In the spring of 2013, I was in my third trimester of pregnancy with my first child, my son Abel. By late April, I was incredibly tired of being pregnant. My feet hurt, and my back hurt, and the stretched-out muscles and tendons of my abdomen hurt. I couldn’t really take a deep breath because the baby was pushing up against my lungs. I couldn't get comfortable enough to sleep deeply. I was ravenously hungry, but would feel uncomfortably full after only a few bites (because, again, it was crowded in there). I couldn’t drink alcohol, or much caffeine, or eat sushi or deli meat or sit in a hot tub. Strangers would offer unsolicited opinions constantly: It’s a boy! It’s a girl! It’s twins! It’s triplets! Don’t eat that! Don’t wear those shoes! Get lots of exercise! Stop walking so much! It was, frankly, exhausting. And on top of all of that, we moved to a larger apartment when I was 38 weeks pregnant. One day, my mother was visiting, helping me try to get everything unpacked and prepared for the baby’s arrival, and I said to her, “I am so tired and so uncomfortable all the time. But there's only another week or two before things go back to normal.” And she just looked at me, trying not to laugh, as I realized afresh that things were never going to go back to normal.
There are moments in our lives where something happens, and things never go back to normal: the birth of a child, the death of a loved one, a devastating diagnosis, an exciting new job, a graduation ceremony, meeting the person we want to spend our lives with, encountering Jesus, becoming a Christian. Something happens, and the narrative of our life changes forever. The question is not when things will go back to normal, the question is, how will we make sense of this change? What new story we will tell ourselves about our own life and identity? What do we do when the narrative changes?
In today’s text, we hear a story of Jesus changing the narrative of someone’s life, and how he and his community face, or fail to face, that change. There was a man who was blind from birth, the text tells us. Now, blindness was more common in that time and place than it is in our contemporary reality. The hot, dry, and dusty climate made it easy for grit to get into people’s eyes, and from time to time, a scratchy, sore eye would become infected. Without modern medicine, an eye infection could easily progress to blindness. That kind of blindness was not unusual; what was unusual, however, was the kind of blindness that the man in today’s story has: he is someone who was born blind.
Congenital blindness was rare then, as it is now, and any kind of birth defect was often considered by faithful people to be some kind of divine punishment for sins. So when Jesus and the disciples encounter the man, the disciples ask him a theological question: who sinned, that this man should be born blind? If his blindness is punishment for his parents’ sins, that seems to suggest a God who is callous and capricious, punishing a child for sins beyond his control, although there certainly are biblical passages where God speaks of visiting the sins of the parents upon their children. If his blindness is punishment for his own sins, how could that be, since he was blind at birth? But Jesus rejects the premise of the question. The man was born blind not as punishment for sin of any kind, he says, but so that God’s work might be revealed.
What follows is perhaps one of the grossest and most vividly incarnational moments in scripture: Jesus spits onto the ground, and then works the saliva into the dirt, making a paste of mud and spit. Then he spreads it onto the man’s eyes and sends him to wash. When the man returns, he can see for the first time in his life.
The striking thing about this passage, though, is not the miracle itself, but its aftermath. In this forty-one verse account of Jesus healing this blind man, the first seven verses are the story of the blind man being healed, and the following thirty-four verses are the story of how the community responds to this miracle. First, the neighbors can barely recognize the man — his blindness was, perhaps, such a defining feature that they are not even sure this sighted man is the same one they had come to know.
Then the neighbors take him to the Pharisees. The Pharisees have already quarreled with Jesus, and now they are faced with an account of him healing a blind man on the sabbath day. They believe that observing the sabbath is an essential part of being godly and righteous. They believe that healing on the sabbath day is a violation of sabbath laws. And they believe that one must be righteous and godly to possibly be able to perform such a miracle. Therefore, they conclude, Jesus must not have healed this man; the story is impossible; the man must be lying for some reason about having been born blind. They call the man’s parents to testify, and the parents assert that yes, this is their son, and yes, he was born blind. Then they turn, once again, to the man, and demand that he resolve the conflicts they perceive in his story. Again and again, the man declines to speculate on who Jesus is or explain how the miracle was done. But again and again, he tells them his experience: I was blind. Jesus put mud on my eyes. Now I can see.
The community around the man is understandably curious, but also hung up on the past, refusing to take in what has happened and move forward. From the neighbors who cannot even recognize the man they’ve known for his whole life now that he has sight, to the Pharisees who are unable or unwilling to reconcile the various pieces of the story they’re being told: he was blind, now he can see, Jesus did it somehow. “That doesn’t make any sense,” they conclude. “Some part of that must be a lie. Tell us what really happened.” The man, though, is embracing this change in his life, this new understanding of who he is, this new story. “I was blind, but now I see,” he says — words which he lends to the famous hymn “Amazing Grace.”
When God breaks in to the world, when God enters into our lives, our story changes forever. Things never go back to normal. The question is, will we be stuck in the past, like the neighbors? Will we get hung up on understanding every detail like the Pharisees? Or will we embrace the unexpected gifts and happenings, and find our way to a new story of who we are, like the man does?
As I was reflecting on this story, I thought about the fact that Christians have tended, over the centuries, to not be as good to people with disabilities as we really ought to be. We follow a savior who helped the lame to walk, the blind to see, and the deaf to hear, but all too often we use metaphors of blindness, deafness, and mobility impairment as metaphors for sin, stubbornness, ignorance, and close-mindedness. When the Americans with Disabilities Act was making its way through legislatures in the 1980s, American churches lobbied hard to have churches excepted from the requirements that public spaces be renovated to be accessible to those with disabilities — and unfortunately, the churches won. Furthermore, the stories we tell about disability are often confined to the biblical narrative in which a disabled person is miraculously healed. Those narratives, while inspiring to us, can be alienating to people with disabilities for all kinds of reasons.
In light of all this, I finally pulled off my shelf a book that was recommended to me some time ago, a memoir entitled Harnessing Courage by the Rev. Laura Bratton, who was the first blind woman to graduate with an M.Div from Princeton Theological Seminary. The memoir tells the story of Laura’s journey into blindness. Born fully sighted and diagnosed with retinal disease at age nine, Laura slowly went blind over the course of her middle school and high school years. Laura speaks of her struggles with faith as her sight degenerated. In one scene, she calls a wise older friend from church, asking her to explain the stories of Jesus miraculously restoring the sight of the blind; she describes how her friend simply wept with her, joining her in her grief at the loss of her sight. Later, she speaks of a new understanding of God. She says she is not grateful for the loss of her sight or the emotional tumult of becoming blind during her teenage years, but she came to understand that God was present in the support and love she received from her friends and family, in the daily sustenance of joyful moments, supplying daily strength to move forward. While our text from John today tells the story of a blind man receiving sight, and Laura’s book tells the opposite story, the story of a sighted child permanently losing her vision, God is just as present in both stories: guiding both the man blind from birth and the girl losing her vision forward into a new reality, a new life, a new narrative, a renewed perception of God’s loving and sustaining presence.
The challenge to us, as we encounter these stories, is what we will do when change comes: sight lost or restored, good news or bad, a birth or a death. Will we get stuck in the past like those neighbors who cannot even recognize what has happened? Will we become preoccupied with questions of why and how like the Pharisees? Or will we seek God’s presence and move forward into the story of our lives as individuals, or our lives as a community? Again and again, we find ourselves in a place we’ve never imagined: in our own individual lives in a variety of ways; as a church community, as we navigate this time of transition; as a nation, navigating the events of the last few months. In those moments, we are invited to seek God’s presence and to live boldly into this new story of who we are and how God has moved in our lives. No matter what the future holds, we are invited to see God in the unfolding of our story: bringing healing to broken places, strength to move forward in the midst of challenge, guiding us toward a future with hope. We are called, in the midst of change and uncertainty, to learn over and over again to retell the story of who we are and whose we are: we are beloved of God. We are held in God’s hand, facing joy and sorrow as we follow Jesus’ call to discipleship. We are moving boldly and faithfully forward, so that God’s work might be revealed.
Thanks be to God.