A reflection on mud and spit

/ 22 March 2020

In another world, just a few weeks ago, I was invited to reflect on John 9:1-41 at the Lenten Prayer of the Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet in Saint Paul. While our current “social distance” has prevented our meeting face to face for this prayer and singing, I still wanted to share the reflection I had prepared last month. For those who would rather listen to than read this reflection, I have also prepared a recording of the reading and reflection with the help of my partner, Mary.

Here is a recording of the reading and reflection.

Close your eyes, extend your other senses. What do you hear? What do you smell? What do you feel? I know it is impossible, but imagine never having had sight, what would your world be? Would it be dark if you never knew light? Or would it be full of wonders that many of us sighted overlook? Now, wash your eyes in the pool to which you were sent and open them. Was your world of sensations before the pool enough? Is this world of light what you always desired?

Many of you know Alex, my son. You may not know that when he was born he experienced seizures we could not explain. At the newborn intensive care unit, a priest came to visit. He greeted us, celebrating what a sign of God’s grace it was that Alex was at this wonderful hospital, which immediately raised the question for us: was it a sign of God’s displeasure, then, that Alex was struck with this affliction in the first place?

“Rabbi,” the crowd asked, “who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” Who’s fault is it that we are afflicted? Is God punishing us for our sins or those of our fore bearers?

“Neither this man nor his parents sinned,” said Jesus, “but this happened so that the works of God might be displayed in him.” We are God’s work, afflictions and all. All that we bring to the table is a gift. At a meditation at Wisdom Ways some years ago, all that I could hear as I planted my feet and steadied my breath was the tinnitus ringing in my ears. I decided that it would become a gift for me, the unbearable unknowable ever-present voice of God. It rings in my ears still. I choose to believe that my tinnitus is the work of God displayed in me, that Alex’s palsy is the work of God displayed in him, that the man’s blindness happened, as Jesus said “so that the works of God might be displayed.”

And yet, that blindness was healed.

I find the agency in this healing remarkable. Did Jesus actually heal this blindness? I don’t see that said in this reading. Jesus put mud and spit on the man’s eyes, instructed him to wash it off, and when the man did so he could see. That is the account in the reading, that is the story the man recounts for the pharisees. What if the man had not obeyed Jesus’ instructions? What if he had not washed off the muck of the world? Or washed in a different pool? Was the healing in the mud? In the spit? In the pool itself? In the man’s own heart? Or in his act of obedience? I’m not sure, are you? Does either Jesus or the man himself ever say?

The lesson that stays with me from this story is that Jesus left the blind man to act, to resolve the situation for himself. Was putting mud and spit on the man’s face any improvement of his situation? I’d say not really. Is the muck of the world, the spit of our neighbor, the smell of the sheep really what any of us want? It is up to us to decide if we want to wash this off our selves. We have to journey to the pool to which we are called. We have to reach for the water. We have to wash our own face. And we have to open our own eyes with faith and eagerness all our own. We make our own decisions, choosing the world of sensations we know, or the world of light to which we are called? We have agency. God provides the dirt and maybe the whisper of the holy spirit, but we choose our action.

I had no idea what path lay before Alex when I sang to him in the NICU. Would he walk? Would he talk? I realized that the idea that we could control the outcome of something like a life was an illusion. I realized that at any moment something could happen that rips away the illusion of control, the sensations of the world as I had known it, and floods me with new information, a searing light that makes no sense, provides little comfort, but is the new world within which I live. My choices were my choices, but their consequences were unpredictable. I simply had to do my best, to remain open.

The no-longer-blind-man decides to credit Jesus with opening his eyes, with being a channel for God’s work. He decides to believe that Jesus is the Son of Man.

And Jesus, for his part, turns to the pharisees and points out that it is their very sight, their claim that they know how they world works that condemns them. If they were blind, they would not be guilty of sin, but they claim to see, so their guilt remains. There is no guilt in blindness, Jesus seems to be saying. But there is a great responsibility in sight. Gods gifts are present in both cases. A world of sensation, suffering, and joy awaits you on whatever path you choose. But woe to you who obey the call to wash your face, who venture to your own pool, wipe off the spit and muck, let in the light, and then turn away from what you see.

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