I believe the man in John 9 is one of the most misunderstood people in the Bible. Apparently his witness was so powerful, the crowds continued to talk about his story in John 10:21 and 11:37, but we don't even get to know his name. To most of his neighbors and to us today, he is simply "the blind man" or "the formerly blind man." Many preachers use this man's story to talk about "darkness and light" or "ignorance and wisdom," and many Bible publishers add the heading "Spiritual Blindness" to this text, as though the man in this story were a symbolic object instead of a real person.
I know what it's like to live in the shadow of powerful labels like that, because I myself have been totally blind all my life. Some of my earliest memories of going to church include the awkward whispers of neighbors who quietly asked my parents or grandparents if there might be any hope that I would see someday. I wasn't ashamed of being blind, but I did often feel humiliated by the attitudes of people who were whispering about me as though I weren't really there. Many people are so afraid of the dark they simply cannot get past the word "blind" to see a real person beyond the label.
When Jesus and his disciples first encountered the man in John 9, the disciples assumed the man's blindness was some kind of curse or punishment for sin--and unfortunately this belief still exists in some form today--but Jesus clearly rejected this myth in John 9:3, saying, "Neither this man nor his parents sinned; he was born blind so that God's works might be revealed in him." Some preachers interpret this to mean the man was born blind so that Jesus could come along and perform a miracle for all to see, but this interpretation robs the man of his humanity, reducing him to a mere prop in the story. Even the use of the word "healing" to describe this miracle implies that there was originally something "wrong" or "broken" about this man's blindness, which seems quite the opposite of what Jesus was saying in John 9:3. Although it's true that some people do not enjoy being blind--and I have to admit I myself find it annoying when it prevents me from doing useful things like driving a car--still, Jesus made it clear that blindness does not prevent us from doing God's will.
In ancient times, however, blindness did prevent people from entering most professions, and so the man in John 9 had been forced to spend his life as a beggar, merely surviving instead of living out a real vocation. Jesus changed all that by giving the man not only eyesight but also a sense of mission. After performing a fairly common ancient medical procedure with saliva and mud, Jesus directed the man to wash in the pool of Siloam, which we are told means "sent." From then on, the man was sent to witness to others that Jesus is sent from God.
My Grandma Steele sent me to my own "pool of Siloam," which took the form of the New York Institute for the Education of the Blind, a school in the Bronx which provided the best training blind children of the 1950s and '60s could receive. There I became proficient in reading and writing Braille, I received a conservatory-level musical education, and I enjoyed being part of a community where I made many lifelong friendships. Nowadays, most blind kids go to public school and hopefully learn similar skills while being part of a diverse community in their own neighborhoods. For us, the word "healing" means a lifelong process of living out our vocation despite many of the same prevailing misconceptions the man in John 9 faced. "Healing" happens when we are loved and welcomed, when what we think and say and do matters.
The man in John 9 emerged from the pool of Siloam with a sense of mission and self-worth that stunned his neighbors. They could not believe he was the same person who used to sit and beg. His encounter with Jesus filled him with new hope that he might live a life of real purpose; but his neighbors were not sure they could accept his story, so they sent him to be examined by the local religious authorities.
The authorities were especially suspicious because Jesus had worked this miracle on a Sabbath day, which they considered a violation of religious law. Some of them said, "This man is not from God, for he does not observe the Sabbath," but the man born blind said, "He is a prophet." The man's own parents cowered before these powerful religious leaders, fearing the consequences of questioning the status quo, but the man born blind responded more and more boldly to each question the authorities asked. He claimed his right to connect with the leadership of his community, but they rejected him and his belief in Jesus.
The man in John 9 and I have both endured the skepticism and rejection of people unwilling to trust the leadership skills of a blind person. When I was a child and I began expressing interest in becoming a pastor, people said, "Oh, isn't that nice!"--but when I grew up and tried to make it happen for real, the response was much different: "How are you going to be a pastor if you can't see? How are you going to serve Communion? How are you going to read the texts? How are you going to get to church or out to visit people in the community?" I often joke about the fact that I was rejected for 17 different internships on the same day! But my hero in John 9, and other blind contributors to the world such as Louis Braille, inspired me to push on. For me, the healing love of Jesus came in the form of supportive people along the way who believed in my abilities to work as a parish pastor, to raise a family, to be the person God called me to be.
The people of Gladesboro Evangelical Lutheran Church in Hillsville, Virginia, recognized me as their pastor; and we lived out our Christian vocation together for over 32 years. When I needed to learn how to walk from the parsonage to the church and how to navigate my way around the sanctuary, my older daughter showed me the way. When church documents were not available in Braille, I was able to read them with the help of sighted volunteers and later with computer scanning technology. When I needed rides to visit people in the community, members of the congregation volunteered to drive me since there was no public transportation in our area. Some of my fondest memories are of the conversations we had as we worked together in this way.
The man in John 9 was driven out of his community as punishment for his testimony, and when Jesus heard about this, he sought out the man and welcomed him as one of the many unknown disciples who were spreading the Good News. Once again, Jesus chose a person whom society had rejected. Once again, as Mary proclaimed in Luke 1:52, "[God] has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly." I believe this is what Jesus meant when he said, "I came into this world for judgement so that those who do not see may see, and those who do see may become blind." Jesus took the word "blind," which even in his day was used as a rude epithet in addition to being a literal designation for people without eyesight, and he turned it against the people who were using such labels to degrade their neighbors.
As we approach another Holy Week journey through Christ's crucifixion and resurrection, we are summoned to recognize that in God's kingdom we wear no labels other than our identity as the children of God. As Paul wrote in Galatians 3:28, "There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female"--and today's story in John 9 also reminds us there is no "blind" or "sighted," no "disabled" or "normal"--all of God's children are called to live lives of discipleship in various ways.
The story in John 9 isn't about replacement of darkness with light. It's about overcoming our fear of people who are different from us and welcoming them into our faith communities. We need to recognize accessibility and welcome as core practices of our faith so we can follow God's call to invite all people to participate actively in the growth and mission of our churches.
In order for our churches to live out the message of John 9, we need to start paying attention to the perspectives of people we often ignore, including people who wear the label "disability." We need to create an environment where fear of differences is replaced by encouraging all people to share their gifts even when God calls some to lead us in ways that threaten the status quo. We need to stop insisting on arbitrary barriers and labels like "spiritual blindness" and instead begin to see the man in John 9 and all of our neighbors as real people whose witness matters. The world often pushes us to compete or conform, but God calls us to a different way: working together, needing each other, being the body of Christ.
Let us pray: Loving God, you have created us all in your image, giving each of us a unique calling to love and serve you. Open our hearts and minds to listen to the many kinds of people you send our way. Teach us to appreciate the various gifts others bring to us and to our faith communities. Show us how to support one another without being patronizing. Teach us how to belong to the body of Christ, how to lead and be led, how to love and be loved, through your Son, Jesus Christ our Savior and Lord. Amen.