A little daub of mud. A river bank. Simple elements, nothing organically and lovingly curated, no experimental procedure. Just some mud spread over the eyes, and washed away.
And a world of darkness dies, replaced by one blazing with light and new clarity.
Today’s gospel reading reminds me a little bit of the old Sherlock Holmes story, “Silver Blaze.” That’s the one in which Holmes, asked by the regular police for a clue to who could have crept into the stable, and stolen the valuable horse who was the favorite to win the Derby, takes pity on him, and tells him to pay attention to the “The curious incident of the dog in the night-time.” The police detective is confused. “The dog did nothing in the night-time,” he says.
“That was the curious incident,” Holmes answers him.
In “Silver Blaze,” the dog did nothing because he knew the culprit—it was his owner, the horse’s trainer. So of course he didn’t bark. Holmes solves the mystery based on the absence of what would normally be expected.
I’m no Sherlock Holmes, but there’s a curious incident in this story of a miraculous healing by Jesus. And that’s just how little Jesus figures in the story. The absence of Jesus for most of the story is exactly contrary to what we expect. Jesus sweeps dramatically into the life of the blind man, heals him, and leaves. Now, normally when that happens, we may get a sentence or two wrapping up the miracle and go on, and then return to Jesus and the apostles on their way.
Not this time.
Jesus heals the man, and leaves the scene.
For what I think is the only time in any of the four Gospels, we spend an extended time learning what happens in the wake of one of Jesus’s healings. We learn what happens to the person healed and to the community he was a part of. So I’m going to fill you in on part of the story that didn’t make it into the reading today, because it’s illuminating.
After Jesus leaves the scene, we follow the now-healed man, washing the mud from his eyes, and regaining his sight. As he leaves the river, his neighbors and those who had seen him begging are astonished—they debate whether this is the same helpless man they have walked by day in and day out.
He confirms that he is, and, when asked how he regained his sight, answers simply, “The man called Jesus made mud, spread it on my eyes, and said to me, 'Go to Siloam and wash.' Then I went and washed and received my sight.”
Simple, straightforward answer from a man who has been helpless since his birth. They take him to the local religious authorities—the Pharisees here. When the Pharisees hear the story, they immediately discredit Jesus as a sinner, saying “This man is not from God, for he does not observe the sabbath." Not all of them—a few defend Jesus on the ground that a sinner could not do such a thing.
So, at this point the Pharisees try to prove that the man in front of them is not the blind beggar, but someone pretending to be him. That fails, because his parents identify him, and they finally turn to the newly sighted man, who has already told his story twice, but doesn’t tell it a third time. Instead, he turns the tables on the Pharisees. He asks them “Why do you want to hear it again? Do you also want to become his disciples?”
Note the “also.” He’s reaffirming his earlier statement that Jesus is a prophet, and by implication rejecting the Pharisees’ claim that Jesus is a sinner. He’s also putting the Pharisees at his own social and spiritual level—which to them is an insult.
They insult him, and then say “You are his disciple, but we are disciples of Moses. We know that God has spoken to Moses, but as for this man, we do not know where he comes from.”
And, with a mock-innocence that shows that this man is neither simple nor helpless, he shreds their position:
"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. “
He then delivers judgment: “If this man were not from God,” he says, no doubt in his mind, “he could do nothing.”
They bluster, they denounce, they drive him out. Because this man, blind from birth, helpless until that very day, has beaten them on their own terms. He has reasoned better than they have, and has shown a far deeper understanding of the law and of the nature of God.
The Pharisees manage to bully his parents, and try to bully him, but the once blind man is having none of it. His manner goes from being respectful and non-committal when they start questioning him, to openly mocking the Pharisees. Whatever he was like when his world was dark, he has come home to his full self as a disciple of Jesus.
But unlike the Twelve, who more often than not need guidance, or explanations, the man once blind becomes a maverick who trounces the intellectual elite by his greater understanding and his accepting heart.
In the Gospels, that role usually falls to Jesus. Here, the newly healed man plays the part Jesus normally plays, and plays it as successfully as Jesus usually does.
He fills the gap left by Jesus’s departure.
Jesus hears about all this and seeks him out. When Jesus identifies himself as “the Son of Man,” and asks him if he believes, the man answers simply, “Lord, I believe.” And Jesus reaffirms that the man once blind now sees clearly, and that the teachers of the law are themselves blind.
The presence of God in our lives can be paradoxical that way. We look for the moment of transcendence, what Maslow called the “peak experience.” But this story doesn’t involve anything like that. Jesus acts through the mundane elements of earth and water, and unleashes the dammed-up potential of one human being. No special effects, no transfiguration in this story.
Just clay and spittle, and river water.
Through the mundane, through the ordinary, God brings healing. A coming to one’s true self, and not only a recovery of sight, but finding one’s own true voice.
As we’re rounding third base in Lent, I’ve found my more heroic plans have not exactly panned out. I haven’t prayed the traditional office from the Breviary, with its eight daily offices throughout the day. The stack of theological classics on my night-table has not been read. I haven’t exercised every day.
But my less spectacular plans, well, they’re holding up better. The Daily Office from the Prayer Book and I continue to jog along, and I find myself thinking before I speak, at home and at work.
And maybe for me--and I offer it to you, if it’s helpful--maybe I don’t need the special effects. Maybe we can make do with the mundane, and save the special effects for some other time.
The early Christians called themselves followers of the Way—you can see it as early as in the Acts of the Apostles. A modest name, but one that captures something that we might lose if we expect to become paragons by an act of will in Lent. A way of life needs to be with us in all seasons, something that we sustain while it sustains us. Maybe like the man whose sight is restored, we don’t need the special effects. We’re here together, a community, and we are hearing the stories, reflecting on what we can take away from them. We’re aligning ourselves with God in prayer and waiting to celebrate the return of God in human form, in the resurrected Christ.
In a time where hate and division are working their evil throughout the world, even in our city, in this very building we are reaching out to the stranger, the hungry, the woman who needs a place to sleep.
You know what that sounds like to me?
Clay and spittle and river water.