he was. He told the Pharisees that Jesus was a prophet.

If Jesus was a prophet, they said, then he must be a false prophet, not a true prophet like Moses who spoke the words of God. What they had heard Jesus speak was blasphemy and what they heard the poor beggar say was unacceptable.

And they drove him out of the Temple, leaving him alone to navigate a world that he was seeing for the first time. Yet he didn’t stay alone for long because Jesus came to him and comforted him and the man’s eyes were able to confirm what his heart already knew.

So, who were the people in this gospel story who could see well enough but who were blind to what happening right in front of them? Based on their behavior, it’s easy single out the Pharisees. But they couldn’t help themselves. They needed to be and were expected to be the keepers of Jewish custom and tradition.It kept them sane and in control. They thrived in a black and white world until Jesus came along and embodied the mystery and paradox of everything gray.

As the blind man found out after he was healed, there’s something scary about encountering what’s new and different. I think we’re all experiencing that right now. I tried to ignore it, at first, dismissing the hype about the coronavirus, becoming cynical about it being no worse than the flu and denying that I couldn’t possibly be old enough to be at risk.

I stopped being blind to what was going on, however, when I went to the grocery store and saw all the empty shelves there. Then I started to panic, loading up my shopping cart with items whether I needed them or not.

When I rolled my way over to a long check-out line, I expected all of us waiting there to be as impatient and disgruntled as I was. But I was wrong. Something unusual was going on.

I heard shoppers being kind to each other – offering their places in line to those with just a few items to check out; giving advice about where to find items on the shelves; swapping stories about working from home; and being cheerful with the cashiers and the baggers.

Somehow, the world had shifted and what I was seeing was completely out of the ordinary. And like the Pharisees, I wanted to make sense of what was going on. But I couldn’t.
Something felt familiar about it, though, and I realized that it was similar to what happened during the 911 crisis. It was as if some kind of tie was pulling together the goodness of our humanity – some kind of sacred tie that we didn’t need our eyes to see, but that our hearts knew was there.

If that was evident to me at the grocery store, it’s been even more evident to me here at St. Mary’s this past week – in the creativity of our staff in finding ways to help keep us connected in our isolation, and in the outpouring of love from parishioners of all ages wanting to know what they can do to help.

How do we explain how kindness like that can emerge from chaos? I don’t think we can. Like the blind man in this morning’s story who knew who Jesus was without actually seeing him, we need our hearts to be open to accept what we can’t see or know or understand any other way. And that’s okay, because that’s when the Holy Spirit does its best work.