The blind man did not ask for any of this. If you’ll recall, he was quietly sitting by the side of the road, minding his own business, when suddenly the disciples notice him. The disciples, who clearly have still not fully understood Jesus, ask Jesus whether the blind man or his parents sinned to make him blind. I’m sure the blind man was used to this kind of conversation. People probably felt free to talk about him as if he wasn’t there all the time. Maybe the blind man was insulted. Maybe the blind man wondered about the cause of his blindness himself. In any case, you can almost hear Jesus’ irritation as he tries to explain that the blindness was not caused by sin. Without the blind man’s request or permission Jesus spits in dirt, rubs it in the man’s eyes and then tells him to go and take a bath.
Can you imagine? The poor blind man just wants to be left alone, or maybe get a little change from a sympathetic passerby, and instead some stranger rubs mud into his eyes! And not only mud, but mud that has been moistened with human spit. What a disgusting thing to do to another person! The blind man gets out of there, goes to the pool that Jesus suggested, washes the mud from his eyes and sure enough, suddenly his sight is restored. He can see! Suddenly Jesus’ interruption into his life is not an annoyance, but a huge blessing.
The man returns to his neighborhood and once again the neighbors start talking about him as if he’s not there. “Isn’t that the guy who used to beg?” He can hear them gossiping. Finally they ask him directly and he tells them exactly what happened. A man named Jesus. The mud. The pool. The sight. No, he doesn’t know where Jesus is now.
This starts to happen over and over to the man. The Pharisees drag him in for questioning. He gives the same answers. Jesus. Mud. Now he can see. The man can see things around him for the first time, and he can also see what the Pharisees are up to. The Pharisees start to whisper gleefully—“Oh, Jesus healed on the Sabbath. He can’t be from God. We’ve got him now! “ But the formerly blind man knows their logic is as short sighted as the logic about how sins cause medical conditions. He is brave enough to tell the Pharisees that he thinks Jesus is a prophet.
Then the authorities haul his parents in for questioning. Now, his parents’ sin might not have caused his blindness, but they don’t win parent of the year awards here, either. Instead of rising to the blind man’s defense they say, “Yes, he’s our son, but that’s all we know. We swear! Ask him! He’s old enough!”
Once again, the man is hauled before the Pharisees. They tell him to “give glory to God” by admitting Jesus is a sinner. The irony here is delicious. Once again, the man sticks to his story. All he knows is that he was blind and now he sees. When they ask him the same questions over and over again he finally snaps back and asks them, “Why are you so interested? Do you want to become his disciples?” Our man has some spine! The Pharisees are horrified, of course. They tell the man that they don’t even know where Jesus is from. They are starting to sound like old Southern biddies. “We don’t know who his people are.”
What’s interesting here is that the more the Pharisees push, the more the man sees, and the more the man believes. With every encounter, his boldness at describing Jesus deepens. He might have started out as a man on the sidelines, but the Pharisees are pulling faith out of him thread by thread, even though they intend the opposite. After the Pharisees curl their noses at Jesus’ lineage, the formerly blind man uses their own logic against them.
“Here is an astonishing thing! You do not know where he comes from, and yet he opened my eyes. We know that God does not listen to sinners, but he does listen to one who worships him and obeys his will. Never since the world began has it been heard that anyone opened the eyes of a person born blind. If this man were not from God, he could do nothing.” The Pharisees are infuriated and drive the blind man out of town.
The man has nowhere near the education the Pharisees have. As a blind person, he could not have studied the Torah. In their world view the Pharisees have all the knowledge about God and the formerly blind man has none.
We know the opposite is true. After the man is cast out of town, Jesus searches him out and reveals his identity to him. Jesus is not just a man. Jesus is not just a prophet. Jesus is not just a Godly person. Jesus is the Son of God. While the Pharisees are debating about the fine points of Jesus healing on the Sabbath, the man Jesus healed is having an encounter with the living God. His lack of education, his lack of resources, his former disability—none of that stands in the way of the encounter. His faith helps him see God in a way that the Pharisees are unable to see. We learn that they are actually the blind people in this story. They have every opportunity to see the work of God, but they are too caught up in their own rules and power to see it.
Jesus may no longer be walking around on earth occasionally muddying someone’s eyes, but Jesus still shows up in our lives whether we ask for him or not. Experiences with God are not limited to those brilliant professors at Princeton Seminary or the clergy in this town. In fact, sometimes the “experts” get so caught up in the details, like the Pharisees we can miss encounters with God right before our noses!
The Holy Spirit can break in to anyone’s life at any time and give a person an encounter with the risen Christ. History is filled with these moments. St. Augustine, who had a notoriously naughty youth, was visited by a man named Potitian, who told him about the conversion of some other men. St. Augustine was so moved by the stories, he ran into a garden, crying out to God and suddenly he heard the voice of children singing, “Take up and read. Take up and read.” He picked up his bible and opened it to Romans 13:13-14, “let us live honorably as in the day, not in reveling and drunkenness, not in debauchery and licentiousness, not in quarreling and jealousy. Instead, put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires.” In that moment, Augustine felt as if he had encountered the risen Christ, who was speaking directly to him.
My favorite modern story of this kind of encounter, is the story Anne Lamott records of her own encounter with Jesus in her book Traveling Mercies.
After awhile, as I lay there, I became aware of someone with me, hunkered down in the corner, and I just assumed it was my father, whose presence I had felt over the years when I was frightened and alone. The feeling was so strong that I actually turned on the light for a moment to make sure no one was there-of course, there wasn’t. But after a while, in the dark again, I knew beyond any doubt that it was Jesus. I felt him as surely as I feel my dog lying nearby as I write this.
And I was appalled. I thought about my life and my brilliant hilarious progressive friends, I thought about what everyone would think of me if I became a Christian, and it seemed an utterly impossible thing that simply could not be allowed to happen. I turned to the wall and said out loud, “I would rather die.”
I just felt him sitting there on his haunches in the corner of my sleeping loft, watching me with patience and love, and I squinched my eyes shut, but that didn’t help because that ‘s not what I was seeing him with. Finally, I fell asleep, and in the morning, he was gone.”
Now, if Augustine or Anne Lamott tried to tell their experiences to the Pharisees, they would be stuck in the same position as the blind man. They would sound ridiculous! Their experiences are not logical. Their experiences don’t fit into our understanding of how the world works. But like the blind man, all they can do is tell what happened to them. Augustine lived a selfish life, had his encounter with Christ, and became one of the great Saints of the Church. Lamott was a woman with a serious addiction, had her experience with Christ, and went on to give up drugs and alcohol and became famous writing about faith. They were blind and then they saw. And when the saw the truth, they communicated that truth to those around them.
So, be on watch this Lent. You never know when Christ will sneak up in your life and radically transform it. Whether you are new to faith or have been worshiping for sixty years, Jesus may not ask first. He may just come up to you and heal you in ways you never expected or knew you needed. And if people don’t believe it happened to you all you have to say is “All I know is, I was blind and now I see.”